Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

whosoever shall cause these little ones to sin ...

By Diogenes ( articles ) | May 31, 2005

An old joke recounts a telephone conversation between a college football coach and a high school prospect:

Coach: Height?
Jock: Six foot five.
Coach: Weight?
Jock: Two-sixty.
Coach: Best 100-yard?
Jock: Nine point seven.
Coach: S.A.T. score?
Jock: 1600.
Coach: You're perfect!
Jock: I lie a little.

In judging a man's reliability of character, truthfulness is not simply one quality among others, it is the medium through which knowledge of his virtue is possible. Once a man has shown himself to be a lying witness, it's a waste of time to interrogate him further.

Because the Church locates the charism of truth in the episcopal magisterium in a special way, violations of truthfulness by bishops are especially distressing to Catholics. Faced with a flagrantly self-serving falsehood -- say, Thomas Daily's testimony (under oath) that he didn't realize priests were criminally liable for molesting children -- the faithful are momentarily knocked off kilter. This is the man who is transmitting God's will for us? Faced with the ensuing silence on the part of Daily's brother bishops, their absence of criticism or correction, the faithful take a second hit, blindsided from the other direction. These are the men who are transmitting God's will for us? The Christian concerned to unite himself to a reliable conduit of divine instruction is almost inevitably stunned.

Christian: Number?
Church: One.
Christian: Godliness?
Church: Holy.
Christian: Range?
Church: Catholic.
Christian: Basis of authority?
Church: Apostolic.
Christian: You're perfect!
Church: I lie a little.

Thanks be to God, it doesn't work that way. The charism is vouchsafed not to the person of Bishop So-and-so but to the episcopal college assembled around the pope with the purpose of teaching:

The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine for belief as being divinely revealed, and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions must be adhered to with the obedience of faith. (Catechism §891)

The reliability of the teaching Church is not contaminated by the perjury of her individual ministers. That said, it puts a huge weight on the faithful to make the act of theological abstraction needed to see beyond the personal untruthfulness of their bishop to the divinely protected deposit of faith in his custody. In plain terms, it's hard for Uncle Louie to watch Bishop Pinocchio lie his way out of a jam and still believe God is speaking through the same bishop in forbidding him to contracept or remarry.

Unable to handle this paradox -- which the New Testament calls scandal, a stumbling block -- some Catholics lapse into cynicism ("Nobody believes the doctrine. It's all a power game"). Others contend that the lies of ecclesiastics are not lies at all or, at least, not really as grave as they appear. The former tend to flatter themselves on their realism; the latter console themselves with their piety. Both groups lack the strength of faith needed to believe that the divine governance of the Church can co-exist with appalling human frailty in her ministers. But both deserve a certain sympathy. Standing up under the encumbrance of scandal is a tough task to perform, and Someone who knew whereof He spoke was fierce in condemnation of those indifferent to burdens they bound on the shoulders of others, and He assigned millstones to those who caused little ones to collapse under the weight of their superiors' evildoing.

It matters.

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