In his endearing autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, the late Alec Guinness records a poignant milestone along his path to Rome. He had been cast as a priest in a picture being filmed in a French village. In between takes, while still attired in collar and cassock, he walked back to his quarters some distance away. Along his path, a young boy darted out from a hedgerow. Spying the priestly garb, he immediately addressed Guinness as “Mon Pere,” took his hand, and as they walked along prattled about the doings of an eight-year-old’s day.
Profoundly moved by the encounter, Sir Alec found himself wondering about the power of the priestly office to inspire such unquestioning trust in a complete stranger. It is a charming story charmingly told, one that captures the character of the priesthood no less than the tenderness of Sir Alec’s soul.
In these days of lurid headlines about clerical sexual abuse, Guinness’s tale ought to be compulsory reading for every seminarian. The good priest never forgets that he has chosen to put on Christ forever, and never more so than when he engages those who are weak or vulnerable.
Concerning the current crisis, let us put to one side the special case of pedophilia (sexual contact between adults and prepubescent youngsters). It is a rare disorder, and although you would not know it from the popular prints, it presents far more frequently among married men than among celibate priests. Homosexual attraction toward and activity with teenage boys is another matter altogether. Whether one credits the higher or lower estimates proffered by seemingly credible studies, the number of homosexual priests today is scandalously large. They represent a serious threat to the integrity of the priesthood and to the institutional Church.
The bishops, who have for various reasons averted their gaze from this looming peril, must now act. This will require wisdom and courage of a sort not commonly engendered by self-regarding bureaucratic mores. The place to begin is with the understanding that clerical sexual misadventures, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are only incidentally about sex. First and foremost, they are an expression of woefully inadequate spiritual formation. Nothing will change unless and until candidates for the priesthood understand, in the very depths of their souls, that the office to which they aspire is a holy office and why, therefore, they must lead holy lives. The self-indulgence of contemporary life wars against the inculcation of that disposition, but if the Marine Corps can figure out how to train a few good men in these parlous times, so can seminary rectors.
Laxity in priestly formation has an intellectual dimension as well. Clerical sexual abuse occurs against a background of fashionable dissent within the Church, on everything from the authority of the magisterium to sacred liturgy to specific teaching on the sacraments and sin. Intellectuals, of course, can rationalize anything, and they have been particularly busy in recent years deconstructing the tradition of priestly celibacy. The axes you hear being sharpened in the background are being readied on behalf of a married and/or female clergy.
Toward that end, liberal theologians have sought to insinuate a causal connection between the recent scandals and the Church’s “repressive” attitude toward human sexuality. In a sex-obsessed culture in which the yearnings of the groin seem to have acquired the status of a natural right, such arguments find a ready audience, even though there is not a shred of evidence to sustain them. By what logic does one indict the Church’s teaching by citing those who disregard that teaching? Was anyone ever injured because a priest kept his sacred vows?
For all the disgrace occasioned by the current scandal, good will come of it, but only if the bishops seize the opportunity to make it a teaching moment. And at this particular moment, they must lead by personal example even more than by formal instruction. For inspiration, they need look only to Pope John Paul II, who exemplifies in every fiber of his being the essence of holy orders. When next you hear some trendy theologian waxing eloquent about the Church’s “outmoded” or “repressive” attitude toward sex, remember Alec Guinness’s story and imagine that it’s your own son who darts into the path of the priestly figure. Then ask yourself what kind of priest you want that man to be. The question answers itself. So should the question of what to do about the seminaries.