Quickly now, a simple line of thought about exemplars.
From day one, we are imitators. We learn by watching others do things, and then we try those things ourselves. That is how we learn, for example, right at first, to smile.
We learn to speak in the same way, and to laugh—especially to laugh artificially in social situations.
Quickly, children realize that the parental dictum, “Do as I say and not as I do,” is nonsense. Words mean nothing without the example which gives them substance. And one of the character-defining moments of human life is the moment in which we first respond in our hearts to the realization that people act differently from how they say they are acting. Some see through the ruse quickly and deafen themselves to the noise of the words in order to watch the silent display of the truth in actions. Others, as I did, see the disparity between word and action and become confused, believing in the face of contrary behavioral evidence that the words must be true because people are essentially good and truthful. Others never confront the problem and remain gullible.
Jesus got right to the point about false teachers: “By their fruits shall you know them. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce good fruit. . . . So by their fruits you shall know them” (Mt. 7:16,18,20).
The community which Jesus founded—what came to be “the Church”—operated on that principle for several centuries. This ancient church had as its model the life of Jesus—in its purity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love. His was a life of merciful action, and so it was an exemplary life, a model for all, and especially for the leaders.
And so, the early leaders modeled their lives on the life of Jesus and found themselves facing martyrdom, which they accepted in imitation of the Cross of Jesus: Stephen, James the Apostle, Peter, Paul, and many, many of the early leaders.
Given these examples, it is no wonder that the community of common people thrived in Christ. The actions of their leaders set the standard for them and pointed out the way for them.
And so, when their leaders corrected them, they listened and obeyed. When they could not agree with one another on a point of teaching, they sought the fire-tested wisdom of the leaders. When the leaders died, they wept. And even into the fifth century, when a leader was needed, the people sought out—and proclaimed as their leader—a man of integrity and right action, as they did Ambrose of Milan.
It is in this context of courageous leaders imitating the Cross of Christ that the writer of The Book of Revelation calls the bishops of the seven churches “stars,” that is, celestial lights. And Paul calls all the Christians “saints” because they are holy, and he invites them to “imitate me” as he imitates Jesus’ call to him to “follow me.”
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Without lived example to give substance to the words, the teachings of the leaders are dead. The history of the Roman Church from the 5th Century to the 20th is a story of divergence from this ancient way. The Church became involved in secular politics and in the process was distracted from its spiritual mission. Although in theory the Church sought in empire-building a political, institutional expression of the Kingdom of God on earth, what came about in fact was simply a political empire.
As the Church became increasingly involved in empire, its leaders became increasingly political. They became politicians and power-brokers—hardly models of the self-giving Christian life. As a result, the lay faithful had fewer and fewer models of Christian living among their leaders to imitate.
To stem the disaffection that would naturally follow from teachings unsubstantiated by the actions of the leaders, as we find for example in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th Century skeptical portrayal of Church-people in his Canterbury Tales, the Church leaders—consciously or unconsciously, it doesn’t matter—perpetrated the Great Diversion. They created personal confession, and over time turned the attention of the laity away from seeking examples of right living in the behavior of their leaders toward keeping count of their own personal sins. And the people were taught to identify their sins not in comparison with the right example of their leaders, but according to the catalogs of sins generated by the moral theologians. People came to measure their lives not in terms of the models of right living offered by their leaders, but in terms of the “book”—a set of abstract formulas, such as the conditions for mortal sin, by which one could individually judge the acceptability of his actions to God.
The leaders, meanwhile, created institutional structures in which it was not the exemplary actions of the individual leader which earned him the respect of the people; rather, it was the “dignity” and “excellence” of the office which the man held which provided the basis for the people’s respect. As for the exemplary lives of holy people on which the faithful could model their personal lives, the Church continued the ancient tradition of remembering the heroic dead and created the catalog of canonized saints to provide the people with models to follow.
Surely, the lives of canonized saints are inspirational. However, these saints are all dead—the faithful cannot know what these saints “felt” like—and most of these saints lived in times different in quality and circumstance from our own and faced problems only analogous to those we face.
When we look for living examples of the Christian life lived faithfully in our own time, we are hard pressed to find many among our leaders.—This is not to say there are none. We had Oskar Romero and perhaps John XXIII and surely many quiet third-world bishops, ministering to the needs of their people. In the “old church” in which I grew up in the 1940s and 50s, if a man wore a cassock and especially if he wore a purple puff on his biretta, we all assumed he was worthy of our respect. Holiness, on the other hand, was a separate issue. Holiness, by that point, was a personal thing between the individual and God, dependent on the individual’s “objective” guilt, a condition only known truly by God. We never sought or expected holiness in our leaders. Holiness was for saints. We were sinners. But we bowed to authority and respected our leaders, never questioning whether they as individuals were worthy of our respect.
The priest sex abuse scandal, which began to come to light in the United States as the millennium changed, effectively showed the smoke-and-mirrors of our assumption that our leaders were automatically worthy of respect. Essentially, as the truth was exposed, it became clear that our leaders had betrayed us for political, institutional, self-beneficial reasons—even allegedly up to the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Many of “our” bishops were corrupt and protected the predatory priests. (One investigative report in the Dallas Morning News in 2002 established that about two-thirds of the diocesan ordinaries in the U.S. were implicated in the scandal in one way or another.) Four percent, it was estimated, of the priests were guilty of sexual abuse of children. (That means, in an ordinary diocese of two hundred active priests, eight of those priests were actively preying on innocent children!) And many more of the “good” priests averted their eyes from these terrible crimes which were being perpetrated in the rooms of the very rectories in which these “good” priests lived.
There is no mystery to the reaction of the laity to this betrayal. The entanglement of a large percentage of our leaders—our previously respected leaders—in this horrible scandal—which has now been revealed as worldwide—destroys any desire we might have to model our lives on the public displays of the “goodness” of our leaders.
Predictably, some of the laity have taken the stance of denial, and they defend the “good” priests—of which there are perhaps many. But I ask again, How many of these “good” priests and bishops would you really want to model your life on? Or have your children model their lives on?
Some of the laity have left the Church in rightful disgust. They have been painfully disillusioned.
Some blame God.
Some ignore the problem and continue to go to church because they’ve been taught that it’s the right thing to do and that it’s pleasing to God.
Some, among whom I include myself, are disillusioned but have now become aware of the realities of the institutional Church. These realities may have a fifteen-hundred year history in the Church. They may be part of the dark and secret side of the institutional culture of the Church. And it may be that because this kind of treatment of the young and vulnerable faithful was taken as a commonplace in the Church culture, the Vatican and the diocesan leaders were unprepared for, and inept at controlling, the scandal that erupted when the American news media (clearly at least as powerful as the hierarchy of the institutional Church) shed the light of public attention on what was going on in the shadowy corridors of the Church.
Painfully awakened in this way, this group of faithful have lost confidence in the institution and have turned our hearts entirely to the goodness of faith in Jesus, alive in the Body of Christ, in the sacraments, and in the social justice works, which are lived Christianity.
But all of us, except perhaps the deniers, have come to see that overall, our leaders do not live exemplary lives. If none of them is living an exemplary life worthy of imitation, why should we believe the teachings of any of them? Why should we not question what they teach about the spiritual way of life if even the teachers themselves are unable or unwilling to live it?
Jesus did not come among us to give us a way and truth and life which are impossible to attain. In fact, as above, Jesus came to model for us just such a life, so that we might “come, follow [him]” in living it. Jesus came to give us a way of life which can be lived, if only we put our own importance in the proper perspective: God alone is worthy. We are “worthless servants” whom God expects only to lovingly take care of one another.
So the argument that the leaders and their defenders now use—that the leaders are simply the sinful “earthen vessels” in which the “treasure” of the faith is held—is nonsense. Jesus came to teach that the leaders (and all the faithful) can live the righteous life through the grace of God. And the history of the Apostolic Church era clearly shows that the leaders did lead the life which Jesus taught them.
If today the bishops—having been extensively formed in Christ, and having given over (they tell us) their whole lives to the service of God and his people—if these bishops can’t live the faith, who can?
And if we ordinary faithful find that we can but they can’t, why do we need them?
If this exposure of the corruption of the Church leaders is all the work of the Holy Spirit, then let it be so. Let the institutional Church be fixed. Let it be restructured or unstructured or replaced, as the Spirit wills. For our part, let us seek out the realities of the life Jesus taught us to live, and with the guidance of the Spirit, become a church in which the life of Christ is actually lived by leaders and faithful laity alike.
Copyright © 2013 by GodDesire.com