Much attention has been given recently in the secular press to the moral failures of bishops and priests in Ireland and Germany, and the outrage in normal people at the grotesque sin of sexual abuse by priests, compounded by the malfeasance of cowardly bishops, is completely appropriate. What is not appropriate, however, is for this outrage to cause a Catholic to question his faith in Jesus Christ or his confidence that Christ’s Church is the universal sacrament of salvation for all mankind.
The Lord Jesus chose twelve men from among his thousands of disciples to be his apostles, the men who would be his witnesses and emissaries to the world. For three years they traveled with him, listened to his teaching and preaching, and witnessed his miracles -- the signs of his divine glory. And in the night on which Christ gave us the Holy Eucharist and the sacramental priesthood, what did these chosen Twelve do? When the hour for which the Word became flesh finally arrived, Judas betrayed Him, Peter, James, and John went to sleep, the lot of them ran away in terror, and Peter lied through his teeth to save his skin. In other words, infidelity, sloth, cowardice, and mendacity were part of the apostolic office from the very beginning. Should we be surprised, therefore, to find these qualities among bishops and priests of every time and place?
To paraphrase Winston Churchill: governance of the Church by bishops is the worst possible means of organizing Christian faith and life except for all the others. The sacred authority entrusted by the Lord Jesus to his apostles and to those who succeed them is a gift of grace given through the sacrament of Holy Orders, meaning that the authority of bishops and priests to teach, sanctify, and govern the Church comes not from their personal holiness, intelligence, or learning; it comes, rather, from their ordination. In other words, the authority of bishops and priests to teach the Gospel and celebrate the sacred mysteries of our redemption comes from a sacramental gift of grace given to them by Christ the Lord, not from any human quality or accomplishment of their own.
We are right to hope for pastors who are holy, courageous, learned, and wise, and while we should always be disappointed when our bishops and priests do not have those qualities, we should never be surprised. I am not suggesting that we should ever be content with injustice or incompetence in the Church; we should not. But when the human frailties and failures of our pastors are exposed to public view, we must recall that our faith is placed not in the apostles or their successors, but in Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen.