Coming Clean

The Economist, which is generally tone deaf on the subject of religion, had a good leader on the child-abuse crisis in the Catholic church. (here)

“Bishop Christopher Jones, head of the Irish episcopate’s committee on family affairs, has complained that the church is being singled out, when most abuse happens inside families and other organizations. ‘Why this huge isolation of the church and this huge focus on cover-up in the church when it has been going on for centuries?’ he asked.”

The bishop misses the point, The Economist says. “If you preach absolute moral values, you will be held to absolute moral standards.” And, “It is odd that an institution founded on honesty and penitence should struggle so.”


I recognize the Catholic reaction because it so closely mirrors the Protestant response to criticism. As a journalist, I’ve seen plenty. The tendency to close ranks, control information, and admit the bare minimum of responsibility is the classic institutional response to anything perceived as a threat. (At first I marveled over Toyota’s willingness to apologize, but gradually I have gained the impression that Japanese apologies are just another way of sweeping the problem under the carpet. Like the leader who says, “I take full responsibility for these failings,” and then doesn’t.)

When I have written critically—even very, very gently—about an evangelical leader or cause I have often experienced a defensive and angry response. It’s discouraging to me, not because I assume I am always right but because it doesn’t seem to occur to them that they might be wrong. “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know,” wrote the apostle Paul. (1 Corinthians 8:2)

If you want to tell people about grace, you have to be humbly willing to live by it. Genuine repentance puts you in a completely vulnerable position, certainly—but vulnerable is where we are meant to be.

Yes, the vultures are insatiable. No, they don’t often balance shortcomings with an account of all the marvelous good you have done. True, some people may suffer undeservedly in the backwash from these exposed failings. But that shouldn’t make much difference. When we pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” we should hear an echo: “And not ours.”

Why doesn’t the Pope get this? He is surely a man of depth and character. Why can’t he understand that grudging and calculated penitence is no penitence at all?


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One Response to “Coming Clean”

  1. Bill Reichert Says:

    “Why doesn’t the Pope get this? He is surely a man of depth and character. Why can’t he understand that grudging and calculated penitence is no penitence at all?”

    So what do you think after the Pope’s latest chastisement of the Irish bishops, Tim? Is this a new crusade for him, or just the same old, same old?

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