I am getting a lot of email and phone calls about something in the news recently about accusations made against a priest.
I don’t know enough about the case in question to offer anything other than my sincere hope with prayers that this will soon pass and that the priest in question will be demonstrated to be innocent of any wrong-doing. That is my hope and prayerful expectation.
What disturbs me in this the most, however, is the disillusionment I have picked up from people who contacted me. Some of them are devastated by the mere accusation. Leaving aside that the accused shouldn’t be condemned by the mere fact of being accused, some people who have expressed themselves to me have done so in pretty dramatic terms. They have, it seems to me, idealized the priest in question. Now that he is simply accused, they are at sixes and sevens.
Without any suggestion that I think the priest is question is guilt of anything untoward or criminal – let’s not be naive… there are people who will level an accusation at a priest to make a buck or shut him up - I think it is a good idea to remind people that priests and bishops are sinners just like everyone else and that they, just as everyone else, need a Savior in the person of the only true Holy One of God.
Something that may be helpful in this matter is a talk by Fr. Robert Dodaro, OSA given to a group of priests in Rome for a joint meeting of confraternities of clergy from the United States and Australia. Dodaro is one of the best working theologians today in the sphere of Patristics. His talk addressed the problem of the scandal caused by clerical sexual abuse, reframing it in view of the 4th century conflict with the Donatists in N. Africa. I’ll compress Dodaro’s observations here together with my own.
In the 4th century, a group of fundamentalist/radicals broke away from the Catholic Church to found their own Church. Their beef was that during a persecution by the Emperor Diocletian some bishops had acquiesced and had handed over sacred books to imperial officials. The radicals, called Donatists, concluded that because the bishops sinned they were tainted and could never again confer valid sacraments.
In the face of this theological and ecclesiological challenge St. Augustine helped the Church clarify that sacraments do not depend on holiness of the priest or bishop. Christ is the true minister of every sacrament.
At the core of Donatist beliefs was the notion that they were the sole remnant of the Church, which according to St. Paul was “without stain or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27). The Donatist position was that God was more concerned with the purity of consciences of priests than the words they said and that a damaged conscience, “blood-stained” in the words of the Donatist Petilian, could actually be transmitted collectively to the whole body of Catholic priests. For Petilian and the Donatists, a person is cleansed in the sacrament of baptism by the conscience of the minister of the sacrament. No Catholic, sharing in the collective damaged conscience that had been handed along, could administer a valid sacrament.
This materialistic view of the sacraments at the center of Donatist sacramental theology and ecclesiology lead to the Donatist obsession with the appearance of holiness. In the midst of a world which is evil, the Donatist follower depended on the transference of holiness to them from the priest who had to remain entirely free from sin or the appearance of sin.
Augustine observed that such a view could be spiritually dangerous. It lead to a destructive fantasy about the person of the priest. It could produce spiritual envy. It could, more seriously, lead to a marginalization of God, God’s holiness and God’s intervention, in favor of that of the priest or bishop who is, materially, right there.
To counter the Donatist materialist approach and obsession with the sinless, Augustine counters that the only true holy one is Christ. Only Jesus is the true High Priest free from any stain of sin. Only Christ’s sacrifice atoned for sin. The bishop and the priest are themselves pardoned sinners. Priests must not be seen as being entirely apart but as standing together with people as they also strive for holiness. But they should not be imagined to be holier than a mere human being can be.
When Augustine comments on how the Lord washed the dirty feet of the Apostles, he explains that Christ was pardoning the Apostles for what they had done wrong in their ministry. When Peter then asks that Christ wash not only his dirty feet (i.e., the sins he committed in ministry) he asks Christ to wash also his whole body. Christ responds that his whole body had already been washed and he had no need for it to be washed again, a reference to baptism. The washing of feet represented forgiveness of post-baptismal sins committed by the Apostles, Christ’s priests, in ministry.
In other words, post-baptismal sins can be forgiven and the one forgiven can still minister.
Augustine connects to this episode of the foot washing, verses from the Song of Songs (5:2-3), interpreted allegorically to mean that some men with ecclesial vocations are reluctant to get out and get their feet dirty, as it were, in the Lord’s service. “I had put off my garment, how could I put it back on? I had bathed my feet, how could I soil them?” They are afraid to commit sins in the Lord’s service which, being human, they will inevitably commit. Augustine counters among other things that even the Apostle James states that everyone makes mistakes in the Lord’s service (cf. James 3).
It is a great concern today that many people are deeply shaken in their faith because of the sins of a very small number of priests and bishops. It is right and proper to be angry about their crimes when they are proven to have committed them. It could be that an idealization of priests and bishops leads to a disproportionate disillusionment when they are revealed not to be perfect, especially when they are shown to be sinners of the gravest sort.
We have to be reminded constantly what Augustine stressed in that controversy with the Donatists: Christians who left the Church because they were disillusioned with its outward appearances of perfection and holiness. Priests and bishops are sinners in need of a savior. Augustine said to his flock, “I am a bishop for you, I am a christian with you.”
Turning priests or bishops into idealized icons of holiness is fraught with spiritual peril. Admire the admirable, of course. But we need a necessary corrective in our admiration, namely, that the sole Holy One of God is Jesus Christ, the only perfect High Priest and actual minister of all graces which Holy Church’s ministers have the honor to mediate.
An accusation leveled at a priest is a horrible thing, because it is nearly impossible today for a priest to have a fair hearing. There is no perfect justice or charity in this world, but these days falsely-accused priests don’t get anything like even the world’s “justice”. But even when priests are guilty of that by which they are accused, it doesn’t surprise me that priests are sinners or in the worst cases commit bad crimes. Yes, priests and bishops should be held to high standards. After all, even the devil holds them to high standards. The devil hates priests and works tirelessly to trip them. Holy Orders doesn’t make a man less human. Should I be surprised that priests are sinners? I am a sinner.
The bottom line is that you cannot depend on the personal holiness of priests or bishops for your own personal holiness. The only true Holy One is the Lord.