What Scripture Says About the Reliability of Religious Leaders

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The majority of saints canonized by the Church over much of her history are priests and bishops. I used to quip that this proves it is possible for a priest or bishop to get to heaven. This is no longer a playful quip but a wry truth.

You may know by now that within the last month, another senior prelate has fallen from favor. As a priest and a member of the clergy, and to the extent that I have the authority, I apologize. In my view, he should be in leg irons or at least under harsh interrogation in Gitmo.

Jesus, of course, is the Good Shepherd. And he established the Church to be governed by shepherds—priests and bishops, the clergy. So it is helpful for context to take a look at the leaders in ancient Israel during the time of Jesus. By and large, the priests, the chief priests, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees—Jewish equivalents of the clergy—do not make a very favorable impression.

Jesus recognizes the authority of the scribes and Pharisees: “Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you….’ He adds:  ‘…but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.’” He also supports their official teaching: “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

The Pharisees are corrupt almost to a man. They malign the mighty deeds of Christ: “It is only by Be-el′zebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” They try to set Jesus against the teachings of Moses: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” They try to entrap Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They have disdain for the miracles of Jesus: “And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.”

But Jesus denounces these clergy-equivalents with courage and in no uncertain terms: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”  Also: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

He warns his disciples: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Also: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The clergy-equivalents respond with murderous indignation: “But the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him, how to destroy him.” The conspiracy reaches the highest levels: “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”

Like prosecuting attorneys coming up short, the clergy-equivalents tamper with the evidence: “Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death….” And “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.”

But the office of the clergy-equivalents at the time of Jesus was necessary to preserve and transmit the teachings of Moses and the Prophets. Despite their exalted role, the portrait of the clergy-equivalents in the Gospel is foul and obnoxious.

There are, of course, exceptions. Nicodemus emerges under the cover of the night to engage Jesus in a sincere theological discussion, admitting, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” In the infancy narratives, the priest Zechariah, initially flawed in his trust in God, becomes the father of John the Baptist and ultimately reclaims his honor.  In the Temple, Simeon piously prophesies as to the destiny of the child Jesus and the sword of sorrow that will pierce Mary’s Immaculate Heart.

But for the most part, the goodness and holiness of those in the Gospel are not found among the clergy-equivalents. They are found in the laity-equivalents: Elizabeth, Martha and Mary, Lazarus, the holy women at the foot of the Cross, and the Blessed Mother herself.

Hence, the faith of the good people of Israel is not the problem. The faith of Mary and the holy women at the foot of the Cross is not the problem. The lawful structures of transmitting the faith in Israel are not the problem. The problem is the infidelity and the evil scheming of the clergy-equivalents.

Among the true clergy, the Twelve ordained by Jesus at the Last Supper, the apostolic ratio of bad bishops is disturbingly high: Judas represents 1/12 of them. The apostolic ratio of good bishops who joined Jesus at the foot of the Cross is disappointingly low:  John, alone, represents 1/12 of them.

In our day, can we expect better than those apostolic ratios? We certainly have the means, provided we respond with faith to the fullness of the graces of Pentecost. Our faith in Jesus Christ is holy, beautiful, true, and good.  The Church is the spotless Bride of Christ worthy of all our love and devotion. The Catholic faith is not the problem; the Catholic faith is the solution.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio.

Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky


Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Fr. Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal.

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