When I was young and trying to be what my mother used to call a “career girl,” (and didn’t it sound unseemly coming from her lips!) I worked briefly at a job I barely remember. I misremember the job because I was never any good at it; the last girl at the desk had left abruptly, and so my training relied upon a half-instinct, half-dunce-cap pedagogy. Far more clever than smart, I quickly deduced that I had been formed in failure, and a bare three months into the gig found another job and gave notice. It was then I discovered the odd paradox that those who can’t do, teach.
“It so often happens,” St. Augustine wrote, “that the office of distributing gives us the merit of receiving, and that the office of teaching serves as a foundation for learning.”
Quite true. By the time I had trained my replacement, I finally understood and appreciated my post so well that I exited with a hat-throw, a la Mary Tyler Moore, and a sense of boundless gratitude for my providential escape.
Years later, when I married and had children, I encountered an uncommon number of wistful old ladies expressing a desire to redo their motherhood armed with the 20/20 knowledge of hindsight. I dismissed them as sentimentalists when they warned that my children would teach me more than the finest university. This too has turned out to be true, although they forgot to tell me that the lessons would be so interior, so humbling, so unforgettable and, occasionally, so shaming that decades later, in the wee small insomniac hours of creeping middle age, the memories of my failings still bring tears of stinging regret. Through my children I learned that I am a monster of ego who should never be given absolute power, for it doth corrupt, and absolutely.
Power, corruption, failure and where monsters lie are the stuff of headlines and scandal and they have, tragically, become part of our yearly Lenten musings. But as we draw toward Easter I wonder if Augustine’s observation can prompt us to look forward in hope. If “those who can’t do teach,” then a few of our teacher-bishops imparted some profoundly important lessons to us over the past six weeks. The shocking story of Belgium’s Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, and his stomach-turning delusions about what constitutes love and “moments” between an adult and a child comes to mind.
Unable to “do the math” and sum up why his actions were so despicable and so viscerally off-putting, the bishop has nevertheless instructed the rest of the world in grotesquery, and with such precision that we may expect any future attempts by some to normalize “intergenerational love” or to mainstream organizations like NAMBLA will meet with renewed resistance. That sounds like small compensation for the torments endured by his two nephews, but given our times and trends, we may never fully realize how preventative in nature was the lesson learned.
Likewise, our bishops, whose offices of distribution were meant to assist in the bestowing of sacramental graces upon the world, have this Lent – thanks to a few of their brothers—found themselves in receipt of renewed scorn from the punditry and (perhaps more ominously) a pained and exhausted sigh from the people in the pews. The failure of the Diocese of Philadelphia to take timely and appropriate action against some of her priests, the large abuse settlement incurred by the Jesuits and other still-draining pustules of our vastly infected Body have weakened the church’s ability to speak to the world with convincing moral authority.
If any obvious good is to come out of so much evil – and that is certainly a thing we pray for – those churchmen who did not know how to do their jobs and who failed all of us so spectacularly in love and in the Gospel will have rendered clear instruction on what not to do to our current and future bishops.
In our upcoming sacred Triduum, as we re-enter into the whole drama of Christ’s passion, we will remember the betrayal, untruth, cowardice, connivance and plain lack of understanding that was exhibited by the very first priests and bishops of the Church. On Easter Sunday, we will rediscover mercy and renewal, and remember that it came first to them. It may be a powerful opportunity to ask these imperfect elders to pray for their apostolic progeny, and to plead with the risen Christ for the fast-healing work of grace in their lives and the life of the church.
We may believe emphatically that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church established by Christ, but there is a sense in the pews that a limit has been reached and that the rattling of the wrought iron that has borne up fairly well over 2000 years of supernatural battle has finally induced a troubling stress fatigue. The weakness has come about not because the gate has been molded without enough “give” to weather changes in pressure, but because, perhaps, the smithies reformed its hinges too far away from its nuts and bolts; the resulting clatter and bang is fomenting doubt, insecurity and fear.
The Gate will hold; that has been ordained from above. But perhaps a bit of restoration is in order, a removal of what has corrupted, and a shoring up of the foundation. It needn’t be anything dramatic or harsh, just enough to reassure ourselves that messages have been received, ledgers brought to account and lessons learned, and that we are safe from the corrupted monsters.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.