No single institution on the planet does more to help people in need than the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church, and Catholics everywhere, celebrated the selection of a new Pope last week. An early view of Pope Francis certainly provides great hope for the continuing positive impact of the Catholic Church, as well as for reform of some of the Church’s significant problems, several of them self-created.
As most media reported the selection of the new Pope, they couldn’t resist highlighting the challenges and scandals the Church has dealt with, and must continue to deal with. But what wasn’t mentioned, not once that I saw, was the incalculable positive impact this great Church has all over the world.
Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, and hundreds of other Catholic-affiliated charity programs touch literally billions of lives ever single day. What do these programs focus on? They feed the hungry, inoculate the vulnerable against disease, provide HIV treatment and prevention programs, fight human trafficking, participate in microfinancing, food banks, agricultural programs, fund water and sanitation projects, provide disaster relief, provide access to free schooling, and offer numerous counseling programs.
And then there is the positive impact of the clergy. Unfortunately all we hear about priests in the media is about the 1% who did terrible things, and the 1% who mismanaged that 1% over time (I’m not diminishing the impact of that, I just believe the reporting ignores the good and emphasizes the terrible). While I find these acts to be abominable (as do 99% of the clergy), such a small percentage of them were involved that to focus on this obsessively as our society does would be the equivalent to condemning all parents because a few sexually abuse their children, or condemning all teachers because a few of them abuse students. Today I’m writing about the 99%, not the 1%, and we should all spend more time on that 99%.
What does a priest’s life look like, and what kind of impact do they have? This is an impossible calculus because each one’s contribution is huge. I suspect a typical week of a single priest includes counseling multiple families who have lost loved ones, blessing the dead in their beds or at car crash scenes, meeting with couples contemplating or in the process of divorce, talking down a depressed potential suicide victim, visiting hospitals to provide last rites, and overall meeting with people who are feeling the deepest pain that humans can suffer and truly consoling them. This, and saying Mass 5 times a week, and dealing with their own personal challenges that all of us have, make priests modern day superheros. For us Catholics, we sometimes judge our priests by their homilies, and certainly a homily in a Mass is a great opportunity for life and religious lessons, the homily actually represents a very small measure of the value of a priest.
Multiply this positive impact by 412,000, the total number of priests in the world today.
And there are other things to consider about the Church. 31 million students attend Catholic elementary schools, many of them subsidized or provided at no expense to the families, in situations where the children wouldn’t be in school at all were it not for the Church. 17 million students attend Catholic high schools, again many provided as a charitable service.
Like any institution that has such a widespread, global, huge impact, the Catholic Church has its problems and shortcomings, and there is no making light of these. There are things that need to change in the Church (for me, these things include allowing women to be priests, and priests to marry). There are also many things in the Church that people believe need to be changed, but I don’t; such as the Church’s commitment to a permanent set of values, not values that change with the times.
It is important for all of us to keep in mind that the Catholic Church and its positive impact dwarfs any other institution, including the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. The press, and cynics everywhere, can pan this church if they’d like, but they should also keep in mind the indispensable role it plays in the lives of billions of human beings.