Mark Twain quipped, “Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.” On the other hand, to rephrase Shakespeare, “The fault is not in our Creator but in ourselves.”
Clearly the Bard was closer to the mark, for our first parents were unable to resist the temptation of overstepping their human limits. The sin originating from Adam and Eve was arrogance in wanting a power that belongs to God alone.
Thus, the creation account establishes a pattern for how humans sometimes behave when confronted by temptation and how each of us shares imperfections with the rest of humanity—past, present, and future.
Catholic clergy and religious comprise a microcosm of flawed humanity. Fr. Thomas Merton acknowledges this unsurprising reality in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain: “The first and most elementary test of one’s call to the religious life…is the willingness to accept life in a community in which everybody is more or less imperfect.”
What are some imperfections that priests and religious share with the rest of humanity? Despite extensive theological and scriptural training, we may still adopt a narrow understanding of God’s mercy. We can easily become superficial in our prayer life. We often spend far too much time watching television instead of being productive. And while we avoid some addictive behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, we often merely substitute them for other addictions, like smoking or gambling.
In recent years, however, much has been said about a more egregious collective flaw known as clericalism that’s “fostered by priests themselves or by laypersons,” according to Pope Francis.
Clericalism is “simply the manifestation in the Church of very human temptations that are present in every organization: ambition, pride, arrogance and the abuse of power,” writes Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ. “We are just shocked to find it in the Church.”
It shocks some Catholics to discover fundamental human flaws in their priests, as though clergy were somehow immune to vices. Yet, most priests who’ve heard confessions for decades are seldom shocked by “the manifestation in the Church of very human temptations.”
Penitents—priests and laity—confess a variety of temptations that fall under the Church’s traditional list of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust.
Moreover, the definition by Fr. Reese of clericalism acknowledges another unsurprising reality: human vices are prevalent in every organization. Now that the secret of pervasive child abuse has been exposed in the Baptist Church, will their response to the scandal avoid the same mistakes made by the Catholic Church? Likewise, will the Boy Scouts of America learn from the errors made by countless dioceses that have, like the Scouts, filed for bankruptcy?
It’s essential for all Catholics to be called to a higher standard—by people inside and outside of the Church. Catholics and their spiritual leaders should be called to a higher standard, just not a double one.
“No church is perfect because every church on earth is made up of imperfect, sinful people,” wrote the Reverend Dr. Billy Graham. “Someone has said that if you ever found a church that was perfect, it would stop being perfect the minute you joined!”
Not to worry, though! Our Lord assures us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).