My wife Jacqueline and I have four sons. Thanks be to God, they never fell victim to the calculating predations of a bishop or priest seeking to gratify his disordered passions.
Many fathers’ sons and daughters did.
I cannot know the fullness of the heartache those fathers will carry to their grave, to say nothing of the trauma their children will. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to look at the scandals in which the Church today is mired from any perspective other than that of a father.
Since their youngest years, I have been telling my sons that the greatest and most important thing in their lives is their relationship with Jesus Christ, who, in his infinite and merciful love, gave us the Catholic Church so that we could come to know him and love him though the scriptures and the sacraments. Indeed, this relationship with Jesus, mediated by the Church, is the most important thing in the life of anyone, whether he is a Catholic or not, for “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846).
The grave sins of clergymen can never alter this truth. There is nowhere else to go to have our sins absolved (John 20). There is nowhere else to go to eat the body of Christ and drink his blood so that we have life within us (John 6).
More than once my sons have heard me say, with Hilaire Belloc, that we know the Catholic Church is a divine institution because it survives and even thrives in spite of the flaws of those to whom God has entrusted it. It is a consolation that under the present circumstances may sound a little glib, but it is true. Clerics unfaithful to their vows, to say nothing of the gates of hell, will not prevail.
Our Lord never promised, however, that the Church would not contract. Pope Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, predicted that it will. When the Church does become smaller, though, she will muster her faithful, reverent, and joyful core. From this core will come faithful, reverent, and joyful priests and bishops. Laity and clergy will unite as they have ever done to answer the Church’s apostolic call with new zeal. Even as we read of the revolting sins of churchmen, and of the efforts by their superiors to cover their tracks, the restoration is underway.
It is underway at the Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles in Missouri, at Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma, and at St. Michael’s Abbey just up the road from Catholic Answers. It is underway at St. Gregory the Great School outside of Scranton, and at St. Martin’s Academy in Fort Scott, Kansas. It is underway at the Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, at the Catholic Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and at the John Fisher Seminary in Stamford, Connecticut, where my brother is rector. It is underway right here in San Diego where a living saint named Grace Williams is rescuing minor girls from street trafficking and showing them the love of Jesus Christ.
These bright lights in the Church are just a few in my own life. I am sure you know others. Please God, Catholic Answers will continue to answer the apostolic call. I believe that we will because the members of the Catholic Answers team do what they do out of love of Jesus Christ.
As there are abundant reasons for hope, there are also abundant reasons for vigilance. Theodore McCarrick is no longer a cardinal and awaits canonical trial, yet any bishop accused of covering the sins of priests who still holds office must make a credible account to the faithful, or else resign.
And may the faithful, in the interest of good vigilance going forward, have a clear understanding of why we are here and what they can do. A full discernment of these two questions is beyond these brief reflections, but a few truths will serve as points of departure.
A number of bishops, including the pope, have identified clericalism as the culprit.
In its least harmful form, clericalism is an ecclesiastical version of the networking practiced by today’s corporate-world ladder-climbers. But clericalism becomes intolerable when within its network loyalty is more highly valued than integrity. We have seen a circling of the wagons to hide terrible sins. That practice has now been exposed—sometimes with good motives, sometimes with bad—by the bright lights of instantaneous communication, but the faithful will have to be alert to future occasions of clerical wagon-circling.
Bishops need to be more alert, too, to the sins (including those of omission) of their brothers in the episcopacy; though the faithful might be surprised to learn the canonical limits bishops face in seeking to discipline their wayward brothers. (I have asked Jimmy Akin to treat this particular question in a separate piece.)
Nonetheless, bishops can, one, properly vet seminarians, and two, properly form seminarians for holy orders. I have asked Fr. Hugh Barbour to write in more detail about this matter of priestly formation, but for now I will assert that this formation needs to prepare seminarians for common life. Again, common life. Too many priests are living alone. By themselves for long hours in their rectories, priests can and do turn to vices like alcohol abuse and pornography. We do not like to think of our clergy immersed in the sinister blue glow of online poison, but ordination does not mean temptation goes away. Witness the Pennsylvania report. Common life goes a long way toward cultivating a life of daily holiness. The Church has known the merits of common life since the very beginning (Acts 2). Bishops might well think of relocating their priests to common rectories that serve four or five parishes.
On the question of vetting future priests, it needs to be stated that the current crisis may well have been enabled and exacerbated by clericalism but its origins are in something more sinister. Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin has been explicit: “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord.” Read his entire letter. Share it widely.
This homosexual subculture was generations in the making because the Church failed to follow her own moral and practical wisdom. In 2005, the Congregation for Catholic Education reaffirmed the longstanding principle that the Church “cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.’” This kind of directive is not new. Nearly sixty years ago, the Congregation for Religious published a document that instructed religious communities to bar from vows and ordination “those who are afflicted with evil tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty, since for them the common life and the priestly ministry would constitute serious dangers.”
It is not for nothing that the document uses homosexuality and pederasty in the same sentence. By my rough tally, almost eighty percent of the clergymen accused in the Pennsylvania report were accused of sexual abuse of boys. Of those, where the ages of the boys are given, the great majority were teenage boys. These numbers comport with the findings of the John Jay Report from 2004. It will help no one to talk solely of clericalism while ignoring the deeper problem of clerical unfaithfulness to the Church’s teaching on chastity, especially with respect to homosexual acts. Neither will it help to talk broadly about clericalism while ignoring that its specific manifestation in these cases was covering up or denying altogether a clerical subculture of predominantly homosexual predation.
(For a charitable and wise treatment of this topic about which too many are fearful to speak, but about which Catholics need to be candid, I highly recommend Dan Mattson’s Why Men Like Me Should Not Be Priests. Share it widely.)
The flouting of Catholic teaching on chastity is not new in Church history. The current scope of sexual profligacy among churchmen and laity, I believe, is new, and it locates its origins in the contraceptive. Once the unitive and procreative natures of the marital act were rent asunder, what proscriptions on other unnatural acts could possibly stand? Fifty years of widespread dissent of Humanae Vitae has exacerbated this abusive homosexual subculture abetted by clericalism.
How shall the laity respond? Let me add my voice to the growing chorus of people calling for the two things all the faithful must do: pray and fast. Our Lord assures us that certain demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17); and yes, actual demons were active in the events described in the Pennsylvania report. So, make reparations to the Sacred Heart of Jesus by praying and fasting. We are all part of the Mystical Body. Our good works are good for the Body of Christ. Our sins harm it. Here is a forty-day fast that is going viral. I’ve invited the Catholic Answers staff to join, and I invite you to join.
The question of withholding support of your parish or diocese has also come up. Providing for the material needs of the Church is one of the precepts of the Church. Jacqueline and I intend to continue to support our territorial parish. I need my sins forgiven (my pastor hears confessions three times a week). I need to be fed with the body and blood of Jesus Christ. If you do choose to withhold your tithe, you owe it to you pastor and your bishop to write them and explain why. Someone whose counsel I seek regularly has done just this, declaring that he will no longer be supporting his parish or diocese until his confidence is renewed by independent means of verification of the fitness of priests and bishops. He will be watching how bishops and pastors across the country address the crisis and then support a parish and a diocese, even one far from home, in which he has confidence.
For a good treatment of the question of withholding your tithe, I recommend this post by canonist Ed Peters. Whatever you choose to do, you can continue to support the Church by supporting communities, schools, and apostolates where faithfulness is vibrant.
In closing, four things. Ronald Knox once said, “A scandal carries further than a tale of sanctity.” Catholics must be aware of the scandal and its origins, and be vigilant, but we must not allow ourselves to become preoccupied with all this evil. It’s harmful to the soul. Let us instead redirect our attention toward the divine. I have found Lauds and Vespers especially helpful in this regard.
Second, God’s providence is a considerable mystery, but as Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen writes in his excellent little book, Into Your Hands, Father, “God makes use of evil in such a superb way and with such skill that the result is better than if there had never been evil.” We know this is so. He took the brutal execution of his Son and used it for the salvation of mankind.
Third, no one is beyond the mercy of God. Priests and bishops always need our prayers. Satan and his demons are always after them. No Christian wants to see anyone damned, so as you are praying and fasting in reparation, do so for the victims of abuse but do so also for the abusers.
Fourth, and most important, among Our Lady’s titles are Mother of the Church and Mother of Priests. Offer to her your noon Angelus every day for the Church and for her priests. She will not fail us!