The bad example of priests, says the doctor of the Church, ‘robs Jesus Christ of souls redeemed by his blood.’
How important is it for priests to avoid the sin of scandal, whether it be through sinful actions, hypocrisy or spreading false doctrine?
In a chapter entitled “The Sin of Scandal” in his book The Dignity and Duties of the Priest, St. Alphonsus Liguori pulls no punches in alerting priests to this grave danger, both in terms of their own eternal salvation and that of others.
His teaching is especially relevant to our time. Despite the good example of most priests, certain clergy and bishops continue to make headlines in our news-saturated media on account of their scandalous behavior, whether it be sexual abuse, heretical teaching or financial impropriety.
The consequences of these actions are great, writes St. Alphonsus. If, in secular society, the sin of scandal is so detestable, he notes, “how much greater must be its malice in a priest, whom God has placed on earth to save souls and to conduct them to heaven!”
The priest, he adds, is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world — salt which “preserves soundness and prevents putrefaction,” and light that shows forth the “splendor of his sanctity” and so enlighten others “to imitate his virtues.”
“But should that light be changed into darkness, what must become of the world? Shall it not be brought to ruin?” he asks, quoting St. Gregory the Great.
Citing the 12th-century French theologian and poet Father Peter de Blois, he says that just as a father can cause his child to sin through being a poor role model, so the priest “sins doubly when he gives a bad example to seculars.”
“Priests are the head from which virtue flows to the members, that is, to seculars,” St. Alphonsus continues, quoting St. Ambrose, but if the “head is sick, says the Prophet Isaiah (1:5-6), from the sole of the foot unto the top of the head, there is no soundness therein.”
The scandalous priest is “the cause of the death of his spiritual children,” writes St. Alphonsus. “On account of the negligence of priests, heresies came into existence,” he continues, quoting Father de Blois again, and “on account of the sins of priests, the holy Church of God has been covered with opprobrium and trodden in the dust.”
“Oh! How great the punishment which is reserved for the scandalous priest!” St. Alphonsus exclaims. “If, against every secular that gives scandal, vengeance has been threatened — ‘woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh (Matthew 18:7)’ — how much more tremendous the scourge that shall fall on the scandalous priest whom God has chosen from all men for his own to minister!” His bad example, he adds, “robs Jesus Christ of souls redeemed by his blood.”
In the Lord’s words to St. Bridget, he said: “Upon them greater malediction will come, because by their conduct they damn not only themselves, but also others.” And quoting St. John Chrysostom: “If priests sin, all the people are led to sin. Hence everyone must render an account of his own sins, but the priests are also responsible for the sins of others.”
The priest is “entrusted the care of cultivating the vineyard of the Lord; but he [the Lord] casts out of the vineyard the scandalous priest, and places in his stead others that will bring forth good fruit,” St. Alphonsus says. “He will bring those evil men to an evil end: and will let out his vineyard to other husbandmen that shall render him the fruit in due season.”
“Alas! What shall become of the scandalous priest on the day of judgment?” St. Alphonsus continues, and says the Lord will meet them as a bear would whose young are stolen or killed.
In closing, the saintly founder of the Redemptorists urges priests to also avoid actions which may be lawful but could give scandal to others, and other causes of scandal such as “giving expression to certain worldly maxims.” These, he says, include such statements as “we must enjoy the present life,” “happy the man that abounds in riches,” and “God is full of mercy and has pity on us, even on sinners that persist in sin.”
“How scandalous would it be to praise persons for sinful conduct!” he says. “’It is worse,’ he adds quoting St. John Chrysostom, ‘to praise those that do wrong than to do wrong ourselves.’”
“He that has hitherto had the misfortune of giving scandal, or of being the occasion of scandal, is bound under pain of grievous sin to repair it by external good example,” St. Alphonsus concludes.
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