I recently wrote a post on why we Catholics continue to profess the holiness of the Church, even amidst sinful decisions by bishops and priests. We may have another example of that playing itself out in Los Angeles, as more information emerges of Cardinal Mahony’s handling of cases of sexual abuse by priests in the 1980’s. It is hard to read such things and think about the sins and failures of those given the most sacred of trusts. Where priests have been guilty of crimes they should of course, like anyone else, be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But their actions, as evil as they are, do not cause me to condemn “the Church,” or the offices of presbyter (priest) or bishop that these men held. What follows is a piece I wrote 15 years ago, focusing on the sinful actions of past popes, that shares some of my reasons why:
It is common knowledge that the Popes during the Middle Ages were not angels. Several of them lived lives of debauchery. Does that debunk the claim that they possessed the charism of infallibility? Not in the least. It is a scandal, and it damaged the witness of the Church; but it does not damage the integrity of The Faith.
Each Christian reading this can demonstrate the truth of what I am saying for him or herself. We need only think of our own sinfulness, and the many ways in which we have failed to live as Christ commands. Do our sins cause Christ’s Gospel to be any less true? No, not one iota. When we proclaim that Gospel we may sometimes be hypocritical, but what we proclaim is not falsified. Caiaphas, the high priest who along with Pilate condemned Jesus to death, was used by the Holy Spirit to utter prophecy (John 11:49-52). Christ, with perfect foreknowledge, chose Judas to be one of His Twelve Apostles. Why? Perhaps to prepare us for when the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, and especially Peter’s Successors, the pope, fall from grace.
Judas’ betrayal did nothing to diminish the office of apostle. Likewise, the personal sinfulness of someone in Peter’s office does not diminish the authority nor function of the Key-Bearer. When we think about atrocities, such as the later Crusades, we have to keep this in mind; they were monstrous, horrendous actions; but they were not instances of the Popes making proclamations as to what constitutes the Deposit of Faith.
Sometimes we have to look at the men sitting in Peter’s Chair as a delinquent parent. We respect them not because of their actions, but solely because of their relation to us (through the Blood of Christ) and the position of authority which God the Father has allowed them to assume. An Old Testament image of this is the relationship between David and King Saul.
Saul was the first King of Israel. His reign started out well, but he eventually fell into disobedience to the Lord’s command. Scripture tells us that because of this, even while Saul reigned, the prophet Samuel was sent by the Lord to secretly anoint a young shepherd, David, as the future king. David eventually killed Goliath, became very close to King Saul and his family, and distinguished himself as a warrior. When David’s popularity in Israel grew greater than even Saul’s, however, the reigning king became jealous and began plotting David’s death. When David caught wind of Saul’s intent he went into hiding. Saul pursued him into the desert. What I want to draw your attention to was David’s reaction: two times the Lord delivered King Saul’s life into David’s hands, but David responded, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24:6); “who can lay hands on the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless? As the Lord lives, the Lord will smite him” (1 Samuel 26:9-10). It was not the man Saul whom David honored but the office which the Lord God had established. Far from being a simpleton, David is the only man whom Scripture calls a man after God’s Own Heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Our attitude in dealing with sinful bishops and Popes must be the same as David’s.
The way God uses sinful human beings to convey His Revelation is one of the truly great surprises in salvation history. It may seem like a tremendous risk on God’s part; perhaps it is simply a commentary on the power of His grace and the Word which He has entrusted to His Church. There is an Old Testament story that gives me a humble chuckle. The Lord “opened the mouth of [an] ass,” a donkey, and gave it the power of speech (Numbers 22:28). I have to laugh at how many other asses He has bestowed the power of speech upon to further the Gospel; I can only hope that when my life comes to an end I will find myself ranked among them.