Throughout all the Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments, there is frequent mention of priests and clergy-type figures. Interestingly, many of these Scriptural references to the clergy, probably even the majority of them, are negative. In the long list of persons, places, and things that God condemns in our holy texts, the priests are given some of the most withering critiques. It seems that in every era of our religious history, there has been a problem with the condition of the clergy.
Granted, not all the Scriptural mentions are critical. There are some heroes, who are the reformers, like Elijah, or Ezekiel, or Ezra. Saint Paul speaks with affection of some of the “elders” (bishops/priests) who he has been associated with. The apostles were flawed men, as was Saint Paul himself, but it is clear from the New Testament that their status after the Resurrection as shepherds of the flock was held in high regard. These are the handful of the good ones that stand out anyway. Otherwise, when the clergy are spoken of generically, or when the temple leaders (scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees) are mentioned as a group, it is clear that they are a pretty unimpressive group, always in need of reform.
One would think that a role, or office, that is so consistently criticized by God in His Scriptures should simply have vanished for lack of need. If the clergy are so bad, why do we keep having them after all? Sort of like dandelions, us priests keep popping up in the yard of religious piety, in every tradition and in every era, which suggests that we are needed for some reason, even if we are typically a lukewarm lot.
As recent headlines about clerical abuse of power show, the clergy continue to be a real problem. We have been through waves of Catholic Clergy sexual abuse headlines and the surfacing of heinous acts for decades now, but what seems especially upsetting about this latest batch, centering-in on (now-resigned) Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, DC, is the unavoidable conclusion that a culture of mutual protection and silence among the priests and among the bishops continues to persist IN SPITE OF the last couple decades of hard revelations and costly lessons.
Have we learned nothing? Must we ask if such a culture of mutual protection and secrecy about unholy behavior is endemic to, or inescapably a facet of, clerical existence? One hopes not. As Catholics we do believe in the changeless teaching that even for all of its problems, the Catholic priesthood is desired by God for the world, and that it originates in His call to men to follow after Him in every generation. God would not will something that is intrinsically unholy or even permanently broken to persist. Therefore, unholy secrecy cannot be integral to the priesthood, despite all outside appearances at the moment.
Are good and holy clergy rare then, considering again that the Scriptures are full of stark corrections to the clergy? This is harder to say, especially when so many of us who lived life thinking we knew Father “so and so” to be a good holy man were shocked to discover bad things about him as secret deeds came to light. After awhile, this steady stream of double lives come to light breaks down our unshakable certainty in the goodness of the clergy.
There is something about an overly institutionalized view and approach to priestly formation and priestly life that carries within itself its own strong tendencies to protectionism and silence that can make it very difficult for individual men to speak up in the face of all that might work against them. In such a climate, the generally good priests and bishops who a lot of us know can be self-deceived into a widespread sense of silence, reinforced also by the knowledge that each of us as priests have of our own failings. “Who am I to judge?” many of us priests internally say to ourselves as soon as we hear of some other priests failings, knowing full well that the private details of our own behaviors would be embarrassing if brought to light. This is a failure of confidence in God’s mercy as well as a fear of the necessary just punishment that God permits to come to us all as a result of our bad choices, so that He can shape us for the better. Behind all of the unholy silence is, at root, unholy fear.
So it is perhaps not so much good priests that are rare, but rather what is truly rare are prophets: those who speak boldly, because they see clearly, and do not care that it means the end of their career to say something. Prophets are fearless. “The priests,” on the other hand, as the Scriptures show, are indeed called, are needed, and can be somewhat lukewarm, and in a state of unholy, institutional and personal fear become rather ordinary. Yes, the rarer case is the true prophet, or even the saint.
Sadly enough I do not separate myself from the general category of average, ordinary priests who, while needed and called, are also in need of reform and who fade into the general woodwork of what might be called “the institution,” doing so out of fear. I am no prophet and I also have many moral failings, none of which I am proud to admit.
That said, I do know we could use a true prophet or two right now. True prophets are those who not only respect the unbending elements of the Church’s salvific structures, of which the ordained priesthood is one, but who also can see clearly what has become deficient in our approach to those same structures in order to bring about needed changes to the way we practice our priesthood and our faith.
Please continue to pray for priests and for our bishops. We are necessary and flawed creatures for the work of salvation, and God wills that his priesthood should continue in the world until He comes again. Pray more fervently for true prophets; for those who are not afraid of the light. We are lost without them and we need them now as much as ever. Only God can send them.