In the aftermath of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's disgrace, I am finding it difficult to see the ongoing crisis in the Church as if it is simply a matter of personal sins and failings. The all-too-human institution that is here and now supposed to be the body of Christ — living and working to preach the Good News of salvation — is passing through an existential crisis.
It appears to be akin to previous crises that cause lasting fractures in the ritual, doctrinal and spiritual unity of Christendom. I use the latter word to mean the community of those who profess to live according to the rulership of Christ and who acknowledge him to be the Son of God, the Son of Man and, by God's goodwill and power, the ruling Word through whom God made all things, and by whom alone they have been, are and may be redeemed to God's benevolent will.
In the past, the existential crises of Christendom focused on the humanly framed conceptual understanding (doctrine) and outward manifestations (rituals, ethics) that are the substance and consequential evidence (hope, faith) of those who accept and act upon (trust in) the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But was there ever before a disagreement that focused so particularly on that which is, in every sense, the very heart of the Gospel, the very substance of God in and through the most Sacred Heart of Jesus? Christ, the Evangelists and the Apostles make it plain over and over again:
You have heard that it has been said: You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies." (Matthew 5:43)
And one of them, a doctor of the law, asked him, tempting him: Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said to him: Though shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:35–40, cp. Mark 22–31, Luke 25–28)
For God so loved the world [cosmos], as to give His only begotten Son: that whosoever believes in Him may not perish but may have life everlasting. (John 3:16)
In that day, you shall ask in my name: and I say not to you that I will ask the Father for you. For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came out from God. (John 16:26–27)
But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:3)
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8)
And now there remain faith, hope, and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
The centrality of love as the core manifestation of God's being in and toward all of His creation, has been key to understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ since first He came amongst us — Mary's obedient response to the announcement of her vocation from God was a spontaneous expression of love.
The testimony to the truth of love as the core of the Gospel of God's salvation in and through Jesus Christ seems to continue to this day. In his papal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis identifies love as "the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection." But the nexus of love and human family life must these days bring to mind the extent to which the true meaning of love has become the rubric for confusion, controversy and discord among members of the body of Christ, especially in what are called the Western countries, with the United States prevalent among them.
This tragic fact arises from our failure to accept what follows from our acknowledgment that God is love. But as love is a way of being, and God is absolute being (i.e., being in and of itself) the statement that God is love implies that love is, first of all, an attribute of God, defined in terms absolute dependent upon his activity. The love we give to God originates in and with God. So the Apostle John elucidates the meaning of the love we have to share:
In this is love: not in that we loved God, but in that he has first loved us, and sent his Son to be a propitiation for our sins. ... And we have known and have believed the love God has for us. God is love: and he that abides in love abides in God, and God in him. In this is the love of God perfected among us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment: because as he is, we also are in this world. … Let us therefore love God: because God has first loved us. (1 John 10, 16–17, 19)
As the origin or root of love, God being determines love's way of being. Love must be consistent with being, as God determines it. It must be consistent with His will. It makes no sense, therefore, to assert, on the one hand, that some action or activity violates God's will and yet, on the other hand, pretend it is an act of love. Isn't this why Christ tells his disciples, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15) and "whoever has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me" (John 14:21) and "if anyone loves me, he will keep my word" (John 14:23).
According to Christ's word (which also is the Word of Creation), Christ finds no love in one who alters His word instead of keeping it as it is. He finds no love but what is born our "even to the edge of doom" as the Shakespeare said in Sonnet 116. Thus, through John, God gives us to know (Revelation 2:10) what he says to the church of Smyrna:
I know your tribulation and your poverty: but you are rich. And you are blasphemed by them that ... are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which you shall suffer: Behold, the devil will cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried: and you shall have tribulation ten days. Be you faithful unto death: and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
Tragically, however, though at the highest levels there is much talk of expressing love for the poor, for the immigrant, for the earth, the sea, the sky — and even in polymorphous errant ways, for one another — the first love, which is the love of God and the obedience it entails, is taking second place. The fall of McCarrick has again brought to light the extent to which this errant version of the Gospel of love has led Catholic clerics at the highest levels to connive at sins that debase the term of love into a self-idolizing abandonment of that first love. It seems that now, above all, the body of those who profess to follow God's rule stands in need of the word the angel gave to Ephesus:
Be you mindful therefore from whence you are fallen: and do penance and do the first works. Or else I come to thee and will move your candlestick out of its place, except you do penance. (Revelations 2:5)
Saint Paul rightly observes that we are all of us sinners. But those subjects of Christ who have vowed to be faithful to the vocation of offering, in word and deed, counsel and hope of amendment to others, less sure of their resolve, cannot be seen to fall without discouraging at least some of those others. Beyond the life of prayer and penance Church law requires of individuals who have transgressed, isn't it time for the whole congregation of professing Catholics to consider what we have contributed to the spiritual treasury from which all may draw hope for renewal?
Bishops now issue calls for the laity to reach into their pockets to pay for the transgressions of their leadership. But wouldn't we do as well, or better, to reach into our hearts, minds, souls and spiritual strength, to pray for God's mercy upon us his whole Church, including those recovering from unholiness? By His grace and power we may find the insight and courage to recognize and follow examples that will recommit the all-too-human institutions of our faith to the path already opened to us by Christ, in whom alone we can trust to find the unity with God that is the font of all true love, and forgiveness, for one another.