When preachers fall from grace

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

A recent headline in a Catholic website caught my attention: “Trust evaporating – Poll finds clergy trustworthiness slips precipitously.” The poll surveyed attitudes about the clergy in Canada. According to the survey, 61 percent of Canadians trust church representatives, far below the 97 percent who trust firefighters and the 94 percent who trust nurses. The good news in this poll, if there is any, is that clergy still rank above the pollsters themselves (59 percent), journalists (48 percent) and politicians (just 15 percent). Small comfort it seems.

Although this particular story doesn’t report it, without a doubt, the trustworthiness of clergy in the United States has suffered a similar sharp decline in recent years.

Most of this, of course, is related to the well-documented clergy sexual abuse crisis. And while Catholic priests have received most of the attention, there have been abuses and scandals in just about every church and denomination – evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Jewish, Muslim, and homemade religions to be sure.

The failure of clergy to live up to their calling is sad, but not new. One historian observes, “If polls could have been taken during the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, or during the 18th century in Western Europe, the clergy might have ranked lower in the trust scale than they do now.”

But my question is this: Does misbehavior of the messengers invalidate the truth of their message? And should it?

When I was in the minor seminary, we had very strict rules about the care of our dormitory rooms. They had to be neat and clean all the time – beds made, clothes in closets, windows spotless, sinks shining and floors dust free. We were subject to room check at any time, and a messy room could result in a couple of dreaded demerits.

The priest prefect on our corridor was a holy terror, especially demanding of clean rooms. But, we learned quickly, his personal faculty suite was a pigsty, a total disaster. When we objected that his messy room invalidated his strict enforcement of the law in our rooms, he said without apology, “Gentlemen, even the lawbreaking judge must uphold the law.”

And that, it seems to me, is how we have to approach the reality of imperfect preachers. Every preacher is a weak, flawed, sinful creature, “an earthen vessel” in Pauline terminology. But if we wait for perfect preachers, our pulpits will be empty. Nonetheless, the truth of their message stands or falls on its own merits.

In more philosophical terms, the validity of the message comes from its inherent truth, not the personal worthiness of the messenger.

Catholic theology has an analogous situation, when we speak about “ex opere operato” in the dispensation of the sacraments. That means that the grace of the sacrament comes from the work itself, not from the sanctity of the minister. Even a priest in mortal sin can validly confer baptism, forgive sins, and celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

So too, an unworthy preacher can deliver a truthful message. I’m conscious of this in my own ministry all the time. When I speak about abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, immigration or any other public issue, I make no claim to personal sanctity or moral superiority. I could be (and in fact am) an abject sinner but the message I present is valid because it’s rooted in the Gospel of Christ and the teachings of the Church, realities strong enough to overcome my personal peccability.

An angry caller to a radio talk show I was on a few weeks ago challenged me on this precise point. “You’re a hypocrite,” he fairly shouted. If he was expecting a fight he was disappointed. “You’re probably right,” I agreed. “I think there’s some hypocrisy in all of us whenever we fall short of what we want to be.”

Objective truth has staying power. That’s why Pope John Paul could speak of the Splendor of the Truth in his magnificent encyclical. Truth is a splendid reality that endures despite human sinfulness. “No darkness of error or sin can totally take away from man the light of God the Creator. In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to obtain full knowledge of it,” the Pope wrote.

People in other walks of life besides clergy know the importance of teaching regardless of their personal shortcomings. Parents are far from perfect, yet they try to give a good example to their children. Police officers aren’t always award-winning citizens, yet they have to arrest others. And, as our seminary prefect reminded us, even a lawbreaking judge must uphold the law.

This apparent dichotomy shouldn’t be construed as a submission to moral complacency or an acceptance of personal hypocrisy. If we deliberately say one thing and do another, that’s hypocrisy. But it’s not hypocrisy to do our work and fulfill our obligations though we’re scarred by personal imperfection.

So, when you read about or hear about the moral failures of the clergy, in any denomination, you have every right to be disappointed. When they fail, pray for them, encourage them and demand that they do better. But don’t use their sins as an excuse to walk away from the church or deny the truth of their message. When you do that, their failure becomes your problem.