“How could God let His representatives get away with such things?”  Many of my parishioners have been asking this question in its various forms this Christmas season.  Sometimes the question is asked in the context of a specific scandal: the moral failure of a priest or bishop, or a particularly egregious display of economic disparity.  For example, a bishop whom everyone thought was poor, secretly owns several condos in the Maldives. Or it comes to light that a wealthy family in the church has been manipulating the priest and the parish council for years.  Sometimes the offence is the overly controlling attitude of a priest, or the fact that his politics differs from yours, and particularly that he keeps wondering out loud how anyone could be a real Christian who doesn’t have the same political opinion he has.  

However this question, or some form of it, also comes up in conversations around larger issues of social injustice or historical injustices perpetrated against one group or another.  How could God have allowed Christians to own slaves or rip indigenous children from their families and imprison them in residential schools?  

My daughter recommended an Amazon Prime series called Three Pines.  A former residential school in Quebec pays a pivotal role in the psyche of the little Three Pines community where the action of the series takes place.  Not only is there the horror of the church’s active participation in the genocide of the native peoples by stealing their children and forcing them to forget their family, their language and their culture, this particular residential school (and by implication many such schools) had a murderous janitor.  As the protagonist Inspector Germache reflects on this horror, he asks his assistant, Inspector Jean-Guy, “What sort of God allows such atrocities to happen in his name?”  After a moment of reflection, Jean-Guy answers, “What sort of man allows it?”

I think Jean-Guy corrects the Inspector’s focus.  Human beings sin.  Human beings lie and cheat, and steal and kill.  Human beings think they know what’s best for others and the strong are able to force their ideals on the weak, all the time ignoring their own sin in the name of the greater good of their ideal.  Religious people do this, secular people do this, scientists, educators, politicians, business leaders, and parents—we all do this.  Early in the first episode of Three Pines, Inspector Germache comments, “Every mistake I made was because I made an assumption and then I acted upon it as though it were fact.  Very dangerous.  Somedays I think we should have tattooed on the back of whichever hand we use to write or shoot: ‘I may be wrong.’”

When God set up the Church, He did a curious thing.  He put human beings in charge.  St. Paul put it this way, “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).  And in this lies our conundrum.  Human beings are beautiful and wise and even holy, and human beings are ugly and selfish and even wicked.  And it is not as though the dividing line between the good and the bad were easy to determine.  We all wish we could find an easy marker: a political party perhaps that is always evil or a religion that’s always good, or a race of people who are inherently wicked or a professional organization that always works good.  The dividing line between good and evil passes through every human heart, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote. Actions that are good or evil spring forth from hearts that are hidden, and even the best intentions of the heart must pass through minds that are often confused or lacking all of the pertinent information.  

And so, we ask the question: why have church at all?  Of course we could ask the same question about many institutions.  Why have youth hockey, if some coaches turn out to be pedophiles?  Why have education if some educators promote their own ideological agendas in the classroom?  Why have private property if some people use their private property to oppress the poor?  Why have a police force if some police officers are unnecessarily violent?  The truth is that we have these institutions because they do something useful and necessary for humanity to flourish (definitely youth hockey in Canada!).  But the treasure is in jars of clay.

The Church is a divine and human institution.  In as much as it is human it is susceptible to all of the human weaknesses that can be found in any other organization.  However, in as much as it is divine it carries a divine treasure, a treasure that Jesus warned us few would find.  Even in the Church, even among the leaders of the Church, the broad way that leads to destruction is the easiest to follow.  The narrow way that leads to live, that’s harder to follow.  But that’s the miracle of the Church: some do follow it, and a great deal more try their best to follow it even though they keep falling.  The miracle of the Church is that although the treasure is hidden in an institution filled and staffed by weak and sinful human beings (buried in a field, Jesus said),  still it carries the treasure.  The Church preserves the teaching, preserves the Way through repentance to union with God.  

Certainly as a priest I have nothing to boast of.  The institution that I represent has perpetrated evil when it should have allowed itself to be crucified, following the example of its Master. Out of fear and greed and sometimes just plain cruelty or stupidity, Church leaders have committed the same sins and atrocities that everyone else, religious or nonreligious, has committed throughout the ages.  We are as guilty as everyone else.  However, the Church has also produced saints, saints who did allow themselves to be crucified out of love, saints who have spoken wisdom and sanity to the world.  The Church has produced hospitals and schools and universities and soup kitchens.  The Church has taught those who are seeking forgiveness how to repent, and those seeking a new life how to start again.  But that’s the problem.  This treasure is in earthen vessels.