Two things are simultaneously true about the current Catholic Church scandals:
1) Scandal is a constant part of human life, especially of large organizations;
2) The present crisis in the Catholic Church is unique and unprecedented and deserves not to have its uniqueness be muddied.
Scandal is of a particularly evil quality when the institution which has scandalized itself claims to be an authority on important matters; in this case, spiritual and eternal matters. Catholics have always embraced the harmonious interplay of the physical and spiritual; the degree to which the physical impacts the spiritual and vice versa. The central event of human history, the Incarnation, speaks to this directly.
So, it is not surprising to see some Protestants and Orthodox affirming their stances on the basis of the recent crisis. After all, as I have seen some of their leaders say, this is why a large organization with such wealth and such power was a bad idea and why the Schism/Reformation was a good or necessary thing.
But are they really arguing that no hierarchy, no concentration of authority is allowable because excesses and abuses might happen?
Are they really arguing that the Apostles themselves would have eschewed centralization or defined structures of authority because those structures might be poorly used? I strongly beg to differ:
[Rom 13:1] 1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Sure, this verse has been used in many places and in many instances as a justification for wrongdoing in the name of authority. “The Divine Right of Kings,” many will say, having never read that term in its original contexts (since it is undeniably a product of the Reformation). But respect for authority structures in general is one of the most important stabilizing forces for a society. Authority is intractable.
This notion that the solution to corrupt authority is to eliminate authority or centralization altogether is an incredible one. Would you dismantle the US Armed Forces because of corruption such that it be as loosely organized as insurgent fighters? This is essentially what Protestants become; insurgent Christians with all sorts of fraying beliefs that no one believed until 500 years ago.
Certainly not. Would we argue that we need to eliminate fatherhood if fathers have behaved badly? Certainly not. To reference Chesterton, you do not remove fences unless you know why the fence was there in the first place. Many claim to know why it was there, but it is obvious they do not. They simply have imbibed the revolutionary spirit of the age.
Insurgent fighters in groups such as ISIS have had to adapt their strategies and methods to building some semblance of civilization and institution, or their gains have no longevity and they cannot build on them. Guerrilla warfare is only an interim state to a more structured style of fighting. It only works as long as you are ready to play insurgent – and that cannot last forever.
Unless large religious institutions are recaptured, Christian faith will uniformly become an insurgent movement as Protestantism largely is, and that is a very shortsighted approach that will accelerate the destruction of civilization.
It is unpopular and hopefully not callous to say, but scandal itself doesn’t undermine rightly ordered authority. It does, however, destroy moral authority, which creates devastation in its wake if not dealt with.
We need look no further than Israel and the great kings David and Solomon for some of the worst scandals the people of God have ever had to endure from leaders.
David had not only committed adultery (remember, polygamy was tolerated, so committing adultery at such a time should reinforce the truth that vices are not satisfied by appeasement, but grow ever more corrupt); he had one of his most loyal warriors killed to cover up his sin.
This Bathsheba incident would scar David forever, with the prophet Nathan going so far as saying “Therefore the sword shall never depart from thy house, because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Urias the Hethite to be thy wife.”
From this point on, David lost nearly all *moral* authority. Amnon his firstborn rapes his sister Tamar (from another mother) and David does nothing. Absalom, deciding enough is enough, rises up, creates a plot, and has Amnon killed. Absalom flees to the King of Geshur for a time, and David longed to see him.
David knew he needed to act against Amnon, but for some reason was incapable. I presume he lost “moral authority”; as Psalm 28:1 says, “The wicked man fleeth, when no man pursueth: but the just, bold as a lion, shall be without dread.”
Sun Tzu’s Art of War is a classic for many reasons, but he makes this point as well:
3. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.
4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.
5,6. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
Not only did David lose his gumption through guilt, but the it damaged his leadership impact.
This loss of moral authority culminates as Absalom steals the hearts of the men of Israel by standing before them day to day and saying “If only I was your leader – I would bring justice.” David flees Jerusalem and Absalom takes charge briefly.
But Absalom was not the rightful king. Even if his moral quality was higher than that of David’s, he lacked legitimate authority to rule Israel. Eventually Absalom is defeated and David reigns yet again.
Despite all of David’s own corruptions, Jesus is proud to be known as “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” and “The Son of David.” Human authority does not become illegitimate merely because it engages in moral corruption.
Things would be much simpler if that were the case; whenever a large enough group of the people thinks someone has grown corrupt, we launch a revolution in which authority structures are demolished and overturned. One of the prime errors of the United States is the idea that the people are the source of ruling authority. God alone is the source of ruling authority, though men selecting certain of their leaders is not inherently against right principles.
But I hope we do not delude ourselves into thinking that a state of permanent revolution that has been in place since the 1500s is somehow an improvement on our civilization.
We can look at Solomon, who is credited with writings that are now considered Sacred Scripture; this same man built countless idols around Jerusalem for the women of his harem. We notice he had very few recorded children.
It is no surprise that primitive methods of contraception availed themselves in such a time of decadence and excess. Certainly Solomon’s last 20 years were disastrous for the nation. Jeroboam would have had his pick of corruptions to tout as the reason for his rebellion.
So Jeroboam splits the country; Judah on one side, and ten other tribes on the other side. If you notice that’s not 12, Benjamin was somewhat of a wild card, although they fought alongside Judah at least at the beginning.
But Jeroboam does something especially dangerous. He does some things that would come to be called “the sins of Jeroboam” by the later writers of the Books of the Kings.
Jeroboam establishes his rulership and there’s a time of brief peace. But Jeroboam realizes “Hey, the people are still going to Judah and Jerusalem for the yearly feasts as required by the Law.”
“They go to the Temple to sacrifice as required by the Law and by our historical custom. If this goes on, eventually the peoples’ hearts will return to the son of David.”
So Jeroboam pulls some of his men together and plots. He decides to build two idols, two calves of god, and says “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of Egypt.”
In doing so, Jeroboam tries to “go back” culturally to a time before Saul, David, and David’s son Solomon had been recognized as the proper rulers of Israel. Let’s just say Judah is hopelessly corrupt, and we are the restoration of what was originally intended after the Exodus.
Jeroboam goes further, and denigrates the notion of priesthood by “making priests of the lowest of the people, which were not the sons of Levi.” After all, Levi was declared the priestly family after the Exodus, so we must therefore take the position that all Israel is a priestly nation (as was said during the Exodus).
Jeroboam establishes a separate feast to replace the prior feasts; he ordains one in the eighth month (instead of the seventh), on the fifteenth day, and offers sacrifices on a new altar he had made.
Jeroboam further dispossesses the Levites, who had been given cities and suburbs in the towns of Israel for their rightly-ordained teaching ministry per the Law of Moses. Aha, but that was after the Exodus as well.
Jeroboam could certainly say that was a later corruption not contained in the original 10 commandments themselves, and therefore not binding. After all, only the words of God themselves are the rule for faith and morals.
One might object; Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam. He oppressed the people. He set up idols. He fornicated with foreign women. He drove Jeroboam into Egypt to hide.
The throne of David itself was still legitimate.
Returning to David, before he was made king of Judah or Israel, he was underneath Saul’s authority. Saul repeatedly tries to kill him or have others kill him. He chases him constantly.
Even Samuel had pronounced that Saul’s dynasty would not continue. Surely Saul was illegitimate, and David could take his righteous authority given to him by anointing of the horn of oil!
No. David rejected this. He recognized that as long as Saul was alive, he was the anointed of God and refused to take up his sword against the anointed of God even if his own life was in danger.
Had David taken the revolutionary route, his kingdom would not have endured. The reason Jesus can proudly call himself a “son of David” is because David, for all his faults, recognized proper authority.