The abuse scandal has exemplified vice and a complete lack of virtue. I’m not talking about the abusers. Certainly, their behavior was sinful and driven by unrestrained vice, but the handling by the Church leadership has lacked virtue at almost every step. We need to look at how to pursue virtue in this terrible abuse scandal.
“Prudence is the right reason of things to be done… Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds. Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion. And, since choice is about things in reference to the end, rectitude of choice requires two things: namely, the due end, and something suitably ordained to that due end.” -St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas makes it clear that prudence is necessary for us because it orients us toward our proper end. We make choices because we are pursuing some end result, and prudence allows us to choose well.
What is the end we are directed to? We were made to give glory to God and unite with Him in heaven for eternity. That is our proper end. How does this relate to the abuse scandal and the most recent revelations?
Our prelates are responsible for our spiritual direction and protection, leading us to our eternal reward. What we have seen in the abuse scandal is the opposite to that. Instead of leading us to virtue, the leaders of the Church embraced vice.
“Follow St. Gregory’s advice: When you are justly blamed for some fault you have committed, humble yourself deeply, and confess that you deserve blame. If the accusation be false, defend yourself quietly, denying the fact; this is but due respect for truth and your neighbor’s edification. But if after you have made your true and legitimate defense you are still accused, do not be troubled, and do not try to press your defense – you have had due respect for truth, have the same now for humility. By acting thus you will not infringe either a due care for your good name, or the affection you are bound to entertain for peace, humility, and gentleness of heart.” -St. Francis de Sales
St. Francis de Sales gives great advice for handling accusations. The priests and bishops who have abused children, seminarians and others should be held to account for their sins and their crimes, by both the Church and civil authorities. Instead, our leaders covered up their crimes, paid hush money and sought to keep the transgressions secret.
For the abusers, this robbed them of the humiliation that they rightly deserve and likely need to truly repent. Fortunately, the truth has come up. Hopefully, we know of all the abuse, but based on our leaders’ track record, it is impossible to be confident that this is in the past.
For the priests and bishops that sought to cover up the abuse, they also failed to embrace humility. Many of them failed to protect children and others. Although they may not have personally committed the horrible, sinful acts, their failure to prevent them should bring some degree of humiliation to them. If they accepted humiliation, this will ultimately make them more virtuous.
For the laity that have witnessed this, we share in the crimes of a few of our leaders. We are the body of Christ. When one part of the body sins, all of us suffer. It is painful for us to recognize that there are predators in our Church, parish priests, bishops and even Cardinals, who have abused so many. Sin is never private and has a public component, and in this case, every Catholic should bear some of the shame.
Our prelates, by hiding and covering up the abuse have attempted to rob every Catholic of the humiliation that should result from this. This, in turn, would prevent an opportunity to grow in humility, the virtue that is the foundation of all the virtues.
I don’t know the priests and bishops involved in the scandal and certainly can’t speak to their interior motivations. Despite that, their actions objectively served the vices of pride and self-love and undermined the virtue of humility.
Penance and Justice
“There are two ways of honoring Our Lord by penance; the one is inspired by negative love, the other by positive love. By the first, we prevent evil or we correct it. It is necessary, but it makes us act only through the strict duty of Christian justice. For the practice of this kind of penance, it suffices to have a conscience and to know one’s self to be a sinner. This is rigorous reparation. It would be a very unfortunate thing not to have sufficient love to mortify one’s self in this way. But the penance that springs from positive love is what I counsel you, what I desire for you. It is more noble. It is not satisfied with paying its debts, but it gives over and above of all that it owns. Animated by this love, we do not mortify ourselves to avoid hell, but to please God. We deprive ourselves of what we might lawfully get. It is the sacrifice of filial love. It applies itself to everything, finding in all things matter from which to cull some privation to offer at once to the Well-Beloved. By this loving mortification.” -St. Peter Julian Eymard
Doing Penance is a virtue and honors Our Lord. Penance is demanded by justice when we sin. St. Eymard gives two ways to do penance. First, is to meet the minimum required by justice out of fear and the second is mortify oneself far beyond the obligation of justice out of love.
Our leaders failed monumentally when it comes to Justice and Penance. They didn’t even meet the minimum St. Eymard outlines but sought to deny, hide and pay the minimum to cover up the transgressions of abusers. To call this shameful is inadequate. It is easy for a bishop to take from the coffers of the diocese, money that is not his but that he is the steward for, to pay to keep victims quiet. That doesn’t serve justice but is blood money paid to protect the reputation and pride of a predator and other Church leaders.
Even the very lowest level of justice, so low the saints don’t even mention it, was not satisfied. What is this minimum? Stop the abuse! Remove the abuser from any position where they can continue their abuse. It is shameful that they couldn’t even do this.
The victims failed to see Justice. This is a travesty. They deserve to see justice rendered in some form, but our leaders continue to have secret payoffs. That is not justice.
We like to think about the mercy of God, but God is also just. For the unrepented guilty of mortal sin, an eternity spent in anguish and torment is the natural result. For the repentant sinner who is genuinely contrite and sorrowful for their sins, forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession can save them from damnation, but it doesn’t erase the need for temporal punishment that Justice demands. For that, there is purgatory. Many saints have talked about the fires of purgatory, and that those there stay not for days, weeks or years, but for centuries, and that mildest pain in purgatory is worse than the greatest pain on earth. Justice demands punishment, and if those who abused or enabled the abusers to escape punishment in this life, they won’t in the next.
The Root of Self-Love
Self-love is a terrible vice that grows from pride. We can see this throughout the Church during the abuse scandal. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. St. Catherine of Siena wrote about a similar problem more than 600 years ago.
“Neither the civil law, nor the divine law, can be kept in any degree without holy justice, because he who is not corrected, and does not correct others, becomes like a limb which putrefies, and corrupts the whole body, because the bad physician, when it had already begun to corrupt, placed ointment immediately upon it, without having first burnt the wound. So, were the prelate, or any other lord having subjects, on seeing one putrefying from the corruption of mortal sin, to apply to him the ointment of soft words of encouragement alone, without reproof, he would never cure him, but the putrefaction would rather spread to the other members, who, with him, form one body under the same pastor. But if he were a physician, good and true to those souls, as were those glorious pastors of old, he would not give salving ointment without the fire of reproof.” -St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine warns against using just soft words. The image she gives, rotting putrid flesh, is a great analogy for the abuse in the Church. This has been and continues to be a source of putrefaction in the Church. We need good physicians that will use the fire of reproof. St. Catherine continues:
“And, were the member still to remain obstinate in his evil-doing, he would cut him off from the congregation in order that he corrupt not the other members with the putrefaction of mortal sin.”
Do our leaders cut off clergy who are obstinate in their evil doing? Removing McCarrick from the ranks of the Cardinals is a start, but it seems this is only being done because his sins were made public. How was he allowed to persist as a Bishop, Archbishop, and Cardinal for so long? St. Catherine continues:
“But they act not so today, but, in cases of evil-doing, they even pretend not to see. And do you know why? The root of self-love is alive in them, wherefore they bear perverted and servile fear. Because they fear to lose their position or their temporal goods, or their prelacy, they do not correct, but act like blind ones, in that they see not the real way by which their position is to be kept.” -St. Catherine of Siena
This applies as much today as it did 600 yrs ago. How much of the scandal is because of pride and self-love? If our leaders had chosen humility over self-love, how much faster would abusing priests and bishops have been removed? How many victims would have been protected?
“The virtues of Our Lord are not acquired all at once. Their practice costs. Devote yourselves to them without fear, with courage and perseverance. They must be your adornment on the day on which He will present you to His Father for the celebration of the heavenly nuptials in Paradise in presence of His angels.” -St. Peter Julian Eymard
Pursuing the virtuous course is not easy. It requires courage – the courage to be humiliated. What if our prelates had quickly admitted these sins and dealt with them? It would have been painful. The shame and humiliation would have been terrible. Justice demanded actions to pay back what had been taken. No amount of money would ever be sufficient, but our penance needs to be much more than legal settlements.
How many priests and bishops would have been removed from their positions? Getting rid of abusive priests would have been good, but some falsely accused may have been removed too. The institutional church would have suffered. Too often, we over-inflate our importance. Is it better to risk having a priest or bishop abusing people in their role, or to have the position vacant? It’s no contest. It is far better for the roles to go vacant.
Now, I expect some will say that we will risk removing good priests if we remove everyone accused. Some accusations can be quickly disproven, and that is good. For others that can’t be proven or disproven, we should err on the side of believing the accusation until we know otherwise. That will surely remove good and holy priests from active ministry, and without priests, there is no Mass, no Confession or others sacraments. That will be a hardship. Before we think any of our priests and bishops are indispensable, consider a few others. Jesus only served in active ministry for 3 years and He seemed to accomplish everything He needed. Peter and all the other Apostles (except John) were killed for their faith, and the Church did fine. In fact, it flourished with each martyr. If the Church thrived with the loss of the Son of God and His Apostles, we can trust that God will provide whatever is needed.
St. Gerard Majella
St. Gerard Majella was a Redemptorist lay brother under St. Alphonsus Liguori. A woman Gerald taught left the convent and made up lies for why she left. Her lies escalated until she accused Gerald of impurity with a young woman.
St. Alphonsus immediately investigated the accusation. No evidence could be found to validate the accusation or to disprove it. Gerald had an excellent reputation, and no one, including St. Alphonsus, could believe that he had committed the sins he was accused of. Despite that, St. Alphonsus was cautious and proceeded with the investigation and penalties.
When St. Alphonsus questioned, Gerald remained silent. St. Alphonsus was forced to impose a severe penalty on Gerald, isolating him and removing him from all active ministry. Gerald trusted God. When he was encouraged by others to clear his name, he would say, “If He wills that my innocence be proven, who can accomplish it more easily than He?”
This trial gave Gerald the opportunity to practice tremendous humility and obedience. The worst penalty for Gerald was that he was banned from receiving Holy Communion. Since it was believed he had committed a mortal sin, he couldn’t receive the Eucharist in this state (it is a grave offense against God to receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin). He also couldn’t repent and confess the sin to receive absolution because he was innocent. Repentance would have been a lie. His only option was to endure the loss of the Eucharist. His holiness made this loss tremendously painful.
Eventually, the woman recanted her accusation and Gerald’s reputation was restored. St. Alphonsus asked him why he didn’t speak up. Gerald said, “our rule forbids that we make excuses.”
By accepting punishment, Gerald grew in holiness and this led to the repentance of the woman that had falsely accused him. Both parties grew closer to God through his humility.
Now, some will say that St. Gerald’s silence and St. Alphonsus’s punishment of him led to an injustice against St. Gerald. That is absolutely true. That is the consequence of the sin of the woman who accused him. Before we quickly decide to focus on that injustice, remember that humility was exemplified, and Christ, our Savior, endured a falsely accused with great humility.
Following the model described by St. Gregory and quoted by St. Francis de Sales provided above is an excellent way to proceed. Make a quiet defense, but if that defense is not successful, do not be troubled.
Our world needs role models of humility today. We need prelates who will accept whatever shame and humiliation come their way, and in humility, seek virtue over vice and self-love. Such role models would transform not just the Church but the entire world.
“You will know them by their fruits.”
How many people have come to the Church and to Christ by the handling of the abuse in the Church? Is there a single person that was drawn to learn more about the faith and the Blessed Trinity because our leaders hid abuses, enabled abusers and continue to honor those tremendously sinful men? I have never met anyone that came to the Church or deepened their faith because of our Bishops’ actions in this. Not one person. Perhaps there is someone out there, but I doubt it.
How many people have left the faith and the Church over the handling of the abuse scandal? I personally know people who left the Church because of our bishops’ actions. I also see the Church in collapse. Vocations have been plummeting, Mass attendance is terrible and the number of people who have left the Church in the US are in the tens of millions. If Christ talks of the celebration over one repentant sinner, how deep is the sorrow over millions leaving the Church He founded?
Virtue is the Answer
In all things, using prudence to choose the most virtuous course is always the answer. Vice is never better than virtue, and sin is never justifiable (“Death before sin” -St. Dominic Savio). We need to get back the courage of living virtuously, the courage of the martyrs who died for their faith rather than deny God.
Hopefully, our leaders will choose the path of virtue. In the laity, we need embrace humility, penance, and mortification. We need to pray for victims of abuse and mortify ourselves as penances. Fasting is needed. We need to pray for our priests and bishops. We need to practice virtue, especially humility, and accept whatever shame and humiliation are before us.
This isn’t easy, but we follow a man who carried His own cross to His crucifixion in humility, never complaining and never turning away from the pain. If we truly follow the Lamb of God, are we willing to suffer and sacrifice to render the justice that is required?