Cathedrals Built on Sand (The Scandal in the Priesthood)

June 2, 2002



Cathedrals Built on Sand (The Scandal in the Priesthood) (6/2/02)

University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

In recent months, no subject has been in the religious news more than the ongoing scandal in the Catholic priesthood. I told you I would address that issue this morning, and I will. But I want to frame this in a theological context.

There has always been a tension running through Christianity, between those who believe that following Jesus is the proper way to stand in God’s grace, and those who believe our salvation comes through worshipping Jesus—by confessing the right things about Jesus. The lectionary provides two texts this morning that reflect that tension. The first is from the Gospel of Matthew, and those who believe that it is the way we live—the way we follow Jesus—that matters most in this life, often point to this text to support their theology.

From the 7th chapter of Matthew: A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

Those are amazing words. It would seem clear that calling out to Jesus—Lord, Lord—or in modern language, “confessing” Jesus as one’s savior is not enough. Our words are not enough. It is our actions that determine whether or not we stand in the grace of God, or in Jesus’ words, “enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Now let’s turn to the words of Paul, as found in the 3rd chapter of Romans: But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

There is certainly a tension between those two passages. The Matthew passage indicates that it is our actions, our works, that define us before God; and Paul’s words from the book of Romans clearly state that all fall short of God’s glory, and it is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we are justified before God.

Interestingly, it has been Protestants who traditionally lean more on the words of Paul. Martin Luther was adamant that faith alone is the source of our salvation. We cannot work our way into God’s grace. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make ourselves acceptable to God, and it is God’s actions alone, through Jesus Christ, that make us fit for the kingdom of God. Martin Luther felt so strongly about this, he actually said that parts of his beloved Bible were wrong. Luther despised the Book of James, which clearly says our works, our deeds in this life, are important. The Book of James says faith without works is dead. Luther said the entire Book of James was nothing more than “straw,” indicating, I suppose, that it should either be burnt, or fed to horses where it would be processed back into its true nature. Not kind words for Holy Scripture!

The Catholic Church, especially in that era, had put a great deal of emphasis on works—on what we do to earn our salvation. Of course, it got completely out of hand. It wasn’t so much a matter of giving to the poor and helping the widows and orphans as it was rattling the cathedral’s collection plate with plenty of coin so you not only assured you own future in heaven, but also freed your recently departed loved ones from purgatory, springing them from a questionable fate into the loving arms of God. If you dropped enough cash in the plate.

Many modern churches have developed religious rituals that pretend to be acts of faith, but which are actually works. For example, most churches will say one must be baptized before he or she can go to heaven. That, to me, is an example of placing a misguided emphasis on works. What does it say about our God to believe that God is powerless to receive us into the eternal kingdom unless we correctly perform a religious ritual? Don’t get me wrong—I’m a big believer in baptism. But let’s not pretend we have power over God—that we force God’s hand by jumping through the proper religious hoops. We shouldn’t think that baptism changes God’s attitude toward us; it should instead change our attitude toward God.
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Likewise, many Protestants have turned confessions of faith into works. I read the brochure of a very popular evangelist recently, explaining exactly how to go to heaven. All you had to do was read one line from the back of this little brochure, and sign and date it. That’s all there is to it. Now you’re going to heaven, and if you hadn’t signed that little brochure you would go to the unthinkable hell of eternal torment.

The statement read, “I acknowledge that I am a sinner. I believe Jesus Christ died for my sins on the Cross, and I invite Jesus Christ into my life.” It seems to me that reducing the relationship between God and humanity to a short statement of faith turns faith itself into a work. It is no longer our faith in a loving God that puts us in a right relationship with God. It is something we do. It is an act we perform. It is a work we accomplish by saying the right thing.

And that leads me to the main point I want to make this morning. Saying the right things about Jesus is not enough. The way we live matters. And if all we do is pay lip service to God, and to Jesus, then we are like the person who built his house on a foundation of sand. And when life blows a storm our way, our fall will be great, and when we call out, “Lord, Lord,” all we will really have in the way of a Lord is some little piece of paper we signed for the purpose of forcing our way into God’s good graces.

The way we live matters. Of course we need faith. In fact, I believe that faith is one of the most important elements in life. “Faith, hope and love abide, these three.” I personally can’t get through this human experience without all three of those things.

So what does all this have to do with the crisis in the priesthood? Well, it is hard to imagine how one could worship Jesus in any greater way than becoming a Catholic priest. And it is hard to imagine how one could do a poorer job of following Jesus than through the sexual abuse of children.

Following Jesus and worshipping Jesus may seem to be two different things, but if we were to really delve into today’s two Bible passages from Matthew and Paul, we would see that in spite of how different they appear, they actually say the same thing. What they say is this: Yes, we must have faith. Yes, we should worship God through Jesus Christ. But if our works—our actions—don’t reveal a good character, then we aren’t fooling anybody with our confessions of faith, least of all God. If our motivations are good, then our lives are good. If our motivations are selfish, then our fruits reveal our true natures.

Saying, “Lord, Lord” isn’t enough. Confessing Jesus with our lips isn’t enough. Signing the back of a brochure isn’t enough. Getting baptized isn’t enough. Those things may matter, but they are meaningless unless we are changed by them.

We are all frustrated by some of our friends who smugly make their confessions of faith on Sunday morning and loudly proclaim that all the rest of us are going to hell. Meanwhile, they often bear fruit from Monday through Saturday that shows their faith runs only to the depths of their vocal cords. What we do matters. And quietly working toward building the kingdom with our love, as so many of you do day in and day out, means more than all the noisy confessions of faith in the world.

I know of no place where the gap between a person’s confessions of faith and his private actions—his works—is more evident than in the present scandal in the priesthood. As many of you have asked me to discuss this, I’ve been hesitant to do so, because I don’t want to appear to be Catholic-bashing. I have a great deal of respect for the Roman Catholic Church. After all, we share _ of our history—1500 years of our faith journey—with that church. It was only in the sixteenth century that Protestantism broke away from Catholicism.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church does a great deal of good in this world. While I disagree with many of their policies and practices, you have to remember that I disagree with the policies and practices of most Protestant denominations too! If it weren’t for Congregationalism, I would have a hard time fitting in anywhere! I don’t believe we should have to accept specific creeds about our faith; I don’t believe there is any authority higher than the individual person before God, regardless of training or the quality of his or her robe; I believe women should be afforded the opportunity to serve in any position in the church, since they are entirely equal to men in the eyes of God; and I believe that a person’s sexual orientation is their own business, and nobody else’s. You tell me—how many pulpits in the world will accept such a message? I thank God, and I thank you, that this is one such pulpit.

We can trace the roots of the present catastrophe in the Catholic Church to Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine was one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history, but he left us with one idea that has burdened us for sixteen centuries. He equated the story of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with sex. If you read the story, there is no reason to think it has anything to do with sex, but Augustine connected the dots, came up with the idea of original sin, and ever since that time the church has had to wrestle with the notion that sex is naughty. It’s bad. It reveals our lesser natures, our physical natures, and the truly spiritual person should rise above such base instincts.

Jesus didn’t have much to say about sex. He had a lot to say about sin, but sin was always something in our hearts that led us to be greedy and self-centered. He did say that lusting in our hearts was just as bad as acting on that lust, but it seems clear that the type of lust he was talking about was of a self-centered and self-serving nature, and had absolutely nothing to do with love.

Augustine, in his book entitled Confessions, reveals that he spread far more than his share of wild oats before finally turning to God. His shame at his own selfish and abusive sexual nature was incorporated into the Christian faith. Early on the Catholic Church decided its priests should be celibate, and Augustine gave the church a theological foundation for this practice. After all, what good is a naughty priest? And over the centuries there have been countless faithful men who have denied themselves—denied their very natures—to serve God through the Catholic priesthood. But a problem arose. Let’s say that a young 17-year-old Catholic is gay. He is convinced that he will go to hell if he ever acts according to his natural sexual nature. He has an easy way out. He can hide from his sexuality in the priesthood. Not only can he deny himself, he will be applauded and respected for doing so.

Or perhaps a person is heterosexual, and for whatever reason—perhaps his parents’ attitudes or the teachings of his church—he feels shame at the idea of pursuing any sort of physical relationship. Like the young man who is gay, he decides to hide from his sexuality in the priesthood.

And here is the problem. We are human beings. The great 2nd Century theologian, Ireneaus, said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Well, we are what we are, and God has created us as sexual creatures. Whenever sex becomes coercive, self-centered, or promiscuous, it is a corruption of what it is intended to be—a glorious way for one human being to express love for another.

When we hide from it—when we repress it—our sexual drive tries to find a way out. After all, it is a part of us. And for some people who try to hide from their sexuality in the priesthood, it surfaces in unhealthy ways. Some of the talk shows I’ve heard recently try to blame all of this on gays, but the fact is pedophilia is no more common among gays than it is among heterosexuals. The orientation of one’s sex drive doesn’t matter. If you hide from it, it will try to find a way out.

So in this case I blame the Church almost as much as I blame the individuals who failed in their attempts to hide from themselves by entering the clergy. Almost. Because while I sympathize with those who were forced to hide out in the priesthood because of their guilt over the way they were created—as sexual creatures—there is no justification for what those priests have done.

I’ve been infuriated by the Catholic Church’s response. Cardinal Law’s attorneys say the victims are partly to blame. It’s almost as if they are saying, “Well, everybody ought to know you can’t leave a young child alone with a priest. The parents should have known better.” Unbelievable!

And I simply cannot believe the way the media has handled much of this story. The headline news reports things like, “In a bold move today, the Pope and the College of Cardinals said they are considering a zero-tolerance policy for priests who sexually abuse young boys.” Are you kidding me? Considering zero tolerance for pedophilia? Why does this even have to be debated? This is criminal behavior. I don’t care who you are. If you take advantage of a child in such a way, you should go to jail—for a long, long time. And if your superior knew about your abuse, and allowed you to continue abusing others, then he should be in the cell right beside you.

To be in the clergy is a great privilege. One good thing that has come out of all this is that people realize those of us who are ordained clergy are no different from anybody else. We are flawed individuals. We make mistakes and we have regrets, and there are times we don’t handle situations the way we should. But literally all of the ministers I know are devastated by the idea that a person would use such a heralded position to commit such evil against a child. Clergy of all stripes are given a trust. To willingly harm those who grant one that trust, in the opinion of every minister I know, makes a person unworthy of the clergy.

We are all flawed, and we all fall short of the glory of God. This whole ugly episode has been hard on the church—the whole church. But it will survive this, because it has to. The church is too important to this world for it to crumble. Those of us in leadership roles in the church need to rebuild the foundation, though. And we need to remember that our faith is not about robes and rituals, not about beautiful buildings and giant crosses. No matter how glorious our cathedrals and no matter how devoted our public confessions of faith, we build our church on sand if its foundation is anything other than real, honest, unquestionable love.