Lessons to Learn from Clerical Scandals

It is not my custom to write about the latest scandal. There are good reasons for this. The world is fallen and scandals abound, even in the best of times. To dwell on them risks losing sight of the good we should be doing. Here, I will deliberately consider the recent clerical scandals for the purpose of deriving a lesson from them — a lesson from which we all, I hope, might profit.

Archbishop McCarrick. Lincoln. Boston. Pennsylvania. Honduras. Chile. Maynooth. The list and the links could go on and on.

What lessons do they teach us?

Among the most superficial: “Don’t be a pervert” and “Don’t let sodomites and other moral degenerates into the seminary.” Really!

For all their common sense, those superficial and immediate reactions are too controversial, too direct. In an effeminized clerical culture that generally shuns controversy, prefers indirection, and often brutally kills the messenger (sometimes not figuratively), such virile good sense is inadmissible. Almost exclusively, bureaucratic solutions — often expensive and rarely effective — are implemented to correct moral problems. The result is, predictably, more of the same.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg of the lessons that need to be learned. There is so much more. Certainly moral lessons of all sorts are there, and should be profited from, but so are more foundational doctrinal lessons that involve the very nature of the Church, of the priesthood, and of human nature as vitiated by the fall and healed by grace.

Here I would like to reflect on some of those lessons with the following concepts clearly in mind: the world, the Church, and modern errors that blur the distinction between the two.

Long before Vatican II, Father Feeney used to say (it is a paraphrase, but I know the gist of it is right): “Once the doctrine no salvation outside the Church is denied, many terrible problems will beset the Church. People will not think to trace these problems back to the denial of this doctrine; they will not see it, but this is the cause.”

I believe that the scandals above mentioned are among the terrible things Father Feeney foresaw. This will no doubt be difficult for many to accept, so I ask the reader’s forbearance as I attempt an apologia.

In Catholic ascetical and mystical literature, beginning with Holy Scripture itself, “the world” is spoken of in the most disparaging of terms. As an example, here is Dom Guéranger, whose full explanation of what the world is and why we must shun it is worthy of attentive reading:

The fundamental rule of Christian life is, as almost every page of the Gospel tells us, that we should live out of the world, separate ourselves from the world, hate the world. The world is that ungodly land which Abraham, our sublime model, is commanded by God to quit. It is that Babylon of our exile and captivity, where we are beset with dangers. The beloved disciple cries out to us: ‘Love not the world, nor the things which are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him’ (I John ii, 15). Our most merciful Jesus, at the very time when He was about to offer Himself as a sacrifice for all men, spoke these awful words: ‘I pray not for the world’ (John xvii, 9). When we were baptized, and were signed with the glorious and indelible character of Christians, the condition required of us, and accepted, was that we should renounce the works and pomps of the world (which we expressed under the name of Satan); and this solemn baptismal promise we have often renewed.

We are not Manicheans; the world that was created by God was and is good. But, as the learned Abbot goes on to explain, “the world,” in the pejorative sense is the collective of all men who resist grace and are therefore unregenerate: “Men were called after the object of their love. They shut their eyes to the light; they became darkness; God calls them ‘the world.’” (Emphasis mine.) Thus a Christian who adheres to non-Christian standards of thought and morality is called “worldly.”

“The world” is not only fallen; it is evil. This follows immediately from the definition of “the world” as unregenerate humanity that rejects God. Out of this world, God calls His Church (the Greek word for Church, ekklésia ἐκκλησία, means “called out”). Here, therefore, we have two cities: The City of Man, and the City of God, to use Saint Augustine’s figure. Or, if you prefer Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s: the Two Standards under which humanity marches, the banner of Lucifer, and the banner of Christ.

After Vatican II, with its three-fold “Counter-Syllabus” of Gaudium et Spes, Dignatitis Humanae, and Nostra Aetate, there was incessant chatter in the Church about “dialogue with the world,” one of whose eventual effects was the dissolution of this traditional notion of “the world.” Distinctions were blurred and, in the conciliar and post-conciliar milieu of “openness to the world,” unvarnished worldliness invaded the sanctuary of the Church — quite literally in the matter of liturgy, and figuratively in moral theology, the religious life, the clerical life, and Catholic living in general. How much of all this was justified by the actual texts of Vatican II is, of course, a subject of furious debate, but the fact of its occurrence is beyond dispute.

In this same theological atmosphere of the Council and post-Council, we also find a new and particular emphasis on “human dignity.” The Vatican II document that has those words in its title is devoted to discovering previously unimagined rights of those professing objective religious error. (The opening sentence begins with a quote from John XXIII: “A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man….”) Non-Catholics have a “right” not only to believe a false religion, but to practice it publicly, and to propagate it — and that right is founded on their human dignity. This is the new conception of “religious liberty,” and it is founded upon the personalist and novel conception of man’s dignity. Thus was the stage set decades ago for the latest pseudo-doctrinal development regarding capital punishment, the explanation of which appeals to “human dignity” (the word “dignity” appears ten times in Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer’s ten-paragraph letter explaining the new doctrine).

These new doctrines imply that religious error and sin (e.g., the capital crime of murder) do not vitiate man’s dignity. Instead of situating man amid the backdrop of a Catholic cosmology and the great mysteries of creation, the fall, redemption, and grace (as scholasticism did), the new doctrine considers all reality through the prism of the human person, informed, as it is, by philosophical personalism (like the “Lublin Existential Personalism” of Karol Józef Wojtyła).

The traditional doctrine, as taught by Saint Thomas, has it that man’s dignity comes from his being created to God’s image — and that, in three ways: as a being endowed with intellect and will, as possessing sanctifying grace in this life, and as possessing glory in heaven. Unbelief and sin destroy or at least tarnish God’s image in man in all three of those ways.

In considering human dignity, we are not free to do so without reference to the truths of the fall, original sin and its effects, actual sin and its effects, redemption, grace, and man’s supernatural finality — the “why” of his creation: “to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with him forever in the next.” Even naturally speaking, man has an objective dignity that is equal in all men because it follows from the possession of human nature, as well as a subjective dignity, which is unequal, and which comes from his being virtuous or vicious. This simple distinction is all too overlooked in all this talk of human dignity.

If we absolutize human dignity as the new doctrine does, it becomes a mega-heresy (e.g., it attempts to erase Hell), just as if we blur the distinction between the Church and the world, this too becomes a mega-heresy.

The weakening of the doctrine of no salvation outside the Church (via the heresy of indifferentism) helped to blur the distinction between the Church and the world, thus paving the way for the novel doctrines and praxis of religious liberty, ecumenism (whereby “unity” is not achieved by conversion, but by cordial relations between “the churches” and “the religions”), and an abstract, absolute notion of “human dignity” irrespective of man’s subjective dignity as virtuous or vicious, and irrespective of his correspondence to grace.

The Church that is supposed to unite all nations into Her unity and bosom, has, instead, become a dialogue partner with the world. But this is not the charge from Our Lord. This is why Brother Francis said, “The prime effect of the heresy of Liberalism is the destruction of the apostolicity of the Church.”

Some would argue that the moral revolution in the Church was rather caused by what happened in the very same decade as Vatican II, the sexual revolution, and that the flood of vile impurity in which Europe and America are currently still drowning is really to blame for the clerical scandals. I do not negate the effects of the sexual revolution on the scandals, but I would argue that there is a causality that we cannot ignore at work here. Let me recall again that the world is fallen humanity that rejects redemption and the Church is regenerated humanity that forms one Mystical Body with Jesus Christ. When we blur the clear distinction between the Church and the world, we do not sanctify the world; we rather facilitate the secularization of the Church. In other words, that force that should keep the evils of the world at bay has yielded to it. And perforce the darkness gets darker as the light wanes under a bushel basket. Evil makes progress, therefore the salt of the world loses its savor, becoming worthy of nothing but to be trodden under foot.

This is necessarily so because the world, the flesh, and the devil are always at hand to fill the void left by the absence of an authentic Catholic spiritual life. We are called the Church militant for a reason. We are in a spiritual combat, and we have real enemies. Putting down one’s Catholic arms does not make for peace; it makes for defeat.

Hence, the loss of the priestly identity. The priest is called out from among men to stand in persona Christi, that he might offer sacrifice to the true God, forgive sin, and sanctify the faithful with the sacraments, calling them out of the world and to greater holiness in union with Christ. When such a noble office is compromised by the novel doctrines considered here, the identity of the priest is more or less seriously mutated. Further, when his priestly formation has been compromised by poor spirituality, a lack of ascetical discipline, a relativizing progressivist moral theology, and harebrained psychology (alla Freud, Jung, Reich, Rogers, etc.), all the necessary ingredients for perversion are there.

Some might argue that the scandals of the Lincoln Diocese are proof against my contentions here, since Lincoln’s seminary was a bastion of orthodoxy. My response is that nothing short of a return to tradition is needed; neo-orthodoxy is not enough.

If those who love the Church in all her supernatural splendor do not derive the right lessons from these moral cataclysms, victory will go to the loud-mouthed liberals, who never let a crisis pass without profiting from it. They will continue to shriek for an end to priestly celibacy, to screech about the suppression of “toxic masculinity,” and to demand an end to the patriarchal power structures of the Church — all of which will only serve to make the status quo worse.

What we need are orthodox, holy, benevolent, virile, and apostolic fathers to save the day. May God send us those!