An Historical Perspective on the Scandals in the Church

An Historical Perspective on the Scandals in the Church
Paul Thigpen

© 2002 by Paul Thigpen

[This essay appears in my book Shaken by Scandals: Catholics Speak Out About Priests' Sexual Abuse (Servant, 2002). To order the book, click here.]

The Church is in turmoil. Reports of clerical misconduct scandalize the public. From every quarter come stories of priests having sex with men and sex with women, fathering children, refusing to preach against immorality, engaging in heterodox ceremonies alien to the Christian faith.

The behavior of some bishops is equally scandalous. They fail to correct the priests under their oversight, either through a misguided sense of mercy or because they themselves are morally compromised. They seem to display no fear of God. They misuse Church funds. They are arrogantly out of touch with their flocks and seem to care little for the welfare of the victims of clerical abuse. They hanker after status and promotion within the hierarchy, and their worldliness keeps their attention focused more on temporal concerns than spiritual ones.

Does this seem a reasonable summary of certain problems facing the Catholic Church in America in the spring of 2002? Think again. I am actually describing the predicament of the Catholic Church in Italy more than six hundred years ago, in the fall of 1377.

How do we know about these dismal conditions so long ago? In the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), we find a record of this remarkable woman's extended conversations with God. She provides us there a startling, even outrageous portrait of a Church in desperate need of reform, much like the Church of our day.

Our Times Are Not Unique

Why should it make any difference to us that St. Catherine's time was so much like our own? First, because her account of medieval scandal should comfort us by reminding us that our dismaying situation is by no means historically unique. This is no doubt a cold comfort, but it has its uses; misery loves company. The truth is that evidence from many historical periods suggests that problems of sexual sin among the clergy and religious are perennial in Church history.

In the early centuries of the Church, for example, homosexual activity and even sexual abuse of children were apparently common enough among the ancient monks that monastic leaders had to account for it in the governance of their communities. St. Basil warned that handsome younger monks must keep their attractiveness cloaked to avoid arousing lust in the older monks. Abba Macarius and Abba Isaac, desert fathers in Egypt, rebuked the monastic communities that accepted boys into their midst and lamented the resulting pederasty that brought spiritual ruin. St. Benedict's rule had to insist that when monks slept in the same room, they must sleep in separate beds, with a lamp burning all night and with the elderly men distributed between the younger ones.

In the early Middle Ages, a regional Church council in seventh-century Spain found it necessary to decree that clergymen convicted of homosexual behavior would be degraded from holy orders and exiled. The ninth-century emperor Charlemagne rebuked the clergy and religious of his day for permitting homosexual sin to flourish within the monasteries. St. Peter Damian, an eleventh-century Church reformer, was outraged by the widespread practice of homosexual priests confessing to each other to avoid being discovered and to receive mild penances. Clerical spiritual advisors, too, he complained, often had sex with those under their care.

In the later Middle Ages we have, not only St. Catherine's report, but also the eleventh-century testimony of the great reformer St. Bernard of Clairvaux. He compared the Church of his day to a resurrected version of Sodom and Gomorrah. The ashes of those divinely incinerated cities were scattered throughout the clergy, he insisted. The "poisonous offspring" of those "cities of vice" boldly committed homosexual sin and then offered the Blessed Sacrament with defiled hands and hearts.

In the Renaissance, we need only note Pope Alexander VI, the notorious prelate belonging to the infamous Borgia family. As a cardinal he sired children by several women; one of his sons he arranged to be made a bishop at the age of seven. As pope he added several more women to his list of concubines, and fathered more children by them. Nor did he attempt to hide his sins: He paraded his offspring openly, lavishing gifts and honors on them. Worse yet, he reportedly was given to poisoning his enemies.

With Alexander in view, we might actually find ourselves somewhat relieved that things in our day are no worse than they are. Pope John Paul II is a heroically holy man. We have not yet sunk to the point of languishing under a Successor of Peter whose life story reads like a sleazy Andrew Greeley novel.

Suffering and Hope

At this point we must be clear: In no way does the frequency throughout Church history of sexual sin among clergy and religious somehow lessen the seriousness of that sin or its consequences. Whether in the fourteenth century or the twenty-first, human nature is perverted, disordered, corroded by sexual misconduct, with both abuser and victim profoundly injured. And the consequences are infinitely more grave — as St. Catherine, St. Bernard, and others have insisted — when the sinner is someone who carries the dignity and the responsibility of an alter Christus.

We must never even seem to suggest that the suffering of one of our contemporaries who is a victim of the current horror is no more than the dot of an "i" in the massive, depressing tome that is human history. Not at all. History, after all, has an end. The creature made in the image of God does not.

Long after the heavens and the earth have dissolved into ashes on God's hearth and blown away, immortal souls and their resurrected bodies will remain. They will forever carry the scars of their earthly suffering, for better or for worse. And it is the mission of the Church, Heaven help us, to see that those scars are transformed, like the nail holes in Christ's own flesh, into eternal testimonies to the Father's redemptive grace.

That is precisely why we must keep in mind the historical picture. If we conclude, through ignorance, that the Church has never faced such a trial as she faces today, we may despair. How can she possibly survive? How can we dare to hold on to her when she seems to be sinking into a deadly pit of chaos and oblivion?

Those in the media who ought to know more history than they do sometimes try to play on these fears. "Can the Catholic Church Be Saved?" shouted the garish headlines of a recent Time magazine cover story on the scandals. "If all this continues," says one supposedly "leading Catholic" interviewed by the reporter, "the Church will disappear."

That "leading Catholic" should be told about a witty remark of Cardinal Ercole Casalvi, the brilliant nineteenth-century statesman to whom fell the difficult lot of negotiating with Napoleon as secretary of state for Pope Pius VII. Reports of his exact words vary, but the story runs something like this: One day the little tyrant flew into a rage over the Pope's refusal to meet his demands. The arrogant Frenchman screamed at the cardinal, "I will destroy your Church!"

"Your Majesty," Consalvi answered calmly, "if popes, cardinals, bishops and priests have not succeeded in destroying the Church, how do you expect to do so?"

Dark humor, perhaps, yet the insight gives birth to hope. When we stop focusing so intently on today's sensational headlines and survey instead the two-thousand-year history of the Church, what do we see? An institution — no, an organism — so utterly tenacious, so resilient, so capable of renewal and, yes, even resurrection that we must confess in awe: "Her continued existence is an astounding miracle. The life within her must be supernatural!"

If the life within her is supernatural — and it is, because it is the life of Jesus Christ himself — then she will most certainly survive. More than that, she will be healed and renewed. If all the demon hosts cannot destroy her, then surely a handful of perverted priests, or even a horde of them, cannot do it. History abundantly illustrates the truth of Christ's own promise: "I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (see Mt 16:18).

For the victims and survivors of clerical abuse especially, the Church is thus the great model of hope. After all, she herself is a victim and survivor of abuse, some of it at the hands of her enemies, some at the hands of her children. Like her Master, she knows what it means to be betrayed, to be wounded, to be despised. And like her Master, she knows that beyond the grave lies glory.

Though she may lie on her deathbed a thousand times, she cannot remain there forever. The resurrected Son of God is her Life and her Lord. She will rise again.

A Diagnosis and Remedy

The restoration of the Church, though sure to come, does not come easily or quickly. Christ is the Great Physician, but the Church must take her medicine if she is to recover.

For an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment, we could do no better than to return to St. Catherine. This wise Doctor of the Church — "doctor" in more ways than one — listened carefully to her Lord as he examined the patient, spelled out the malady, and wrote his prescriptions. Then she recorded what she had heard in the Dialogue, reported it to the Church, and set out to administer the remedy.

Her entire book — or, at the very least, the section entitled "The Mystical Body of Holy Church" — should be required reading for every Catholic concerned about the current scandals (which is to say, I hope, every one of us). In the meantime, perhaps a brief overview of some of her insights will serve to point the way to new health in the Church.

The Diagnosis

According to St. Catherine, the Lord spoke to her about several deeply rooted problems among the clergy, among them pride, a loss of sacred identity, a loss of faith, a tendency to worldliness, and pervasive sensuality. If we examine the Church today in light of each of these concerns, the parallels are clear. No doubt we can find many contemporary American bishops and priests who do not fit the profile she provides. But her words could nonetheless benefit all the clergy, religious, and laity if we use them as the basis for some honest self-examination.

Pride. "Pride," the Lord said to St. Catherine, "is both the end and the beginning" of all the other clerical vices. "All the vices are seasoned with pride, just as the virtues are seasoned and made alive by love."

In whatever class of people it may be found, the Lord insisted, pride displeases him. "But it displeases me much more in these ministers because I have appointed them to a humble state, to be servants of the humble Lamb. Yet they behave in just the opposite way."

Pride, St. Catherine noted, drives the bishops to ignore the plight of the little people. Instead, they focus on gaining the respect and support of the high and mighty in the world.

A loss of sacred identity. When we gaze on the infinitely precious sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, says St. Catherine, we gaze into the abyss of God's love. No wonder, then, that when God speaks to her, he calls priests his "Christs." They have the incomparable dignity of ministering the fruits of Christ's passion to God's people — a dignity that not even the angels share.

Sadly, says St. Catherine, priests have forgotten or even denied their great dignity as Christ's own ministers. "They think they see," the Lord told her, "but they are actually blind: they do not know themselves, and they do not know me. They fail to know the status and the dignity to which I have appointed them."

From this loss of sacred identity, St. Catherine tells us, flow other problems. "Sins and abominations plague my Church," the Lord told her, because "those who appoint men to high offices do not investigate the lives of the men they appoint, to determine whether they are good or bad." Unworthy men are given high rank and great power because those who appoint them have so little sense of the gravity of the offices being filled.

A loss of faith. "The horns of your pride," God says to the priests through St. Catherine, "have stabbed the pupil of most holy faith in the eye of your mind. So you no longer have the light, and you cannot see how wretched you are. You do not believe that every sin has its punishment and every good its reward — if you did, you would not behave the way you do."

Lacking faith in God, they lose fear of God. The shepherds have lost their way; they have neither "the dog of conscience" to alert them to wrongdoing, nor the "rod of correction" to beat away the wolves from the flock. Yet ironically, having failed to fear God, they become spineless, "afraid of their own shadows — not with a holy fear, but with a slavish fear."

The loss of faith also shows itself in how the clergymen treat the Scripture. "These wretched ones … neither perceive nor understand anything but the outer crust, the letter, of Scripture. They have no relish for it, because their spiritual sense of taste is disordered, corrupted, by selfish love and pride."

Yet another way in which loss of faith manifests itself among priests and bishops is in practices that are unorthodox and alien to the Christian tradition. They "cast spells and summon demons," St. Catherine complains. Instead of "praying the Divine Office," they pray to devils. Instead of singing the traditional "psalms and hymns," they "resort to diabolical incantations."

Worldliness. An inordinate love of the world — and a fear of losing what it offers — can take many forms. St. Catherine identifies several types that plague the clergy of her day, making them "so miserably concerned about acquiring and holding on to temporal things that they seem to throw spiritual things behind them."

Most common, perhaps, is the "hankering for high ecclesiastical rank." When priests have worldly designs for their careers, they avoid making waves. "They pretend not to see" the sins around them that merit reproof; they refrain from correcting people "for fear of losing their rank and position." They are especially careful not to admonish powerful political leaders who are sinning openly.

She also reproves the clergy for extravagant lifestyles. Taking on the trappings of those around them who boast great status and wealth, the bishops live in fancy houses, wine and dine the "great men" of their day, waste the Church's money on unnecessarily expensive forms of travel, and spend too much time in frivolous pursuits.

Worldliness takes other forms as well. The priests love giving homilies of polished but empty rhetoric instead of proclaiming the word of God. They also have an inordinate desire for worldly education. This is not a chaste love for learning, St. Catherine notes, but a proud craving to be admired for erudition, and a disdain for those who are unlearned.

Sensuality. "If they had remembered their dignity as priests," the Lord says to St. Catherine, "they would not have stumbled into the darkness of mortal sin nor muddied the face of their souls." But instead they "feed and wallow in the mire of impurity."

"What is the source of such uncleanness in their souls? Their own selfish sensuality. Their selfishness has made a mistress of their sensuality, and their miserable little souls have become her slaves." Like worldliness, St. Catherine points out, sensuality takes a variety of forms among the clergy: inordinate eating and drinking, gutter language, materialism, and — worst of all — sexual impurity.

The pages of the Dialogue are seared with fiery condemnations of sexual sin. "O demons, and worse than demons!" the Lord says to fornicating priests. "They rise in the morning with their minds corrupted and their bodies defiled. After spending the night in bed with mortal sin, they go to celebrate Mass! O tabernacles of the devil!"

"I let them bind my Son's hands to set you and all humankind free from sin's bondage," the Lord reminds them. "I anointed and consecrated your hands for the ministry of the most holy Sacrament. Yet you use your hands for disgusting obscene touching!"

Worse yet is the abomination of homosexual impurity, that "cursed unnatural sin." The "stench" of this sin not only offends heaven, says the Lord; even the demons themselves loathe the odor of it and run away. In St. Catherine's day, "it seemed as if you could not live among the lowly or the mighty, religious or clergymen, superiors or subjects, masters or servants; for they were all stained in mind and body by this curse." But this particular sin is "much more hateful" to God in those who are called to celibacy.

Bishops who are guilty of sexual impurity lose their moral leverage and blind themselves to the reality of sin. "They will not correct the sins of others," says the Lord to St. Catherine, "because they themselves are living in the same or greater sins. They realize that the same guilt surrounds them, so they throw out their zeal and trust and, in the chains of slavish fear, pretend that they do not see. … How can men who are so sinful bring their subjects to righteousness and rebuke them for their sins? They cannot do so, for their own sins have stolen from them any enthusiasm or fervor for holy righteousness."

The result of all this wickedness, God tells her, is a fast track to damnation. He minces no words: "In hell … these wicked ministers will be more severely punished than other Christians who committed the very same sins, because of the ministry I gave to them when I made them stewards of … the Holy Sacrament, and because they had the light of learning by which they could have discerned the truth for themselves as well as for others–if they had only chosen to do so. So it is just that they should be most severely punished."

Is there a place for divine mercy here? Of course! "With my mercy," God promises, "they can gain access to hope — if only they are willing. Otherwise, not a one of them would fail to despair, and despair would bring everlasting damnation with the demons."

The Remedy

What can be done to restore health to the Church? St. Catherine offers these further insights from her conversations with God.

Rome must take decisive action to discipline offending bishops. The pope, whom St. Catherine refers to as "Christ on earth," has the duty of delegating ministers to help him in service to the Church. Only those he has "accepted and consecrated" can minister as bishops, and he is "the head of the whole clerical order."

The Lord said to her: "Because the pope has sent these men out as his assistants, it is his responsibility to correct them for their faults, and it is my will that he do just that." When he is aware of sin among the bishops, he should chastise them; "he should take out of office those who will not repent and turn from their wicked way of living."

If the pope does this, he is performing his sacred duty. If not, "his sin will not go unpunished when it is his turn to give an accounting for the little ones of his flock."

The bishops and other high Church officials must take decisive action against offending priests. In a vivid image, St. Catherine rebukes bishops who have failed to discipline their priests through a misguided notion of "mercy." Those who will not receive correction and those who will not give it, she says, are like limbs of a body beginning to rot.

"If a doctor only applied salve to a wound without cauterizing it first, the whole body would become stinking and rotten," she observes. "It is the same with prelates and others in authority. If they see among their subjects those who are rotting because of the putrefaction of deadly sin, and yet they only apply the salve of soft words without rebuke, they will never be healed. Instead, they will infect the other members of the Body."

And what of those who are "obstinate in their wickedness"? They must be "cut off from the congregation so that they will not infect the whole Body with the foulness of mortal sin."

Lay people must not allow themselves to be scandalized to the point of withdrawing from the sacraments. The sinfulness of the clergy can never "deprive the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist or any other sacrament of its perfection." So we must not turn away the precious gift of the sacraments simply because of the wretchedness and unworthiness of those who bear the gift.

"If someone dirty or dressed in rags were to bring you a great life-giving treasure," the Lord said to St. Catherine, "you would not disdain the gift-bearer for love of the treasure itself and the lord who sent it to you." In a similar way, because we so desperately need the life-giving treasure of the sacraments, we should receive it at the hands even of sinful priests. "If you receive these sacraments worthily, and for love of me, the eternal God, who sends them to you, and for love of the life of grace that you receive from this great treasure, then you receive grace through them no matter how sinful the bearers might be."

Lay people must not use the situation as an excuse to denigrate priests in general. Some of St. Catherine's sharpest rebukes are directed to lay people who are "irreverent persecutors" of the clergy. In fact, she reports that Christ said to her, "To me accrues every assault they make on my ministers: derision, slander, disgrace, abuse."

Despite the legitimate anger and sense of betrayal many Catholics feel, the priesthood is still worthy of great respect: "For no sin in the priest," the Lord said to St. Catherine, "can lessen the power of the Sacrament, and thus their reverence for the priest who administers the Sacrament should not lessen either."

The entire Church must earnestly pray. All the faithful, God said, have a special role in such a crisis: "I set among them my servants who are healthy and not diseased in order to pray for them."

"Now, my most dear daughter," the Lord told St. Catherine, "I invite you and all my other servants to weep over these priests who are spiritually dead. Be like little lambs in the garden of Holy Church, grazing there in a holy longing and continual prayer. Offer your desires and your prayers to me for their sakes so that I can show mercy to the world. … Be humble and attentive to my honor, the salvation of souls, and the reform of Holy Church. This will be a sign to me that you truly love me."

God told St. Catherine he would answer such ardent, persistent prayers. Just as the Church is now filled with troubles, it will abound with joy and consolation. The "good holy shepherds" will become like "flowers of glory," blossoming with "the fragrance of virtue rooted in truth."

With St. Catherine, then — who no doubt is praying fervently for the Church even now — we must take hope and give ourselves to intercession for all victims and survivors, bishops and priests, lay and religious, and all those who have been touched by the scandals of our day. God promises us, as he promised her, that even though the healing will be costly, it will be sure: "For I, Eternal Truth, promise to refresh you. And after your bitterness I will grant you consolation — with great suffering — in the reform of Holy Church."