I recently encountered an interesting argument against the Catholic faith, and I thought it would be helpful to share it, along with my response to it. I’m sure that my friend who posed the argument isn’t the only one who thinks this way, so it’s important for us to know how to refute it.
My friend told me that the sex abuse scandals the Church has been embroiled in for the last several years have caused him to leave Catholicism and become Protestant, and he has a unique reason for making that decision.
Many people share this sentiment, but most of them just jump from “A lot of priests and bishops have done terrible things” to “I’m going to leave the Church” without really thinking it through. They act more on impulse and emotion than on any sort of actual logic, but my friend is different. He has an actual reason for believing that these scandals disprove the Catholic faith, and it’s based on a passage in the Gospel of Matthew:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
My friend believes that the “fruits” of the sex abuse scandals prove that the Church isn’t from God. If we should judge people by their actions, and the Church does something as heinous as abusing children and covering it up, then the Church’s actions show it to be a false prophet. That sounds pretty airtight, so how can we respond to it?
Individuals and Organizations
As convincing as this argument may seem initially, it actually breaks down when we look at it more closely. To begin, we can turn it on its head and consider all the good the Church does throughout the world. For example, it does a ton of charity work all across the globe (as far as I know, more than any other single organization), so we could make an argument that based on those fruits, the Catholic Church must in fact be the true Church.
So which is it? Do we judge the Church by its good fruits or its bad ones? I would suggest that it’s actually neither. When Jesus gave his teaching about knowing an alleged prophet by his fruits, he was talking about individuals. We will know individuals by their fruits, but it’s not quite so easy to judge whole organizations that way. Granted, if an organization leans strongly in one direction, we can apply this teaching to them, but for something as big and diverse as the Catholic Church, an organization that includes so much good as well as so much bad, it’s impossible to weigh it all out and apply this teaching accurately.
Good and Bad
...And if we look at what Jesus says in that same Gospel about the composition of the Church, that’s exactly what we should expect. He tells us that the Church will be composed of both good and bad people (Matthew 13:24-30, 47-50), so it’s going to have good and bad fruits. And if that’s the case, then according to Jesus’ own words, we shouldn’t expect to be able to judge the Church by his teaching about false prophets.
So if you ever encounter this line of thought from your own friends or family, you know how to respond. The sex abuse scandals simply don’t prove that the Catholic Church is a false prophet. At best, they just show that Jesus was right when he said the Church would have both good and bad people in it, but that obviously has no bearing on the truth of the Catholic faith.