A recent Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Catholic respondents in the United States said that in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, they have questioned whether to remain in the Catholic Church or not.

A Catholic News Service article quoted Mark Gray, the director of Catholic polls and a senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), who analyzed the poll results, noting, “There is a substantial difference between considering leaving and leaving. It is also the case among those who do leave, some come back.”

After the Gallup poll results received substantial media coverage, the Catholic Standard asked three Archdiocese of Washington priests who do the Catholic Bytes podcast – Father Conrad Murphy, Father Chris Seith and Father Alec Scott – to offer insights on why and how Catholics should stay in the Church in the wake of the abuse crisis.

Father Murphy serves as the director of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Worship and is in residence at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle. Father Seith is a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America studying moral theology and lives at the archdiocese’s Saint John Paul II Seminary, where he serves as an adjunct spiritual director. Father Scott serves as a parochial vicar at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C.

The priests, who recently spoke at a Theology on Tap gathering for Catholic young adults, responded to the two questions via emails to the Catholic Standard’s editor, Mark Zimmermann, and here are their insights.

Why stay in the Catholic Church in the wake of the abuse crisis?

Father Conrad Murphy: “The answer is the same as the Apostles’ answer to Jesus, ‘To whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life.’  First and foremost I am a Catholic because it’s all true, Jesus did really become man, He did die for our sins, and He did found a church which gives us a more intimate connection with Him through the sacraments.  It’s all true.  It is of course horrible and scandalous what some in the Church have done and utterly reprehensible, but I can’t get past the fact that despite all the failings of the clergy, that Jesus Christ’s love for us is real and I need to cling to it with all my strength.”

Father Chris Seith: “I have two thoughts here.  One big reason to stay is given by St. Peter after being asked if he will leave: "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life."  I simply cannot encounter the living Christ without the Church through her teachings and her sacraments.

“The second reason is Christ's own witness of His love for me on the cross.  When I was disgusting and living in the filth of my sins, He did not abandon me but stayed with me so that He might purify me.  Looking at the body of Christ, the Church, bearing the filth of the sins of her members (and especially of her shepherds!), how can I abandon her and still call myself a follower of Jesus Christ?  Am I not, instead, to offer myself more deeply for her so that she might be purified again by Christ's sacrifice in me?”

Father Alec Scott: “This is a question that all Christians must grapple with – what are my reasons for remaining in the faith?  The current circumstances in the Church, of course (and unfortunately), have made this question so much more pressing, but if we find ourselves at a loss to answer that question even in good times in the Church, it will limit how deeply we can immerse ourselves in the faith. 

“Most directly, for me, the reason I could never leave the Church is because I believe that there is nowhere else to turn that would nurture my relationship with Christ so deeply.  This is through the Eucharist, most especially, but also through each of the Church's sacraments as they draw me more fully into the love of God. 

“I would never discount the import of a strong and nurturing Catholic community at a particular church, nor the importance of having strong role models and leaders in the Church, especially among the clergy.  But I do often worry about becoming too dependent on any individual's example because everyone struggles with weakness and sin.  Rather, it's so fundamentally important to anchor faith in the person of Christ who endures through it all as the one from whom we draw our life. 

“As I said, my Catholic faith is so indispensably important to me because through her teachings and her sacraments, the Church strengthens and purifies that relationship.  Even when people I've looked up to disappoint me, I know I can still turn to the lasting things in the Church to draw me closer to Christ.”

How should Catholics stay in the Catholic Church in the wake of the abuse crisis? (What can Catholics do to deepen, fortify and share their faith in this challenging time?)

Father Conrad Murphy: “Focus on the Lord!  Receive the sacraments and spend time with the Lord in Adoration.  Real purification in the Church will come from holy men and women who are in love with Jesus and filled with his power and grace.  We need saints now more than ever!  And I am confident that the Lord will raise them up, but it requires first that we give ourselves as best we can to Him.”  

Father Chris Seith: “I think a big temptation here is to buy into the lie that evil is more powerful than good.  Out of fear, we lash out and try to get rid of evil on our own power because God doesn't seem to be doing anything.  Instead, let's attack evil from a position of strength.  God will save (and has saved) His Church; it will not be us.  If we become saints, that is, men and women in whom God dwells, then we will see the Church renewed in her members here in exile.

“So ultimately, I think practicing the virtue of faith whereby we trust in the goodness and power of God will give us the confidence to share our faith with others.

“Obviously, these are not super practical tips in the sense of having a plan of action.  But, as the Blessed Mother shows us, there is nothing more practical to bring about salvation than being receptive to the Holy Spirit.  Each person will have their unique role to play as he or she follows the promptings of the Holy Spirit.  And we desperately need that sort of practical action.”

Father Alec Scott: “The first thing that I would recommend is to intentionally work on building a relationship with Jesus as the foundation of all that we do in our faith.  No other thing – even really wonderful things! – like social service, working for political reform, building up a strong and nurturing community can be the rock on which our faith is built.  If we see our faith first as the means to which we get closer to Jesus and consequently receive the great blessings He has promised, our whole perspective on what we do in the Church shifts to rest on that strongest of foundations.

“From there, we can pray and work for the reform that is needed from the steadiest of foundations so we are more able to weather the storms that we've witnessed in the current age. …Nurturing that foundation (involves) learning more about the faith, either by reading great books (or listening to great podcasts) or by talking with someone who you trust about how any given truth the Church proclaims can deepen your relationship with Christ.

“At the same time, take advantage of the ways the Church gets us in touch with Christ – through the sacraments, beginning with Sunday Mass and regular reconciliation, and through prayers and spiritual nourishment, either with devotionals like Eucharistic Adoration and devotional prayers, or by reading time-tested books of Catholic spiritual value.

“Once that strong relationship with Christ is desired and then sought through the good gifts of the Church, we see everything in a Christ-centric light.  This will not dull our desire to take on the reforms that we need to see in the Church, but it will give us the strength to push forward with needed reforms in the midst of all the challenges we currently face.”