The only treasure that the Church really has to offer

Quote of the Day for Tuesday, January 4th. 2011:

Rev. Thomas G. Guarino, of Seton Hall University, in an article at FirstThings.com entitled The Priesthood and Justice, reflecting on the U.S. bishops’ handling of priests accused of sexual misconduct, in the wake of the dismissal from the priesthood of a 73 year-old monsignor in the Archdiocese of New York at the end of last year:

Various actions taken against accused priests suggest that current policies are straining the theology of the priesthood. This may have the short-term advantage of preventing litigants from storming the Church door. It may keep the media at bay for the moment—a media that, in any case, will always find the Church a stumbling block because of her insistence on the incomparable truth she bears. But such actions are also having the disastrous effect of eroding Catholic doctrine, the only treasure that the Church really has to offer.

This might be an unpopular stance, but it is one that needs to be taken. I know that I was rather stunned when the so called “Dallas Charter” was published in 2002, with the bishops adopting a zero-tolerance policy. I had considered draconian zero-tolerance stands – in general – to be the work of small minds seeking cheap political points in easy answers, and could hardly believe that the USCCB was falling into that trap. I understand its appeal, but as Guarino points out in this short article, it is thoroughly contrary to a Gospel ethic, and I was comforted at the time to know that such intellectual giants of the Catholic world as Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Cardinal Dulles shared the deep unease of this poor sinner.

Nonetheless, the policy has stood for almost a decade, and the treatment of offending priests continues to serve as a lightning rod issue for all kinds of anger – not much of it rational – while the Church finds itself without a teaching voice in the matter on account of its own indulgence in easy answers. It’s as if Docetism, suppressed in so ugly a manner, is finally wreaking its revenge in damaging the Church’s theology of the priesthood.

All the while, the masses fulminate with rage against the Church and those priests caught rightly or wrongly in the crosshairs, every time another old story surfaces. Not all those who fulminate hate the Church, but many of them do, and I am amazed at the consistency with which they demand the dismissal of the accused from the priesthood – “defrocking” seeming to be the almost universal term of choice in the English-speaking world, with its fricative and plosive combination ostensibly serving some cathartic end. Yet, they largely have no clue what any of it means!

Never mind that from a practical perspective, letting obviously sick and unsupervised men loose on society  by washing its hands of them is about the most irresponsible thing the Church can do – the Church is probably the best-equipped institution on the world for finding a safe and constructive place for them to live out their lives. More importantly, a Church that is ready to throw its own to the curb seems to me to have lost, in some important manner, its own sense of its identity as the sacrament of Christ in the world. And then there’s the whole matter of what Holy Orders means in the first place…