For two thousand years wherever you find Catholics you find a group of people making phenomenal contributions to their local, national, and international communities. Every single day the Catholic Church feeds more people, houses more people, clothes more people, visits more imprisoned, cares for more sick people, and educates more people than any other institution on the planet.
The Church gave birth to scientific method, which has been at the center of scientific discovery for hundreds of years. The Church gave birth to the first university. The early Church was the first to institutionalize the care of widows, orphans, and the sick. The Church has also made incredible contributions in music, art, medicine, architecture, language, and law. In the area of law, equality before the law, trial by jury, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt are all the fruit of Catholic thought.
And no other organization or institution has done more than the Catholic Church in defending human rights around the world. The Catholic idea of charity—that we help those in need, without the expectation of anything in return, whether they are Catholic or not, and even if they despise us—is the idea of charity that even our secular society today strives to achieve.
In fact, all of these Catholic contributions spring from the notion of agape love. For two thousand years the Catholic Church has been a force for tremendous good in the world.
There have also been some dark moments in our story. Our past is not perfect. Pope John Paul II made more than one hundred public apologies during his papacy on behalf of Catholics for events reaching back as far as one thousand years.
He apologized to women, Jews, minorities, people convicted by the Inquisition, Muslims killed by the Crusaders, and almost everyone who had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church throughout history. He apologized for Catholics’ involvement in the African slave trade, the Church’s role in religious wars and burnings at the stake, and the legal process Galileo suffered. He apologized for injustices committed against women and the inactivity and silence of many Catholics during the Holocaust.
Our past is not without blemish. There have been some horrible moments in Catholic history. But it is important to recognize that these moments are the result of individuals wandering away from the teachings of Christ and his Church. Here we find one of the central mysteries of God’s plan: The Church is made up of human beings like you and me, who are in many ways
weak and imperfect.
Some people look at the failings of the Church and use them as an excuse to leave. I see it very differently. All of the lowest moments in Church history are examples of what happens when we don’t live the Catholic faith authentically. I have studied these low moments, and what I’ve found is immorality and personal weakness, selfishness and abuse of power. I’ve found Christ’s teachings misunderstood and misrepresented. But the scandals that stain our history do not exist because we lived our Catholicism, but rather, because we failed to live it. And what I find most of all in the Church’s history is a reflection of my own fragile and broken humanity. When we behave as-second-rate-versions-of-ourselves bad things happen. That’s true for us as individuals and it’s true for the Church.
One of the ugliest scandals surrounding the Catholic Church is also one of the most recent: the sexual abuse scandal among priests. There is never any excuse for the abuse of a child. It is not only immoral and unchristian, but it is criminal in every civilized society. The abuse and the scandal were also mishandled in some cases by Church officials. Scandals like this rock people’s faith. When the Church fails to live up to her mission and the values she invites others to live by, the faith of millions of ordinary people is affected. Why? The Church is supposed to help people get closer to God. But when she gets caught up in a scandal it can stand as an obstacle between God and the people.
The first e-mail Pope John Paul II sent was an apology to everyone who had been abused by a priest or religious. Benedict XVI also apologized to the victims.
There have been some truly ugly moments in Catholic history. They are inexcusable. We should pray for the victims of these parts of our history.
History is also full of lies about the Catholic Church. These lies are often perpetuated by modern popular culture. Let’s take a look at some.
One lie is the idea that the Church is against science and wants to keep everyone ignorant so they can be controlled. This is nonsense. Many of the great scientific discoveries were made by Catholic priests.
And if the Church wanted to keep everyone ignorant why did it develop universities and become the champion of education for the common man?
Another lie that is perpetuated about the Church is that it is opposed to progress and is an obstacle to progress. This is also an absurd lie. The Church has been a champion of progress from the very beginning, and this is a tradition that has continued throughout our rich history of contribution. The Catholic Church has nurtured and encouraged progress in education, law, art, music, architecture, science, philosophy, theology, language, and human rights. In fact, many of the best minds of our times believe that Western civilization is almost completely indebted to the Catholic Church.
Today one of the biggest lies surrounds the priesthood. The media would have you believe that every priest sexually abuses children. In a recent poll, when asked what percentage of priests were pedophiles, respondents said between 33 and 50 percent. In fact, 1.8 percent of priests were involved in the scandal. The great majority of priests are good men who have given their lives to help you and me grow spiritually, become the-best-version-of-ourselves, and get to Heaven.
The world tends to ignore the goodness of the Church and blow our mistakes out of proportion to make them all-encompassing. At the beginning of this section we talked about some of the Church’s great contributions—how many of those did you already know about? I’ve met many Catholics who didn’t know any of those things.
The last lie I want to explore briefly with you is the idea that the Church is always behind the times. Not so. It is easy to present the Church as being old-fashioned and out of date, but this is a lie. The Church is a prophet and as such is ahead of the times.
One modern example of this can be found in the papal encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” In it Pope Paul VI explained what would happen if artificial contraceptives became widely used in society. It was written in 1968, before you and I were born. It was written in a time very different from the world we live in today. But it is full of prophecy, and what Paul VI predicted would happen is exactly what has happened.
Pope Paul VI predicted artificial contraception would be bad for marriage, bad for families, and in particular, that it would lead to the objectification of women.
He was an unwelcome prophet of his times, and remains an unwelcome prophet in our times—but he is modern proof that the Church is ahead of the times, not behind the times.
The bottom line is this: Don’t believe everything you hear about the Church. When someone criticizes the Church, ask them to prove it. If you have doubts about something, delve into the issue yourself so that you can really understand the great history of the Catholic Church.
It is not a perfect history, but the Church has always been a force for incredible good in the world.
There have been some regrettable moments in the life of the Catholic Church, but a fair look at history demonstrates that violence and abuse are not the overarching story of Catholicism. Our story is primarily one of agape love, incredible contribution, and the relief of human suffering.
Are you proud to be Catholic, and the more You learn about our history, the prouder you become?