What happens in the confessional is a work of grace for both the penitent and the priest. Humility and truth collaborate in the souls of both the one telling his sins and the priest listening, who then administers God’s sacramental forgiveness. The sinner admits his faults and seeks to be cleansed by God’s grace. It’s humbling to own up to the wrong one has done – a moment of truth to tell those sins to the priest. The priest is also humbled: he is the instrument of God’s forgiveness solely by the fact of his being ordained to the priesthood.
His judgment on the sinfulness of what he hears depends not upon his own speculations, but upon the law God has given us, which is taught by the Church. His manner and advice may, or may not, console and strengthen the penitent, but the penitent is not really there for that reason. He is there to be absolved by a priest he frequently does not know personally, and who is, in fact, a necessary but secondary figure in this encounter.
Christ forgives through His priest, and that is what matters in the end. The priest cannot but be jarred by the realization that in the confessional it really does not matter who he is or his accomplishments and education. All that matters is that he’s a priest who does what Jesus Christ wants him to do, namely absolve repentant sinners in the sacrament of penance.
Experience in the confessional leads me to further reflection on the present crisis in the Church. People expect bishops and priests to do what Jesus wants, and to teach the exact same things that He taught to the apostles. Priests and bishops are sent by the Church to make available to everyone the graces of truth and salvation. Their absolute fidelity to this mission is expected by both God and men.
Anything else is an imposture. In our fallen world, we are familiar with people, especially ourselves, who fail at times to live up to their duties. That should lead us to be merciful and patient. But it also should make us keep an eye out for those who misuse their authority in the attempt to disguise their persistent pattern of bad acts, and boldly pretend to be innocent knowing full well their guilt.
Malevolent frauds are a disgrace in all human conditions, but especially in the priesthood.
All priests and bishops who commit crimes of sexual molestation of minors are wolves in sheep’s clothing who need to be punished and removed from the priesthood. The same applies to those who protect sexual molesters from discovery and prosecution, allowing them further opportunity to commit crimes.
Priests and bishops who commit sexual immorality with adults, especially unnatural acts, are likewise grave offenders who should be punished and deprived of the opportunity to commit further immorality, including removal from the priesthood depending on particular circumstances. The vindication of God’s law requires rigorous punishment of such grave offenses.
Laxity or pseudo-mercy gives the offender the impression that his crimes are not mortal sins deserving of eternal punishment. The faithful, when they learn of pay-outs, confidentiality clauses and the quiet shifting around of predators, become disgusted by what is truly a protection racket. The message conveyed is that evil priests and bishops can get away with horrific crimes since they have friends in high places.
Which brings me to the case of ex-Cardinal McCarrick. The recent plea of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò that McCarrick should come clean for the sake of his soul and the good of the Church is plainly a good and holy admonition. The facts in the public domain leave no doubt that McCarrick is guilty of many grave crimes. At age 84 he is close to his day of judgment. The remarkable thing here is that McCarrick’s silence since his resignation from the College of Cardinals has largely gone unchallenged or even unremarked by his fellow bishops. (See this column by Phil Lawler.)
Instead, we have had either stone-cold silence or a series of denials that anyone knew anything. When Viganò courageously revealed what had been known and done about McCarrick’s grave immorality, churchmen in the know went silent. Only incriminating documents that somehow make it into the light of day stand as witnesses to the reality that McCarrick’s turpitude was kept quiet by those who could have put an end to the horrific charade.
In July of 2018, McCarrick was in need of an intervention by the leaders of the American hierarchy to compel him to face his victims and the public at large, and make amends for his crimes and his monumental imposture. Merely resigning from the College of Cardinals and obeying the papal order to live in a monastery did nothing to repair the damage he did to his victims and to the Church as a whole.
His silence was manifestly a stalling tactic that should have been criticized by fellow bishops. The American cardinals’ failure to confront him, first in private and then in public, was a disservice to the truth. The ecclesiastical process to judge his guilt or innocence is largely a formality, given what we know. After long delay, it is now being expedited in view of the upcoming February meeting on sexual abuse of minors in the Vatican. But the delay is a reminder that public pressure seems to be only thing that produces decisive action in dealing with sexual abuse and episcopal cover-ups.
The Viganò plea to McCarrick to repent and publicly come clean puts this whole disgusting reality in proper perspective. Bishops and priests need to remember that they are instruments of God’s truth, mercy and justice both in and outside the confessional. Those charged with Christ’s authority need to act as ministers of God’s justice, which means exposing and punishing clerics who commit horrendous crimes. That can be a frightful responsibility, but must no longer be shirked for the good of souls – especially their own.
*Image: Saint Peter Penitentby Gerrit van Honthorst, c. 1615 [Kremer Collection]