Against the reform of the Church

Catholics are used to the fact that a history of their religion written by a sympathetic insider will be almost entirely concerned with the corruption of the clergy and movements to address the moral deficiencies of the clergy.  What’s odd about this?  Is not the Church “ever in need of reform”?  Well, compare with a history book on any other religion–pagan, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, or Orthodox–and you will find that it almost certainly will not be about the corruption of the clergy of that religion or about efforts to reform away such corruption.  Other religions focus on conquering or defending themselves against rival cults if they control their own territory, and the competition for status if they don’t, the advance of sacred art and theology, the deepening of spiritual traditions, popular enthusiasms, and putative miracles.  These things occur in Catholic lands too, of course, although they must always take a back seat to the work of reform.  This is particularly striking in the history of a country that switches from Catholic to Protestant.  Suddenly religious history is no longer about corruption.  The corruption, ignorance, greed, lechery of the clergy suddenly disappears!

“The Church is always in need of reform” is not so uncontroversial after all.  It does not simply mean “the Church could use some improvement in some way or another.”  It means “Greater policing of the clergy’s morals is what we should devote our limited time and attention to.”  Catechesis, apologetics, theology, liturgy, helping young Catholics meet and marry, mobilizing the laity for politics or social betterment–these are afterthoughts at best.

Compare:  are the clergy of our secular priesthood, the faculty of our universities, corrupt or reformed?  No doubt we are as sinful as other mortals, but if I could fix one thing about the university system, it wouldn’t be faculty ethics.

Well, suppose we grant that the clergy’s morals are the most important thing, or that if we got that right, then everything else would fall into place.  Even granting that, reform is still a poor use of effort.  It’s been a thousand years, since the Gregorian reforms, that the Church has been prioritizing reform.  What do we have to show for it?  Are non-Catholics impressed by how reformed and moral our clergy are?  Of course not!  But if their clergy are roughly as moral as ours, and they have been spending their effort on other things instead, then again, what do we have to show for all this reform?

Protestants are quite clearly more culturally productive and have more enthusiastic and biblically literate congregations–that’s what they get for prioritizing these things–but how could our priests not be visibly much holier than their pastors, since that was our one investment?

An even more striking comparison:  in Western countries, no group is more reviled and demonized than the Catholic clergy, while Jews with their “anti-semitism” card are virtually immune to criticism.  If criticism reforms and immunity corrupts, priests should be much more moral than Jews, but there is no evidence of this.  How can this be?  The only effect of anti-clericalism and philosemitism is that Jews are much better able to influence the culture than Catholics.  Or return to the case of university professors.  I have far more “power” over my Catholic students than their priest or bishop, but no one worries about me “abusing” it.  Are professors just categorically better people than priests?

Several possibilities.

  1. Reform does work, but for some reason only scoundrels fill the priesthood, so it takes all the effort of reform to bring them up to Protestant pastor standards.  But how can this be, when priests are recruited from every race, culture, and class?  Surely the Church must have had good demographic raw material somewhere.
  2. Priests are no worse than others, but our expectations are unrealistic.  Priests are demonized for doing things that we laity always do:  charging money for our services, having sex with our wives, using our social position to benefit our relatives, enjoying luxuries whenever we can.  Given the role priests are supposed to play (ideological policing, making God present on the altar), social logic says they should be high-caste Brahmins with wealth and their choice of mates.  Trying to force high-castes to live like low-castes is a fool’s errand, and peaceful hypocrisy (a.k.a. “corruption”) is the best possible outcome.
  3. The means the Church has to improve behavior–episcopal oversight, seminary training, social shaming–are ineffective.  We can only expect them to marginally affect clerical behavior.  Meaning we would be better off investing in something with more payoff.

Pope Francis is wise to ignore calls by conservative Catholics to expand the Church’s crackdown on sexual abuse of minors (about which the Church has already long been far more zealous than any other institution on Earth, but for which she gets no credit from enemies or reformers) to homosexuality in the clergy in general.  I’m not terribly concerned that my priests might be buggering each other in private.  When a foreign army invades, one doesn’t refuse to fight for the king until one is sure he has always been faithful to his wife.  We’re at war, and our clergy are our leaders.

Reform carries real costs.  By forever hearing about how wicked their priests and bishops are, Catholics come to despise their clergy, so the latter are unable to teach or discipline the laity in any meaningful way.  Catholic self-hatred leaks out into the hostile culture.  Secularists learned anti-clericalism from us.  There’s no nasty thing they say about our priests that wasn’t first said by Peter Damian, Dante, etc.  Everybody now knows that we Catholics have no moral standing to critique the evils of secular culture (have to “get their own house in order first”–how many times have I read that!)

There is also the price of further demoralizing our priests.  Consider the hellish life that is the lot of a parish priest.  Not only has he sacrificed the Earthly happiness of a family, he no longer has a parish family, but is moved from one parish to another every six years, so that he never gets to make close friends, never has the joy of seeing the children he baptizes grow up and have children of their own.  Because “clericalism” is the great evil, he is forbidden by his superiors to take pride in his work or to develop esprit de corps with his brother priests.  Most people assume he is a child molester, even though there is absolutely no evidence that his profession commits this crime at a higher rate than any other.  Even his parishioners are trained to “protect God’s children” and be always vigilant for the signs of his victimizations.  His own bishop doesn’t trust him, but resolves to publicize unproven accusations so long as they are “credible” (i.e. not provably false).  The priest has no presumption of innocence.  Well, you say, we must protect the children at all costs.  Perhaps (although if that is so, why not other professions as well?), but at least recognize the cost you’re imposing on other people.  Suppose you knew that if someone were to accuse you of a horrible crime, and you denied it, absolutely no one in the world would believe you.  Even if such an accusation never comes (and despite all the episcopal encouragements and DA hotlines, the vast majority of priests have as yet not been accused), just knowing that no one would stick by you must cause crushing loneliness.  Then there’s the priest’s role as culture war punching bag.  Liberals scream at him for being a homophobe; conservatives scream at him for being a queer.  And when the conservative is done savaging the clergy’s reputation, he denounces them for failing to correct liberal politicians, as if he has left them in a position to do such a thing.  Every year, the priest’s flock diminishes, and he never knows anything but failure; little comfort is it to know that the game was rigged against him from the beginning.  If I knew a young man who wanted to be a priest, I would try to talk him out of it.  The priesthood today is pure cruelty.  Honestly, I don’t know how these men get themselves out of bed each day.  I ask the reformers, does there ever come a point of diminishing returns?  Will you never turn your zeal toward the rest of us, who have not made one thousandth of the sacrifice for God as these pitiable men?

16 Responses

  1. Damn man. It’s not too often that I read something with all new ideas I had not considered before, and that I entirely agree with.

  2. Well see this is where real justice comes into play.

    I don’t think reform has been the “one” investment made since 1000 years. A lots happened since then.

    The child molestation scandal encompasses more than the church, and the rage of the laity is justified not because of just the crimes, but the cover ups and abetting of the hierarchy.

    Of course you don’t throw over the faithful priests. That’s not just. Trying to boot out heretics and sexual predators? Let’s put the pedal to the metal on that. It’s not a choice.

    The focus of the mission is loving God. The reform is always personal moving outward. If we get that right, everything else is in place. If we followed Paul’s advice on heretics and excommunication wouldn’t we be better off? If Catholics had actually been too focused on reform, wouldn’t a LOT more excommunications have happened? Would things be better than they are now?

  3. Much appreciated, djz242013. I’m not expecting much positive feedback on this one. It’s my break with conservative Catholicism.

  4. “So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”

    Not to go sola scriptura on anyone, but Paul leaves sound advice for his successors here. Despite his own claim to “the gift of celibacy”, he says that only responsible family men should be leaders of the church. It’s an excellent filter to keep out weirdos — can you marry a nice woman and produce children of good character? A depraved but cunning sociopath may present a carefully-crafted facade of decency, but if he has kids, their behavior will expose the evil within.

    It’s fine to be celibate if you feel no urge to sin, but you cannot know if someone else feels such urges, so don’t give leadership roles to celibates, except maybe in a monastery, where everyone is celibate.

  5. Just a thought.
    Bishops and priests are drawn from the laity (not heaven) and will show the same vices as the population from which they are drawn( I actually suspect they’re better than average – even than average Protestant ministers -but suffer from high expectations).
    Work on the laity – either improving them or pruning by asserting uncomfortable Catholic truths rigorously and repetitively – if they aren’t comfortable with them they will leave.
    I understand they want to save as many people as possible by keeping them in the Church but at some point it’s in God’s hands.

  6. 4. Our Lord was telling the truth about the Earthly wages of signing up with Him.

  7. “I’m not terribly concerned that my priests might be buggering each other in private. When a foreign army invades, one doesn’t refuse to fight for the king until one is sure he has always been faithful to his wife. We’re at war, and our clergy are our leaders.”

    Love your blog, and usually agree, but strongly disagree with the thrust of this post and the quoted analogy in particular.

    I am greatly concerned that my priests might be buggering each other in secret. When satan’s army attacks, I don’t want to be mustered to the defense under a leader that has been secretly commissioned in satan’s army. We’re at war, and homosexual clergy are turncoats effectively fighting for the other side.

  8. Have to agree with Josh Himself above. You can’t fight Sauron effectively if the commanders of your army are in the pay of Mordor.

  9. If we accept that 1) priests do no commit sexual abuse at a higher level than the comparable general population and 2) homosexuals are more likely to commit sexual abuse than heterosexuals; and we also assume that 3) homosexual priests commit sexual abuse at the same rate as homosexual non-priests; this means that priests are no more likely to be homosexual than anyone else. But how does that square with the existence of a lavender mafia, which is also generally accepted around these parts?

    It means that the upper clergy, but not the lower clergy, is where the lavender mafia is. So, we should have even more sympathy for our simple priests, and realize that more often than not, they are on “our” side against enemies both external and episcopal.

  10. …this means that priests are no more likely to be homosexual than anyone else. But how does that square with the existence of a lavender mafia, which is also generally accepted around these parts?

    E. Michael Jones has an interesting theory about this. Basically it is that normal men were scared/intimidated out of the priesthood at the time of the sexual revolution by the popular psychological assertion that one cannot possibly be fully mature as a human being without sexual release. The acceptance of this canard, coupled with the obvious hindrance to fulfilling it effected by the vow of celibacy meant that normal men left the priesthood, or didn’t apply in the first place. What was left was a highly lavender-concentrated group, who could still play the appearance of celibacy, but also “express their sexuality,” and check off the “mature human” respectability box.

  11. The Lavender mafia is also partly explainable by the fact that, for a long time, sending problem priests unsuitable for diocesan assignment to Rome was an easy way to get rid of them/stop them causing problems, resulting in a large concentration of gay men in one city that just happens to be the one from which all authority in the Church flows. To the extent exiling the gays to Rome isn’t going to fly anymore, we might well see an end to the LM in our lifetimes.

  12. Also, I agree with Josh Himself. In your providing for the protection of the tribe with one hand, you are dividing the tribe against itself with the other.

  13. I agree with this article, its very easy to treat them the same way as people in any other organization.

    We have to remember that they are Gods representatives, and deserve our automatic loyalty.

  14. theplantationsite

    Treating them the same way as people in any other organization would be a distinct improvement at this point.

  15. […] is accommodation, “aggiornamento”.  Both are sterile and self-destructive.  What have we got to show for all of this reform?  What have we got to show for all of this […]

  16. […] just this or that ill-considered reform, but reform in general. I’ve brought this up before with regard to the Catholic Church, a much reform-ridden entity, but reform is poison for any […]

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