I'll never forget the gossip that met me on my arrival here as pastor. On my second or third day someone asked me about the rumour that I was very unhappy to be at Christ the Redeemer; a day later another parishioner said she'd been told I had schemed and plotted to be named to this plum parish!
Parish communities are often hotbeds of gossip, and priests can be the prime target. Sometimes, of course, the gossip is true. We know all too well that priests, all too often, have given people good reason to speak about their faults and failings. What Jesus says doesn't apply just to the scribes and Pharisees, but to priests and other religious leaders as well.
And of course the proud or arrogant behavior that Our Lord describes in the Gospel isn't the worst evil; the first reading speaks of something much worse, the corruption of some priests—which brings upon them damnation and disgrace. But we've talked about that tragedy before. Today I would like to look at how we deal more generally with the flaws of our priests.
It's a tough topic, because we want our priests to practice what they preach. Last week, we heard St. Paul telling the Thessalonians to imitate him—he was that confident oh the example he gave. In today's second reading, he continues the self-portrait. Paul was a gentle and caring pastor, a model of Christian life. Priests should be, too.
But priests are human, and so struggle with human weakness. How do we handle that in a parish community?
Once upon a time, we handled it by never criticizing priests. In some pious homes you'd get away with criticizing your mother before criticizing a priest. This policy certainly helped people to be charitable, but it also helped some priests escape legitimate correction of faults and worse. It's not the answer.
And like most extreme positions, the "hear no evil, speak no evil" had a partner on the pendulum. That partner is called anticlericalism.
It's a word many Canadian Catholics have never heard, and that even fewer understand. Those of you from Europe or Mexico, however, know what anticlericalism is; in many countries, at various times, it was an organized political movement directed towards priests and religious. In some cases, it meant laws that made life more difficult for the clergy; in others it meant active persecution and even death.
An informed Canadian Catholic needs to know enough Church history to realize two things about anticlericalism. The first is that excessive priestly privileges in past centuries, or too much wealth concentrated in the hands of the Church, certainly encouraged the hostility towards the Church's ministers that anticlericalism represents.
There are few things more disturbing than hypocrisy, which is why Jesus uses the examples of the proud religious men of his day. When the clergy become a privileged group in society, resentment is natural.
In the middle ages there were books and poems that might be called anticlerical, because they mocked the clergy. Some of these writings were scandalous, but others expressed legitimate disappointment and disapproval of weak or selfish priests. At the end of the 1300s, Chaucer ridicules some of these in his famous poem The Canterbury Tales, considered a classic of medieval literature.
But the second thing we need to remember is that modern anticlericalism, at its heart, was not primarily an attack on priests. It was an attack on the Church.
The French Revolution, Communism, the Mexican constitution of 1917, the Spanish Civil War—all these and many other political movements had strong anticlerical elements. An Italian friend who just finished reading a history of his native country mentioned to me this week that he'd forgotten how much anticlericalism there was in the movement for Italian Independence.
In these and many other examples, hostility to the clergy was hostility to the Church of Christ, period.
Now why I am emphasizing these historical facts in today's homily? Simply because the ghost of anticlericalism continues to float through the air today. (And speaking of ghosts, you may be sure that most people dressed as priests and nuns at Halloween parties are doing so in a disrespectful way.) Communism is dead, at least in the once-Christian nations of Russia and Eastern Europe, and most of Mexico's anticlerical laws were not enforced in recent decades. But the strategy of attacking priests as a way of attacking the Church is alive and well, and Catholics need to know that.
Of course we need to know that intelligently, not blindly. Every attack on a priest is not an attack on the Church. We need to acknowledge that and to lament the terrible harm done by some priests. Yet if we don't recognize how enemies of the Church use the clergy as a proxy to attack the Church we will fail in our duty to defend her.
Recent scandals have prompted the threat of laws attacking the seal of the confessional in Ireland and some U.S. states. Various threats are made to the tax status of churches. Some extremists even argued for the arrest of the Pope when he stepped on British soil.
Again, there is no defense against actual crimes committed by clergy. But when we read the papers, watch TV, and speak with non-Catholic friends we must separate fact from fiction, and genuine reaction from anticlerical opportunism.
In other words, bad priests may have given a stick to those who despise the Church, but it doesn't mean good Catholics should sit around while they beat the Church with it.
Twentieth century Catholics need a mature understanding of this, and to be able to recognize three things:
- Serious failings of priests must be reported and addressed by the competent authorities, religious and civil.
- Foibles of priests—their everyday faults and shortcomings—we must take in our stride and not confuse with more serious things. As long as priests are chosen from among men and not angels, there will be some who do not practice what they teach or give an example to imitate. Jesus knew this from the start, which is why he warns us so sternly—and why he made sure that the power of the Sacraments did not depend on the holiness of the minister.
- The shortcomings of the Church's ministers, whether grave or not, aren't the shortcomings of the Church itself. When they're used as an excuse to attack the Church and her mission, it's likely that old-fashioned anticlericalism is at work once again.
And I plead guilty to one of the specific charges that Jesus makes against the scribes and the Pharisees. I do love the place of honour at banquets, since we get fed first! But if you went to as many banquets as I do, you might forgive that fault...