Picking up the Fallen

by Kevin Mannoia, Ph.D.

The Christian Church faces a crisis in leadership. Recent accounts of misconduct among pastors and priests have eroded trust and reflected poorly on all Christians. As Christ’s body on earth, the recent charges of embezzlement, broken marriages, adultery, and pedophilia among church leaders debilitate our ability to accomplish His mission. Is it any wonder that there is little behavioral difference between church-goers and non-church-goers across America? Why are divorces among leaders so frequent? Why do so many clergy leaders fail morally? What is going on? More importantly, how do we respond? Lately, the spotlight has been focused upon the Catholic church in its crisis of confidence.1 The Catholic church is the largest Christian church in America. Although theologically there are points of difference with evangelicals, it has a powerful impact on our culture and has been seen as the epitome of Christian faith by much of society at large. This failure at the highest levels causes doubt in many that what people have seen as holy, set apart, and sacred is nothing more than a façade. This may be a national crisis among Catholic bishops, but it fairly well represents the kind of crises that face anyone in the Church when confronted with the faults and weaknesses of Christian leaders in any tradition. In response to current events, a lot of people have responded with a “holier-than-thou” attitude that dismisses the Catholic church as corrupt and unspiritual. Evangelicals who fall prey to this trap are not only misguided, but, in fact, also miss the opportunity to examine the true nature of the Church and a Godly response to failure. This crisis is not unique to the Catholic church. Discarding all the powerful ministry in the name of Christ done by thousands of priests each day is equally offensive to God as the sins committed by a few hiding behind the Church’s robes.2 The sad effect is the way in which many people think less of the vital ministry of many church leaders because of the behavior of a few. How should we then respond when this kind of crisis arises? One option is to conclude that the Church is bad because some leaders have failed. A more appropriate response is to recognize the pervasive, insidious effects of sinful nature and the threat it is to all – lay and clergy alike. With that starting point, it is helpful to observe the pattern of the Catholic bishops in shaping our own responses. The two pillars that must always accompany such traumatic crises are confession and repentance. Though painful and usually not politically correct, confession is the first step in being truly Christian. The bishops collectively make the right choice. “As bishops, we acknowledge our mistakes and our role in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility for too often failing victims and our people in the past.”3 We live in a culture that defines confession as weak and unbecoming to success. To confess means to admit failure, weakness, and inadequacy. In the secular press for independence, strength, confidence, and success, confession becomes a principle to be avoided. But as a Kingdom principle (we are to “confess our sins to one another”), confession always precedes revival. In the case of the Catholic crisis, the sin is clear. Scriptures do not equivocate on the kind of sexual behavior that is expected and acceptable. What we have seen among a few Catholic leaders is sin. In this instance, there is also the matter of abused authority, broken trust with parishioners and fellow clergy, as well as broken vows of ordination. Although offenders may be restored to fellowship in Christian community, it is highly unlikely that leadership will again be conferred. Forgiveness and reconciliation do not negate consequences. Although spiritual leaders in the Church represent those who are uniquely set apart for the work of leadership, they, above all people, should remember that this call is a holy trust. They, as all believers, are “jars of clay.” In contrast to the beautiful marble vases used in Paul’s time by the wealthy to hold costly liquids, we are “clay pots.” None of us is exempt from the pressure of temptation that can crack such frail “earthen vessels.” Common and flawed though we may be, we hold the priceless light of Jesus.4 It is not the inherent quality of the pot that is valuable, but the light He has entrusted to us. If there is a fatal flaw, it is that the Church has allowed its leaders and its institution to be revered above the Lord whom they are called to serve. While moral failure in ministry is grave, it may serve to remind believers that our eyes need to be more singularly focused upon Him in the pursuit of holiness, not the frail vessels whom God places in leadership. While confession requires vulnerability, repentance demands change. It admits that what we have been doing is not right, and therefore, puts feet to the intent of confession. One of the greatest obstacles to responding to sin in church leaders is the unwillingness to allow for repentance. A sad part of moral failure is watching people so frequently discard the offender or church as irreparable. Not only does that kind of response demonstrate our own propensity to judge prematurely, but it also reflects directly upon the grace of God. By so concluding, we have written off God’s ability to heal and restore in the face of sincere repentance. Surely moral failure in church leaders shows flaws in church order and may forever disqualify persons from leadership, but it in no way means that God’s grace is not sufficient for rebuilding trust, holiness, and health. In our weakness, He is made strong. When confession is followed by repentance, a new day of Kingdom principles result. Self-sufficiency and inauthenticity are stripped away. The healthy Kingdom principles of truth-telling, vulnerability, mutual submission, and authenticity then flourish under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Sin covers the brilliance of these Kingdom principles. Confession and repentance raise them once again to the surface. These are countercultural to be sure. But they are also indisputably Christlike. The Catholic bishops have modeled this repentance and commitment to Kingdom principles in their charter.5 It represents broad commitments to new or changed behavior. Certainly we cannot know the details of the internal patterns of behavior in the Catholic church. However, the leadership taken in setting the priority of changed action demonstrates the bishops’ desire to lift up the “light of Christ” as the center of the church.6 They are not adversarial, which in itself starts the healing process in humility. Ultimately, in the words of Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, the Catholic bishops “hope that we will emerge with what Pope John Paul II calls ‘a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier church.’” When confronted with a painful failure in leadership, do not assume that this is true of all who lead. Further, do not discard the Church as ineffective and irrelevant. It is the singular institution created by God to convey His message of forgiveness to the world. The Church is His – His body, His bride. He loves her and will use her to effect His will on earth. Recognize the ever-present influence of sin and the pressure it places especially upon leaders to fall prey to its insidious lure. If the Enemy can ensnare leaders, he can cause agitation and doubt in the hearts of those who seek God. That is his method. When there is a crisis due to sin in leadership, we cannot abandon the truth of righteousness and holiness in the face of a defensive or adversarial heart. If the leader fails to respond in confession and repentance, we must hold firm to that Kingdom principle of speaking the truth in love. In the face of authentic humility by a leader, we respond with a Kingdom mind of grace and justice that allows the effects of confession and repentance to bear the fruit of health and wholeness to the glory of God.

[1]A description given by the Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory in his Presidential Address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Dallas, Texas, June 13, 2002.

[2]The bishops themselves acknowledge this and take the lead in recognizing the positive work done by the majority of priests. In their July 2002 publication of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” they call on their faithful not to generalize, thus damaging the good work and calling of most priests more than has already been done by “those who might exploit the priesthood for their own immoral and criminal purposes” (p. 14).

[3]Preamble to the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”

[4]In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul juxtaposes the value of the Gospel of Christ and the ordinary vessels God has chosen to use to convey that message to the world. See especially verse 17.

[5]The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” is a 16-page document containing articles of intent describing actions to be implemented at the diocesan level to prevent similar cases from arising in the future.

[6]In addition to the charter, the USCCB has issued “Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests, Deacons, or Other Church Personnel” approved in June 2002 at its meeting in Dallas, Texas. Further, Bishop Tod Brown has provided guidelines for the Diocese of Orange, California titled “Respecting the Boundaries: Keeping Ministerial Relationships Healthy and Holy” as an example of diocesan action in response to the charge of the USCCB to implement change in addressing the crisis.

Kevin Mannoia, Ph.D., is director of spiritual care for graduate and adult students.

Mike Desart ’05 is a design intern in the Office of University Marketing and Creative Media. HCC4ever2@aol.com