Responding to Evil – Biblical and Eastern Christian Perspectives

There is no minimizing or ignoring the fact that reports of evil actions are swirling about the Catholic Church in the USA, many of them are true, at least in essence. It is also true that the perpetrators are apparently largely in the past, for the reason these evils have come to light is that the worst perpetrators were brought to court and/or have been dealt with by the Church (that is, most of the perpetrators were active before 2002, when the Dallas Charter came into force). Many of the perpetrators are dead and others are retired. (May any who have committed indictable crimes quickly be indicted!) Most (one hopes) of what remains to cause scandal (beyond the fact that men still bound by evil will always manage to evade even the best screening processes and get into the church) is that at least some in the hierarchy seem to have covered up the activities of some of the perpetrators (and only further investigation will show whether it was through a widely-shared ignorance of what today is appropriate response or whether it was through deliberate covering up for their own purposes) and ignored the activities of some others, even promoting them within the hierarchy. Now so far as I have read those accused in this latter category did not do anything illegal (like sexually abusing minors or rape of adults), but are accused of things that are totally immoral and destructive of the human person (such as using their positions of power and authority to gain sexual favors from younger men, who were nevertheless above the age of consent, even if vulnerable due to other factors). This is more difficult to tease out, for one does not have the help of the courts and their ability to both force and protect testimony, one has to realize that many of the victims (some of whom may have turned into perpetrators) may still be active in clerical ministry and so may be reluctant to put their careers on the line, and some who have information cannot testify due to the seal of the confessional (although (1) both victims and perpetrators probably seek out confessors who do not know them, (2) many confessions are anonymous in that the priest does not see and could not recognize the one confessing, and (3) any priest graced as I am forgets most confessions – my experience is not only that I ask God to take the “folder,” the memory, from me, but that after an hour or more in the confessional I cannot remember who said what, except in the rare situation of someone who deliberately seeks me out as a confessor and then confesses face to face and reminds me of their previous history – in other words, if brought to court I could almost always say, “I have no idea if they confessed to me and, if they did, what the content of the confession was,” not that I would divulge information anyway). I am also convinced that the actions being requested by the USCCB will, in the end, bring closure, if not justice (when it comes to sexual abuse, even of adults, justice is a very relative term, for no penalty can restore the spiritual, mental, and sometimes physical health of the victim), but in Rome’s slow and careful manner (which is no more slow and careful than that of, say, a grand jury, although it would operate under a different law). If I fear anything, it is that premature resignations and retirement of prelates (or those alleged to have been involved in predatory homosexual groups) will short circuit careful investigation. If a state law has been broken, the courts can pursue the retired (assuming that the statute of limitations has not run out and that the person is capable of standing trial, mentally and physically), but if it is church law, the ability to force testimony and cross examine those no longer in active ministry is much more limited, for, so far as I can see, the only penalty available is the most severe, removal from the clerical state. In other words, the immediate satisfaction of someone’s resignation under pressure (which often does not include an admission of guilt on the principle issue) may preclude “getting to the bottom” of the issues. On the other hand, there is a final judgment, and God’s justice will prevail – nothing is done in hiding that will not eventually be known.

In the midst of this turmoil, I am more concerned about calls for anger, even rage, and angry demands of church authorities for this or that action, often immediate action, and often by means of pressure tactics within the church. I am not concerned about those actions coming from outside the Church, for that is not my area of responsibility (as Paul makes clear in 1 or 5). Those in the world will use the methods of the world. But I am concerned when they come from within the Church, and I have heard several instances of precisely that, stemming from even level from the lay to the episcopal. I am concerned because I do not see such calls as spiritually healthy for any of those involved, nor as witnessing to the kingdom of God. Why is this?

Let us start from the beginning. In Holy Scripture the first sin is that of Eden and it starts with a demonic temptation that leads “the woman” to examine the “fruit” (that functions as something of a negative sacrament as the tree of life is a positive sacrament) and see it as desirable. In other words, it is what would later be called the sin of gluttony. Now it is true that after this reference there is another reference to the fruit as something “to be desired to make one wise” (RSV), which previously has been described by the snake as “being like God,” so there is merit in the Western Church making pridethe first of the seven deadly sins, but the fact that the roots of gluttony are mentioned first are why the Eastern Church puts gluttony as the first of the eight (evil) thoughts. The demonic gains control through the seemingly lesser gate (“I know that I should not eat it because it is too much, or prohibited, or otherwise improper to eat) and then continues to distort the person. The relationship with God is broken by shame and guilt, and the sexual relationship of man and woman is distorted, and finally in chapter 4 we come to angerand violence. By Genesis 6 violence fills the earth. Whichever end on starts at, Eastern or Western, there is a chain of dominoes falling, if not in the primary individuals, then in the succeeding generation(s), and somewhere in the middle there is anger. Psychologically, the hormones and neural firings of anger are not that different than those of fear, sexual arousal, or other intense emotions. In fact, if any of those responses are triggered, and if the context changes, one can slip from intense anger into intense sexual arousal (or fear) and vice versa. Indeed, physiological excitement, such as running or other more intense exercise, can also turn into or exaggerate such emotions via a trigger event. It is fascinating how the Holy Scriptures are at least subliminally aware of this.

Anger itself does not get good press in Holy Scripture. While the Hebrew Scriptures would take quite a discussion (especially since the words for “enemy” and “anger” can indicate opposition to someone and not just emotion), there are too many references to deal with in this post. Instead look at the New Testament. Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple is often cited as “righteous anger,” but I agree with N. T. Wright that it is best interpreted as an acted-out destruction of the Temple that resulted in the relatively brief cessation of sacrifices showing the ultimate result of the people’s behavior, the destruction of the Temple – it is a prophetic demonstration much like Jeremiah’s shattering of a piece of pottery. Jesus does “look around with anger” once (but not in all the synoptic gospels), although he does not act on the feelings. And he does name things clearly, sometime negatively. But, just as we never see Jesus laugh, we also never see him giving in to anger (or fear). He seems to calmly go about doing what he is called to do, even if he has to deal with internal struggles, feelings, and temptations. Anger, in fact, shows up in many of the vice lists in the New Testament as something that either disqualifies one to inherit the kingdom or as something that one is to do away with. Anger, if it is not to become sinful, is something that one should deal with before sundown. And, of course, there is James 1:19 – 20, “19 Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20 for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” (RSVCE) Slow down; listen; silence (although at times one must speak truth calmly); and slow to anger. But the “slow to anger,” seems to mean: deal with anger before it comes to expression, “for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” In other words, for James there is no righteous indignation, justified expressions of anger (and Jesus speaks to that as well in Matthew 5), or other ways we condemn angry outbursts in others but claim that ours is justified, even righteous.

There are many reasons for this condemnation of anger. First, anger is ceding control to the emotions, which certainly in Eastern thought means that the “noetic mind” has lost control. Second, anger is opening the gate to the demonic that seems to operate most easily on the emotional level. Third, anger disturbs our peace and focus on God, so we are no longer listening to divine instruction. Fourth, anger has no place for love, mercy, or forgiveness, the characteristics of Jesus. It is, in fact, a characteristic of the demonic, seen in James 3 and 4, but also elsewhere in both the New Testament and Patristic thought. It is also an injury to the self: one person has sagely said, “Anger is what we do to ourselves when someone else hurts us.”

Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that forgiveness means saying that something is OK or allowing a person to continue their evil behavior if we are in a position to non-violently hinder it. Instead, forgiveness is releasing the person to God, handing the issue over to God, and letting God be the judge (think of Jesus on the cross in Luke or Stephen about to be stoned in Acts); anger is taking judgment into our own hands, whether verbally, in the demands that we make on others to act, or physically. Forgiveness is active in that it hands the matter to God and trusts God to act in his time and his way. It may be that God asks us to interpose ourselves, to sacrifice ourselves, in the situation; i.e. to absorb the evil into ourselves, as Jesus did on the cross. But that sacrifice is not passive; it is active. The death of Jesus shattered the gates of hell, the blood of the martyrs brought down much of the violence of Rome, and Pope John Paul II’s trip to Poland, not to accuse others, but to announce the kingdom, triggered the fall of the communist regime. Yet one does not do this to be effective, for that is mere pragmatism, but because it is the way of love. One does it because one is conformed to Jesus.

Love is the seeking of the good of the other as other. That is a high demand. What would someone like the Elder Thaddeus say? He lived through WW II and Tito’s Communist regime, so he was not ignorant of evil. Nor were all of the monks he dealt with saints. He would say, first, that one should be sorrowful for the other, saying, “What is he or she thinking?” Their thoughts have been taken captive, the demons are in control, they are headed in a bad direction – this calls for prayer for the person and mourning over their sad state. And this calls for repentance, both repenting for the individual and repenting for one’s own sins, which, however seemingly small, open a crack in the wall to evil forces. We all participate in the sins of the few, even if it were just an improper joke, for instance, or an angry word. This is one side of the response of love, prayer and fasting, both for the individual and for how our imperfections (even those unknown to us) are part of the great system that weakened our brother or sister. This calls for seeking the gift of tears.

The other side of love is calling upon the name of Jesus. In Eastern Christian thought this would be the Jesus Prayer. We lift up our hearts to God and call upon the name of Jesus, calling upon him to act in us as well as in “them,” delivering us and them from the bondage brought about by the demons.

Finally, there is a need for openness, not the opening of the confessional, for that is between the individual and God, but a transparence about our actions: in the type of case cited above, stating publicly that so and so has been relieved of duties until the charges made against them are adjudicated. Of course, that also means stating that so and so has been cleared of charges and return to ministry, if that is indeed the outcome, or stating that he or she has been permanently suspended from ministry/assigned to a life of prayer and penitence/removed from the clerical state. And, we should also be clear in our minds and, as appropriate in our communications, that the victim assistance coordinator is offering the victims, whether below or above the age of majority, whatever care and assistance they desire and can receive.

The Scripture says, “Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father” (which I think is better than the RSV of 1 Tim 5:1).  The trial-by-internet, demands for this or that reform – angry demands at that, and calls for resignations are surely rebuke and worse. And it goes on to say, “Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim 5:19 – Paul is presented as writing to an apostolic delegate in this whole passage – he, Paul’s representative, is not to rebuke, but entreat; he, Paul’s representative, is to not accept any charge until it rises to Old Testament levels of evidence (presumably, as defined by Pharisaic interpretation, for Susanna, among other works had made Jews aware that witnesses needed cross examination and other safeguards). And, yes, Paul goes on to say, “As for those [in context, elders] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim 5:20), so there is a place for public “rebuke” by the highest church authorities (since the passage is addressed to Timothy), but only after due process, clear indication that the behavior was a serious breach of love (which is what all sin is) and that it was “persistent,” not an accident or slip.

I do believe that a serious investigation, a calling of witnesses and looking through documents, needs to be done – in private, so that those against whom charges do not stand up are not irreversibly slandered resulting in their inability to minister effectively. Let there be careful oversight so that any investigation is clearly on the up and up. I do not believe that any investigation carried out under Church sponsorship will be accepted by the world, for even if all the investigators were laymen and laywomen of the highest level of training in investigation, the fact that they were appointed (and presumably paid) by the Church would injure their credibility before the world. I do not believe that any reform could totally eradicate all abuse by clergy (the Dallas Charter has been revised at least 3 times as it is), for men whose hearts are captured by evil (before or after ordination) will continue to offend, if not in terms of the law, at least in terms of Christian morality; that is human nature. Reform is an ongoing process, yet people will always slip through. Furthermore, since our sins (angry outbursts, internet porn, gluttony in its many forms, etc.) will continue to weaken the whole, including the priesthood, perfection cannot be reached until we all are perfect. Yet I believe that proper safeguards, most of which are in the Dallas Charter, will minimize the incidences. Sadly, each incident, however isolated, will bring up the whole mess again in people’s minds, especially in the minds of those outside the church. I do believe that prayer and fasting, tears for our sins and the sins of others, and humble tearful petitions to the higher authorities to take what action for reform that they can, is the way forward at all levels of the church: anger, war (except in prayer), demands, political pressure, and the rest are reactive and therefore systemically counterproductive and the use of the ways and means of this age, and therefore spiritual counterproductive. Furthermore, they only strengthen the demons, as the Eastern writers would say.

For the most part, with such prayer, repentance and tears in the background, let us get on with what I hope is “business as usual” – spreading the good news, catechizing those who turn to Jesus, and drawing closer to God, even as we admit that we do so with egg on our face.



About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years, writer, and editor). My present appointment is Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas. I am also a priest available to parishes and communities in the Diocese of Austin, and the resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community. I am married and so am a husband and also a father, and a grandfather.
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