From Pope to parish, from Vatican splendor to the humblest Catholic hovel, the outrageous scandals now shaking the Catholic Church are beyond tragic. The indefensible behavior of guilty priests enrages even the most forgiving amongst us.
The scandal is further contaminated by the inexplicable passivity of uncounted, morally feckless Catholic bishops. The sins and covers-up by these priests and bishops (and several cardinals) shocks us all. Their failure to act with unwavering moral fidelity does excruciating harm to the victims and deeply erodes the Church’s credibility.
Rightly-critical commentators underscore the profound infidelity of these clerical evildoers. But the fallout upon good priests and bishops who have been -- and remain -- faithful shepherds is dreadful for those who respect the truth, often buried by ponderous headlines.
Weary, furious Catholics and righteous agnostics are likely to forget the vast numbers of faithful priests and religious who shake their heads in anguished disbelief at the evil we behold. But, sadly, these many good priests and religious pay a grim price unmerited.
Truths For Thought
Buried beneath the avalanche of proper outrage are two useful truths. The first truth is this: the Catholic Church is divine in its origin and mandate … but it is unavoidably human, sometimes disastrously so, in its earthly struggle to fulfill that mandate.
The second truth to keep in mind is this: God’s grace (with its inspiriting insights lighting our way and its supernatural energies tugging us toward Goodness) builds upon human nature … but grace does not overturn or supplant, stifle or replace human nature.
Human nature (in each and all of us) retains its powerful urges and its lesser wants, its ego-centric penchants and its self-serving potential for gravely evil choices - as well as its honest search for moral integrity.
Human nature always possesses freedom to choose. Our freedom to choose is at the heart of our humanity. Each of us stands between the Real World and the Ideal World where Goodness awaits. Our choices determine our behavior, define our character and lead us to moral maturity - or to disgrace. We decide what sort of person we will be. We are responsible for our actions and accountable for our choices.
The Moral Call
Catholicism traditionally asks of us what our human nature, by itself, cannot - or will not - give. Catholicism has always declared our moral obligation to seek and to do Good. Catholicism has always told us that when we choose evil, we are responsible, no matter who we are.
Thus, the Catholic Church’s moral guidelines are (and have been for centuries) eminently clear and definitive. And this is precisely why Catholicism is unpopular with many critics, vulnerable to opposition, subject to ridicule and disdain. Following its essential mandate, it asks human nature to be more than it wants to be. It asks human nature to give more than it wants to give, to willingly take less than it is allowed to take -- for the sake of God and neighbor.
Catholicism traditionally confronts human nature’s foibles with aggravating candor. It urges us to choose idealism over selfishness, truth over delusion. Many people find its moral voice abrasive, and this makes it a target. Our culture thrives on moral relativism and oozes cynicism about the value of self-restraint, even as it belittles virtue’s soul-searing command to love God and our neighbor, to seek and do what is Good, even at a personal cost.
Catholicism’s emphasis on moral integrity is simply not “cool.” It’s out focus with the relativist’s moral selfies. It irks many people when it proposes that sin is a reality and that evil is a threat to integrity and love and peace and all that Goodness espouses. It is “uncool” to say such things, unrealistic and politically incorrect. Catholicism can be a real nag.
Nonetheless, the truth is clear: our choices for Good or evil tell us who we are. And, despite our evasions and denials, we are accountable for what we do. We choose to be who we are … and we are accountable. Objective moral laws do exist; they tell us how we should (yes, should) live and how we should (yes, should) treat one another. And when we choose to ignore these laws, we are indeed accountable – to self, to one another, to God.
Humanity And Choice
So, priests and bishops are, first and finally, vulnerable human beings who -- at their best -- seek to overcome the dark energies and demeaning gravity of human nature’s selfish urges. At their best, priests are men who embrace the Divine Ideal, then spend the rest of their lives pursuing it responsibly, honorably and accountably.
Priests and bishops are, first and finally, men enfolded in their human nature, faced with the unending challenges of choosing God and doing Good beyond all other options. This is their Ideal, their chosen calling -- which they betray at immense peril. This is who they should be, always and everywhere: responsible, honorable, accountable -- just as all of us are called to be responsible, honorable and accountable.
Thus, good priests must be, first and primarily, good men, striving always to be at their best. Still, the rough human edges of even the holiest priest are always evident. His personal quirks and oddly-occurring tics, his bouts of restless impatience and his slips in virtue, his idiosyncrasies and his errors of judgment -- his humanity -- are fair game to those who choose to find little else. Even his table manners become fodder for critics … and the word does get around.
In today’s climate of dreadful revelations, of fractured virtue and of morality unhinged, a good man’s choice of the priesthood as his life’s work may seem to be an errant choice; to some, the choice of a sullied state now beyond repair. Yet most priests courageously keep the dignity of their intentions in daily sync with the nobility of their calling – responsibly, honorably, accountably.
Clearly, we cannot -- must not -- excuse those clerics who have sinned so grievously, so perniciously. But we must not thereby be blind to those good priests who grieve with us; those good priests who share our wonderment at such evil; those good priests who seek the Good, responsibly, honorably, accountably.
..… For Example …..
Let me tell you about a good priest who died recently – after more than seventy years of faithful service and many hours of daily prayer throughout his long and honorable life.
He spent much of his priestly ministry as a teacher and a philosopher. In his last years (when I knew him) his homilies were filled with gems of erudition, sagacious bons mots, an abundance of practical wisdom and a grand sense of humor which wisdom often bestows.
But … sometimes … in his sermons, he became entwined in the thickets of his own rhetoric (as we lifelong teachers often do), engrossed in the history and flow of his ideas which were better served by restrained brevity and benign truncation.
On one occasion, after one of his homilies went lengthily astray, I took the risk of writing him to suggest that he shorten his content and hasten to his point with less multi-layered detail. Lesser men might have taken offense, but his reply to me expressed both gracious good humor and a whimsically humble heart. “I thank God for your charity,” he wrote, “and you for your fortitude…”
He included a prayer which, he said, originated at York Cathedral in the eleventh century (“or thereabouts, perhaps, or perhaps not,” he added). This prayer expresses several talents which are rare in our palavered world. I share it with you, as I know he would:
Lord, you know I am growing older and will some day be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject, on every occasion. Release me from the craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody, helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it, but Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details. Give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips about my aches and pains, since they are increasing and the delight of rehearsing them becomes sweeter as the years go by. I dare not enjoy hearing about the pains of others but I do ask for the grace to endure such chatter with patience.
I dare not ask for improved memory but for the growing humility and lessening cocksureness when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet. I do not demand to be a saint (some of them are so hard to live with), but let me not be a sour old person.
Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And, please Lord, give me the grace to tell them so.
This good and holy priest is buried with a number of other faithful members of his Community; buried with other men who held fast for their lifetimes, with men who stayed faithful to their choice to love God and neighbor with the courage to seek and do Good.
So, let us all be clear: it is such good and selfless men who give honor and dignity to the priesthood and to the religious life.
Let us be clear: it is such good men who ofttimes give our frail and flighty human nature a good name, and make this world a better place.
Let us be eminently clear: it is such good men as these, these uncounted, often quiet men of deepest integrity who, by their selfless witness and their courageous yet unnoticed perseverance, represent and live the authentic Catholic priesthood.
Let us be clear – and let us never forget them.
Spero News columnist Daniel Boland is psychologist and counselor.