Published July 30, 2021
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, there is a poignant scene when the Bennet family discovers that Lydia Bennet has run off with the dastardly Mr. Wickham. Sisters Elizabeth and Jane Bennet console each other, as they both know well that Lydia’s imprudence will sour their own chances of favorable marriages.
“Oh, Jane, had we been less secret, had we told what we knew of him, this could not have happened!”
“Perhaps it would have been better,” replied her sister. “But to expose the former faults of any person without knowing what their present feelings were, seemed unjustifiable. We acted with the best intentions.”
What the two sisters knew and hadn’t shared widely was that Mr. Wickham had secretly created an attachment with a young rich heiress. His plot to marry her would both enact revenge against her brother, but would also cover his frivolous spending habits. Today, Jane and Elizabeth’s concerns seem a trifle compared to the kind of scandals we continue to see in the Church.
Many years ago, a woman confessed to me that she had been a priest’s mistress for a very long time. The revelation did not have the intended effect. I think she was searching for sympathy as the long-term relationship came to an end because he moved on to someone new.
I spent the next several days thinking deeply about all the people whose lives were connected to this priest — families, single people, consecrated religious, children, teens — and suddenly I understood why I couldn’t see significant fruit among these people. His work was barren.
More than anything, I wanted to list off to this woman and him all the things that had been stunted in the community by their relationship — anemic homilies, an absence of vocations, empty pews, dimmed minds, listless hearts, mental illness and on and on. I could see it all in my mind, the very things that happen when a priest betrays his vow to live chastity. His actions affected, in one way or another, every man, woman and child in the community.
And yet, I didn’t know what to do. Do I expose him? I spoke to him directly and to his superiors because he was also secretly asking for money from the faithful to fund his double life, but he remained unrepentant. But what more could I do other than pray? He has since died, so the question died with him.
Over the years, how many of us have been in this type of situation, have acted with the best of intentions, remaining silent for lack of a better course forward when it comes to clerical malfeasance. What we are now experiencing, however, goes well beyond one faithless priest here or there, but involves a whole network of men. For years, we have seen more and more abuse and betrayal uncovered and forced out into the open, but it is clear we haven’t yet hit rock bottom. There will certainly be more.
The recent unsavory revelations about Msgr. Jeffery Burrill and his resignation as general secretary from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have led to much hand wringing about privacy, tabloid tactics and distracting allegations, despite the legal avenues used to expose him. There seems to be precious little discussion about the spiritual cost to the Body of Christ that comes when a man is using a gay hook-up app daily. We have grown used to thinking of our priests as functionaries and that, if they are getting the job done — or better — bringing in a lot of money, who cares how they use their free time. This attitude has served those who have much to hide. Terms like collegiality, privacy and consent quickly silence the airing of any dirty laundry.
But what we have forgotten is the idea of fruitfulness. It is no accident that fruitfulness is now missing on the spiritual level. It has been all but abandoned by the culture and even the faithful. With some exceptions, Catholic couples generally contracept and abort right along with the rest of the population. But fruitfulness isn’t just about having babies. Fruitfulness is about leading souls to God, seeing a manifestation of God’s grace here on earth and, ultimately, leading souls home to heaven.
Fruitfulness is a major theme in Scripture — think of the Parable of the Sower of Good Seed (Mark 4:1-20), or the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9). Marxist influence over the last century has slowly allowed it to be replaced in our consciousness with the notions of power and control. It first happened in the 1960s’ radical feminist movement, where ambition, “having it all” and not being burdened by children set the stage for where we are today. But sin spreads and has seeped wildly into the lives of men, too, especially men who are put in positions of power, living lies of luxury provided by the faithful, who can with little effort pass themselves off as pious servants.
Fruitfulness, like a well-tended garden, can be seen. It has fruit, and this fruit finds a way to manifest itself in our material world. It enlivens the heart; it inspires the mind; it stirs up wonder in the deep; it makes us want to reach for the good, the true and the beautiful.
It is the spirit that animates the Song of Songs and that longing of the soul thirsting for God. And it is the slaking of this thirst when we meet God in the Eucharist, in the confessional, in our charity to others and the charity of others to us. These are the things that power and control can never replace. These are things that merely checking off a box can never give to a soul. These are the elements that are the true calling card of the Church — fruit in the form of building, wonder, joy, peace, excellence and true charity. Gratefully, we do still have the witness of good priests and bishops who live this fruit and shine brightly in this corrupt and complacent age.
It is silence that keeps the men who have abandoned their vows in power and props them up. But changes of heart, as everyone in 12-step programs knows, don’t usually come about while riding high, but only when everything comes crashing down. It is a mercy for a man to see his weakness, to see that without God he can do nothing.
Our silence isn’t doing these men any favors anymore, but perpetuates the lie that somehow it is their own doing, cleverness and personal charm that has gotten them to this point. And, of course, they are not the true enemy, but the devil who both tempts and accuses them. As a Church, perhaps we are being allowed to hit rock bottom so that we will know the truth about ourselves and can begin to rebuild anew.
Like the Bennet sisters, we too should sit in horror as we witness the barrenness of priests living without any regard to their vow of chastity. What we are suffering goes well beyond the loss of favorable marriages (although there are plenty of single people who are suffering exactly this burden). The Church is now experiencing the bitter fruit of squandered authority (which certainly didn’t start with Msgr. Burrill). As the Body of Christ, we all suffer from broken families, the missing children who should be in our pews but were aborted or who were never conceived, the teens who we raise with care but lose their faith when they set foot on a college campus. We suffer from the missing priests, missionaries and cloistered and consecrated women. And we suffer from corrupt politicians who act with impunity, especially toward the unborn, knowing few high-ranking Catholics will challenge them. This is the rotten fruit that comes when vows are broken — both marital and priestly.
The solution is simple: faith, obedience, purity, ardent prayer, the Eucharist and staying close to Our Lady. But until as a Church we figure this out, the Body of Christ will continue to suffer greatly. The scandals won’t go away — we will just get used to them.
St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests whom the Church honors Aug. 4, summed it up best: “A priest goes to heaven or a priest goes to hell with a thousand people behind.”
Carrie Gress, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a scholar at the Institute for Human Ecology at Catholic University of America.
Carrie Gress, Ph.D., is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is the co-editor at the online women’s magazine Theology of Home.