Infidelity: One Cause for Clergy Abuse, by Tom Collingwood

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By Tom Collingwood, Catholic Stand, 16 February AD 2019


In a previous essay I addressed the challenges of defending the Church in light of the clergy abuse scandal and noted that since it was first exposed in 2002, have tried to keep abreast of all the reports, research and commentary regarding the scandal. In that context I have always searched for what may be the root causes of why would a priest, bishop or any member of the clergy perform abusive acts, discount them, condone them, or hide them. The sacred vows of a priest have been ignored, violated and corrupted by some. Why? It’s a timely question to ask before the Bishops conference called by the Pope meets in February.

Many causes have been suggested by the Church, the media and just about everybody seems to have an opinion. Clericalism, celibacy, homosexuality and a multitude of other potential reasons have been defined. However, I believe they all are but symptoms of certain undercurrents that have affected the Church for decades.


The single underlying cause that emerges for me can be summed up by the words expressed by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things magazine. When asked for the causes of the priestly abuse back in 2002 he said it was a loss of fidelity. In turn, he offered the solution as “Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.”

A general definition of fidelity is having a faithfulness to beliefs, obligations, duties or observances and especially a strict adherence to vows and promises. In turn, infidelity is the disregard or corruption of that faithfulness. So the question to raise is what could be the underling currents that affect that infidelity?

The former Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith; Gerhard Cardinal Müller, has stated “corruption of doctrine leads to corruption of morals”. The breakdown of theological/doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical discipline and sexual morality are all interrelated. There are a number of doctrinal and moral undercurrents occurring within the Church among some clergy, theologians, and academics that I believe could have set the stage for the infidelity leading to the abuse scandal.


Whether the issue is accepting Islam as a benign religion of peace, a trust in a totalitarian Chinese regime or tolerance for immoral sexual preferences there have been some in the Church that have emphasized being tolerant and inclusive. To be sure, these are important attributes and the Church is appropriately tolerant and inclusive as seen by the fact that she is open to accept all kinds of sinners to come in, repent and seek redemption.

However, she is not an inclusive religion that tolerates “wrong-headed” faith and moral doctrines and behaviors. There is a sense of absolute truth passed on from Jesus to the Apostles to this day. An overemphasis on tolerance, unfortunately has led some to offer a non-judgmental acceptance and even promotion of faith beliefs and behaviors that go against absolute doctrine.

The argument given is that the Church needs to be more open and inclusive to keep its members and bring more to the faith. But at what cost? I would contend it has just the opposite effect. Most of us are looking for the truth and consistency of belief in a world given to lies and a relative reality.


The misplaced sense of toleration and inclusion has led to an overemphasis on one’s personal conscience dictating belief and practice as opposed to the “deposit of faith” passed down from the Church. It can be seen in movements within the Church minimizing the notion of sin and justice and maximizing the notion of forgiveness and mercy. While being merciful is a noble virtue and one we all must practice, placing it as a priority, with no sense of justice and repentance makes it a pseudo-mercy. It can lead to a sense of permissiveness in faith and practice that can be seen in the moral behavior by some clergy and laity.

A “gradualism” of faith belief and practice is being taught by some that basically says that faith and moral practices are just ideals and one can’t be expected to fully follow the Church’s teaching.  This sense of permissiveness in not following doctrine or moral teachings is seen in beliefs about birth control to abortion to adultery to homosexuality. It can be seen at all levels from what some clergy preach, to what some laity believe and practice and to some in the hierarchy who have failed their responsibility to oversee the faith and practice teachings.


The emergence of some of the progressive movements in the Church as seen in the previously mentioned undercurrents can be summed up as a cultural relativism being accepted and professed by some within all levels of the Church that denies doctrinal absolutes of following the faith. Among the progressives, relativism is becoming a major philosophy and sense of morality. It is seen in members of the clergy, academics and theologians support for the accepted cultural views of sexual behavior to include acceptance of homosexuality as a normal condition, acceptance of same sex-marriage and acceptance of abortion.

Since the 1960s there has been a widening split between what some would call progressive Catholics and orthodox Catholics – it is seen in some Catholic universities and seminaries who are teaching dissent by accepting liberal theologies such as denial of the true presence in the Eucharist and Christ’s divinity. All this can contribute to some in the Church professing a relative as opposed to absolute truth. Rather than reflect the social mainstream, the Church needs to rise above it and be detached from the relativist worldview. The Apostle Paul spoke to this issue 2000 years ago:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2

The consequences of such a “secular creep” and not always standing up for the absolute truth is seen in some of the attitudes accepted by upcoming generations. Sociologist Christian Smith’s latest book Emerging Adults: A closer look at issues facing young Christians notes that 60% of young adults (18-24 year olds) believe morality is a personal choice and 47% think morals are relative with no definite right or wrongs that pertain to everybody.


The acceptance of the cultural relativism provides a license for individual interpretation of fidelity as opposed to the sacred vows the clergy takes. This opens the door for an acceptance of immoral sexual activity as not all that serious but part of our humanity, an acceptance of homosexual actions as not disordered but part of the normal sexuality continuum and a tolerance of one’s own sins. This all leads to finding excuses for the ultimate rejection of the sacredness of the clergy calling.

While many of the undercurrents set the stage for abuse, the plain and simple explanation for clergy abuse is a sense of permissiveness for sexual immorality. This has been played out by the abusing priests and bishops who use their position of authority for predation on others and by “celebrity” priests advocating for the LBGTQ agenda. A homosexual network has been exposed within the priesthood that has also undermined some seminaries. This depravity is indicative of narcissist behavior that places self-gratification above self-denial and self-discipline. While homosexual predation is the direct cause of approximately 80% of abuse it is also reflective of a complete dismissal of fidelity.


The same undercurrents for infidelity affect both priests and the Church hierarchy alike. The key difference is that the hierarchy are the ones responsible to hold those under their jurisdiction to a fidelity to the faith and their priestly calling. Some of the bishops have provided a lax governance and maintenance of order that they are charged to uphold. Protection of the Church has been more important than protection of the “flock”.

The case of Cardinal McCarrick disgracefully exposes that some even are perpetrators, promoters, and enablers of abuse themselves. It all reflects a corruption that must be dealt with. The infidelity of those bishops and Cardinals is a classic failure to not follow the Apostle Peter’s admonition to priests and bishops that will succeed him:

Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly,
not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory.—1 Peter 5:2-4

I hope and pray that the hierarchy recognize and act on Harry Truman’s classic quote “The buck stops here” to demonstrate a renewed sense of faithful leadership to have the courage to confront and “root out” the “bad actors”.


Very few are willing to acknowledge the influence of Satan and evil in our world today. However, when observing all that has occurred and is occurring it must be concluded the “smoke of Satan” has entered the Church. That influence has allowed some individual clergy to convince themselves that intrinsically evil acts are OK or of little concern. As a consequence, the fidelity that is always required to sustain sacred vows, obedience and obligations gets pushed to the periphery of one’s consciousness and is lost.