Great bluegrass song out called “In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company.” By the time summer ends, we Catholics will be humming it as we grapple with the crisis in the Church once again. Looks like last year’s Cardinal scandal will have a sequel this year after the Washington Post’s expose of Bishop Bransfield of West Virginia. But before we get on the bandwagon of bashing priests, bishops, etc. again, perhaps we Catholics could all agree to share the guilt. Just a thought. It’s controversial. I should know. For fifteen years I was either the Vicar for Clergy or the Vicar General delegated with the responsibility for ministering to the priests, educating the junior clergy and clergy of the diocese, and helping out or disciplining priests who found themselves with serious problems. I mention all that to establish some street cred. Why? Because this column might cause us all to rethink our presuppositions.
Sharing The Blame
The crisis in the Church centering on the misuse of episcopal authority and the sexual abuse by priests is a horrible and terrible scandal. It has led to the worst crisis in the Church since the Reformation. Granted. But it does no good for the laity simply to savage guilty priests or bishops (though they richly deserve it), call for the abolition of the priesthood, or even seek a reform of the priesthood. The Church has a lot of problems but the crisis is not specifically the problem of the ordained. All Catholics have to take some responsibility. In fact, it’s bigger than all the members of the Church. Here’s why.
The Church Gets The Priests The Culture Creates
We live in a time of Catholic weakness. The Church has failed to convincingly teach Catholic morality to the Western world. Every seminarian has grown up in a culture that despises what the Church teaches about sexuality. Most Catholics in the USA openly disagree with the Church’s position on premarital sex, homosexuality, artificial birth control, in vitro fertilization, divorce and remarriage and barely support the Church’s position on abortion. They have transmitted that to their children. Even if an occasional Catholic family holds to Church teaching the weight of the culture is so heavy that when faced with adulthood and living in a secular culture, most Catholic adults, no matter how pious their home lives, end up rejecting Church teaching on sexuality.
That means that our seminarians are very familiar with what the Church would call alternative lifestyles but actually are the modern mores of most people. Many of our seminarians have lived lives outside of Church teaching as they were growing up. Others have lived sheltered lives that have not been exposed to the general culture. Both lead to great difficulties in the priesthood. Not impossible ones, just difficult. But to expect our priests to be vastly different from ordinary people is ridiculous. Their teachers are similarly influenced by the culture. We can blame the new lifestyles, but actually it is the Church that has failed to deliver a message that adequately confronts modern mentality.
We have some work to do, all of us, because the laity is responsible for the rejection of Church teaching on sexuality. Strong words, yes, but very true. Yet in an illogical and destructive way, people expect their priests to live that same teaching the laity routinely violate. When ordained people commit similar sins, there is the faux gasping in horror and outrage that such well taught men could fall so low. Why? Priests and bishops are not aliens dropped from the sky or beamed from the mothership to do ministry. They are people from the same society as the laity. They are asked to be holy, but then are told not only by the culture but by their own Catholic people that what they believe and were ordained for is outdated, outmoded and irrelevant. That’s going to be quite the conundrum for any priest. Do as I say,not as I do, in the area of sexual morality is going to lead to dysfunctional priests.
Ordination Does Not Confer Sainthood
I remember a bishop who truly believed that the Sacrament of Holy Orders fixed defects in a person. It doesn’t. Ordain a saint or one predisposed to it, and you will have a priest who is saintly. Ordain a jerk, and you will get a priest who is just terrible. Ordination to the priesthood incarnates the priesthood of Jesus Christ in a person; it does not change a person’s personality or penchant for sin. The sacrament gives the grace necessary to live the priestly life. But with all the cultural and ecclesiastical confusion, that grace realistically can’t be used unless one knows what the priestly life is and how it works in the real world. There are exceptions–like St. Thomas Becket who turned his whole life around at ordination. We remember those precisely because they are exceptions, out of the ordinary.In other words, conversion of heart is separate from ordination. You need both to be a good priest. That takes a Catholic laity that values holiness and the ministry of a Catholic priest. Do we value personal sanctity–not as an anomaly but as something truly needed? Do we really value the sacramental nature of the priesthood and the teaching authority that goes with it? Sad to say, but I do not think the general Catholic population in this country values these things. A seminarian just discovering in-depth Catholic a morality, a morality he has never completely lived, may wrap his brain around the teachings, but he has precious little time to model that behavior in real life before ordination.
The Sins Of The Priesthood Are The Sins Of The Laity
Just ask any priest who hears confessions. Priests, though a very small and unique subset of the population, are still a microcosm of the entire society. Just as there are wonderfully good and holy lay people, so there are wonderfully good and holy priests. We expect more from our priests, and that is an honest and worthy expectation, but is that actually realistic? As far as sins go, there are lustful, prideful, sinfully ambitious, greedy, etc. inclinations in priests just as in laity. And priests fall; so do bishops.
What is really unfortunate is not that our expectations of the ordained are high, but that we do not adequately train our priests to live out those high expectations. For instance, the laity expect priests to be celibate, but they also wish priests could be married. Kind of bi-polar don’t you think? Does the laity really think the day to day experience of the priest in the parish is supportive of his celibate lifestyle? I’ve never heard a priest say, “Thank God for my parishioners; I feel truly supported in my celibacy because they value and are so happy because of the lifestyle I lead.” I am sad that I have never heard that. Most priests I know value and verbally appreciate married couples and their lives together. Why is that not reciprocated?
The Crisis Is Not Peculiar To The Church
The way sexual abuse is handled by the Church is better now than it was, but in the early years of dealing with the crisis (c.2002), the Church functioned as every secular institution currently functions with this travesty: denial, movement of perpetrators, treatment of some kind, reluctant admission and removal, a turn to legal remedies, compensation of victims. I mention secular institutions because by and large they have not reformed. It amazes me how all bureaucracies handle this issue the same way. Perhaps this is a human and not simply ecclesiastical problem. Perhaps we need a wider more comprehensive vision.
The Main Problem With the Crisis in the Church: Abuse of Authority
The scandal in the Church grew deeper last year when we discovered a true cancer in the ecclesiastical leadership of the Church. This must be the main concern. The sinfulness of priests is somewhat understood by the laity. The fact that a few priests may do criminal things is also recognized. But what really eats at the laity and find very hard to forgive is the cavalier use of episcopal authority in a venal or illegal way by some high ranking clerics. The abuse of authority is an offense not easily excused by personal weakness or defect. It’s a conscious choice to do wrong in the name of the Church. I’m not talking about well meaning bishops who like the rest of us have tried to come to grips with the darkness and sinfulness of the sexual abuse crisis and only in the past two decades have begun to get it right. I’m speaking of those who understand the problem quite well and still choose to obfuscate, ignore or be complicit in the area of sexual abuse or other sins that the ordained may commit. The abuse of authority whether in the areas of sex, wealth, or the pursuit of power is where the laity draw the line, and good for them! But the Church lacks the necessary checks and balances to draw this line clearly.
From Darkness To Light
I believe we will get through all the scandal and heartache and be a better Church because of it. I believe there are still dark days ahead. But I also believe that Christ still guides his Church. It is administered by sinful human beings, but God will work his will one way or another. We will be purified.
I do not know if I am right about the above points I mentioned. I wrote about them because I think they are worth discussing. This blog gets FaceBook time and that unfortunately means that some folks will simply erupt with emotion, or make comments based on pre-conceived notions. I’m looking for a thoughtful and mature discussion. I thought these points worth raising because it might spark some movement forward through this dark valley, even if the only guide is the whisper of the Holy Spirit. I hope that’s the end result because being in hell with good company sounds like a despairing future if we cannot solve this crisis.