Towards Understanding the Crisis, 1

“In the eyes of all will the priesthood and chastity ever be one and the same dignity, one and the same expression of the God who saved the world upon the Cross.” — Henri Dominic Lacordaire (1802-1861)

I would like to begin setting a larger context for understanding the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. We cannot let the New York Times set the agenda for understanding the nature of the crisis. The Catholic faithful may be buffaloed by the pressure of the daily reports of scandal combined with innuendo of papal complicity and pseudo-theological pronouncements. There is no question that we face a crisis of grave proportion. We are reaping a bitter harvest from decades of wrong doing, poor judgment, cover-up and neglect. We can pray that the Holy Father and courageous bishops expunge the wicked, protect the children, and teach the truth of the gospel. I would like to use this blog to draw upon the resources of Pope John Paul II and other writers to provide a larger context for a better understanding the various aspects of the problem, and specifically identify the philosophical and theological issues.

I want to begin by considering an essay by Lacordaire, great Dominican of the French restored order. In a collection of essays Political and Social Philosophy edited by Rev. D. O’Mahoney (St Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1924) we find two essays on chastity, “Catholicism and chastity,” and “Rationalism and chastity.”

The ideal of chastity versus the indulgence and honor paid to sexual depravity reveals a “ground on which the world and the Gospel can never meet in accord and harmony.” Note that Lacordaire does not say the world and the Church, but the world and the gospel, for members of the church can betray the gospel. But it was through chastity he says that the Church stormed Rome; Rome had “deified shame and voluptuousness,” but “Chastity set up in the Pantheon its double sign: the cross, the flesh of a man suffering by voluntary self-immoltation; and by its side, the image of the spotless Virgin.” Thus “the honor and publicity of depravity was replaced by honor and publicity of chastity.” Lacordaire says that chastity will become the sign by which “men always recognize the priest.” Lacordaire says that if the sign of chastity remains on his brow, men will “forgive him much,” including avarice or pride. The people will not forgive the fault of frailty in matters sexual.

Father Lacordaire speaks about the trial of centuries by which the chastity of the priesthood proved itself. The world may call attention to “some isolated scandals, but the whole body of the priesthood has remained safe and secure.” The “fury of its enemies,” Lacordaire predicts, will break itself to pieces “against that ark which the priesthood carries with it.”

But now we see that ideal of chastity abandoned by too many in the Church and the fury of its enemies now come to hit its mark and smash that ark. What will be Catholic influence if the yoke of sanctity be abandoned? Vice is a “pestilential breath” that will but dry up the sources of life. The danger of this crisis lies in part in the pseudo-theological pronouncements that chastity is not possible and that vice must be accommodated throughout. Must we now confound “the general state of morals and manners in Christendom with that in pagan Greece and Rome.”

The sex abuse crisis has led many to pronounce that celibacy is the cause or the deeper problem; and behind these judgments lies the assumption that chastity is impossible. Lacordaire’s essays remind us of the importance of chastity for the Catholic mission.
Thou Art a Priest Forever
J.B. Henri Lacordaire, OP
To live in the midst of the world with
no desire for its pleasure…
To be a member of every family
yet belonging to none…
To share all sufferings; to penetrate
all secrets; to heal all wounds…
To daily go from men to God to
offer Him their petitions…
To return from God to men
to offer them His hope…
To have a heart of fire for charity
and a heart of bronze for chastity…
To bless and be blest forever.
O God, what a life, and it is yours,
O Priest of Jesus Christ
I have heard at least two people mention that this prayer of Lacordaire was too “old Church” and too “unreal.” Here we are at the heart of the problem, as I shall discuss in a later blog.

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