St. John Chrysostom, I am told, said that the floor of hell is carpeted with the skulls of priests. I have never located the source. Nonetheless, when we hear our Lord’s words about millstones and those who deserve them, and we hear his words about “to whom much is given” et cetera, it seems that some—no, a great deal—of trembling is in order. Priests, especially, should be terrified by these admonitions. The opportunities for either spectacular glory (not the world’s kind) or spectacular peril (also not the world’s kind) confront, each and every day, every single ordained man of the Catholic Church. A good sign that a priest grasps the reality of his responsibility and the price of failure is that he makes a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament each day.
And the Catholic laity must, must, must pray for priests every single day. The devil hates priests. He wants nothing more than to hand them over simultaneously to the disdain of the world and to the eternal pains of hell. Satan does not tire. Reports of the moral failings of clergy, from parish priests to princes of the Church, continue to embarrass the Church and discourage the faithful, and they remind us of our obligation to pray for priests, for their sake, and for the sake of those whose lives they touch for better or for ill, the seen and the unseen.
In all the chaos of disgraced cardinals on both sides of the Atlantic, you may have missed the unhappy news that a well respected and very well placed member of the clergy of an important East Coast diocese was accused a month or so ago of running a nationwide operation that peddled illegal methamphetamines. Also, he has been accused of laundering the money from said sales in a shop that vends devices designed to facilitate the practice of deviance. Alas, the charges continue: This priest is alleged to have indulged in these selfsame deviances in the company of other men in his rectory.
(I do not provide a link to the story for the very reason that even by mentioning it I risk provoking the fallen appetite for prurience that St. Augustine called “lust of the eyes” that has been exponentially exacerbated by the Internet.)
Should the sordid tale prove not to be a giant misunderstanding, it will be another terrible scandal the Church will have to bear and one that will shake the faith of who can say how many Catholics.
When I hear stories like this one, my go-to line is usually Belloc’s observation that the proof that the Catholic Church is a divine institution is that since the Crucifixion she has been thriving in spite of the shortcomings of those to whom our Lord entrusted her care. Nonetheless, this particular priest’s alleged behavior is disheartening. The debauchery of Pope Alexander VI, for example, who kept a few mistresses and arranged for positions for the children he sired, seems mild alongside our own age’s deviance.
Making matters more discouraging is that, in a very real sense, clerical deviance and its immediate victims are really the tip of the iceberg. In the case of the meth-dealing priest, his position, influence, and stature in his diocese cannot help but mean that the harm he caused is greater than we know. He was secretary to two bishops, and rector of the cathedral. It is anybody’s guess how much unseen damage this man did from these positions of diocesan authority. How many good priests did he prevent from becoming pastors? How many heretics did he see appointed to the diocesan schools? How much irreverent liturgy did he cause or permit, and how much good liturgy did he hinder? How many good vocations did he discourage?
How many souls did not get sound Catholic teaching or solid spiritual direction because of this priest? We really have no idea of the spiritual wreckage in the wake of this man’s career.
Pray for the victims of clerical sexual abuse. Pray for the priests whose transgressions have caused so much harm. Pray for the ordinaries who either deliberately concealed or turned a blind eye to the sins of their clergy.
And pray for the Catholics, whose number is known only to God, who suffered—some in ignorance, some in painfully acute awareness—the deception, scheming, irreverence, and heresy of clergy whose intellects and wills, intended for the service of God, were disfigured by their horrifying sins.