WINNIPEG — The church isn’t perfect, says a Catholic theologian, and he advises anyone who finds a group of perfect people not to join them, “because you’ll wreck it.”
Dr. Brett Salkeld, theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, backed his statement by reminding listeners that Jesus said, “ ‘I didn’t come for the healthy, I came for the sick.’ We are all sinners. Christian or not, all of us will mess up.”
Salkeld was in Winnipeg Feb. 17 to present a Catholic discussion forum and to respond to a range of questions about faith versus reason, church credibility, and Catholic sexual teaching.
He told an audience at St. Mary’s Academy that there is no denying that people have sinned in the name of the church, but “don’t simply accept the narrative in total.” Catholics did not burn Galileo at the stake, nor did they murder millions of women on charges of witchcraft. Unjust persecutions may be part of church history, but “people say things that are divorced from reality. We haven’t done every awful thing we’re accused of.”
Salkeld said another questionable period in Catholic history — the Crusades — were Christian armies responding to a call for help from eastern Christians who were under attack, although some of the campaigns became a slaughter of non-believers in the name of Jesus.
Salkeld said the widespread sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church have led many to believe Catholic priests are more likely than others to molest children, but in fact priests offend at a lower rate than society: “Sex abuse occurs in families, sports, schools, clubs, wherever you have humans. In the Catholic Church the problem is institutions allowed one person to commit massive abuse. What do you do with him? The common response was to send him away for psychiatric treatment then back to a parish — which is a disaster because sex offenders are extremely likely to reoffend.”
The correct response, said Salkeld, is to take responsibility and do what must be done. “We’re getting better at it and we’re leading society. Are we setting up for a perfect church? I don’t like the odds because we’re people. There will be another occurrence. This will always be a challenge to the credibility of the church.”
But with all its dark history, “how on earth did we survive for 2,000 years?” he asked. “Catholicism is still the fastest-growing religion in the world.”
Salkeld said over the centuries the church “has produced remarkable saints and remarkable institutions. Imagine Canada without Catholic schools and hospitals, or anywhere else in the world. No one does more work with HIV victims than the Catholic Church. You would have a crisis and chaos if you closed all the Catholic schools and hospitals. These are elements of our history that give us immense credibility.”
Salkeld said the Jesuits started schools hundreds of years ago to teach the poor, “and within a generation all the nobles were sending their kids and it becomes a wealthy private Jesuit school. So the Jesuits would start another school for the poor. If you keep in mind these elements, it’s a remarkable amount of work in helping the world.”
The church today, Salkeld said, is typically described by secular society as being behind the times and out of step. “It’s not the church’s job to offer what the popular culture tells it to,” he said, “and at the same time it’s not the church’s job to denounce popular culture en masse, but to recognize the good in it. The church does engage with culture, but I’m not interested in a church that takes its cues from culture just to stay credible.”
Salkeld is also director of academic formation in the Archdiocese of Regina’s permanent diaconate program. He is the author of several books, including How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating (with Leah Perrault), and is currently working on a book for Catholic teachers. He has worked in the formation of Catholic teachers across Canada, and is co-host of the Catholic podcast “Thinking Faith!” with Eric Gurash.