Prophets and Priests
One of the greatest aspects of our Church is that, while it certainly makes room for the office of prophet, it primarily relies on the office of priest on a day to day basis. The reason that’s good is because we have a culture that is all agog for prophets and almost wholly ignorant of the need for priests.
What I mean is this: our culture puts great emphasis on the charismatic individual with the story of personal inspiration and revelation. That’s good as far as it goes. We need to hear from people who have had an encounter with the living God. Such people are, says St. Paul, letters from God with the word of God written on their hearts. A Mother Teresa or a St. Francis or any other member of the communion of saints makes the gospel credible to us because see them living it and realize it’s possible for us to live it too.
The problem comes when our desire for a prophet degrades into a mere desire for a celebrity or a guru. And our culture is awash in such people both inside and outside the Church. Somebody with Important Hair sounds off about something he or she thinks based on a passage of Scripture, or their adventures in Hollywood, or their intimidating English accent and people run after them like they know something. Pretty soon they have a following and have founded some bit of rubbish like Scientology or Mindhead Inc. or some other All Explaining Theory of Everything and people are taking them seriously because they have Important Hair and “everybody” agrees they are an Authority. Virtually the whole thing depends, not on any demonstrable facts, but on the sheer force of personality and popularity. Eventually the thing implodes and everybody sees the “prophet” was merely a celebrity and, not infrequently, a very fallen one.
Now the great thing about being Catholic is not that we don’t have charismatic celebrity types who fall (one need only survey the wreckage of the past decade for numerous examples). It’s that the gospel does not stand or fall with them. To be sure, when a Catholic celeb like Maciel goes down, he takes people with him—victims, protectors, dupes—and there is real damage done to souls and to the Church. But at the end of the day, Maciel and those like him are neither the inventors nor the owners of the Tradition. And that’s what priests guard and hand down: the Tradition. They may do a great job or they may do a middling job or they may do a terrible job, but they are still just handing the Tradition down, not making it up.
In other words, Catholics don’t own the gospel. It belongs to Jesus and we belong to Him. We are just passing it along. That’s good news because it means that when we members of the Church bollix it up, the gospel is not somehow rendered false and impossible to believe. Only we are rendered false and impossible to believe. So somebody who is seeking Jesus need not despair of faith should some Catholic betray the Faith. It does not mean the Faith is false; it merely that Catholics are sinners—which is kind of the point of this whole forgivenness of sins thing. Any potential convert who rejects the Faith because the Church is full of sinners has not really thought very deeply about the meaning of the gospel message, which commands us, not to bear with those outside the Church, but to bear with one another (Colossians 3:13). The proper response to the painful discovery of sin on the part of some favorite Catholic celeb is not “So the whole thing is a lie!” but “If I being the sinner I am can consider myself in some sense a follower of Christ, why should the sins and failings of these people over here make it impossible to trust Christ?” Sure the sin needs to be exposed if it is endangering others. Sure crimes need punishing, and messes need cleaned up and victims need healing and deceived people need truth and ripped off people need restitution. But nobody needs to restore credibility to Jesus Christ because he never lost it. Only his sinful representative lost it. And even that one can have his sins cast as far as the east is from the west if he will but repent, ask for forgivenness and make a firm purpose of amendment. So can we if we don’t use the sins of the Church’s members as an excuse for rejecting Christ and his Church.