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A Standard Society Expects Priests to Live By


By Father Eugene Hemrick

in the Catholic News Service


No one denies that sexual abuse by priests has shocked the public and that a media blitz is one good way to stir up public reaction against abuse.

But why haven't there been similar blitzes against those who produce child pornography? Why focus so forcefully on the priesthood?

A principal reason is that people still highly respect the priesthood. However, this respect comes with a heavy price. The moment a man is ordained, people have high expectations of him.

Priests are expected to represent a certain standard for excellence. If they betray this standard, priests not only betray exalted principles but also those who put their faith in them. Throughout history, the names of Judas and Benedict Arnold, along with their betrayals, have been synonymous with the despicable.

One reason that the priesthood is seemingly being singled out today is that it is a life consecrated to the highest standards of society.

Ironically, though sin is no stranger to our society and people don't want a priesthood around to remind them of this, they need the priesthood. If the entire priesthood somehow were obliterated, society would create one. It knows that, without the sacred that the priesthood represents, society will inevitably self-destruct.

In the book "The History of the Idea of Progress," sociologist Robert Nesbitt reaffirms this principle: "The reason for the debasement of literature ... is our lack of a true culture. And fundamental to this lack is the disappearance of the sacred, always at the heart of any genuine culture -- from ancient Athens to Victorian England."

I believe that a key factor in the present outcry is the fact that a sinful, fearful society needs priests -- symbols of the sacred -- to remain vital. The outcry may be as much about the loss of symbols of spiritual excellence as it is about the evil actions of individuals.

Another reason for the media outburst is an element of anti-Catholicism. This is because Catholicism forever is reminding society to be much more pro-life, pro-justice and Christ-centered. As much as defending these standards is every Catholic's obligation, more is expected of a very visible priesthood.

Could it be that the outrage we are experiencing reflects a love-hate relationship that society has with the priesthood? The crimes committed by priests are without doubt despicable, and society has a right to hate the crime and to demand action. Yet society still holds a great deal of respect for the priesthood.

Society will do a great deal to keep the priesthood alive, even if it means having a public crucifixion to purify it.