Bishops and priests are once again in the news, and for alarming reasons. An Italian bishop—the last to have participated in Vatican II—argues in favor of abortion; a Jesuit cardinal, proposed by some as the next pope, has said that the Church’s teaching on same-sex activities should be changed; and, recently, Pope Francis removed the entire leadership of one of the Church’s largest charitable organizations, but unlike other ecclesiastical organizations, this was not for “financial mismanagement,” but managerial “deficiencies.” Pile that on top of the saddening reports of French bishops accused over abuse cases. What are we to make of the priesthood?
The great author and devout Catholic J.R.R. Tolkien took the situation personally. In a letter to his son Michael, he wrote:
I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the “scandals,” both of clergy and laity. I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the Church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons. (Letter no. 250, 1963)
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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In these days, I would be surprised if any Catholic could disagree with Tolkien’s experience. Who among us has not suffered from “bad priests”? I say this fully aware of my own imperfections, defects, and faults.
True enough, evils within the priesthood are not new: all of the apostles fled from Our Lord’s side when violence threatened, and one them was a Judas. Through the centuries, moral corruption has plagued the ordained. For instance, St. Peter Damian’s bracing denunciation of priestly wickedness in his Liber Gomorrah has descriptions of pervasive wickedness so shocking that they cannot be included here.
Once again, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings gives words to the Catholic sentiment:
I am afraid it is all too horribly true.… A small knowledge of history depresses one with the sense of the everlasting mass and weight of human iniquity: old, old, dreary, endless repetitive unchanging incurable wickedness. (Letter no. 69, 1944)
Granted that there are plenty of scandalous Catholic laity on the screen daily, this is no consolation to those who are dismayed by clerical wrongdoing. As I say in my book, Alter Christus: Priestly Holiness on Earth and in Eternity:
All persons are called to be holy just as God is holy, but the Sacrament of Holy Orders places upon the priest the obligation to be especially holy. St. Alphonsus Liguori lists four main reasons why sanctity is necessary for a priest:
1. because of the priest’s unparalleled dignity as a special extension of Christ in the world;
2. because a priest is a minister at the altar of Christ’s sacrifice;
3. because the priest brings the holiest gifts from God to men in the sacraments; and
4. because a priest is called to be a model for all people—as the Council of Trent states, “Others fix their eyes upon [priests] as upon a mirror, and derive from them what they are to imitate.”
It is precisely for this reason that I wrote this book—to help my brothers understand and embody the great dignity and responsibility that comes from Holy Orders.
So that priests, including myself, may avoid the terrible consequences of sin, in Alter Christus I address the present blindness to sin, the nature of Hell that unrepentant priests will endure, as well as the great joys that purified and holy priests will experience. As far back as
1946, Pius XII “declared, in words that have almost become proverbial, that ‘the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin’” (cited by John Paul II in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, no. 18).
In contrast, Sacred Scripture teems with condemnations of the sins of priests. Old Testament priests were called to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 21:1, 6), but they needed the continual reproofs of prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Malachi to call them back to the road of righteousness. Even more so are priests of Christ called to be holy as He was holy.
Hence, good Catholics such as J.R.R. Tolkien are rightly shocked and even scandalized by the wickedness of men called to be “other Christs” in the celebration of the sacraments and throughout their lives. Seeing what a sensitive soul he was, Tolkien no doubt would have been greatly saddened had he lived to see that one of his own sons, who became a priest, was accused of child abuse. The priest repeatedly and consistently denied the allegations made against him, and he was never found guilty in any court. Nevertheless, the very fact of the accusations is itself distressing.
We must never forget, however, that most Catholics, like J.R.R. Tolkien, can not only point to bad or questionable priests in their lives. We can also thank God for the good priests we have known. He wrote:
I have met snuffy, stupid, undutiful, conceited, ignorant, hypocritical, lazy, tipsy, hardhearted, cynical, mean, grasping, vulgar, snobbish, and even (at a guess) immoral priests ‘in the course of my peregrinations’; but for me one Fr. Francis outweighs them all. (Letter no. 267, 1964)
The priest Tolkien refers to was Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan, a member of the Oratory in Birmingham, England. After Tolkien and his brother Hilary were left orphans—their father died when J.R.R. was four, and their mother died when he was twelve—Fr. Francis became a “second father” to them both. Having known and helped their mother, Mabel, until her death, the priest then journeyed with the boys throughout their early years, guiding them, educating them, offering them charity and forgiveness. Tolkien never forgot the great graces he received through the Oratorian priest, writing in the last years of his life:
I remember after the death of Fr. Francis my “second father,” saying to C.S. Lewis: “I feel like a lost survivor into a new alien world after the real world has passed away.… In 1904 Hilary and I had the sudden miraculous experience of Fr. Francis’ love and care and humour. (Letter no. 332, 1972)
In a time of need, Fr. Francis Morgan was, to the Tolkien boys, “another Christ”: he literally cared first for the widow and then for the orphans. It is undoubtedly the care of that priest that helped make Tolkien into the man that he became. What a gift to Tolkien—what a gift to all of us!
No wonder, then, that Tolkien’s epic story, like his life, did not end on a note of despair. Despite the evil that we must face and combat: “All the same,” he wrote:
One knows that there is always good: much more hidden, much less clearly discerned, seldom breaking out into recognizable, visible, beauties of word or deed or face—even when in fact sanctity, far greater than the visible advertised wickedness, is really there. But I fear that in the individual lives of all but a few, the balance is debit—we do so little that is positive good, even if we negatively avoid what is actively evil. It must be terrible to be a priest! (Letter no. 69, 1944)
“Terrible” to be a priest because we shall be judged according to the gifts that we have received and the graces that we dispensed worthily or unworthily. But also “wonderful” to be a priest—both because of the intimacy we have with Christ and His Most Holy Mother, and the friendship He offers to give us with the angels and saints, and also because of the great good we can do for others in gratitude for God’s goodness to us.
It is my dear hope that every Catholic has a “Fr. Morgan” in their life; and it is my sincere desire to help other priests to live up to their calling to be other “Fr. Morgans”— for then they would be cooperating with divine grace, and living as “other Christs” in the world. Jesus Christ has promised that He would be with us always, until the end of the world (Matthew 28:20). We can thank God that He is present to us individually, present in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, and present in the frail instrumentality of His priests. A bad priest is a sign that contradicts the holiness of Christ; but a good priest is a sign of Christ, who contradicts the evil of the world.