Mary Pope-Handy 408 204-7673

Scandalized by the Church - person prayingThe abuse crisis has caused many Catholics to be scandalized by the Church. The irony is that Catholic leaders hid what was happening precisely because they did not want to scandalize the faithful – among other reasons, of course.

Like many people, I have family and friends who stopped attending Mass or even ceased  considering themselves Catholic at all because of the way that bishops and other religious leaders concealed the abuse and protected the abusers. They should have been focusing on the children and vulnerable adults who were hurt. They should have turned the abusers over to law enforcement.

While most of the sexual abuse happened before reforms were instituted 20+ years ago, the stories just keep coming here and around the world. And now there are other scandals involving Catholic boarding schools for indigenous children and mass, unmarked graves in Canada and the U.S.

“They have no business telling me how I should behave”, said one of my relatives recently.

The outrage that we Catholics collectively feel is not aimed at the whole Church, but at the hierarchy and superiors of religious orders who are guilty of the abuse personally, or  who covered it up, protected the abusers, and did not care sufficiently about the welfare of the injured.

The hierarchy does not equal the Church, though. We are all the Church.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, a prolific theologian, wrote a compelling book entitled “Models of the Church“. (Click on the link to learn more about these models.) When I read it in college, there were five models, or ways of understanding the Church. He later added one more.

They are the Church as:

  • Institution
  • Mystical Communion
  • Sacrament
  • Herald
  • Servant
  • Community of Disciples

I found it very useful to think about the Church in a broader way then the top-down version I was taught as a child. Today it may be helpful for the many alienated and hurt Catholics to look beyond just the institution when considering their relationship with the Church.

Scandalized by the Church as Institution

At times in our Catholic history, the institutional Church has been an outright obstacle for faith. It does not take much effort to find Church scandals when studying history, whether recent or 2000 years ago: the splintering of Christianity, the Crusades, the perversion of indulgences, the persecution of non-Catholics, the will to power.

It has certainly been an obstacle to faith in recent years.

What is somewhat amazing is the fact that the faith continued despite the screwups and sin in the leadership for over 2000 years.

Luckily for us, the institution, and institutional sin, is only part of the picture. Yes, it’s hard to ignore it, and I’m not suggesting that we do so.

What I would like to suggest is taking a broader view of the Church. We sometimes have bad leadership. But that’s not usually the case. Most members of religious orders, most Church employees, most ordained deacons, priests, and bishops are doing their best and often do a great job with and for us. (Leaders who are doing their best have also suffered under the abuse crisis.) The same is true for the people in the pews (or watching Mass at home, since now we have Covid).

Unfortunately, the bad acts tend to be way more pronounced than the saintliness we may encounter.

Sometimes we’ve been so turned off by the Church, or perhaps our experience at Mass, that we are beyond running on empty. We can get worn out and have no more bandwidth for bad decisions, whatever they may be. Our tolerance is nil, and at that point it can be very easy to just “give up on the Church”. It may well be equal parts anger and exhaustion that result in alienation.


Image of mountains with the words "Scandalized by the Church, but not disaffected "

Scandalized but not disaffected

We can be both scandalized and not alienated. Put another way, yes, I’m horrified. But I’m not going anywhere.

On a practical level, when I am furious with something done by the institutional Church, or one of its leaders, I remind myself that that person or that group does not own the Church.

I remind myself of saintly people I’ve known personally, or been inspired by. I focus on the community, the broader mission of the Church, and God’s call for us all to constantly rebuild the Church, just as St. Francis was called to do.

Sometimes venting helps. Sometimes letting others vent can help them (and may accomplish more than unsolicited advice).

For me, it’s helpful to attend Mass (even if virtually), particularly if the priest is a good homilist, since that can be deeply nourishing and it can cause me to think about the readings and the week in new and different ways. (Big thanks to all the preachers who spend serious time in prayer and effort as they write their homilies.)

I also find it helpful to support the Catholic charities and groups doing good in the world. There are so many excellent efforts to get behind, and so much need.

Daily prayer, even if it’s sometimes rushed, is grounding and helps me in my relationship with the Church, too. There are several good Catholic apps with the day’s scripture readings and reflections that are free. There are also small prayer books with daily reflections that cost very little.

St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, encouraged us to find God in all things. Sometimes our relationship with the Catholic Church can be complicated, but if we can try to find God, and the good, in the Church as well as in the world, no scandal should be able to shake us loose. Perhaps then we can help others to heal, too.


Little Books for daily and seasonal prayer
Franciscan Spirit Blog – daily reflections
Jesuit Prayer – daily readings, reflection, and prayer
Click To Pray – the Pope’s prayer app

An inspirational video of Carmelites from around the world singing in honor of their foundress’s 500th anniversary. (I had a great aunt who was a Carmelite in Carmel, CA, and this was very touching to me.)