Two years ago, a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I opened the door and started the conversation with, “I’m a Roman Catholic and will always be one”, hopefully expecting them to give up, but you could just see their eyes brighten as they countered with, “How could you be a Catholic after all the evil things priests have done?” Clearly, this had been an effective recruitment tactic in the past.
My response was that like any institution, the Church is made up of humans, who sometimes fail, but I have faith that she is protected from destruction by the Holy Spirit. Priests have weaknesses just like any other men. There is no doubt, however, that injury done by a priest is much more heinous, as they are the ones who willingly responded to the call to a mission greater than themselves, a mission to care for our eternal souls.
In the last few months, we’ve been seeing a resurgence of accusations of clerical abuse. Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is the most prominent, but just to the north of me, the Saginaw Diocese is imploding due to decades of homosexual corruption and abuse. My whole life, I’ve listened to whispers of corruption in the various diocese around me. With calls for a #CatholicMeToo movement and a cessation of donations to any diocesan fund, more and more accusations of corrupt church bureaucrats are going to be filed. And call me a raincloud, but when the dust settles, I think the Church in the United States will look very different. We’ve needed a house cleaning for a while, and I pray to God that now is the time, as painful as it will be.
If former Cardinal McCarrick and his associates are the beginning of a deluge, there are three things we need to keep in mind:
- Our duties toward justice
- Christ’s call to be merciful
- The dignity of the priesthood
That first one is fairly easy. Anyone, priest or not, who has been proven to abuse children deserves a life of hard labor in prison. That isn’t a second chance sort of thing. Any cleric who has been found to repeatedly abuse positions of power to manipulate seminarians or priests under him, or has been found to be unable to commit to the demands of clerical celibacy should be removed from active ministry and spend their lives in prayer and penance. I’m taking a hard line on that.
The second gets harder. Some things are easy to forgive. People we trust actively destroying our Church is not one of those things. We should react with horror, outrage, and disgust when our shepherds tear apart the Body of Christ. It is a heinous thing. But God did not just call us to be merciful about the little things. He called us to be merciful about all things.
Can you imagine how much the devil hates priests? They are the ones who have the power, with one sentence, “I absolve you from your sins”, to take any repentant soul from his clutches. They are the ones who feed us with the very Body and Blood of Christ, fortifying us against his attacks. They are the ones who accompany us on every step of our journey of faith. They are the ones who are alter Christus to the world. If that doesn’t put a target on your back, I don’t know what would. You and I can’t begin to fathom the attacks every priest must face every day.
That is not to excuse their sins in the least, but it’s something to consider before we begin to mentally or verbally judge them. If a priest has done wrong, they deserve punishment, no doubt. But they also deserve our pity, our mercy, and our prayers.
Finally, as more accusations of clerical abuse in the hierarchy come to light, I beg you to remember our duty to respect the dignity of the office of priesthood itself.
In the 14th Century, Our Lord appeared to St. Catherine of Sienna and the dictations of those apparitions are written down in “The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Sienna“. Our Lord had quite a bit to say about bad priests. In St. Catherine’s time, there was a very similar problem in the Church hierarchy: priests, bishops, and cardinals who were concerned only with pleasure and wealth, taking no heed of the spiritual needs of their flock. Our Lord even revealed many of the hidden abuses to St Catherine.
But along with an exposition of abuses, Our Lord also told her, “The sins of the clergy should not lessen your reverence for them (Dialogue, 116).” Once a priest is ordained, they are left with an indelible mark and “No sin can lessen the power of this sacrament, and therefore their reverence should not lessen either. When it does, it is against [God] they sin (ibid.).” Christ didn’t say that we should reverence them only for their holiness; “Reverence neither is nor should be given them for what they are in themselves, but only for the authority I have entrusted to them (Dialogue 118).”
If a Catholic “me too” movement is to start, that would likely be a good thing. Its high time that the things done in the dark are brought to the light. But we have to be on guard, so that unlike the mainstream “me too” movement, we don’t turn into a people’s kangaroo court, ready to write off any cleric as guilty after a single accusatory tweet.
The Church has been here before. We are, and always have been a church of both saints and sinners. The gates of hell will not ever prevail, and we have every reason to hope. If the corrupt hierarchy in the Church are going to be exposed, that leaves us, the laity, with a solemn duty to see justice done, to have mercy, and to continually remember the sacredness of every priest, bishop, and cardinal, no matter what he may have done, and to keep all of the clergy constantly in our prayers.
Mary, Mother of the Clergy, pray for us.