I don't believe that priests are guaranteed to be good. No one in the Catholic Church has ever told me that priests are exempt from committing immoral acts. No one has even suggested that I believe priests to be sinless. It is not part of my creed.
I am reminded of what Pope John Paul II said in his address to priests in Melbourne in 1986, "We [priests] are only 'the earthenware vessels that hold this treasure' and "the longer a man has the privilege of serving as a priest, the more aware he becomes of human limitations and failures."
He was only repeating what I had always heard.
Looking back over many years of sermons, courses in theology, seminars, and considerable reading of Catholic publications, I find I cannot recall anyone telling me that priests are guaranteed to be good. I have not even been told that priests are unlikely to sin.
Yet I have read that numbers of Catholics have renounced belief in the authority of the Catholic Church because of acts of paedophilia by priests.
For my part, I am totally unmoved in my attachment to the Church by such acts. Why? Because there is no belief I have to give up when faced by the fact of wicked priests.
I have always known of sinful priests. Some of them, gravely alcoholic, have done harm to people and to the reputation of the Catholic Church. Others have embezzled millions of dollars of funds donated by generous Catholics. I am not the least surprised. Indeed, it is what I have been taught to expect. I have always expected priests to be tempted in the same way as everyone else, and to be as prone to fall as the rest of us.
Mind you, my experience of priests gives me every confidence that, if you compare the goodness of character of 1000 of them against the goodness of 1000 other men, the priests will be the top scorers.
I have known hundreds of priests in five countries and in three States of Australia. Many have asked me, and anyone else who was listening to them, to pray for them, on the assumption that they are liable to fall. I have always believed their assumption was quite correct.
I know a little about the training of priests, for I studied in three seminaries where men are trained to be priests. At no time did any of my instructors and advisers say that, were I to be ordained, I would be guaranteed to live a good moral life. Quite the contrary, in fact. I was taught that my hold on goodness was weak and would remain so as long as I lived and, therefore, I must assiduously cultivate certain disciplines that would reduce the probability of my sinning - yes, reduce it, but nothing more.
I have been taught that the Church demands a high moral character of priests. She certainly does, and just as certainly gives no assurance that her demands will be met in the case of any priest.
Thus the Church is like any other organisation. For example, the authority which licenses doctors demands that certain standards of ethical conduct are met by doctors. Yet it is unable to guarantee that any doctor meets those standards. When a licensed doctor acts immorally, do we give up belief in the benefits of medicine? When a sports coach sexually assaults a child entrusted to his care for training, do we find claims for the benefits of sports to be no longer credible?
What I have been taught is that the truth of the Church's teachings in no way depends upon the behaviour of priests, or of anyone else. That is a great comfort to me, for I would be most uncomfortable were the truths of my faith to depend on my goodness of character.
Hypocrites and truth
It is worth recalling that acts of paedophilia, no matter by whom they are committed, are totally condemned by the Church. This means that paedophile priests are aware they are committing acts vehemently reprobated by the Church they have sworn to serve. They get no comfort from the Church for their evil deeds. Seeing that I am with the Church on this, they get no comfort from me either.
"These priests are hypocrites," some claim. "Therefore the teachings of the Church are a load of rubbish". Really? Suppose I am listening to a health professional expounding the dangers to health of smoking. He produces statistics showing that smoking increases the risks of death from emphysema and blocking of the arteries. I am struck by the power of his argument. I am becoming convinced that smoking is dangerous to health. Hold on - what do I see? This lecturer is puffing on a cigarette as he speaks!. Do I then say, "The man is a hypocrite, so all he said is boloney. I'll never believe that smoking is harmful"?
I don't believe priests are guaranteed by the Church to be good men. I never have believed this of priests. No one has ever asked me to believe it. No one ever will.
Dr Frank Mobbs is a writer and lecturer who has taught at Catholic seminaries, colleges and universities.