Sunday, July 8, 2012

The holiness of the Church and clerical scandals

Does gravely immoral activity by the clergy detract from the holiness of the Church as it is on earth, the Church militant? It sure seems so. But I want to argue, very speculatively (and I will withdraw the claim if it turns out that the Church teaches otherwise), that it directly detracts no more—or at least not significantly more—than equally gravely immoral activity by similar numbers of laity would.

Consider the three features we desire the Church as found on earth to have: doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical integrity and holiness of life.

The doctrinal orthodoxy and liturgical integrity of the clergy does indeed especially contribute to the doctrinal orthodoxy and liturgical integrity of the Church. If a priest or especially a bishop is unorthodox, all other things being equal, that in itself detracts more from the orthodoxy of the Church on earth than when a lay person is unorthodox, simply because of the teaching role of the clergy. Similarly, if a priest or bishop engages in liturgical anarchy, say by changing some prayers at Mass, that detracts from the liturgical integrity of the Church more than if a lay person does so, all other things being equal.

But when a deacon, priest or bishop (including a pope) is wicked, that no more (and no less) directly detracts from the holiness of the Church than when a non-cleric person is wicked, when the degree of wickedness is the same. We can see this by considering the happier flip-side. Think of a non-cleric like St Teresa of Avila (she was a nun, of course, but a nun is a non-cleric[note 1]) and a priest like St John of the Cross. The holiness of their lives directly contributed to the holiness of the Church. But it would, I think, be mistaken to say that St John's holiness contributed more, or was a more central contribution, than St Teresa's just because St John was a priest and St Teresa was not. To say that would be to engage in clericalism, and is perhaps a species of the same error that leads to Donatism. The clergy's activity makes a special constitutive contribution to the Church's orthodoxy and liturgical integrity. But a layperson's holiness is just as constitutive of the holiness of the Church as the holiness of a deacon, priest or bishop. Mary makes a greater direct contribution to the holiness of the Church than any deacon, priest or bishop—not counting Christ the High Priest—ever did or would.

Of course, wickedness in a deacon, priest or bishop (and especially when the bishop is pope) typically has a greater negative effect on the Church's holiness, because it is more likely to scandalize others, leading them either to imitate the wickedness or abandon the faith. This indirectly detracts from the Church's holiness.

Suppose every single Catholic priest next year committed some particular grave and scandalous sin. That would be a terrible thing, would have a very unfortunate negative effect on the Church, and may God preserve us from this disaster. But it would no more directly detract from the Church's holiness than if some other group comprising 0.04% of the world's Catholic population committed an equally grave sin.

That said, a sin that is otherwise of the same sort may be graver when committed by a cleric, because (a) the cleric bears a responsibiity for avoiding the further negative effects and (b) is less likely to be excusable through ignorance. The above assumes we are dealing with sins of equal gravity.

Christ promised that the Church would be holy. The above argument shows that an argument based on clerical crimes that the Catholic Church cannot be Christ's Church because Christ's Church is holy is no stronger than argument based on equal numbers of non-clerical crimes would be. But an argument based on the crimes committed by non-clerics would fail: we do not expect the Church's holiness to imply the sinlessness of her members. The Church while holy as a body—the body of Christ—is yet a Church for sinners who need Christ's reforming grace. Thus the argument based on clerical crimes also fails.

And then, of course, there is always Boccaccio's argument.


Heath White said...

Speaking with no expertise on this subject whatsoever, I would have thought that the holiness of the institutional Church was a matter of being "set apart" or "dedicated to a special purpose", not a matter of good conduct by its members.

I don't think bad conduct by clerics or laypeople can challenge holiness in this sense. Unorthodoxy or liturgical anarchy might.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

"Speaking with no expertise on this subject whatsoever, I would have thought that the holiness of the institutional Church was a matter of being "set apart" or "dedicated to a special purpose", not a matter of good conduct by its members.

I don't think bad conduct by clerics or laypeople can challenge holiness in this sense. Unorthodoxy or liturgical anarchy might."

To counter, I spoke to our priest today about this and I will sum up what he said:

The Church is Holy because its Founder, Jesus, is Holy. Whether or not a person ordained to Holy Orders is holy or not is contingent upon his behavior. A priest who is guilty of grave wickedness (such as pedophilia)even if he repents cannot continue to be holy and is removed from his duties due to the nature of the wickedness.

I have read somewhere several years ago, but cannot recall the name of the Pope. All I know that several centuries ago, there was a Pope who would defrock priests guilty of grave wickedness and turn them over to secular authorities for whatever nice gorey punishment that got meted out back then. This Pope didn't loose any sleep over this or shed too many tears because it was more improtant to preserve the Holiness of the Church and to keep it from grave scandal. I know I read this somewhere, but it may be a while before I can dig it out. So if anyone knows more on this please let me know.

Back in 2006, I attended the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in DC. One of the speakers was Father Benedict Groeschel. He warned us back then that the Church in Ireland was headed for serious trouble. That we should be more worried about where the Church was headed than about the rise of Islam. He also warned that if the Church lost its Holiness, that God would be forced to destroy it. Three years later in 2009 the Ryan Report came out.

Remember history, God did allow the Jerusalem Temple to be destroyed twice, the second time around it was permanent.

As for Church teaching on scandal, I will refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 2284 through 2287. Especailly 2285: "Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it . . . It prompted our Lord to utter this CURSE: 'Whoever causes one of these lttle ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.' Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. . ."

And CCC 2287 "Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads other to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil he has directly or indirectly encouraged."

Demur rer said...

I think one would also need to consider the great potential for encouragement that rests at the heart of clerical godliness vis-à-vis the laity. For if discouragement is imparted through the leadership of clerical ungodliness, then encouragement is also imparted through the godliness of that same leadership. Thus, it seems to me that the impact of any godliness, or holiness, of the clergy would have a greater positive effect on the laity than the reciprocal would. Consequently, if the Church (at large) would seem to profit more through clerical godliness than it would through the godliness of the laity (all other things being equal), it follows that clerical ungodliness would, in fact, directly detract more from the Church's holiness than similar (mis)deeds of the laity.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, the potential for encouragement and discouragement is what I called indirect contribution to or detraction from holiness.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I agree: when priests publicly sin, they cause more scandal. They indirectly detract more from holiness.

Compare two things: Health directly contributes to one's happiness--the health is itself a part of one's happiness. A good doctor, on the other hand, indirectly contributes to one's happiness, by causing health. The doctor in and of herself is not a part of one's happiness.

Scott said...


Consider the following three claims:

(a) Most of the RC clergy is unholy because they are wicked in the way you specify in your post.

(b) Most Western RC non-clergy are unholy because they are sexually immoral and ignore what they know to be the teachings of the Church.

(c) Most non-Western RC non-clergy are unholy because they are syncretistic and mix RC doctrine and practices with incompatible
doctrine and practices from other traditions.

I don't have any idea whether each of these claims is true. But they, at the very least, do not seem obviously false.

If (a), (b), and (c) are all true, do you think this would be a problem for Catholicism? If not, how could you extend your response to objections based on (a) alone to objections based on (a) and (b) and (c)?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Those are two tough questions.

My argument does not extend to the case where (a)-(c) are all true: it is meant as a specific response to the clergy case.

(A quibble about (b) and (c): it may be that at least some of these are excused by invincible ignorance. Even if they know that the Catholic Church teaches against these practices, they may not believe that the Catholic Church's teaching is actually authoritative in those respects. In this regard, they may be rather like Protestants who contracept, and who know that the Catholic Church teaches against it, but do not believe that the Catholic Church's teaching is authoritative. Whether the ignorance is culpable is for God to figure out in the end.)

I think the thing to remember is that primarily the holiness of the Church is the holiness of Christ. This holiness sanctifies the other members of the Church, but it may be that many of them reject this sanctity. Nonetheless, a secondary component of the holiness of the Church is the holiness of its members. It is the secondary component that I was addressing, and this would indeed be detracted from--though not completely destroyed--by the conjunction of (a), (b) and (c).

I would want to add the query as to how sinful these persons would be were they not members of the Church. It may be that they have become significantly sanctified--but have far to go. I am a sinner, but I know I would be an even worse sinner were it not for the grace of Christ.

Heath White said...

It has been stated several times that the Church is holy because Christ is holy. I think this could be taken two ways (which may roughly correspond to Protestant and Catholic understandings of justification; I am not trying to pick fights here, just explain). (1) Christ’s holiness substitutes or stands for or is the measure of the Church’s holiness. In that case, no sins by any human beings are going to detract from the Church’s holiness. We are done. (2) Christ’s holiness causes or influences the (personal) holiness, the moral goodness or virtue, of its members. When we say “the Church is holy” we are referring to the moral goodness of its members. In that case, sins by members of the church do detract from its holiness. So only on this second conception is there any problem at all.

The general form of argument Alex is addressing, then, is this: Subset S of members of the Catholic Church are wicked; if the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ as it claims, then we would expect Christ’s holiness to cause a greater degree of moral virtue among S; therefore the Catholic Church is not Christ’s Church.

The first premise is empirical and the second is theological. Maybe we could weasel out of particular forms of the argument by pushing back on the empirical elements: S is very small, S is not representative, its sins are not so grave, things might have been much worse, etc. However, for sufficiently large S and sufficiently grave sins, this is not going to work, and that is what I take Scott’s reply to suggest. Then we might want to revisit the theological premise, and retreat (?) to conception (1) of the Church’s holiness, and this may be what some commenters are in effect saying.

As an aside, it occurred to me that the other marks of the church—unity, catholicity, and apostolicity—are not supposed to come in degrees (are they?). That is, there is no such thing as “detracting from” the unity or catholicity or apostolicity of the Church; you either have it or you don’t. I wonder if holiness is not best construed along the same lines.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I have a few additional points to make.

1. Throughout history, when the clergy have committed scandalous actions or were involved in corruption AND the issues have gone unaddressed by the Church hierarchy, it has frequently resulted in the rise of schismatic or heretical groups such as the Waldenses and the Protestant Reformation.

2. Scandalous behavior is widespread and under reported in other Christian sects and denominations. If you google around, you will find that statistics are much harder to come by than they are for the Catholic Church due to the wide variety and differing levels of organization of Protestant Churches. Roughly what has been determined is that 10% of Protestant clergy have engaged in some form of inappropriate behavior. 30% of Protestant clergy have a problem with porn. Some of the most egregious violators are among "Youth Group Ministers" and "Pastoral Counselors". The Eastern Orthodox churches also have had issues in this area.

3. Unfortunately, scandalous behavior with the transfer of offending clerics and concealment of the extent of the problem occurs in other religions. Buddhists, Judaism, Hinduism etc, have similar issues and follow similar patterns.

4. Scandalous behavior is notorious among K-12 educators. Offending teachers are moved from school district to school district and the practice is known as "passing the trash." The school district receiving the offender is not notified about why that individual left his/her (unfortunately there are female offenders) previous post thus putting students at risk. While there is a widespread clamor for changes to be made to the Catholic Church, why don't we hear clamours for changes here?

5. The medical profession has its bad apples too.

6. The secular media does us all a grave disservice by focusing attention on the Catholic Church which they hate because the Catholic Church is a force to be reckoned with on moral issues; but the secular media by and large (with the exception of some K-12 teachers) ignors that this is a much, much broader and deeper social problem.