Many years ago, a couple of Mormon missionaries came to my door. My policy has always been to invite them in for a chat. I do this for two reasons: 1) I’m able to evangelize them about Catholicism, and 2) they can’t be knocking on anyone else’s door while they’re with me.
We hit it off well, and they promised to come back another time. And they did. And they did. For the next few months, they were regular visitors. When they walked up the drive, my kids would yell out, “Dad, your Mormon friends are here!” I think my openness to talk gave them hope that they could convert me. And of course I was hoping to do the same to them.
In one conversation, they decided to bring up the topic of history. Anyone who knows Mormonism well knows that the historical record isn’t kind to Mormon claims. But they wanted to discuss Catholic history—specifically, the stories of scandal and immorality surrounding popes and bishops. They hoped that would weaken my attachment to the Church.
But before they could really get started, I interrupted them.
“Listen—you think you have some good scandals to report. But you don’t know the half of it. I’ve studied Church history for years, and the sins and scandals are far worse than you could imagine. But here’s the thing: only a divine institution could survive the people who have led the Catholic Church over the years. So if anything, these past scandals make me more convinced that I was right to become Catholic.”
Needless to say, they quickly changed the topic and moved on.
I’ve thought about that discussion a few times during the recent scandals rocking the Church. I’ll admit, it’s much easier to process historical scandals than contemporary ones. Reading about a Borgia pope’s indiscretions in the fifteenth century doesn’t pack the same emotional punch as finding out that your former archbishop was a predatory monster. Now we’re talking about people I know, and victims who could have been my son or nephew if circumstances were just a little different. I realize now that perhaps I was too glib with my Mormon friends about past scandals. After all, those historical scandals impacted real people with eternal souls, just like today’s scandals do.
But the underlying truth remains: the Church is a divine institution, and no sins of its leaders can change that. We are still commanded to share the Good News to all nations; but how do we share Good News when the daily news is so bad? Here are some suggestions.
Don’t minimize the situation; always acknowledge evil and sin. The worst thing we can do is hide or diminish the truth. This, in fact, is one of the main reasons the abuse scandal has gotten to the proportions it has—too many Catholics wanted to sweep the problems under the rug rather than face them directly. When you’re talking with friends or family and the abuse scandal comes up, don’t avoid it or minimize it. It’s terrible. It’s evil. It’s even demonic.
Also, don’t compare the Church with other institutions: “Well, public teachers also abuse kids!” The Church is—and should be—held to a different standard than the world. Even non-Catholics instinctively realize that the Church should be above the world. So always approach the issue with humility and acknowledge how terrible it is. It’s even okay to show anger. After all, we should be angry. Your friends will respect your honesty.
Focus on the purpose of the Church: to save souls and make men better. If not for sin, there would be no need for the Church. So sin, in a sense, proves the very reason for the Church’s existence. This also means that all members of the Church are sinners and in need of forgiveness. Although it’s unlikely your friends or family members have committed horrible sins like those we’ve discovered about many priests, the fact remains that they too are sinners. They might not acknowledge it, but they know it deep in their hearts. They know they need a savior. If you approach them acknowledging the brokenness of the Church’s members (including yours), you might just make them realize their own brokenness.
It’s also important to realize there was no “golden age” of the Church. From the time of Judas until yesterday, Church members—and even leaders—have betrayed the Lord. In other words, we’ve always needed a savior.
Focus on the divine qualities of the Church. If the Church were merely a human institution, it would have been shuttered years ago. If its only benefit were for social gatherings or perhaps to provide some ethical training, it also would have gone out of business quickly.
No, the unique benefit of the Catholic Church is that it offers the means to union with Christ: holiness. Through the sacraments we become more and more like Christ—it’s the self-improvement plan without peer. And no matter how evil some Church leaders may become, the sacraments they offer are still valid and the means of holiness. One of the best ways to evangelize is to call people to greatness—the greatness of being a saint. That call hasn’t changed with the scandals, and neither have the tools needed to follow that call. The need for a Church is in some ways highlighted when its members fall.
There’s no question evangelization has been made more difficult due to the abuse scandals. After all, there’s a reason Our Lord was so harsh toward those who might cause scandal (Matt. 18:6): he knew it could impact eternal souls. But God is still calling people to his Church, and he still asks us to assist in that call. Even during the midst of grave crisis, we must do what we can to bring people into the fullness of the Faith.