The gift of adversity is that it helps to reveal who we really are. For Christians, one would presume, adversity is a rich opportunity to reaffirm, even celebrate, what it means to be “a follower of Jesus.” And the nice thing is, being a disciple of Jesus can help one navigate life’s vicissitudes with a single (though not always easy to use) question: What would Jesus do? Is there a circumstance to which that question is not a useful guide to a Christian’s life? I can’t think of one: you spill grape juice on your dress; your dog eats your homework; you’re abducted by aliens; you win the lottery—yada-yada.
The revelation of pedophile priests within the Catholic Church, then, is not fundamentally different from any other life event, spiritually speaking. For Catholics and other Christians it is an opportunity to gain an ever-deeper awareness for What would Jesus do?
And it isn’t just lovers of Jesus for whom pedophile priests are powerful teachers. The many stories of this drama can help to awaken in each of us the extent to which we choose fear (or its cousins anger, blame, judgment, banishment, revenge and righteousness, among others) over love. Whether any of these is what Jesus or any being we revere would choose, we must answer for ourselves. All of us can appreciate what is really being asked by the question: Suppose Jesus had been molested by a priest. What would He do?
It’s easy to boil down Jesus’s teachings to a couple of words. Two of my favorites are love and forgiveness. Much harder is opening our hearts to the meaning of those actions, particularly when so many moments are full of pain.
The pedophile priest situation, deep with anguish for all concerned, is not unique. Every human has experienced many situations rife with heartbreak. But it isn’t the situations themselves that matter—a failed marriage; a lost job; drug addiction; cancer; death; betrayal in any of its many forms; September 11—it is our response that reveals our willingness to love in that moment. Which is to say, we continually make the choice: love or fear.
As I see it, the Catholic Church has two primary functions. One, to preserve the integrity of what it feels are Jesus’s teachings. And two, to be a role model for living those teachings. There is a legendary car salesman named Joe Girard. He’s sold more cars than anyone on earth, supposedly, and his customers think he’s terrific. Joe’s been known to say, “If somehow I sell you a lemon, I’ll be sorry, but I’ll also be glad that I can show you how great our service department is.” This is the attitude that any healthy person or organization has. I have no idea how well the Catholic Church preserves the integrity of Jesus’s teachings, but as far as being a role model of health in response to the news of their troubled brothers, I’m not sure its clergy have always been as inspiring as they could be about the quality of their service department.
I’m not pointing fingers at the Church. The lives of its leaders are no different than the lives of its members, or the lives of any of us. We all know how difficult it is to live up to our own ideals. To expect a priest, or even the pope, to be fundamentally different from ourselves is to deny the oneness of the human family—indeed, the oneness of all life. Thinking we’re different from someone else (or that they’re different from us) is just another way we put fear in charge of our moments. It is fear that underlies the harmful choices that certain priests have made. And it is fear that underlies any reaction to them other than love.
Regardless of anyone else’s choices, each of us can use this whole pedophile priest business to strengthen our own relationship with our self. We can go within and ask: How do I run from answering the call of my heart to love?
Put another way, we don’t need to be a Christian to find it helpful in any moment to wonder: What choice would Jesus make, right here, right now?