According to the 2012 edition of the Anuario Pontificio, at the end of 2010 there were 412,236 Catholic priests in the world. Of those four hundred thousand odd, some were indeed the paedophiles and fornicators of popular imagination. I daresay some were also gamblers, drunkards, or what have you. A few may even have been hypocrites or heretics, either unbelievers themselves or teaching a doctrine inconsistent with what the Catholic Church believes and teaches (it is not difficult to find out what the Catholic Church believes and teaches, it is all in the Catechism, which you can find online at the Vatican website.) HOWEVER, I dare to assert that the majority of those 412,236 were chaste, good-living, decent men, who believed what they taught and did their best to serve the people of God in every way they could. That is the shocking truth about Catholic priests, a truth many find hard to digest because it challenges their own values and preoccupations.
Why am I in such combative mood this morning? It is because I am increasingly concerned, not just about media drivel on the subject of the pope’s retirement from office, but also about the peddling of false rumours and derogatory statements about the Catholic Church in general and its priests in particular — sometimes, I am sad to say, by other Catholics or members of other Christian denominations.
To those outside, the Church as an organization is baffling to the point of incomprehension. It is not merely international but supranational — which is not to say that it is free from national characteristics or shortcomings. The Church is not a democracy in the way that most people understand democracy, yet it is one of the most ‘democratic’ of all institutions. Every Catholic has the right of direct recourse to Rome. There are no intermediaries that have to be gone through. The Church has strict rules, but our sex-obsessed culture homes in on only one subject whilst ignoring the tough and demanding nature of the Church’s teaching on capitalism, the death penalty and so on. In short, the Church is simultaneously both a complex organization and a very simple one, not to be explained — or dismissed — in a line or two.
There are many things in the Church that are less than ideal, many urgent matters that need to be addressed, but the recent spate of pope-bashing and priest-bashing has highlighted something we often forget. People don’t attack something they see as irrelevant. All the vitriol, all the misrepresentations, are a mark of just how relevant the Church is and, by extension, what a good job its priests are doing. There is, however, a danger in the sheer volume of personal nastiness we are seeing in the media and elsewhere. I am not an uncritical admirer of Pope Benedict XVI, but I have been appalled by the personal attacks on him during the past week especially. I have also been appalled by the treatment meted out to some of my priest friends, not because they are guilty of any crime but because some people think it acceptable to attack them simply because they are priests. Priests are human; morale can slip. We need to pray for our priests as never before — and think carefully about how we ourselves encourage, support or undermine them.