A priest friend writes to say that what the Church should have been doing all along is to circulate press releases of the following type:
The Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus announces with regret the fact that its confrere Fr.————has violated his solemn perpetual vow of chastity (pronounced on August 15, 1953), his perpetual sacerdotal promise of celibacy (17 June 1950), his perpetual diaconal promise of celibacy (10 June 1950), and his perpetual simple vow of chastity (15 August 1939)—commitments all freely and publicly undertaken—by sundry acts of sexual turpitude committed with minor females at St. Mary’s Mission in the years 1964-1971. Fr.——also contravened the laws of the State of Washington by these acts. The Society of Jesus affirms that such behavior is utterly contrary to its purpose and mission and is an outrage to human decency and Christian justice. The Society of Jesus asks pardon of all those harmed by Fr.——‘s delinquency and pledges to assist his victims in any way conducive to their spiritual well-being. The Society of Jesus is requiring a lengthy period of penance and reparation from Fr.——.
Such a forthright and open admission and public censure would be wholly appropriate, and even if some sleazy lawyer tried to use such admission of guilt against the Church, it perhaps might backfire against him if the Church had been just open the whole way through the Scandal. My friend continues:
- “But Christians are supposed to be merciful, and are taught that the mercy they show to others will be shown to them.” True, but irrelevant. In the first place, when a priest breaks a vow he breaks a commitment that is both public and wholly gratuitous. We’d be right to deplore as merciless a sadistic gym teacher who kneels on the back of a fat boy attempting push-ups in an obligatory gym class; if the same torment were inflicted by a drill instructor in a camp for Special Forces or Seals training—where all the trainees are volunteers who intend to trade on the rigorousness of the camp to the benefit of their careers—justice and mercy as such do not apply. In the same way, no one forces a man to take a vow of chastity; he has to jump through many hoops simply in order to be given the opportunity to pronounce it. When he breaks his word, then, he’s not failing to reach some arbitrary goal imposed from outside. Moreover, by his priestly vows a man doesn’t oblige himself to _attain a standard_ but instead to _refrain from clearly specified acts_: in other words, he vows _not_ to do something. And he invites “the public” to hold him in contempt if he does what he promised not to do.
Again, an excellent response to all those who would say that not enough mercy is shown to those who have molested others and later repented. Sure, repentance is possible and welcome, but perhaps other concerns trump the pervert priest’s desire to continue in his ministry as before. Perhaps, greater harm is done to the faith of the many by seeming to overlook the consequences of his failure to abide by his vows than by handing out a just punishment for them.
- More importantly, failing to do so many push-ups is a victimless failure. Father Doyle’s failures were not. Charity trumps mercy (when they would appear to conflict) and charity requires attention to the good of potential victims—and potential villains. One might expect a Catholic priest to be able to make present to his own moral imagination the sufferings of victims—past victims of others and prospective victims of his own; obviously, this imaginative effort either fails to occur or, if it does, produces a reluctance so weak that it is frequently overcome. However, if priests had experience of their erring brethren being subjected to public humiliation and censure by their brother priests (as opposed to the press and courts), actually saw the writhings of the priests’ families, were able to picture their own mothers’ and siblings’ feelings in the same circumstances, you can be sure they would themselves be strongly inhibited from such crimes and would look out for their fellow priests as well, stepping in to yank them out of many dubious situations for their own good. Both priests and people would be better off. As C.S. Lewis says, the hardness of God is more merciful than the softness of men.