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At the end of last year, Msgr. Charles Kavanagh, who held several significant positions in the Archdiocese of New York, was laicized at the age of seventy-three for an incident of abuse that occurred over thirty years ago. I do not know all the details of the Kavanagh case and will not, therefore, comment on its specifics. I will say, however, that this priest’s forced laicization, apparently for an event that occurred decades ago, may be a critical sign for the Catholic Church in the United States.

Of course, many sincere Christians, justifiably outraged by priests engaging in abusive actions, will no doubt say that this kind of “cleansing of the temple” is a long overdue necessity. Sexual abuse has too often turned the house of God into a lewd and lascivious den of sin. But as evil as cases of abuse undoubtedly are, the Church must avoid becoming a victim of her own legitimate attempt to “manage” the situation. Stung by bad public relations and a financial whipping due to past inactivity, bishops are now eager to announce that they have settled on a firm “zero tolerance” policy and will enact draconian measures against any priest with a credible accusation against him.

While everyone recognizes that bishops must pursue just canonical and civil penalties against those who have betrayed their sacred office, there remain enduring theological questions about the severity of certain of these actions. In the past, these concerns were insistently raised in the pages of First Things by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Cardinal Dulles . They demand our attention once again.

First, in judging the sinning priest, should not the Gospel be the absolute norm? Are we allowing room for repentance, forgiveness, and for the change of life promised by the Gospel of grace? Or are we simply responding to lawyers who insist that bishops must reduce their legal (and financial) exposure?

Second, where does one find the notion of “zero tolerance”? Surely not in the Gospel, which speaks of forgiveness seven times seventy times. Should the Church, even when dealing with a crime and sin as evil and exploitive as priestly abuse, uncritically adopt secular standards clearly at odds with the Gospel of repentance and grace?

Third, do recent episcopal actions undermine the very notion of priestly ordination? Is not the priesthood, as traditionally understood by Catholic theology, a “sacred calling” from Christ himself? Or is it, rather, simply a job, a “post” within the Church? If the latter, then we should tell priests and seminarians that, as with any job, they are liable to dismissal when they perform badly, when they publicly embarrass the Church, or when they act inappropriately or criminally. To be just, we should immediately stop paying priests a small subsistence stipend and start paying them a normal wage, recognizing that, one day, they may well be forced to “forage in a foreign land.” What is certainly beyond question is that priests cannot have a sacred calling one week and a job the next. Neither human reason nor theological consistency can support that kind of fiction.

Various actions taken against accused priests suggest that current policies are straining the theology of the priesthood. This may have the short-term advantage of preventing litigants from storming the Church door. It may keep the media at bay for the moment”a media that, in any case, will always find the Church a stumbling block because of her insistence on the incomparable truth she bears. But such actions are also having the disastrous effect of eroding Catholic doctrine, the only treasure that the Church really has to offer.

When the provisions of the Dallas Charter ( Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People ) were passed in 2002, Avery Cardinal Dulles warned American bishops that they risked creating an “adversarial relationship” between themselves and priests. He insisted, on numerous subsequent occasions, that just and proportional norms must prevail. And he argued that priestly ministry can take a variety of forms, allowing for both the forgiveness and rehabilitation of the sinning priest as well as the essential protection of children.

Many bishops themselves recognize that enacting extreme measures against abusive priests, particularly in cases where it is a matter of one or two disputed charges from decades past, serves only to undermine ecclesial rhetoric about the fraternity existing between bishops and priests. Fraternity? What true brother is eager to expel his sibling for a long-past crime, especially a brother who is profoundly troubled? Such actions occur only in dysfunctional families.

Unfortunately, many priests now regard bishops, subconsciously if not theologically, as their employers, their bosses, with whom they have a contractual, not a familial or fraternal relationship. This constitutes a profound paradigm-change in the Church, whereby a communio model has now ceded to a business or corporate model. But this is a pernicious volte-face for the theological imagination. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in the early second century, speaks of priests related to their bishop as strings to a harp. Vatican II says that a bishop “should regard his priests as sons and friends.” But these images cannot live and breathe if the dissonance between episcopal words and actions is so pronounced that priests are now forced to regard bishops warily, as mere employers whose primary concern is in covering their legal and media flanks.

Lest there be any doubt, let it be clearly stated t hat this is hardly a plea for the Church to harbor abusers without vigilance, or to make the priesthood a refuge for criminals. It is not to forget the ringing words of Christ:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, better for that man to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matt. 18:6).

Nor is it to ignore the fact that harried bishops must fairly balance the rights of tragically harmed victims, the rights of accused priests, and the fiduciary responsibility to protect the assets of their dioceses.

It is to say, rather, that there must be room, even in the life of a credibly accused priest, for penitence, forgiveness, and grace, in accordance both with the Gospel and with the sacred calling of the priesthood itself. Bishops must protect young people”and they have, undoubtedly, put their hands firmly to that plow”but they should not risk doing so at the cost of undermining or trivializing the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Rev. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. His essay “ Why Avery Dulles Matters ” can be found in the May 2009 issue of First Things .

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