top of page

Priestly Conscience?

The tsunami of criticism following the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury report threatens to engulf a number of episcopal offices far beyond the land masse of the United States. A grand jury is, of course, a legal form of inquiry to determine the potential for prosecution, as distinct from adjudicating upon matters of criminal guilt. Even so, its 1400 plus pages present, in all too graphic terms, the scale of the misconduct which is said to have occurred and the efforts which have been taken to conceal such misconduct from detection. It is difficult to reconcile these revelations with the pronouncements of successive popes on the demands of "justice". Pius XI was wont to observe that justice required that chief consideration be given to the weak and the poor. Others might add that it is relatively easy to protest at the splinter in our neighbour's eye whilst being blind to the metaphorical plank in one's own (Lk. 6:42).

In the sphere of philosophical debate, lofty ideals of 'rights' and 'justice' are not difficult to articulate. After all, 'justice' ought to be a concept which generates little by way of disagreement. Similarly, occasions of injustice will invariably gain recognition across ideologies or political affiliations. In this respect, most people would readily recognise the inflicting of physical harm upon the defenceless as contrary to received notions of justice. So too, the display of physical aggression upon the elderly or infirm. What these illustrations have in common is not merely the potential to offend a shared sensibility towards the weak and the vulnerable, but a communal recognition that it is necessary for action to be taken to insulate certain categories of person from harm. If either component is to have force within a given community, it requires something more than lip service to the ideal. If the values we declare, the faith we profess, and the mission we proclaim are to have any meaning, they must find expression in how we live. Our faith must necessarily inform our actions and determine our interaction with others. As Blessed Paul VI observed:

"[W]hile the Church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognises that anyone who ventures to speak to people about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting and the possessions and lifestyle found within the Church herself." (De Iustitia in mundo)

Papa Montini was not merely expressing a natural aversion to hypocrisy. Nor was he simply directing attention to the inevitable lack of institutional integrity where an organisation fails to bear witness to the public commitments it has publicly made. What he had in mind was far more profound. It was borne of a recognition that justice is not an idea but a living commitment or modus vivendi. This perspective has its origins in the recognition of justice as the duty which is owed to others. Viewed in this way, justice is fundamentally dependent upon a resolution or commitment to give recognition to the needs of others. It is not reactive, but proactive. It finds expression in our individual and communal response to injustice no matter how caused, or, where it is encountered. Each of these propositions find expression in the parable of the Good Samaritan [Lk 10:25]; a narrative which places beyond doubt our obligation (individual and collective) to remedy injustice where ever it may be found; doing so with physical effort, drawing upon all our resources for the sole purpose of restoring the victim of injustice to the place of safety and protection to which he is entitled. None of these observations are novel. The Church has long accepted and proclaimed these values as part of its fundamental mission.

It might be considered an oversimplification to suggest that had these principles been allowed to hold sway, the conduct criticised by the grand jury ought not to have been possible. However, the proposition is not confined to adherence to a moral or ideological value. Rather, it touches upon a matter which is central to all that we believe as Catholics, namely: priesthood. If the material detailed within the grand jury report and elsewhere is accurate, has there developed within certain elements of the Church an understanding of priesthood which ignores its sacred quality and character?

Some years ago, 'sacrilege' was, whilst not in every day use, a recognisable term within the Catholic vocabulary. It was understood to denote the violation of a sacred object. It was accepted that such a violation might be personal, local, or, real; a classification which corresponded with an understanding that persons, places and, indeed, things, could be sacred and deserving of protection on that account. The essence of sacrilege was to subject the person, place or thing to conduct which was fundamentally contrary to its sacred character. The Pennsylvania grand jury report and the media coverage which has followed points to conduct worthy of the definition of sacrilege. A sacrilege committed against the sanctity of the Church and the sacred character of its priesthood. For the primary actors, sacred priesthood appears to have been used opportunistically for personal gratification. For those who have acquiesced, the duties of priesthood have been eclipsed by issues of self-interest. Neither is consistent with the purpose for which the gift of priesthood was conferred or received. Such behaviour is fundamentally incompatible with the dedication of the priest as a man of prayer, who seeks his treasure in the following of Christ and the service of His people. Perhaps it was with this in mind that Blessed Paul VI counselled newly ordained priests in such clear terms:

"Your first duty is to form a priestly conscience. That is, you are to be aware of what has been accomplished in you...Your duty is to imitate, and with all speed, our Lady, meditating on what was happening through her: "she kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be (Lk 1:29)...St Ambrose, speaking to his priests of their duties, opens his treatise with an admonition on just this duty: "Your wealth is your conscience, your gold is your heart."

Recent Posts
bottom of page