In his recent New York Times piece, “Who Can Mock This Church”, Nicholas Kristoff argues for the inherent good of the Catholic Church after a trip to South Sudan reminds him of all of its selfless missionaries serving the needy in the world’s battlegrounds and broken states. The piece challenges us agnostic urban elites, so keen to sneer at the Church, to embrace its more complex realities, a complexity that the Catholic Church, itself, seems unwilling to acknowledge: that good and evil exist under the roof of the same institution; that followers of the same faith can be both unbelievably inspiring and bitterly disappointing.
That the Catholic Church “does good” all over Africa isn’t news to anyone who’s worked there. They have educated, clothed and fed millions. Helped to produce some of Africa’s greatest leaders and thinkers. Raised the children that the communities didn’t want, housed the sick the relatives could no longer afford care for. And perhaps just as importantly, day in and day out, the Catholic Church provides hope to millions surrounded by want, decay, selfishness and avarice. Simple faith gives millions of Africans the ability to carry on.
Kristoff suggests that this grassroots “do-gooder” church is a sort of split personality to the big, bad, bureaucratic church, whose Priests prey on young men and find refuge under the cloaks of some of it highest leaders. But I don’t think it’s as neatly split as “two churches”.
Because there is a single thread that runs up and down the church, from Juba to Roma. And that is power. Well, power and resources, and the ability to use them to impressive effect. Both the nuns in South Sudan and the priests in Boston are incredibly powerful within their contexts, with very vulnerable people as their charges. They are, within their little worlds, types of gods. Some of these demi-gods sweat in out in godless places, becoming infamous, even untouchable, and saving many along the way. While others use their demi-god status to satisfy their repressed needs with their vulnerable charges and subsequently silence them.
In Juba, Catholic priests use the Church’s vast network to access food, medicine, and clothing, circumventing the chaos all around them to bring just a little bit of order to people’s lives. While in Malta, Catholic priests use that same church network to circumvent the law and the media in an attempt to stave off the chaos rising all around them.
And let us not forget the other great thread uniting the Catholic Church’s leaders: the supreme belief in its dogma, despite any evidence to the contrary. Despite mounting evidence of the rot within, the Church remains unwilling to even acknowledge, much less address, its own sins. At the same time, despite the mounting toll of AIDS, many selfless priests and nuns refuse to acknowledge a potential role for condoms in preventing its spread. Kristoff can conveniently ignore the Church’s stance on AIDS, because it’s not at the forefront of the South Sudan discourse. But nobody should be fooled that even the brave men and women whom he encounters are thoroughly adherent to the Church’s stance on condoms. It is, in fact, the strength of their Catholic belief that allows them to work in hellish conditions for years on end, driven by a singular sense of mission.
Kristoff is right to remind us to pause before we disparage the Catholic Church and remember its good deeds. But at the same time his piece reminded me of the great power of the Catholic Church, particularly amongst the very vulnerable, whether they are children or refugees. Let us continue to hope, as Kristoff would suggest, that the majority of the Church’s leaders choose to use that power to save lives rather than savage them.