Thursday, June 07, 2007

Thoughts On Scandals in the Church

We rather naively assume that our experience of the Church in not only the ways things have always been, but indeed the way things are everywhere and forever one. On more than one occasion I have seen people walk away from the Church because they had been told that "things never change" in the Orthodox Church and that we do things "the same way, everywhere." Nothing can be further from the truth.

Diversity, within limits, is not only inescapable, it is essential to the health of the Church. We need to exercise great care that under the guise of defending Holy Tradition, we merely are seeking to validate our own personal experience and/or preference. I have told more than one parish that often "tradition" simply means what the oldest parishioner remembers being told by her grandmother was "the way things are."

Certainly we need to study the history of the Church--but we also need to study the so-called secular arts and sciences as well. These are not in themselves salvific, but they can be very helpful in deflating our egos and bursting our romantic bubbles about the Church.

As the recent scandals (pick your favorite) suggest, we have for too long assumed that simply because someone did good things, s/he was a good person. It is looking like that really hasn't been true and that often wicked people do good things in order that they might also do wicked things. What makes this more tragic still is that often people are so invested in appearing good, rather then being good, that they become unable to acknowledge their wickedness because they fear punishment and shame. Which is to say, it is not only the wicked who value the appearance of godliness--we all value the appearance over substance.

Putting on my psychologist cap for a moment, I have noticed that often in the Orthodox Church we use shame based language. Unlike guilt, which has an objective component, psychological shame is purely subjective and arise when we feel that our actions (whatever the moral weight of those actions) have caused us to be rejected. When we shame people we exclude them from the community, we withhold our love from, we say, in effect, "You are dirty and you make us dirty even by speaking to you."

Shame doesn't help--it only foster resentment and rage--and it is the fruits of shame that I think is driving much of the conversation about the current scandals. In other words, we come to the scandals already caring a burden of shame of feeling excluded and unloved by those with whom we pray and from who we receive the Gospel and Christ in the sacraments.

While not wishing to minimize the harm caused by people in the current scandals, the psychological fact is the response from people suggests rather strongly that people were hurt (shamed) well before we all formed our opinions about Fr Bob and Metropolitan Herman or Fr Nick and Archbishop Demetrios. These people are scapegoats for the many of us in the Church who are simply angry as Hell. It seems to me we risk punishing them not for what they may have done, but for what others have done to us.

When I was a grad student, one of my professors (a Catholic priest and a psychologist) pointed out that often people have a beautiful religious experience and then wrongly assume that this exempts them from the normal course of human development and often an evident need for psychotherapy.

May it not be so with us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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