Monday, 4 March 2013

The immorality of priests (and Cardinals): on the whiskey priest problem

There have been a few more developments on the Cardinals going to the Conclave front, with an admission of guilt from Cardinal O'Brien of Scotland, and more bizarre defiance on the part of Cardinal Mahony.

Sin, repentance, forgiveness and reparation

Both stories point to the problem the Church faces at the moment, in managing the tensions between the possibility of repentance and the imperative of forgiveness for sins; the importance of a commitment to reparation for our sins; and the need for counter-cultural examples of holiness to guide us and convert nations.

When I was a teenager, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory made a deep impression on me.  His whiskey priest, who continues his service dodging the Mexican secularist authorities, despite having an illegitimate child and being an alcoholic, and is ultimately martyred, provides an image of the possibility of redemption that offers hope.  It is no accident, after all, that amongst Catholics, St Mary Magdalene has long been traditionally identified as the prostitute who repented, and that protestants have long rejected this identification.

Yet does the Catholic allowance for the possibility of redemption for even the greatest sinner mean that we should simply ignore the past misdeeds of the clergy?  I don't think so.

Cardinal O'Brien

One of the last minute acts of Pope Benedict, you will recall, was to accept the resignation of Cardinal O'Brien of Scotland, who also announced that he would not attend the Conclave.

It sparked the predictable claims that he had been unfairly targeted because of, on the one hand his strong defense of marriage, and on the other his suggestion in the wake of the Pope's resignation, that the priestly celibacy rules be overturned.

Now there has been a follow up statement from Cardinal O'Brien, admitting his guilt, following further details of the claims against him.  It begins:

"I wish to take this opportunity to admit that there have been times that my sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop and cardinal."

The Cardinal he goes on to apologise and commits to a life of retirement.  Let's hope that includes a life of strict penance and prayer.

Cardinal Mahony strikes again...

In stark contrast to this acknowledgement of guilt stands Cardinal Mahony, whose latest statement (of many blog posts, tweets and interviews) claims that he was told to attend the Conclave by Vatican officials.

Unfortunately, it is all too plausible.  I'm sure that more than a few senior Vatican officials and voting Cardinals share the view that it is 'unfair' to judge them against 'modern' standards on sexual abuse (you know, that strange modern view that child abuse is both a serious sin and a crime, and that sex of any kind outside of marriage is a serious sin), and that the whole sex abuse crisis is just a beat up.

Indeed, Australia's Cardinal Cassidy, a retired Vatican official who is too unwell to travel to Rome to attend the General Congregation meetings (at 88 he is too old to vote) repeated Cardinal Pell's line today, that the sex abuse issue is not the  main issue facing the Church.

What these men apparently fail to understand is that what they see as the major problem facing the Church, viz the decline of belief in the West, and the call to evangelise, requires holiness on the part of the missionaries, and credibility on the part of the Church.

Men like Cardinal Mahony - and the many others who ignored centuries of Church moral teaching in their misguided efforts to protect priests and the 'reputation' of the Church - don't seem to get that there is a vital connection between the two things.

Holiness and mission

The traditional view of the Church - reiterated in fact in Vatican II documents such as Lumen Gentium despite propaganda to the contrary - has always been that religious and priests are called to a higher standard of behaviour precisely in order to provide a model of holiness to the laity.

Sure, in times of desperation, the faithful will surely be grateful to receive the sacraments even from a discredited whiskey priest.  But a priest is far more likely to win converts if he actually presents an attractive - and genuine - model of holiness.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that Greene's Power and the Glory was actually on the Index for some years precisely because it was viewed by some as painting priestly behaviour (and thus the Church) in a less than favourable light.

Sin and reparation

We are all called to holiness.

But the process of formally testing one's vocation over the course of several years, and requiring a period of intense, serious formation for priests exists for a reason.

Where priests (or religious) subsequently fall from those standards, an appropriate response is not to send them off for psychological treatment and then return them to ministry, but to require them to retire to a strict monastery (if such a thing existed any more!) and adopt a life of prayer and penance.

Personally, I've always thought that the move to pretty token penances has done more to undermine the sacrament of Confession than anything else: the sub-text, it has always seemed to me, is that if the penance for a serious sin is but a few Hail Mary's, how serious could the sin really have been, after all (and yes, I know all the counter arguments)?

St Mary Magdalene, after all, according to Western tradition, did not, after the death of Our Lord, rejoin society, but rather became a hermit in Provence.

That is the example we should all ponder.

Meanwhile back to the Conclave...

Meanwhile the next stage in the process of the election of the next Pope starts Monday Rome time with the 'General Congregations' of all Cardinals (including the non-voting ones).

Pope picking, in the meantime, is in full swing and is of course entertaining (personally, I really like New Advent's buzz meter, which currently has Cardinal Pell down five places, at No 23), but anything could happen in reality.

So what can we do?

Well first pray for a good new Pope.

And if you have a particular favourite or two, go for it (personally I'm pumping for either Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Ranjith).

Thirdly, let's pray for the Cardinal-electors, including for some to yet become a little more self-aware!

And it is not too late to 'Adopt a Cardinal'.

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