The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979), had a long and successful vocation preaching on radio and television. He was also well known for gauging society’s understanding (and misunderstanding) of the Catholic Church. He once stated, “There are not even 100 people in this country who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they think the Catholic Church to be.”
His words continue to resonate, although in a much more challenging time. We all know that today’s clergy sexual abuse crisis has caused many people, Catholics and non-Catholics, to reexamine their views on church leaders’ moral authority and credibility. Yet, for all of the sinfulness caused by imperfect leaders who were driven to protect their reputations and not the souls they shepherded, we know the church was founded by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago and has helped shape Western civilization in many positive ways. Yes, it has suffered through many crises, but Jesus — the way, the truth and the life — calls us home, to our home, the church, where the sacraments renew our faith and build community.
So while it’s fair to despise what we read (such as the details reported by the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer that examined allegations of U.S. bishops covering up sexual abuse by priests in their dioceses), let’s not forget what unites us.
Eight years ago, the Diocese of Green Bay rolled out an evangelization campaign called Catholics Come Home, aimed at reconnecting inactive Catholics with the church. The centerpiece of Catholics Come Home was a series of commercials that aired on local TV stations.
One commercial, titled Epic, focused on the good deeds of the Catholic Church over its 2,000-year history. It first stated that the church is a family made up of every race, young and old, rich and poor, saints and sinners. “Our family has spanned the centuries … and the globe,” it stated.
It then offered a list of deeds the church and its members accomplished, including that Catholics founded the first hospitals. For example, St. Ephraem (4th century) provided 300 beds for victims of the plague around 375. Many of the first orphanages were established by early saints.
“When Christianity began to affect Roman life, the best fruit of the new order was charity, and special solicitude was manifested towards the orphan,” states the Catholic Encyclopedia. St. Vincent de Paul (1576-1660) is probably the best known church leader to care for orphans.
The Catholic Church is also the largest charitable organization in the world, with countless relief organizations offering care and support to needy people around the world regardless of race or religion. Catholic agencies like the Knights of Columbus offer charitable work to millions. In 2017, the KCs worldwide provided $185.6 million in donations and 75.6 million hours of service worldwide.
In addition, the church has educated more children than any other institution in the world, and it played a central role in establishing the university system. (Pope Innocent IV officially granted the awarding of degrees to Oxford University in 1254, according to the Catholic Education Resource Center.)
These facts are positive reminders to us that, despite some leaders who betrayed their flock and cynics who judge the church as out of touch with the world, the Catholic Church is relevant and needed today.