Staying faithful as we endure and confront the crisis

Two weeks ago I wrote a column attempting to respond to many of the questions friends and reporters had about the crisis of sexual infidelity among clergy. Since that article, I have received many more emails and phone calls, and I would like to continue attempting to answer the questions posed as candidly as I can. 

Much has happened in the last fortnight. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report concerning nearly 300 accused priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses — even though most of the cases concern the period before 2002 when the Church started to get her act together with regard to the sexual abuse of minors — brought home once again just how sordid things can get when the priests and prelates get corrupted. 

We have also seen many statements addressing the scandal, from Pope Francis, to various bishops, to articles by priests and lay faithful addressing the situation with the brutal candor and incisive proposals for the reform that the Church needs. 

It is becoming clear that, unlike in 2002, when the U.S. bishops hastily adopted necessary but still inadequate reforms to address the sexual abuse of minors, leaving many other important aspects untouched, this time many Church leaders want to go beyond pruning some branches of clergy infidelity and episcopal malfeasance to addressing the evil at its roots. This is a sign of hope. 

Let’s turn to some of the many honest questions posed by those who have been calling and emailing me. 

What if I can’t stomach going to Mass at this time? 

I think that we need to look at things from God’s perspective and not just our own so that we do not add to His sadness at this desecration of His Church and sacrilege against so many of His sons and daughters by distancing ourselves from Him and His Spiritual gifts. 

When St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was risking his life to preach the Gospel to the multitudes in Eastern France who had turned to Calvinism because of the rampant scandals among the clergy, he didn’t hesitate to say that what the unfaithful clerics did was the equivalent of Spiritual murder by destroying people’s faith. Just as plainly, however, he called them not to commit something even worse: Spiritual suicide through focusing on the scandals so much that they cut themselves off from Christ in the Sacraments and from the Church He founded. 

“Those who forge scandals for themselves [and] persuade themselves that they will die if they do not alienate the part that they have in the Church,” St. Francis wrote in a pamphlet to the people of Thonon, are “much crueler than the man who gives scandal, because to commit suicide is a more unnatural crime than to kill another.” 

Jesus had said, “Scandals are sure to come” (Lk 17:1) and had promised that a scandalizer would therefore “have a great millstone fastened around his neck and thrown into the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). But St. Francis added that if we allow scandals to destroy our faith, we essentially tie a millstone around our own neck — and toss ourselves from the barque of Peter, where Christ is at the helm, into the depth of a sea of misery. The worst sin against charity we could ever commit against ourselves, he said, would be to commit Spiritual suicide in this way. We Catholics need especially at this time to be on guard against this diabolical temptation — and draw even closer to Christ. 

Why haven’t bishops simply eliminated from the ranks of the clergy priests who are cheating on their vocation with men and women like they have attempted to do since 2002 with those abusing minors? 

In a few cases the bishops may themselves be personally compromised. In the majority of cases, I think the reason is fear about the consequences of a zero tolerance policy. I remember how much one bishop friend struggled to deal with a situation of a young priest theologically poisoning his parish, preaching against Marian dogmas, mocking people’s devotions, and giving advice opposed to Church moral teaching in the confessional. He was concerned that once he started to crack down on particular priests, he would likely have to discipline a sizable number of his clergy, which could lead to closed parishes, protests, overworked priests who remained, and various other troubles. He laudably removed the priest, but the conversation taught me about the “maintenance” issues that can keep good bishops up at night — tolerating unfaithful priests to keep parishes open at a time of priestly shortages — and how it’s essential to make such decisions “personal,” never forgetting the people who suffer because of unfaithful stewards. 

Because of this episcopal fear, I think that it’s important for lay faithful who want to catalyze reform to let their bishops know that they are prepared to be personally inconvenienced in the practice of the faith, with fewer Mass times and even fewer parishes, if that’s what it takes to ensure that they’re served by priests who keep their promises. 

Should I stop giving any funds to the diocesan appeal until my bishop proves that he has his act together? 

A few articles have tried to start such a movement. Some think that the only means the faithful have to express their righteous anger is with their money, but such threats are, I believe, psychologically and ecclesiologically unbecoming. Wouldn’t it be better to write one’s bishop and use a different, and less confrontational, type of a motivation? 

“Bishop, if you take out your broom and start cleaning up this mess, I’ll be right there with you. If you’re attacked, I’ll defend you. If others cut their contributions, I’ll try to sacrifice more. I know that cleaning up corruption is a hard and often thankless task, but I’ll not just be grateful, I’ll support you and try to recruit as many as I can to help in the reform.” The latter approach, I believe, will prove far more effective. 

Finally, what is the root issue for the crisis? Some are claiming that it’s “clericalism.” Others the culture of toleration of unchastity among the clergy, especially sexually-active, same-sex networks. Which is it? 

Both are important factors, but I’ve been noticing that “clericalism” and “abuse of power” seem to be the talking points of commentators who want to talk about reform while ducking the problem of priestly and episcopal unchastity in general and same-sex activity in particular. As we see in the case of former Cardinal McCarrick and page after page in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, however, the two go together. 

Clericalism, an excessive focus on clergy privilege, helps to explain how some bishops were more concerned with the rights of abusive priests than they were the lives of those who were being abused. 

But the worst forms of clericalism happen when priests forget that they are called, like Christ, to serve rather than be served, to sacrifice rather than receive, to share Christ’s teaching rather than their own ideas. When priests begin to live in defiance even of the Ten Commandments, substitute lust for agapé, and think that they should still have the right to approach the altar and confessional, or use the rectory as their subsidized lair, one of the most virulent forms of clericalism ensues. 

This clericalism is something we’ve seen in all its ugliness among actively unchaste clerical gay networks — like the predatory homosexual child abuse ring in Pittsburgh — when they dominate seminaries, or dioceses or religious orders. 

To try to eliminate clericalism without eradicating clerical sexual infidelity would be like trying to address a rising river without stemming one of its major tributaries. The reform of the Church requires fighting both, but it’s a dangerous red herring to suggest that this crisis was caused mainly by priestly pride and not fundamentally by tolerated priestly unchastity and sexual sinfulness. 

I hope to continue trying to answer such questions in upcoming columns. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.


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