The Skulls of Priests
by Christopher Check
Which institution bears the most blame for the decay of the family in the modern world?
The state’s intrusive social policies and confiscatory taxes have stripped the family of its natural autonomy and cemented its dependence on federal largesse. The global economy, built on the cheap labor of working mothers and foreign slaves, has destroyed the family wage, to say nothing of family farms and businesses. The media have promoted licentious behavior: the universities, feminism. There is overwhelming evidence to indict them all.
But which is most at fault?
None of the above.
The lion’s share of blame belongs to the institution with the greatest responsibility to protect the family: the Church. The sins of churchmen are more often those of omission than commission, and that may explain why the Church receives less criticism than other institutions. The politicians, schoolteachers, and filmmakers who promote marriage for sodomites attract quite a bit more ire than the bishop who simply doesn’t bring it up. But whatever its source, this widespread reluctance to hold the Church accountable for the condition of the family has distracted the efforts of countless activists and intellectuals. How different things might be if they would devote the energies wasted writing and lobbying elected officials to frank conversation with their pastors!
Take, for example, the question—or “superstition,” as Chesterton has it—of divorce. Many pro-family activists are feverishly working for the restoration of fault-based divorce codes. One unfortunate side effect of their efforts is further state control over marriage through the introduction of such ill-conceived measures as state-mandated counseling and premarital compatibility surveys. But on the whole, these efforts seem noble enough; so long as the state insists on usurping the Church’s role in regulating marriage, we can only hope that its code will reflect revealed Truth. But is our divorce culture the child of bad laws or the bastard of a Church unwilling to defend the Truth? Which institution is supposed to be the guardian of the moral order? Have the activists decrying no-fault divorce ever called on their pastors and encouraged them to explain why divorce is immoral on their next occasion to ascend the pulpit?
Bill Mattox, of the Family Research Council, courageously told the World Congress of Families in March that the Protestant churches have tolerated divorce for too long. And if the Roman Catholic Church—where divorce rates are lower—has held the line on Christ’s teaching on this matter, the growing number of annulments should lead us to ask: why are so many weddings taking place that ought not to be?
The short answer is a lack of moral courage among the clergy. An unwillingness to stand athwart what is merely fashionable. A desire to avoid controversy.
The clergy are not alone in this sin. The father who, exhausted at the end of his workday, fails to discipline his rambunctious children, lacks the same fortitude as does the priest who remains silent when he learns that the couple coming to him to be married has been shacking up for three years.
When St. John Vianney ascended his pulpit in Ars for the first time, he lacked no fortitude. Rather he wept aloud at the number of his parishioners he saw headed for perdition. His moral courage converted France.
Can a vocal laity inspire a moral courage in an unwilling clergy? It would be difficult, but that is no reason not to try. Yet the Church is a hierarchical institution. The clergy must lead the way. If they will not, we have a responsibility to pray that their replacements will. Towards this end, parents who have large families are doing great work, for it is in these families that vocations are fostered.
But we cannot abandon those currently at the helm. So for the cleric in your life unwilling to navigate the storms of the modern world, here are some words of encouragement. From Christ himself: “And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required”; and from St. John Chrysostom: “The floor of hell is carpeted with the skulls of priests.” The former will remind him of the immense responsibility that all churchmen bear; the latter the price of failure.
Christopher Check is the executive vice president of The Rockford Institute and editor of The Family in America. This editorial was reprinted with permission from The Family in America (May 1997).
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“The Skulls of Priests” first appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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