“Think of the misery of a whole world possessed of Power without Grace.” – from ‘Helena’ by Evelyn Waugh
The ancient Pharisees have attracted a good deal of bad press through the years, which is perhaps why the Pope is wont to accuse faithful Catholics he dislikes of being Pharisees. It is a general term of abuse analogous to the secular media’s appellation of “racist” to whoever dissents from the Leftist agenda in any way. The idea intended to be conveyed by calling someone a Pharisee or a racist is that the so-named person is a bad person and his views are to be discounted without consideration.
The Pharisees were not necessarily bad people. They were certainly scrupulous and had a regrettable tendency to lord it over others, presuming a superior knowledge of correctness in rules and rituals that entitled them to exercise power over the less informed. But their knowledge was not of what was in men’s hearts, but only of what could be observed through their outer demeanor, and this limited their superintendence to externals of behavior. They were not qualified to act as genuine spiritual directors. Their mentality was nearer to that of an irritable disciplinarian, like the caricatured old nun with her knuckle-rapping ruler.
But the temptation of the Pharisaical mentality is a perpetual one, for it is far easier to adopt a mode of behavior based on rules than it is to radically transform one’s whole being, which is what Christ asks of His followers. The power of the Pharisees, past and present, resides largely in the spiritual laziness of most men: rather than discern the truth and live it, most of us find it more agreeable to assign others the responsibility of telling us what is true and what we should do. Rather than test the spirits, including all that influences us from both within and without, to see whether a particular spirit is of God, we would prefer that someone else give us directions. Such reliance on others can prove dangerous to our moral and spiritual health.
Buried somewhere inside the growing angst and anger over revelations of priestly sexual abuse, rampant homosexuality among the clergy and episcopal coverups is the largely ignored fact that too many people were blindly acquiescent to authority. They did not test the spirit if it emanated from someone wearing a Roman collar. In story after story, we hear of abuse victims submitting to assault with a kind of sheep-like stupor, unable to realize what was happening even as it was happening.
This sort of paralyzing stupefaction is understandable. It is difficult to believe that someone in whom you have placed absolute trust is betraying that trust, in real time. Perhaps the experience can be likened to the reaction one has to the sudden news of the death of a loved one: initially, it cannot be believed; it seems unreal, impossible. And then, the world becomes for a time rather dreamlike, with everything that once seemed solid appearing fragile and illusory. The core of action in us dissolves for a time and otherwise automatic behavior requires conscious effort. We have to rebuild our world on a different basis, without one of the foundation stones that gave us stability until then.
But in the case of those who suffered repeated priestly abuse, one has to wonder about the cause of habitual submission and silence. We should not resign from thinking about this cause and simply accept the explanations of psychologists, whose knowledge rests on arguable “scientific” premises that often lack any spiritual dimension. And if the perpetuation of abuse is enabled by human psychology, then there would seem to be little we can do about it short of altering the structure of the human mind. Psychological explanations can be a cul de sac: they offer us some word formulas and give us the comfort of a sense of understanding, but lead us nowhere in the end. We are dealing here with sin, which is a turning away from God, and any analysis that is to be of worth must start from this point.
A priest is ideally an alter Christus – another Christ – not only in his ritual functions but in the entirety of his being. Our Lord came to serve, not to be served. He served the Father, doing His will, speaking the words the Father gave Him to speak, healing the Father’s children. Ultimately, He gave His life for the Father’s children. To serve the Father and to serve us were not separable things for Christ, but one and the same. We, as followers of Christ, are to serve one another, love one another, as Jesus and His Father loved one another and loved us.
Whenever we exploit another for our own satisfaction, we turn away from Christ; we go against the will of the Father. All the misery of the world has this one root cause: we have gone against the will of the Father. We have treated His children not as His loved ones and our loved ones, but as a means to satisfy our appetites. This is the essence of sin.
The priest is said to be divinely called to draw other men to God, by his example and his sacramental power. But a priest is a man and subject to all the ills that flesh is heir to. All of us are called to spiritual heroism, to conquer that which drags us below the level of our true humanity, even below the level of the beasts, to the demonic. And we are offered the grace to make this conquest.
The priest is offered the grace of his special calling. If he receives it and uses it rightly, he will be our great ally in our battle for salvation. If he fails, the old saying that the corruption of the best is the worst applies. A bad priest can become the most depraved of men, as we are now realizing. And a bad bishop begets and perpetuates bad priests. What does a bad pope generate in the way of depravity?
But every man’s salvation is ultimately his own responsibility. The love of Christ has to penetrate to the core of our being until we can recognize that love when we meet it in others, and can also recognize its absence. A priest must prove himself a true priest. We cannot assume that his clerical garb and office guarantee his authenticity.
Children, of course, are largely dependent upon us until they develop their own capacity for discernment. That so many young people were betrayed by the priests their parents trusted is heartbreaking and maddening. That bishops knew of abusive priests and protected them and allowed them to continue their predations stirs the deepest well of rage in us. But the fact is that most priestly sexual abuse was of young adults, not children, and seminarians were favorite targets of opportunity.
And there is also the fact that a culture of clerical sodomy has reached into every diocese and into the Roman hierarchy. There appears to be no intention on the part of the Pope and his trusted counselors to address homosexuality as a moral problem in the priesthood, or in society at large, for that matter. Sometime in February 2019, the Pope will talk about protecting “minors” and “vulnerable adults” with a convocation of bishops. But, as Cardinal Cupich of Chicago has stated, the Pope and the Church have more important things to attend to right now, like pointing out that there is too much plastic debris in the oceans and making sure Muslims invading the West feel properly welcomed.
The time when Catholics could trust the clergy is long past. We can no longer rely on all priests to be good men worthy of our confidence. The same is true of bishops and cardinals and the Pope. We have Catholic truth, we have the sacraments. But, in many respects, we are on our own and must exercise discernment concerning those who assume spiritual authority over us. This discernment is something we should never have allowed to lapse.
But we can only exercise such discernment to the extent that we are sanctified, that is, to the extent that we, too, become an alter Christus – another Christ. We cannot merely externalize our Faith, reducing it to rule and ritual and relying on others, i.e. priests, to tell us what to do with an unquestioning confidence. We have to grow up.
The Pharisees would keep us children in the worst sense: dependent upon authority and living in superficial conformity to a code of conduct. Christ would have us become true men, growing into the divine idea that is our essence by freely choosing to do our Father’s will. But Christ would also have us retain a childlike confidence in His love. His Father and our Father are one and the same and He will never desert us, never leave us without His help, but we must ask for it. He will not force Himself upon us.
We appear to be at a juncture in the history of the Church – in salvation history – when we are being asked to assume a spiritual maturity and responsibility that many of us have heretofore neglected to cultivate. There is a great difference between being childish and being child-like. When someone called Christ good, He turned on that person with some rather sharp words. “Why do you call me good? None is good but God alone.” (Luke, 18:19)
Our Lord seems to warn us not to place our trust in a man, but only in the Word of the Father. If we are rooted in His Word, if our will is one with the Father’s will, then no man can deceive us, for our trust will not be in men. We should love others, as Christ loved us, but we should have absolute confidence only in God.
We see all around us, in the Church as well as in the state, men who want to tell us what to think and how to act. We are treated as pawns in a game in which power is the prize, but power as an end in itself, as self-aggrandizement, not service offered in love. This is power without grace. Of course, all who want to seize and keep power talk as though they live only to help us; that all of their thoughts are occupied with our welfare. We should measure words by actions. The truth lies in what is done, not in what is said. And let’s never forget Our Lord’s admonition: “None is good but God alone.”