This column is not written to excuse scandalous behavior nor to act as judge and jury on pending cases. It is not a commentary on any particular incident and is not intended as such.
Over the past few days, a few stories on clergy being charged or arrested on behaving sinfully, in one case in a apartment in Rome and the other being a high ranking Vatican official, has made international news. They are part of very long lists of either accusations or actual criminal and immoral behavior that have captured the headlines. They are scandalous to be sure. They do grave damage. They hurt people for many years. They can scorch faith and create doubt. It is for no small reason that Jesus uses a graphic and horrific example of what would be preferable to giving scandal in Luke 17:2 where Jesus tells us it would be better to have a millstone placed around your neck and be throne into the sea than for one to give scandal. That He had to say it 2000 years ago is telling.
Scandal is as old as the Church. The apostles jostled for dominance. They ran away. One betrayed Jesus, another denied even knowing Him 3 times. Quarrels erupted about doctrine, starting with circumcision and never really left. False teachings and heresies, most of which were begun by clergy, have been with us from the very beginning. Clergy acting cowardly during persecution, clergy having the sexual morality of a tapeworm, clergy in power struggles, clergy committing all sorts of evil have been with us the entirety of the Church. There have been horrible bishops and even popes. The latest round of scandals are nothing new under the sun.
The biggest reason for this is that God chooses His clergy from human beings. As much as we should certainly hope that our clergy would represent the best in modeling the Catholic life, more often than not, clerics prove to be all too human as well. If history shows us anything within Church history, is that there has never been a golden age of honest and angelic clergy. The concupiscence that weighs each of us down, afflicts the clergy as well. The grace of Holy Orders does not make their humanity go away; concupiscence does not dissolve with ordination. Free will is a constant. This is not to excuse any wrongdoing and sinful actions done by clergy and religious, but to state a simple fact.
Lest we lose hope, history shows us that great saints rise in the midst of even the most foul of circumstances. That the Church has survived barrage after barrage of clergy behaving sinfully says something about the fact that ultimately God guides His Church and keeps it from collapsing under the weight of the sin of her members. This said, what do we do when we are hit with scandal? Scandal does and can ruin faith. It can make it us abandon hope if left to fester.
As a cleric, it has been hard to witness the scandal given by my brother clergy. Even if it is a small percentage of them, I am still all too acutely aware of the damage done. I know like other professions, it only takes few to bring the whole into a bad reputation. What keeps me from washing my hands of everything and walking away is the following:
1) It is God we serve first and foremost. It is not a man or a group of men. I know God can work through sinful men because that is what He has had do to for millennia. When I go to Mass, it is to encounter the Lord in the Eucharist. That is where I concentrate. I don't buy into or want to create for myself a cult of personality. We focus on Christ and His grace in the sacraments.
2) The Church is bigger than any of her members. For all the sinfulness of her members, her teachings on faith and morals have remained consistent. It is this to which I attach. While not all her members may speak the truth or even expound upon what the Church teaches, the teaching remain and are accessible for me to know. I know that morality is not contingent upon the personality of the preacher or teacher. Hence it is to what is laid out in the Scriptures and Magisterium of the Church that I focus.
3)No institution is reformed from the outside. That people spiritually pick up their toys and leave only insures that sinful behavior remains and defines. I love Christ and His Church too much to do this. Complaining about a situation is not a solution. It is getting one's skin in the game that matters. By getting one's skin in the game, I don't mean the meaningless passivity of petitions. I don't mean writing terse letters. I mean that we find charitable ways to uphold the truth. That is what St. Francis of Assisi did. That is what St Charles Borromeo did. That is is what St. Bernard of Clairvaux did. I could go on with that list. Not everyone pulled a Martin Luther and parted.
Some of this is a self inflicted wound. When we saw the priesthood as beneath our best and brightest we starting setting up the game. This sentiment is as old as the Church. Many saints' stories are riddled with parents who sternly forbade their son or daughter from pursuing a call to serve God in the priesthood of religious life. When dioceses just started taking anybody because positions needed to be filled, it was because of a shortage of solid candidates. Catholics wanted all the services to remain consistent, but didn't want to provide capable candidates for the work. You want a better priest, raise a better young man who is open to serving God as a priest. You want a better clergy, raise strong virtuous men who will serve God wholeheartedly. This is not to say that every man who went into the seminary was somehow a social reject. Not at all. Many have been good, solid, faithful, and holy men. They don't get the press, but vthe toil in the fields of the Lord wondering if the reinforcements are coming.
Some of this comes a result of priests forgetting what they promised. Sometimes we priests forget we are priests and not businessmen. We can forget we are in the world but not of the world. We can get bogged down in compensatory behaviors and vices like anyone else. We clergy need to remember that we are to be the Persona Christi and it does matter how we comport ourselves. We need to remember that we live in the white hot spotlight and that the devil desperately wants us to fall. When one of our brothers does fall, it does hurt. All the more reason that our non-media garnering attention lives must shine brighter than those who fall.
I wish I could point to an idyllic time in our history where we got it right when it came the living of the faith. It would give us a clue on what path to trod. There are none. Looking for boogeyman to blame is an ahistorical fool's errand. We persevere. We must. Each of us tussles with our own sinful inclinations and concupiscence everyday. We need God's grace to this end. That those who should know better don't do this cannot be reason for our own defection. This doesn't mean we turn a blind eye to sinful behavior, it means we don't judge the totality by a minority...or even a majority. Christ said He will be with us till end of the age. We must look for the saints in our midst, among our clergy, as well.
As an end note I say this: Too many times sinful behavior finds a fertile field when a priest has been put on a pedestal of has been forgotten. For those on a pedestal, they can get an inkling the rules no longer apply to them (human nature there). For those forgotten, they could look to behaviors and addictions to numb their loneliness (also human nature). Many times, the cleric will cultivate their loneliness or pedestal. Befriending him and offering him support can go a long way to helping have a healthy and holy priest. Never turn a blind eye to behaviors that are sinful and damaging. But do not treat him as an unconvicted felon in waiting either.
Pray for good men to become good priests. We need them. We always have. We need men who will counter the poor and scandalous witness of the minority with the heroism of a saint.