Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What does it mean when we have bad bishops and priests?

 I know a lot of Catholics are terribly discouraged with so much that we read concerning the failures of bishops and priests. Believe me, I know that feeling personally. There’s an insurance company commercial with a slogan, “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” With the Church being around for 2,000 years, “we” the Church have seen everything. As Scripture says, “nothing new under the sun.”

That is not to minimize the present crisis; only to provide some reassuring perspective. It was in prior crises that the Church gained a vital insight: that the work of God and the power and effect of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the members of the Church; not even her clergy, not even the pope.

Yes, there is something special about the Church, about the pope in particular, about him and the other bishops acting together, and about the sacraments. Yes, in certain moments, God will ensure that the pope and bishops do not teach erroneous things; this is the nub of “infallibility.” But whatever is special, this depends, ultimately, not on us human beings, but on God.

So no matter how wicked a priest may be, if he celebrates the sacraments as the Church intends, the Mass is a true Mass; absolution is absolution; baptism is baptism, and so forth. It is important to reflect on why this is (and also, the “not-why.”) Let’s start with the “not-why.”

Sacraments are true and effective, even through the hands of depraved priests and bishops, NOT because of any special consideration for those wicked priests and bishops. It isn’t “for” them. Indeed, if they do not repent their wickedness, they will face all the more fearsome punishment. Tremble at the thought – because, as a priest, I certainly do.

No, the sole reason God works this way is precisely for the benefit of the faithful, for whom the sacraments exist. The Mass and the Eucharist do not exist for me as a priest; rather, they exist for the sake of each and all of us, as sinners in need of divine help to salvation. So important is it to God that the grace of the sacraments reaches as many as possible, and that you and I have assurance in this, that God will entrust them even to the filthiest of hands. 

Similarly, it is undeniably true that the Church’s bishops – including the pope, the Bishop of Rome – have been, let us say, an uneven lot. Anyone who wants to take a trip through history can find ample examples not only of wicked shepherds, but even more easily, maddeningly mediocre ones. And I have seen many people point to the moral failures, and cowardice, of bishops in the history of the Church as proof against the claims we make that the Catholic Church is founded by Christ, and will be safeguarded by him, until the end of time.

My response is to quote something from the great British author, G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy. (“Orthodoxy” means true or right beliefs.) It’s a long quote, but I’ll provide it, because it’s so good. But if you find this is too long to read, the quick summary is this: if the Church were merely a human institution, with no divine reality, it ought to have failed long ago.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. 

The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. 

To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom -- that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect – Chapter 6 of Orthodoxy.

I want to make another point on this, because I would be very sorry to give the impression of not taking these matters seriously. I do. All the emotions and feelings you feel, I feel, when I read about a bishop who showed no backbone, or who failed to act decisively to deal with a priest who committed crimes. And, like you, I pray and pray that we will have stronger, better bishops. I pray that God will help me to be a holier and wiser priest. Sometimes people get so discouraged, that their faith is weakened. I understand; but I look at it this way. The Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith aren’t the property of the pope or the bishops, or priests. They belong to ALL of us. Why should the behavior or bad choices of other people lead me to give up what belongs to me?

Our faith, our trust is truly in Jesus Christ himself. Remember, we call the Church the Body of…CHRIST. Not the Body of Peter, or Paul, or Gregory, or Leo, or Pius or Francis. It is not the Body of Dennis Schnurr or Martin Fox. It is the Body of CHRIST. The Body of our Lord has terrible wounds; it has happened before. You and I can pray for things; we can hope for things; we can speak up and have our limited influence. But the one thing over which each of us has the greatest control is ourselves. Do you want the Body of Christ to be holier and healthier? Of course you do! So do we all. Then increase spiritual health and holiness in yourself. As each of us seeks to grow in holiness, that helps the Body of Christ – far more than posting furious comments online, or in losing sleep, or in expressions of anger or cynicism.

(From my parish bulletin column.)


Anonymous said...

This is awesome—and SO needed from a holy priest right now! Fr., you have just said what should be being said by every parish priest to their flocks. Not one priest in our neck of the woods (4 parishes within a 15-mile radius, ministering to at least 3500 families) is saying this. At my parish, NOTHING has been said to address “the present crisis”. If it weren’t for you and a few faithful Catholic blogging priests, I would feel very isolated and struggling.
Thank you

Anonymous said...

With all due respect Father, isn't Chesterton simply engaging in a circular argument fallacy? The Church is always right when she declares something true or untrue, therefore what she teaches is always true.

Fr Martin Fox said...


No, not at all. He's illustrating how a strange providence was at work. I realize Chesterton's style takes some getting used to, but I suggest re-reading the quote.