What follows is part of a letter I wrote to one of our young people who felt conflicted about the Church when he heard about its history at school. It seems to be time to share it with all of you.
First of all, let me say “Good for you!” because asking questions about your faith is a mature and responsible thing to do. I understand how disappointed and duped we can feel when we hear about wrongs – even atrocities – committed by The Church. My daughter recently took a college course called “Popes and Princes” that highlighted all the horrendous details you’ve been seeing too. We were texting each other about it and one line I remember that she wrote said something like, “It wasn’t anything to be proud of, but not much was in that era!” What we should probably focus on, in every life situation, is not so much how we feel (though that can be important) but on what is True.
The Church is full of sinners on their way to becoming saints. Every Pope is a sinner. Every cardinal, bishop, priest, nun, friar, secretary, and parishioner is a sinner. We all fall short of the glory of God. It says so in Scripture (Romans 3:23). The people who make up the church make mistakes every day. Every hour, every minute. Some of the sins are small and some are huge … and each sin has its ripple effects, small and tsunami-size.
This may lead you to question our doctrine of Papal Infallibility, but please note that we do not hold that the Pope is sinless, or that he can’t root for the wrong soccer team (Ha). What it means is that in official matters of faith, after LONG consideration and in full agreement with all the Bishops who are loyal to him, and even after serious consideration of the Sensus Fidei (the general agreement of the Faithful), he can make an official declaration ex cathedra (from the throne of St. Peter) that is to be believed by all Catholics. This has only happened twice in church history: for the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
The Church as it stands today and as it has stood for 2,000-some years is An Obedient Response. It’s what Jesus told us to do, and though we often do it badly, we keep doing it. And in the grand plan, it is working for our benefit. When God tells us to do things, it’s always for our own good. When we do it badly, we suffer. When we do it well, we prosper (spiritually). If we were to ignore it completely… well! I don’t even want to think about that. Shudder!
The Church is a gift, an instrument, a home, and a foretaste of Heaven for us. It provides the sacraments – unique opportunities for receiving God’s grace. We need grace to become saints. We can’t possibly do it on our own, because we live in a fallen world, one which has chosen to separate itself from the source of all life. The Church is our path back. This may surprise you, though – we do not believe that the Catholic Church is the only possible path back. We believe it contains the fullness: every element necessary, for those who will indulge, to find Heaven. But we also teach that God in his merciful, generous goodness will provide alternatives. But for those of us who CAN experience this amazing opportunity, it would be less than wise to turn from it.
Certain proofs of the “effectiveness” of the Catholic Church can be found in the lives of the Saints, Marian apparitions, incorruptible bodies, Eucharistic miracles, and stigmata. I encourage you to look up a few of those oft-hidden, scientifically-proven marvels that your history books will not mention.