Scandalous bishops in the news - In dealing with them, Pope Benedict XVI would do well to follow St Pius V's example.
A couple of bishops have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. The first is the disgraced former Bishop of Antigonish in Nova Scotia, Raymond Lahey. He received a pre-served 15-month prison sentence today for possession of child pornography. The second is Gabino Zavala, a former auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. His resignation was recently accepted by the Vatican, after it came to light that he had fathered two children with the same woman many years ago.
It is a grave enough matter when laypeople cause scandal, but when bishops and priests show themselves to be "of the devil" (1 Jn 3:8) by falling into despicably sinful ways of life, the damage to the Church and her mission can be tremendous.
Not only do I feel for the victims of these men's selfish and depraved actions (Zavala should have left the ordained ministry to care for his children, whilst the victims of Lehey's depravity are obvious), but I also sympathise with the people of God who once trusted them with child-like love and obedience. Needless to say, thanks to the utterly shameful deeds of these two bishops, it will take a long time for the Church in Los Angeles and Nova Scotia to regain the trust she needs if she is to effectively preach the Gospel. This is why such scandal is such a grave matter - it damages lives and leads souls away from salvation.
Who knows what God has in store for these two errant apostles. All we know is that Jesus Christ warned those men who scandalise his "little ones" of the dire penalties that await them: "But he that shall scandalise one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Mt 18:6). If this is what they both have to look forward to, as a fellow human being I feel sorry for Lahey and Zavala, too. Whilst wanting to see them punished for their sins, I cannot but help feeling the need to pray that God will, ultimately, be merciful to them. We are all sinners, after all - even if the sins of bishops and priests cast longer and darker shadows over the earth.
The Holy Father must now realise the important need to carefully scrutinise all candidates for the episcopacy that come his way. Those who live scandalous lives, even those clerics who live in non-sexual exclusive relationships with others, should be penalised, not promoted. It is also important for the Church to be seen to act justly in her internal affairs. Once a high ranking cleric has been caught in flagrante delicto, so to speak, or found guilty through due process, he needs to be punished appropriately - even to the point of losing his clerical state if needs be.
Fortunately, Pope Benedict XVI has already clearly stated that he is aware of the fact that the Church has been too soft in the way she deals with errant clergy since the "all you need is love" days of the 1960s. In his series of interviews with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (2010), the Pope had this to say about the way the Church has been too lenient with scandalous priests in the recent, post-Conciliar, past: -
"[A]n awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening, of the mind, even in very good people... Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of law, which in fact is not only just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of the truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love." (emphasis mine).
One of the great things about the Catholic Church is that bishops, although being apostles in their own right, are also accountable to the Pope, who is chief amongst the apostles. They are not free to rule as dictators, and when they stray from being united to Christ, either through grave sin or heresy, a higher judge than they can deprive them of their office - even if it is rare for the Bishop of Rome to intervene in such a way. Those who are aware of any scandal involving bishops, then, should, in justice and love, let Rome know. Otherwise, who will keep the Church in check, who will keep her balanced?
One saintly Pontiff who was not afraid to deprive and punish scandalous clergy - bishops and priests, alike - was Pope St Pius V. He had no qualms insisting that his clerics be saintly men, and was more than willing to remove bad apples from within the clergy - even if it meant their execution at the hands of the secular authorities!
In his Apostolic Constitution Horrendum illus scelus, 30 August 1530, Pope Pius V had this to say concerning any cleric who had been found guilty of committing the grave sin of sodomy (which could mean homosexuality and also a wider range of sexual sins):
Therefore, wishing to pursue with greater rigour than we have exerted since the beginning of our pontificate, we establish that any priest or member of the clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, of every post, dignity and ecclesiastical benefit, and having been degraded by an ecclesiastical judge, let him be immediately delivered to the secular authority to be put to death, as mandated by law as the fitting punishment for laymen who have sunk into this abyss.
Now that's one way of reforming the clergy and dealing with errant men within the ordained ministry! One wonders whether Bishops Lahey and Zalavla would have acted in such deceitful, harmful and sexually selfish ways if they had the saintly Pius V ruling over them?
Of course, for modern readers, Pope St Pius V's decree seems a bit too harsh. Now that states tend not to punish men for sodomy, to insist on capital punishment for sexually depraved priests might be considered a bit extreme. Nevertheless, reflecting on how the Church used to deal with bad clergymen helps us realise how she recently seems to have moved to the other extreme. From being too draconian centuries ago, the Church has become too lenient in recent times.
It is good, therefore, that our current Pontiff is more than willing to challenge the misconception that Christian love means letting people get away with scandalous behaviour scot-free. Pope Benedict XVI has stated clearly that true love sometimes requires punishment for sins committed by priests. Those clerics who cause scandal need to accept the consequences of their actions. We can only hope, then, that the Pope will act swiftly with men like Lahey and Zavala. Let them not only be deprived of their offices, but let them be justly laicised as soon as is possible. Love, which it true and just, demands it.
Spero columnist Dylan Parry writes at AReluctantSinner.