Priesthood and Power

The scandal of priestly sexual abuse has spread like the plague from the United States to Ireland, Austria and Germany, and on to Norway, Belgium and South America and Asia. Sinful and criminal behavior among bishops and priests has caused good people to question their faith, their Church and the shepherds to whom the Church has entrusted their care.

The priesthood has fallen from a desirable and esteemed social position to an object of sarcasm, distrust and even revulsion. As the plague continues to spread across the globe, and the priesthood is held in various degrees of scorn in contemporary culture, there’s sure to be a precipitous drop in men wanting to follow Christ, right?


In earlier times, a number of those who followed a priestly call had social incentives rather than vocational. The “job” provided security and allowed men preferential treatment by society. A lot of them answered the wrong call, the call of mammon.

Now, it’s unfathomable to become a priest. How can men now say Yes to this “discredited career option”?

However, even now, young men are responding to God’s call. Dioceses around the country will gather for the ordinations of the priestly “Class of 2010” over the next two months, and the ranks of the priesthood will swell again, as they do every year.

Christ is alive — dead men don’t call. Christ is more powerful.

Human plans and strategies will fall short: These young priests are God’s solution to the priestly sex-abuse scandals.

Every generation has its scandals, and every age thinks its problems deeper than all the crises of the past. But to God, it’s all the same, and we can always find him doing the same thing, patiently, quietly, in every age. People who try the same solution to every problem are usually called incompetent, or worse. But God’s foolishness, after all, is wiser than “conventional wisdom.”

It just doesn’t look good in newsprint, since it’s the same old solution as always: Purification. Sanctity. Grace.

Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always in need of reform). That’s true. But sometimes we think that renewing the Church is something we can program and control. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s God and his grace that purifies the Church and makes her holy.

For some totally incomprehensible reason, God seems to be more concerned about the holiness of his Church than her popularity or even her size.

In various ways, in different cultures, she must let go of the worldly power and influence which her men sometimes grasped at. And so good priests now draw distrustful glances or angry glares as they walk down the street in their Roman collars. That’s purification.

But the only power and influence that really matter are quite different: the power to forgive sins and the power to say “This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” That is the true power that these young men will possess.

And so it is that they will be God’s solution. God’s solution isn’t jail time or sex-offender lists, helpful though they are. It’s the shedding of his Son’s blood on the cross so that the world might have life through him, and then the giving of priests to continue the Son’s mission of forgiveness on earth.

Yes, forgiveness.

The vindictive rage that fuels media hype of the abuse scandals has no place in God’s plan. The Gospel precepts “Love your enemy” and “Turn the other cheek” have not been abrogated for the duration of the scandal, however difficult it is for us to live them. The most important words that a human being can pronounce right now are not “I resign” or “I’m sorry,” but “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

God is foolish. How could he think that weak, fallible human priests could possibly be the solution to anything?

He doesn’t ask us to trust our priests because they’re wise or popular or holy or good-looking. He asks us to trust them because they’re not: because what we receive from their hands doesn’t come from them. He wants us to trust in his grace in the sacraments: the grace that is the solution to everything.

Strangely enough, some priests may be the problem, but priests are also the solution. The work of some priests has damaged the Church immensely, and God’s work through others — who “remain completely faithful to their vocation and mission through the practice of an austere asceticism,” in Pope Benedict’s words — is the only reason she still stands.

And so St. Paul’s words ring true for the deacons awaiting their priestly ordination during this Year for Priests:

“Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).