Today is the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena!
On Holy Thursday I gave a reflection on the dignity of the priesthood, referring to the words of God to St. Catherine of Siena in her famous Dialogue. Their Sacramental conformity to Christ in Holy Orders, and the ability and authority that stems from that to bring Christ to us in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, means that we owe these men, from the Pope to the parish priest, a special reverence and respect.
With the advent of the information age, however, the darker side of people often comes to light, and this is even true of the clergy—and because they are clergy, their sins are even more scandalous. It isn’t that the clergy has never been known to be weak or cowardly or sinful in the past! In our day, however, the ready access to information (and misinformation!) as well as the ease of opportunity to opine about such scandals, has led many to the opportunity to exacerbate and perpetuate those scandals. Many do this out of malice and hatred for the Church, but many others do it because they feel an obligation to publicly rebuke, decry, and chastise the clergy, in order to correct and protect the Church.
I was discussing this tendency with a few friends in the wake of some recent online screeds and scandalmongering, none of which had to do with moral failings among the clergy, but rather, with matters touching on discipline, liturgy, and communication. For those who are so ready to criticise, however, and condemn the clergy of heresy, the particular “crimes” seem to be all of equal weight (and far too often, facts or rational explanations for the “deplorable acts” are often ignored altogether). My concern about such behaviour initially originated not so much in that certain people were criticising errors, but in how they were doing so, because their presentations so often seemed to lack charity. But the more I reflected on Our Lord’s words to St. Catherine, the more I realised that the public critiicism of the clergy is itself wrong.
Immediately after God tells Catherine of the inherent dignity of the priesthood that comes through their conformity to Christ in Holy Orders, and their role in administering the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, He goes on to teach her the right response to their failings:
“I have shown you, dearest daughter, a sample of the excellence of good priests (for what I have shown you is only a sample of what that excellence really is), and I have told you of the dignity in which I have placed them, having elected them for My ministers, on account of which dignity and authority I do not wish them to be punished by the hand of seculars on account of any personal defect, for those who punish them offend Me miserably.
“But I wish seculars to hold them in due reverence, not for their own sakes, as I have said, but for Mine, by reason of the authority which I have given them. Wherefore this reverence should never diminish in the case of priests whose virtue grows weak, any more than in the case of those virtuous ones of whose goodness I have spoken to you; for all alike have been appointed ministers of the Sun—that is of the Body and Blood of My Son, and of the other Sacraments….
“You should love them therefore by reason of the virtue and dignity of the Sacrament, and by reason of that very virtue and dignity you should hate the defects of those who live miserably in sin, but not on that account appoint yourselves their judges, which I forbid, because they are My Christs, and you ought to love and reverence the authority which I have given them….
“Their sins indeed should displease you, and you should hate them, and strive with love and holy prayer to re-clothe them, washing away their foulness with your tears—that is to say, that you should offer them before Me with tears and great desire, that I may re-clothe them in My goodness, with the garment of charity….
“It not being My will that they should be in this state, you should pray for them, and not judge them, leaving their judgment to Me. And I, moved by your prayers, will do them mercy if they will only receive it, but if they do not correct their life, their dignity will be the cause of their ruin. For if they do not accept the breadth of My mercy, I, the Supreme Judge, shall terribly condemn them at their last extremity, and they will be sent to the eternal fire.” (St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, Pt. 3: A Treatise on Prayer)
Instead of writing a blog or posting a video criticizing the Pope, the bishops, or priests for their failings, our first and most important response must be to continue to respect and revere them. We should then pray for them and weep penitential tears for them, taking up fasts or other forms of penance on their behalf. Once we have done this, and while we continue to do so, St. Catherine herself provides a model of what else we can do. During her lifetime, there was much scandal among the clergy—which I would suggest surpasses the problems, real or alleged, that occur today. But Catherine didn’t go about shouting the sins of priests, bishops, or the pope in the streets or from the rooftops. Rather, she wrote to them words of exhortation. At the time, the Pope himself was living in Avignon, France, and being manipulated by the French cardinals. She wrote to him constantly, and even was able to speak with him face-to-face, to call him to change his policies and to move back to Rome! And in those letters, and in those addresses, no matter how many times he resisted her or ignored her, or turned around and did the exact opposite of what she knew God wanted him to do, she persisted. But more importantly, she continued to love him with a filial love, always addressing him in affectionate terms of fatherhood, and all the while praying, fasting, and weeping holy tears!
Now I know that you might point out that this is how St. Catherine addressed the Pope, and that certain of the internet “watchdogs” have themselves drawn a line in the sand when it comes to criticising the Holy Father vis-à-vis the other bishops. The Pope is Peter, the Head of the Church on Earth, after all! He deserves our deference and obedience! Yes! He does! But Our Lord’s words to St. Catherine don’t limit themselves to the Pope! The Bishops are the successors of the other Apostles. They have the fullness of Holy Orders. They, too, deserve our reverence and respect on that account, as Our Lord says in the above quotations from the Dialogue. What’s more, God doesn’t distinguish between bishops and priests! While some want to make an overstated distinction between the Pope and the Bishops, God makes no such distinction even between Bishops and Priests with regard to the deference and respect we are to show them—even if they are sinful!
Fraternal correction is good, and may indeed be necessary. Private discussions or letters are our means in that case, supported by our prayers and penance. When others make their failings an occasion for scandal, pray for them, too, and use the opportunity for evangelisation and catechesis—showing from the Church’s official sources, like the Catechism, what the Church truly proclaims, and when possible, do so specifically avoiding contrasting the truth with the teachings or behaviour of a specific priest, bishop, or even the Pope. There may be times to caution someone against the teaching or writing of a particularly unorthodox clergyman. In this information age, those times may be even more frequent. But I still maintain that those times are not at every drop of a hat, be it miter, biretta, or fedora.
If St. Catherine had had the internet in her day, her already world-changing influence would possibly have been even greater. But she would have used it to proclaim devotion to Christ, His Precious Blood, and His Church, and not to publicly criticise her “beloved Babbo” or the other bishops.
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us.
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