May 2019 Print

Dealing with Clerical Scandal: It Takes a Christendom

by Dr. John Rao

Clerical mischief has been a constant fact of life in the history of the Church. Although there have been a fair number of dubious and downright despicable figures on the Throne of St. Peter, the papacy does not come out of a study of clerical scandal through the ages all that badly. The general run of the episcopacy and the clergy, secular and religious, do not fare quite as well. But higher or lower in the hierarchy of scandal that the supreme head or the ordinary members of the clerical state may be, they are perfectly united in one two-fold aspect: the boring repetitiveness of the kind of sins that they commit, and their “fraternal” union with the Christian laity in their succumbing to what are their all too similar trans-vocational temptations.

Surrounded by Wickedness

Clerical scandal in the final analysis does not display shockingly unique characteristics. It reflects instead the evils of the lay environment into which each and every cleric is born in the first place. The problem of scandal is a general one that is admittedly more distressing when speaking about the clergy’s part in it because of the primary significance of their consecrated persons and labors. But dealing effectively with clerical scandal also requires an assault upon the wickedness of the outside fallen world, with the attack primarily aimed at whatever special form this may take in any given place or time.

In short, it takes a healthy Christendom—even a tiny modern one as opposed to the grand res publica Cristiana of the High Middle Ages—to purge clerical corruption. And when it succeeds in doing so, it enhances the ability of popes, bishops, priests, and religious to perform their higher spiritual mission better, thereby helping the social order that has done the clergy a good turn to stay on even keel and transform itself in Christ still more thoroughly in the future. To state this purgative truth in a more popular fashion, “one hand of Christendom washes the other.”

Two Types of Troublemaking

Individual cases of scandalous behavior aside, let us briefly outline the two basic types of clerical troublemaking in Church History, the first of which is the unedifying desertion from the ranks of the mystical body of Christ of sizeable units of the first estate, manifested in their encouragement of or positive response to heretical attacks on the Catholic message. Such nefarious conduct was all too visible at the time of the great Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the 4th - 7th centuries, and in the days of the Protestant Revolution some thousand years later. The second form of priestly and religious troublemaking is immorality—financial, sexual, and politically ambitious—plain and simple. Terribly prevalent in the Western Church in the miserable era following the collapse of the Carolingian experiment at restoring a Roman and Catholic order from the late 9th through the early 11th centuries, this second plague returned again in a somewhat analogous fashion from the time of the residence of the papacy in Avignon down to that of the Tridentine reform. Immorality has also played a role in inclining clerics to the first form of scandal, whether to justify abandonment of their state in life to further their own vices, or to adopt heresy in a mistaken attempt to overturn undeniable clerical evildoing.

Similarly, peculiar problems aside, the manner in which Catholics historically have successfully struggled against our two basic types of clerical naughtiness also can be summarized rather simply. They merely involve applying the truth noted above: that “it takes a Christendom” to clean up Holy Mother the Church; that, just as individuals can only be saved by becoming part of a community—the Body of Christ—it is solely through communal effort in every regard that each Christian has even a chance of being kept religiously sane and on the proper path to sanctification.

The Effort to Purge Scandals

Allow me to explore the history of Catholic struggles to purge clerical scandals through emphasis upon the aid of broader communities in a perhaps oddly “ecumenical” way, by borrowing Buddhist terminology used to identify its two main divisions, and a Chinese expression concerning the way in which different and contrasting forces can enter into a mutually profitable “dance” with one another. Let us say that the problem in question has repeatedly been tackled by an appeal to a “Lesser and a Greater Vehicle” of impressive, purgative, communal efficacy, and in a way that illustrates their yin and yang complementarity.

Employment of the “Lesser Vehicle” has entailed the mobilization of the Catholic clerical community in all of its immense variety and proper hierarchy to fight its internal scandals. Psychologically and physically, isolation has always been one of the greatest dangers of clerics, whether as individuals or as members of religious, diocesan, or national groups, all of them inevitably more narrow in their character than the Church Universal. This isolation leaves them badly armed for responding properly to the particular temptations of their all too personal or parochial environments. Hence, moving from the simplest to the most complex levels, reform movements throughout the ages, depending upon the specific scandals that they have had to liquidate and the forces targeted, have understood the necessity of dealing with the weaknesses of the clerical state by similar communal means: by strengthening the bonds of the members of a religious house at risk of internal or external corruption with other endangered houses of their order, often sending some of the healthy members of one of these to cure the sickly colleagues of sister establishments; by linking parish priests more tightly and fraternally in orthodox intellectual and spiritual activities, complemented by participation in regular diocesan synods guided by reform bishops; by overcoming the flaws of bad bishops of a given land in subjecting them to the decisions of national assemblies dominated by determined and saintly episcopal confrères; and by the taming of the sins of proud religious orders and uppity national episcopacies through appeal to the universal clerical authority of popes who truly know what it meant to be successors of St. Peter. If any of these communal aspects of the “Lesser Vehicle” are ignored, the isolation of one religious house or community, one diocesan priest, one bishop, or one nation will drastically increase the chance for their particular, local, parochial temptations to triumph, and heretical or immoral tendencies to worm their way in and thrive along with them.

Reformers throughout the history of the Church have understood that the purity of the head of the clerical estate provides the greatest guarantee for the members as a whole. This means that if the papacy falls prey to its own peculiar parochial temptations, the entirety of the clerical body is, will remain, or will soon be put at its greatest risk. This was indeed the case in the pre-Tridentine period, when a reformer such as Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), who ended his career as Pope Paul IV (1555-1559), lambasted the Holy See for thinking of itself as somehow more than the community that it served rather than its supreme authority. He identified “the fundamental cause of the ills of the Church” as “the immense exaggeration of the pontifical power occasioned by the refined adulation of canonists without conscience” (Carafa in Gennaro Maria Monti, ed., Ricerche su Papa Paolo IV Carafa, Benevento, 1923, p. 42). This power was then used to coddle heretics, give dispensations for criminal and immoral clerics to continue and even expand upon their nefarious endeavors, and block criticism of its actions through an assertion of nothing more than criminal arrogance.

The Need for Christendom

But this brings me to the importance of the mobilization of the “Greater Vehicle”: Catholic Christendom in its widest scope. This is indeed the Greater Vehicle for dealing with clerical scandal, first of all because a diseased Christendom can stymie any attempt to improve the situation of a clergy at risk, even when popes who are in fine fettle stand behind it. Steeped in sinful secular concerns, it is most destructive when its reigning evils are simply taken for granted as a particular age’s “common sense.” The bad “spirit of the times”—the zeitgeist—this creates always has an advantage in a struggle for control over men’s minds and wills because its erroneous axioms become part of the very atmosphere that they breathe from morning until night. It bends believers to its will by attacking them on two fronts, encouraging acceptance of the present, living, erroneous spirit as the obvious dictate of unquestionably intelligent reasoning, while redirecting any remaining desire to fight “the world” against the dead and buried errors of the zeitgeist of times gone by. Once firmly ensconced in the clerical mind and soul, it determines, to its own advantage, the battleground on which the Church should continue to battle and the weapons that she may and may not use. Counsel is thereby given against taking the very measures most useful in dealing with problems and in favor of those designed to worsen them. That which is easy to correct is depicted as being difficult and even impossible; wise policy intended to eradicate sinfulness is ridiculed as the handiwork of the foolish; promotion of evil as “the voice of the Holy Spirit in our times.”

Submission of Christendom to the dictates of a sinful, secular, lay zeitgeist, sometimes violent and sometimes subtle, has regularly brought with it the corruption of the clergy, often for long stretches of time, and often even under the rubric of being loyal to the Catholic message as it goes about its work of subversion. Some compelling ground for bending to the “obvious” demands of the world can always be conjured up by it: the demands of Sacred Emperors, Sacred Kings or City-States, Sacred Constitutions, Sacred Power Politics, Sacred Family Noble Requirements; a Sacred Dow Jones and its Sacred Profits; a Sacred Proletariat and its Party Apparatchiks; Sacred Ids, Egos, and Superegos, Sacred Fulfillment of One’s Personality, Sacred Passions, Sacred Dialogue—you name it.

Corruption of monasteries, bishoprics, diocesan clergies, and Roman Pontiffs throughout the ages has always had more to do with fending off outside political, financial, and powerful family ambitions than the greed and lusts of the clergy when left to its own devices. But these do draw out whatever sins existing clerics are indeed susceptible to committing already, and bring in new recruits to encourage them, fend off Catholic efforts to eradicate them, and open the door to heresy if heretical ideas make their life of scandal still easier. This downward spiraling clergy will then never do anything to transform the lay spirit working hard to pervert it. On the contrary, it will condemn the work of re-Catholicizing the diseased Christendom that feeds the vice in which it now wallows, whether this be a simple cowardly unwillingness to confront a secular world that allows it to survive if it keeps its mouth shut or truly decadent enjoyment of what Christ abhors.

Still, Christendom at large is the “Greater Vehicle” for dealing with clerical scandal for a second reason, because, when possessing at least certain healthy elements, it has, at crucial moments in Church History, proven to be the only tool possible for reinvigorating its colleague, “Lesser” in its overall impact. This has especially been noticeable when what was most required was the help of the laity in awakening or shaking up the Head of the First Estate, a sleeping or perverse Papacy scandalizing much of the clergy, which itself begged for its assistance. This is what happened in the 10th and 11th centuries, where one sees the reformed monks of Cluny stimulating an Empire healthier than Rome to come to the Eternal City to replace deficient pontiffs with proper ones.

An Ongoing Struggle

Clerical scandal may ultimately be boring in its sinful repetitiveness, but Satan is highly inventive in his use of tools to bring wave after wave of it into the life of the Church. Historical reform movements making great progress in eradicating clerical evils by means of both the Lesser and the Greater Vehicle have themselves repeatedly been undermined through demonic persistence and the weakness of our nature, which will always remain badly marred by Original Sin. Services on behalf of reform carried out by religious orders, dioceses, national episcopacies, the papacy, and lay political forces have all at times been brought to a halt and even twisted into agents of the corruption that they sought to end, due, especially to the exaggeration of the parochial pride of each of these forces. Corruptio optimi pessima! The “drama of truth” that salvation history places before our eyes is not a mechanical production whose actors play predictable roles. Maneuvering through it is a never-ending dance in which an eye must be kept on all of those prancing around the ballroom and taking steps in different directions at different times to avoid being knocked off course. Hence the need to nurture the principle of yin and yang, staying on the lookout for the valuable use of contrasting complementary forces, Greater and Lesser Vehicles, clerics and laymen of saintly mettle, depending upon the circumstances of the day.

Needless to say, both categories of clerical scandal outlined above thrive in our own place and time, with all of the false teaching, persecution of true believers, self-deception, co-habitation with concubines, homosexuality, demoralizing display of a lust for power and riches, and craven flattery of those already possessing these self-deceptive earthly treasures that the cultivation of such failings always tediously guarantees. Moreover, does any truly believing Catholic doubt that Pope Paul IV would utter the same judgment regarding the contemporary papacy and the all too erroneous cheerleaders of an exaggerated, willful, personal infallibility aiding heresy and corruption that he pronounced in the 1500’s were he alive today? And, worse still, who is the honest observer of contemporary society who can deny that the sick, secular, modern zeitgeist, with its adulation of man’s fallen individual passions and will, and its readiness to justify any and every vice with sufficient strength to press its case, has become the official ideology of most Catholics today, making all appeal to the authoritative intervention of the communal authorities of the Lesser and the Greater Vehicles of Christendom—the only forces that could work their “magic” to deal with the unspeakable clerical sins paraded before our eyes in the daily press—the one unthinkable thought. What can be done when the salt needed to deal with the problem has itself lost its savor? Or when one cannot even imagine using it at all?

Yes, “it takes a Christendom” to deal with clerical scandal, our Christendom is indeed diseased, but, quite frankly, it has always been somewhat sick and will continue to be subject to illness and infection until the end of time. It was not completely well by any stretch of the imagination when its healthier elements raised their heads in the 10th and 11th century, both yin and yang, reformed clergy stimulating laity, laity the papacy, and a purified papacy the resistant clerical sinners to “clean up their acts.”

Healthy elements are also at work in today’s seemingly moribund Christendom, in precisely the way that they should be. New clerical orders and less organized communities within mainstream dioceses have emerged to strengthen, through their fraternal union, the fiber of individual priests who would otherwise have been isolated on their own. Militant laity have “voted with their feet” by abandoning sickly parishes to join with them, forming Catholic associations of their own to bring resistant clergy, enslaved to the zeitgeist, back to their senses. Honest devotion to the Christian life in communion with others; straightforwardness in dealing with society on the basis of Catholic teachings; a break with the “accepted” ways of “doing business” according to the standards of the zeitgeist with its call to earthly prudence will once again show that the explanation of the clerical scandal and the path for dealing with it coming out of “The World” is either self-serving or self-deceptive nonsense—and for the simple reason that they come not from Christ but from the devil. What still is needed for success is to wean the papacy—the head of the clerical estate—away from its love affair with a sinful zeitgeist. Whence the final stimulus for that Great Purge will come remains unclear to me. It has emerged from the Greater Vehicle, from Christendom at large, from the Emperor, in the past. But today?