In the past few years, I have found myself encountering more and more people who were once Catholic, but have now left the Church. I have had personal discussions with some of them, and I have read the comments of others on blogs and online forums. One of the most common reasons that I hear people give for leaving their faith is a sense of disappointment in Church leadership. Some have bad memories of a priest or nun who taught them in Catholic grade school, while others have read stories of scandal involving Church figures.
Amid examples of human failure, we as Catholics must be able to defend our faith. It is important for us to acknowledge that the Catholic Church is made up of sinful individuals, but to recognize that this fact does not change the Church’s identity. Even in his earthly life, Christ worked with weak individuals. The very first priests abandoned Christ in his time of greatest trial, and the first Pope denied him three times. From the very beginning of the Church, the failures of man were present. Yet God understands the weakness of humanity, and he is able to work through sinful individuals. Jesus did not promise perfect human leaders to guide the Church. What he did promise was to be “with you always.” (Mt. 28:20) Christ will never abandon the Church that he established.
Therefore, we should not become disillusioned with the Church when we see imperfections in its members. The Catholic Church is greater than the mere sum of its human parts. It is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ, the beloved and chosen people of God, whom He will never forsake. The identity of the Church is not altered by the weaknesses of its members, and these human shortcomings should not drive us to leave our faith.
To better understand this concept, we can turn to the Old Testament. Although the Israelites were God’s chosen people, they were not always blessed with good leaders. Rather, they were often plagued with judges, kings and elders who did not live up to their call to holiness. The idolatry, adultery, lies and even murders committed by Israel’s leaders are recorded in the Scriptures. However, the evil deeds of their rulers did not give the Israelites a reason to break away. They remained God’s chosen people, under the covenant that had been established. Despite the wicked and unjust actions of their leaders, God still guided them and always brought them back when they strayed.
Through his Paschal Mystery, Christ established a new covenant. He instituted the Church as the new chosen people. We know that God will never abandon his people. The Holy Spirit guides the Church through good times and bad. Therefore, when we are confronted by the sins of Church members and even leaders, we should not become discouraged and fall away from our faith. Rather, we must endure periods of difficulty and trial when they come, trusting that God will lead his people through them, giving them the strength to overcome all obstacles, and eventually bringing them to a period of renewal.
Christ founded one Church, and he promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18) He knew human nature and the weakness that accompanies it, yet he still made this promise. If we trust God, we can be confident in our Catholic faith, despite the failures of individual members of the Church.