There’s a joke that says that, in 1870 when the First Vatican Council was going to declare the doctrine of papal infallibility, some priests objected. One group said that their parishioners wouldn’t want to accept the idea; another group of priests priests said that, if the Council declared that the Pope was infallible, their parishioners might realize that their pastors weren’t.
The dogma of papal infallibility doesn’t say that the Pope (or anyone else in the Church) is perfect; only that, under certain specific circumstances, the Pope’s declarations on matters of faith and morals are guaranteed to be true by the working of the Holy Spirit. This in no way denies the human weakness of the members of the Church’s hierarchy. Especially in today’s world, it is all too evident that the men God has called to shepherd His flock are often far from perfect, just like the rest of the population, even though we strive to live up to a very high ideal.
This is nothing new. In the first reading today, God speaks through the prophet Malachi to priests of the Israelites, and chastises them for turning away from the truth and leading people astray. Similarly, in the Gospel, Jesus warns the people that many of the Pharisees and scribes are guilty of pride, vanity, and hypocrisy. As long as leaders in the Church are human, they will at times fall short – even far short – of the ideal image of Christ the Good Shepherd.
However, we have to very careful not to be blinded by the human sins and failings of leaders in the Church. Often, only their mistakes and scandals make the news. Even those who had significant failings in their pastoral responsibilities at times did great good in other ways. Most priests and bishops are dedicated and hard-working, doing their best to serve God’s people. They have great affection for their flock, as St. Paul describes in the second reading today, and do whatever they can to proclaim the Gospel and minister to their people’s needs. We also have to remember the Lord’s warning not to judge others. Only God knows each person’s heart and their desires and intentions, so while we have to seek justice and establish policies that protect against any kind of abuse, we should be open to forgiveness and mercy, as difficult as that can be.
In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus also points out that we should beware the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The scribes and Pharisees gave bad example, but their teaching was still valid. As St. Paul says, the Thessalonians, in hearing the world of God from from him and the other apostles, “received not a human word but… the word of God”.
It can be hard sometimes to separate the message from the messenger. I understand this all too well. I spent twenty years in a religious congregation that was recently shaken to its roots by a terrible scandal, centered on the man who founded the institute and directed it for more than sixty years. The ramifications of the founder’s problems are far-reaching in the life and institutional culture of that community. As I adapt to life as a diocesan priest, I am trying not to let my pain and the anger about what happened get between me and my faith, nor allow it to tarnish all the other good things I learned during those years.
I think there are two lessons to take away from these readings. First, we have to learn to recognize that the humanity of the Church, with all the weakness, mistakes, and sins that it can bring into the practical aspects of Church life, is only part of the story. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and the grace it offers through the liturgy and sacraments, and the doctrine it teaches, are pure, life-giving, and true.
Second, we need to pray for those whom God has chosen to bring us these divine gifts. The Pope, bishops, priests, nuns, and everyone who ministers in the Church, are given great responsibility, and they – we – need an abundance of God’s help to be faithful shepherds of the flock. Through your prayers, may God grant us His wisdom and strength, to preach truthfully and to practice what we preach, with humility and love.