The press is openly asking these days whether the Catholic Church can survive the current crisis of child sexual abuse by priests. Others are likely asking if it should survive, given the horror stories that seem to keep coming from everywhere, almost daily. Abuse is not just a Catholic problem, of course, nor is deviant behavior limited to the church. It's a human problem. Some of us seem to have the capacity to be unspeakably cruel, especially to people who are weak and vulnerable.
Will the church survive the sins of its clergy? There is really no question about the answer: In some form or other the church will survive the current crisis, for in its long and tortured history the church has survived crises and scandals worse than this.
Name whatever odious act you wish, and probably the church has done it: No fewer than nine bloody Crusades were blessed by the church across four centuries. Want to hear about child abuse by the clergy? In the year 1212, a tenth crusade consisted of thousands of children, most of whom died of exposure or disease or were taken into slavery.
Not infrequently, professing Christians were burned at the stake because their beliefs were deemed out of line. In order to remain a church member in good standing, Galileo was forced to get on his knees and declare that the earth does not move around the sun, even though he was able to prove scientifically that it did.
Popes sired sons whom they called nephews, and then saw to it that these "nephews" became bishops, cardinals, and even popes themselves.
Young girls were executed because they were thought to be witches, and young boys who sang in choirs were castrated so their voices would not change.
Women were told by the church that they were "malformed men," and therefore had no rights. Slaves were told their servitude was the will of God, who would reward them in heaven. Left-handed people were considered children of the devil. Persons of certain sexual orientations are sometimes told, even today, they cannot be children of God.
Name whatever odious act you wish and probably the church has done it, or at least winked at it. And yet the church survives. We force seminary students to study church history precisely so that they will have to confront this puzzling fact.
The New Testament compares the church to the ark of Noah. There is an old yarn about Noah finding his son on the bow of the ark, in a deep funk. Noah asked him how he was and he replied, "Not good, Dad. If it weren't for the storm outside, I couldn't stand the stink inside."
Even when it is not involved in scandalous behavior, even when it is not supporting causes that are morally wrong or dubious, still the church is often beset by incompetence, mismanagement, pettiness, bickering, and misplaced priorities.
Why does God put up with the church? It is a great mystery. One would think there would be a better way than this to change the world. Yet, this fragile, bumbling institution has endured for 20 centuries.
In spite of the terror some of its most trusted servants have imposed, and might be imposing even now, there is still profound truth in the opening lines of one of our old liturgies for the admission of members to the church. It reads: Dearly beloved, the church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time for the conduct of worship and the due administration of (God's) Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world.
The whole Gospel story rests on the absurdity of a God who loves and will suffer on behalf of the weak, the wayward, the rebellious. God does the unexpected, illogical thing: giving up a Son for the sake of sinners, making this imperfect, human church Christ's agent in the world.
At its very best, the church is one beggar telling another beggar where to go to find bread. And sometimes it is at its very best.
Thomas H. Dahl is the pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church .
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