As two priests go through the court system for alleged sex crimes, the faithful have the opportunity to reflect on how vital their clergy really are—and how dangerous they can be.
Proof of their import, if it emerges, will not come from the accused Fr. James Jackson or the far-less-sympathetic Theodore McCarrick. First, look instead to the likely-unknown clergy who will tend to these two souls—particularly to the guilty.
This is where the faithful priest does some of his most difficult and dangerous work. He will attempt to rescue a man foundered in sin’s deepest pits, at the precipice of Hell.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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McCarrick has run through absurd reserves of permissiveness from high-level enablers, Francis included, who likely knew of his homosexual predations against teens and adult seminarians over whom he had clerical control. Rumors of crooked financial dealings, deceptions on the Eucharist for publicly sinning politicians, and connections to the betrayal of Catholics to Chinese Communists make it even easier at this point to cast him aside.
There’s less willingness to cast aside Fr. Jackson. Accusations of keeping child pornography on a computer against this McCarrick antitype are far more shocking. The priest who gave voice to tradition in faith and liturgy was, it seems, never suspected of misdeeds. So, there is speculation on his case, with some eager to believe the worst while others suspect trickery. If he’s proven guilty, however, many will feel betrayed, both by the priest and the system that allowed him to be a standard bearer for tradition.
But man’s willingness to believe or revile, whether based on evidence or, all too often, on one’s side in the debates of the day, has no part in the priest’s job. He must go, listen, and retrieve because he knows that, while there is no excuse for sin, there is always forgiveness.
“We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” says G.K. Chesterton’s fictional detective, Fr. Brown, in the short story “The Chief Mourner of Marne.” “We have to say the word that will save them from hell.” The story revolves around sympathy for a man thought to have committed a somewhat justifiable murder and a simmering mistrust of priests by the intelligentsia. When the true identity of the murderer is revealed and his crime is found to be much worse, sympathy vanishes; and Fr. Brown is left to do God’s work.
“There is a limit to human charity,” says one of the former sympathizers, to which Fr. Brown responds: “There is…and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity…. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful.”
He adds: “[L]eave us (priests) in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon.”
Human charity has its place, but, worse than shallow and ersatz, it can be deadly. A priest who misuses it is dangerous. He does not nip sin in the bud and, like certain Jesuits, conflates mercy with acceptance, which can make smaller sins a gateway to much worse because there is no call to turn away and advance to the good.
This is a danger many believers must navigate—even during confession or at Mass. It will not likely be obvious but emerge in small ways over time. The priest who excuses small sins in the confessional is a danger to souls. So is the priest who fails to preach the fullness of the truth from the pulpit on topics like honesty, chastity, or the beauty of God’s plan for the family, hiding the reality of personal sin with exhortations to diversity and a false mercy.
This kind of neglect makes it very difficult to preach on the divisive issues of the day, like abortion and marriage. Formed as many are by the world and having been conditioned to “pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful,” parishioners will be shocked instead of ready to hear God’s truth, unless, if conscientious and prayerful, they have come to it already themselves after learning to think with the mind of the Church on smaller things.
In Chesterton-style, high-profile cases, the Herculean task of the priest is telescoped when it comes to saving those guilty of the vilest sins—particularly in cases where, sooner rather than later, God’s judgment will melt away man’s. Priests’ collective task is just as heroic, as they work bit by bit, every day, to pastor believers to salvation, regardless of what the world thinks. When they don’t, it’s a tragedy.
The faithful can be thankful for priests who take their duties seriously, being a reproach to the world if they must, at the cost of their worldly reputations. As Chesterton says in his book Orthodoxy, “One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.”
Likewise, one can hardly think too much of the priest’s primary job—and those who tend to it faithfully, reminding their flocks of the reality of sin and forgiveness, both for them and the unfortunate priests in the news today.
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