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Why It’s Worse When Priests Sin

The higher the office, the farther there is to fall

While wading through the first several hundred pages of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse, I experienced a range of thoughts and emotions. Among them were sadness for victims, disgust at the evident manipulation and abuse, and even nauseating surprise at reports of unthinkable sacrilegious acts. I’m far from alone—the seemingly endless trickle of filth and scandal has left many of the faithful discouraged and wondering when it will all end.

It is no consolation that the same could be said of what passes as culture in general these days, though it does seem as if the cultural spotlight regularly shines on failed Christian ministers, especially on Catholic priests and even bishops. Like others, I am prepared to defend the Church I love and put in perspective the sins of some of its members, but there remains the nagging sense that in the Church we are dealing with something especially serious.

Thomas Aquinas argued that the gravity of a sin is intensified by the degree of excellence in the one committing it (Summa Theologiae I-II.73.10). Aquinas isn’t really interested here in those momentary lapses of which we are all guilty, but in deliberate moral acts, which involve both knowledge of what is good and the opportunity to do it. For example, it is one thing for me to eat fast food every day; it is quite another for me to know that eating fast food every day is harmful to my health and deliberately continue to do so. Greater knowledge ought to make it easier for me to choose to do the right thing. Further, if the moral actor has a position of excellence, as Catholic priests and bishops do, this implies sufficient access to training, experience, deliberation, and knowledge for the moral choices that are fitting for his office.

Aquinas insists that the root of sin is a failure of gratitude. Those “goods” in which a person excels ought to be received as gifts from God. Francis of Assisi excelled, for example, at seeing God’s presence in all of creation. Imagine what would happen if a credible report emerged that Francis kicked a kitten in anger. For most of us, seeing a teenage bully do the same would evoke a different level of disappointment.

Thomas Aquinas excelled in the use of his intellect, so those who revere his achievements would find themselves unsettled to observe him affirming that A does not equal A, or that a thing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same sense. Aquinas’s excellence in using the gift of his extraordinary intellect, merited by his precision and care in his theological works, makes such a violation of the most fundamental laws of logic nearly unthinkable. In the matter of deliberate sins, for St. Francis to plan to kick a kitten or Aquinas to intend to commit a logical fallacy would be acts against the particular excellence given to them by God. Rather than flourish in their lives of virtue, they would, in effect, be saying, “God has given me an excellence but I refuse to act in the ways that are appropriate to it.”

Aquinas then focuses on sinful acts that are specifically “inconsistent with the excellence of the person sinning.” A prince, for instance, since he is entrusted with guarding justice, commits a more aggravated sin if he chooses to act unjustly than would a peasant. A policeman who knowingly arrests someone on a false charge of possessing illegal drugs is committing a graver sin than a drug dealer who plants drugs on an enemy. Similarly, a priest who commits fornication, Aquinas observes, violates his vow of celibacy (a vow taken for the sake of serving God’s people) in an especially egregious way, given the importance of his role in safeguarding the faith of those he was called to protect.

And then there is the reality of scandal. When it comes to Catholic clergy, this risk of scandal is especially significant. An action is scandalous if it makes it hard for others to believe the faith or induces others to sin. When priests commit serious acts of sin, these actions inevitably lead some to think, “What I do is not so bad after all.” Their actions also make it difficult for many to believe the contents of the faith, since it appears that those in authority don’t believe it themselves.

All sins are not equal. Serious sins by those in positions of religious authority are more serious because: (a) by virtue of their training, knowledge, responsibility, and opportunities for growth in excellence they can “more easily resist sin,” (b) gratitude should accompany excellence, (c) their office requires greater virtue, and (d) because of the devastating consequences of scandal.

A great deal of the outrage that we see now is justified. Christian ministers hold an office that proclaims Christ as its model and eternal life in union with the Trinity as its ultimate aim. God grant all priests and bishops the grace to live as witnesses to the purity, goodness, and truth of the way of Christ. We desperately need more of those witnesses.


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