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A Scandal that Calls for a New Reformation

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“Christ himself, the model of priests, taught first by the example of his deeds and then by his words: Jesus began to do and then to teach. Likewise, a priest who neglects his own sanctification can never be the salt of the earth; what is corrupt and contaminated is utterly incapable of preserving from corruption; where sanctity is lacking, there corruption will inevitably find its way.”

– St. Pius X

We are taught as Catholics that the Church is holy because Christ is holy.  This is what gives truth value to the second mark of the Church mentioned every time we recite the Creed at Sunday Mass.  The Church is holy and it is by means of the teachings of faith and the sacraments that we can be made holy by grace.  This is what we believe and yet has there ever been a time when it was so very hard to believe? The Church is also composed of sinners; indeed, we are all sinners needing a Savior.  But when it comes to our priests and bishops, we like to imagine that they have a direct line to heaven.  They make little money, forsake a spouse and family and are at the immediate beck-and-call of their flocks.  The lesson that Jesus gives his apostles with the Holy Thursday foot washing is that the greater they would become, the more they would have to humiliate themselves as the servants of all.

Catholicism insists that both bishops and priests should remain celibate— placing the love of the Mystical Body or the Church ahead of all other loves.  At a time when most churches compromise on the moral teachings of Christ; the Catholic faith remains resolute about purity prior to marriage, about the permanence of marriage, about marriage as only a relationship between a man and a woman, about the nature of the marital act as open to the generation of children, and about the sanctity of human life.  The loftier the moral message, the further the messenger might fall when he is exposed as duplicitous.

Our priests witness the marriages of couples in love, consecrating unions with the favor of God and of his Church.  They baptize babies, transforming them from mere creatures of God into adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.  They absolve penitents from their sins, literally stealing the damned from the devil. At Mass they celebrate the sacrifice of Calvary so that we might offer ourselves with Jesus, the Lamb of God, as an acceptable oblation to the Father.  They give us Holy Communion, rations from that promised shore to which we travel as spiritual pilgrims.  Along with bishops, they offer confirmation, completing our baptisms so that we might be enriched by the gifts of the Spirit and made living temples of God.  They anoint the sick, perpetuating the ministry of Jesus in bringing healing to the hurting among us.  They bury the dead, preaching a message of hope that in Jesus love is stronger than death and victorious over the grave.  The priest is at the center of everything Catholic.  That is what makes the current scandal especially devastating.  The faithful are rightly disappointed and upset. Our shepherds are facing a crisis in holiness.

Contagious Scandal & the Loss of Reputation

Any one priest signifies every priest.  This collective appreciation has made the present crisis a damning one.  When the laity look at their priests, they immediately wonder, “Could he be one of those priests?” While regarding only a few, these dark revelations of sin and crime are sufficient in damaging overall trust.

Men presumed as truthful revealed as duplicitous liars.

These are the same men appointed as preachers of the Gospel.  The priest and pastor is the chief catechist of every parish and is entrusted with the faith formation of his people.  What becomes of the message or the Good News when the messenger becomes a witness of bad or scandalous news?  What becomes of his credibility when the mouthpiece of God not only stumbles in his witness but is unveiled as an agent of the devil’s anti-gospel? How can such a man speak to us about the truth when he has failed to put on the mind of Christ?

Men presumed as merciful exposed as sources for sin.

These are the men chosen to give flesh to the Divine Mercy in the ministry of the church.  Who would want to go to confession to such rogues?  Many might think that their sins pale in comparison to such reprobates.  While the efficacy of the sacraments is assured; it is understandable that the faithful would feel stained or polluted by association with these men.  Is it all just empty words and gestures? Compounding the problem, they sometimes substitute malice for mercy and draw others as accomplices into their lives of sin.  How can such men draw us into the love of God when they do not have the heart of Christ?

Men presumed as healers caught as sadistic destroyers.

Jesus condemned the pharisees for placing unnecessary burdens upon good people.  As an antidote he delivered the freedom and healing that belongs to the children of God.  Priests were called to mend souls and to give hope, not to breach their victims from the family of God or to give them cause for despair.  The miscreants in the news destroyed innocence and purposely misdirected the faith trajectory of people’s lives.  They placed their own sexual gratification over sacred promises and the good of persons.  How could they live with themselves, exchanging the joy of right relationship with God for a cruel transitory delight toward others?  Even if there were a failure to love, did they not fear God?

Men presumed as pure are brought to light as defiled.

Priests are commissioned as eschatological signs of Christ’s kingdom.  This is a basic premise behind the promise or vow of celibacy.  Celibacy is not the same as chastity or virginity.  Rather, it is a wondrous way of loving others.  We are corporeal-spiritual composites, creatures of spirit and flesh.  The purity of the body is supposed to immediately signify the virtuous nature of the soul, the existential resolution as one who loves the Lord so tremendously that it spills over in concern for the neighbor.  As opposed to the pattern of the rich man going away sad because of his many possessions, it is the follower of Jesus who seeks to abandon earthly satisfaction so as to be rich in Christ.  What happened to this singleness of purpose in these men?  How is it that they could be satisfied with the carnal man when they were pledged to something greater, the one who lives in the Spirit?

Men presumed as holy are divulged as devils.

We are all called to be saints.  That is our fundamental purpose in life.  Christ as the new Adam comes into the world to restore an innocence that was lost by sin.  The priest is charged as an instrument of the Lord to dispense the divine mysteries in making this objective possible.  His ministrations allow us to enter in the saving paschal mystery.  Here is where the sins of these men become a kind of blasphemy against all that is holy and good.  Instead of realizing their role as sharers in Christ’s priesthood and extending his saving works, they look to the wimpish failure of the first Adam; indeed, worse than this, they play the role of the serpent.  Do they not see how they have been thoroughly soiled as slaves to the devil?  Have they stopped believing entirely?

We are told that a priest, even in mortal sin, can validly administer the sacraments.  This is one of the great absurdities of faith and yet one necessary to insure the efficacy of the sacraments in the life of God’s people.  Of course, while a bad priest might do some good, his bad character often sours the milk and corrupts or tears down what is built up.  This dissimulation probably constitutes a special wound in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Our Lord is pained by the priest who is a cheat or hypocrite, even as he is supposed to be “another Christ” at the altar.

It remains a conundrum that a priest might take his people to the very gates of heaven but himself be unable to enter.  While we might think that the graces of priesthood would make it easier for him to go to heaven; certain authorities have argued that it makes the prospect of hell more pressing and dangerous.  Why?  The more one is given, the more for which one will be held accountable.  The priest knows better and cannot claim ignorance.  Everything needed for salvation is immediately available.  That makes any neglect inexcusable.  Further, because he has been configured to Christ by his ordination, the devil targets him for every temptation and assault.  At his altar, at his desk, in his car and in his bed he is always in the midst of a fierce battle with the prince demon of perdition.  Priests who forget this will immediately stumble.  The senses are especially targeted.  The scandals of late all appeal to the flesh and sexuality.  The sins committed are virtually unimaginable.  Minds are clouded.  Hearts are hardened.  The devil will take any crack he can find to pierce the priest’s soul— smoking, drunkenness, gluttony, sloth, anger, jealousy, whatever.  The devil may have failed in his temptation of Christ; but starting with his apostles and coming down through history to his priests and bishops of today, he has found men who sometimes falter and even become his property.  Judas may not be the only bishop-priest in hell.

It is a terrible business when the weak link of faith is the shepherd. The weapons to hurt souls and to attack the Church then come from the very hands of the priest— hands that were consecrated for the chalice and the host.  We as Catholics become our own worst enemies.  It is at such times that we must remember that our faith is placed ultimately not in men but in God.  We should also recall the saints, for theirs is the true legacy of the Church.  Instead of running away, it becomes all the more imperative for God’s people to keep the faith and to demand fidelity and holiness of their priests.  All sins might be forgiven, but the sins against innocence must not be forgotten.  A reform of the Church will mean that some higher churchmen will have to step down, certain priests will have to be removed from ministry and others will have to embrace a heroic apostolate of penance and sanctity.  This is not a time for window dressing but of a true moral reform, to deal both with a hostile secular modernity and a rigid clericalism that makes careerism and a fear of scandal into higher imperatives than protecting God’s flock from the robber and the wolf.

If we enter into the light (not afraid of what will be unmasked) and not in the darkness (where the roaches of sin hide), then we will truly walk with Christ.  As opposed to the clamoring enemies of the Church who see the current scandal as the death knell for Catholicism, maybe it is an unavoidable summons to “grow up” and to become a more effective and genuine witness for Christ in the modern world?  Divine providence is most unfathomable when God draws something of the good from the misdirected evil of men.

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4 Responses

  1. For “celibacy”, I would write “continence”. Otherwise, I wouldn’t change a word. Window-dressing seems to be the danger now – the appearance of reform and discipline, without the reality of it.

    FATHER JOE: The words “celibacy” and “continence” are not entirely synonymous, at least as to how I use them. Indeed the Church and the secular world are also at odds as to how they are defined. Secularists usually understand continence as an effort to withhold ejaculation within intercourse. The Church would appreciate “perfect” continence as avoiding sexual relations altogether. Celibacy is also misconstrued outside the Church, and often as temporary, so as to build stamina and to direct one’s attention to other activities— as in completing a project or furthering a career. The Church does not understand celibacy as simply refraining from sexual intimacy; rather, celibacy is seen as a precious single-hearted form of loving others. The celibate parish priest “surrenders” himself to the Lord and serves Christ in the flock entrusted to him. Celibacy becomes an element of the priest’s identity that literally resonates with that of Jesus.

  2. Hi Father,

    Thank you for the post. It is sad when our Faith is in the limelight of evil; of course we do a lot more good too, but the world will only focus on the evil. I guess the focus on the evil; should keep us in line… Sweeping things under the carpet, is no longer a possibility; eventually the carpet will not be able to cover all the dirt. But I always wondered, why would some priests commit such heinous crimes, given the things they know? Is it a lack of prayer life? Or did they just enter into the vocation, as a cover for what they really wanted to do, thinking that their vocation would keep the evil they do, hidden? Are they not afraid of the consequences of their actions? Not so much on the consequences they face on this life but one that they would face in the next life? The position/office they hold, is not one that must be taken lightly. They are priests; doing the work of Christ, with that comes great responsibility and accountability, to the people they shepherd for Christ and to Christ himself.

  3. Thank you for sharing some of your thoughts about this most recent scandal in the Church, Fr. Joe. I tried to read some of the testimony, and could only make it through a small amount because it was so horrifying it brought me to tears. How could this have happened?! My heart breaks for the children and for all who had their lives destroyed or severely ruined over the abuse they suffered. It’s impossible to understand or make sense of how it could have gone on so long, impacted so many, and been covered up by those in high places of trust. It is absolutely shameful and despicable, and it’s hard not to be angry. Not only did these priest have no concern for the welfare of those they had been entrusted, but did they not have any concern for their own eternal souls? This is so confusing, how men who preached on salvation could commit acts fully deserving of damnation. I’m also painfully hurting for all those wonderful, kind, gentle, helpful, loving, and dedicated priests who ARE leading their flocks to Heaven. I have encounters so many compassionate, patient, and encouraging priests who live lives of joy and service in their vocation. How thankful I am to them for many times they have been there for sacraments, advice, assistance, witness, humor, etc. My heart breaks for the “good” ones because of the perceived guilt of association.

    One of my struggles has always been stepping into the light and being a witness of my faith to others. I’m the only practicing Catholic in my family. It can be a difficult place to be at times. Most of my family I’d consider “marginal” Catholics. My parents went to Catholic school, and well, lets just say it was a rough experience for them and one they have never forgotten. They can be harsh and judgmental of the Church. This most recent scandal has made it even more difficult for me to be a witness my faith. But, I have no other choice. The Catholic Church, in all it’s broken-ness, is still my church. Where else would I go? I think of the words of Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”.

    I heard this recently, “You can either LEAVE the Church, or you can LEAD the church.” I know Jesus himself is weeping. I cannot leave, so lead I must.

    I am praying. Rosaries, extra time in Eucharistic Adoration, Liturgy of the Hours here and there, stepped forward to teach CCD for the first time, etc. I’ve seen it written that what the Church needs is prayer and fasting. I understand the prayer part, but could you explain the fasting? What will fasting do? Atone for the sins of the Church? When they say fasting, is it referring to food only? Or are there other ways to “fast” too? How can I share a part in the fasting, and how will that be fruitful? Could you share some examples on how we could fast in this circumstance?

    Thank you Fr. Joe. I’m praying for you. I know your heart must be hurting too. I appreciate the time you dedicate to this site. You’ve been helpful to me answering questions I’ve never had the opportunity to ask anyone else. I’m sure others here would agree.

    Where there is faith, there is hope.
    God Bless,
    Lauren

    FATHER JOE: The element of “fasting” is in terms of doing penance. We suffer the loss of something so as to offer that cross as our participation in the work of Christ. It is part of a larger effort at prayer to make reparation for the selfishness and wrongs committed, not just by ourselves but by others. We believe there is great power in such prayers.

  4. Thank you Father, for these words of wisdom. It is comforting to hear this call from one of our own priests. When those Bishops realize that it is the Church (as opposed to the Image of the clergy) that they are there to protect, they can effectively ‘clean out the swamp’ (to borrow an apt political adage.

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