The story should seem familiar.
The church was protecting members of the clergy who had committed crimes, shielding priests from the justice of the state. We all have seen the movie, and we all know how it goes.
The movie is remembered as fondly today as St. Thomas Becket is remembered as a martyr. Becket had been a carouser. He reformed and set his loyalty to his friend, the king, beneath his loyalty to the church. But Becket was wrong.
Becket was protecting the institutional church, claiming a privilege under English law that established how priests (and, lower orders) could be judged for criminal offenses only by the church. King Henry had wanted—for selfish reasons—to break power of the church to resist his civil authority. Becket came out the martyr and the saint. But from where we are today, it is not so easy to side with the “meddlesome priest” as Richard Burton made it seem.
These thoughts are with me in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and with me even more as other states are following suit to open their own investigations probing the dark corners of clerical obedience and self-serving institutional silence. The privilege of clergy and the church’s instincts to protect itself at others’ expense have long outlived whatever legal claims Becket made against King Henry. The struggle between church authority and civil authority has not changed very much despite the rise of the secular state, and certainly it looks as though its inflexible resistance to change is why the church is in so much trouble.
Even as the church seems like it is crumbling before our eyes, our civic institutions are not faring much better. Since the 2016 presidential campaign, all of the certainties and norms surrounding our political system—that once seemed so rock solid—have been shaken. It is getting hard not to lament with the Psalmist: “If foundations are destroyed, what can the just one do?”(Ps. 11:3).
But foundations are not destroyed.
Consider the revelations of the Pennsylvania grand jury. The church has failed us. But even amid the crisis in our civic institutions, shouts of “Fake news!” have not been enough to make us doubt whether a grand jury or a team of law enforcement officials will get to the bottom and report the truth to us. We still have faith in government.
In a similar way, I think most of us really do still believe in the church. We just have to look closely to find where that confidence still lives.
I mentioned Spotlight earlier. It is a personal favorite not just for how well-made it is, or for the important story it tells. Rather, Spotlight tells us a vital truth with subtlety.
Who are the “good Catholics” in Spotlight? Not the cardinal. Not the lawyers working for the church. Rather, we see a good Catholic when Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes expresses his despair as a lapsed Catholic: “I think I figured one day that I’d actually go back” to the church. He is angry because what he has learned about the sexual abuse crisis has taken that hope from him. But he could not be disappointed if he did not believe.
In fact, all of members of the Spotlight team are lapsed Catholics. They are the characters in the film who live out the values of the gospel. They don’t go to church anymore. But they are so well-formed by the church that they cannot cease from seeking the truth that their consciences demand. They still believe.
The truth is that institutions are more resilient than we generally think. Our political system is under terrible stress. But patriots who believe in our Constitution outnumber the self-serving scoundrels. It will take time for us to recover. But government of the people, by the people, for the people is not quite ready to perish.
It is not so different for the church. It may reform and change its shape. But nothing in our experience suggests that it is possible for the church to go away. Too many people believe too well.
That resilience also has a downside. There will be inertia no matter how much reform comes. If the privilege of clergy can survive seven centuries of change in church and state, then clericalism (or, some other version of institutional power) always will be with us. For as long as people are its members the church will be as vulnerable to our human flaws as the state is.
Saints were sinners. Martyrs made mistakes. We can become disillusioned by that. But disillusionment overtakes us only when we allow ourselves to overlook a lot. We miss why these institutions of church and state are so resilient.
Becket wrote to his king, “Whosoever wisely examines the works of God will speedily discover what is next to be done.” And so, here in this space each month with U.S. Catholic I would like to examine the work God does through us in government and in church. When we think about those institutions in that way, I think we understand quickly the sublimely simple reason they matter so much. They are things we all do together. Across time and over vast stretches of geography, they are our collaboration together to build civilization, to build up the reign of God.
Our church and our civic institutions are in trouble today. They need us. To repair them, we have to recall why they are important. Really, we just have to love them. Most vitally, loving them, repairing them, and working through them are things we must do together.
Image: Simone Savoldi on Unsplash