Saint Athanasius is credited with saying, “The floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” In fact, many saints have made comments similar to this. Saint John Chrysostom had the most detailed version: “The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path.” These disturbing images have come terribly to life in recent times.
The high-ranking church officials who have been implicated in the many, many abuses committed by clergy may be able to hide from the earthly consequences. Cardinal Law covered up the rape of children for years in Boston before being whisked away to Rome, where he lived the rest of his days in comfort and peace. Now there are reports that the Vatican is hatching a similar escape plan for Cardinal Wuerl. And of course the Pope himself, accused of terrible and treacherous deeds, has remained silent, sheltered, and is feeling quite “serene” admidst his flock’s spiritual upheaval. Christ said the good shepherd will set out to find and recover even one lost sheep. What does that say about the shepherd who does and says nothing while his whole flock wanders into confusion?
But these men have the luxury to sit back, perhaps issue a hollow statement about the “deep sorrow” they feel over the sins they themselves committed, and then move on from it. Cardinal Cupich’s comment that the Pope can’t be bothered with the allegations against him because “he’s got to get on with other things” was instructive. It was also perhaps the first honest thing we’ve heard from the Cupich-Wuerl-McCarrick wing of the Church for some time. They really do see all of this as a silly distraction.
The average lay Catholic, however, does not have the same luxury. He has to deal with the consequences. He is forced to endure the betrayal, the lies, the cowardice, the shame — or not endure it. Indeed, many Catholics have fallen into despair. They cannot reconcile their faith with the entrenched corruption and wickedness of their church leaders. I hear from these Catholics every day. This is just anecdotal, of course, but I have noticed something interesting among the Catholics who have come to me to air their grievances: they are not leaving the Church, or thinking about leaving the Church, for some other church. Rather, they are questioning whether God exists at all. Someone wrote this to me yesterday: “It is either Catholicism or atheism. I am now leaning toward atheism.”
Now, I do not think that this should cause us to be atheists. I do not think it should — though I understand why it does — cause a crisis of faith. All men have free will, even churchmen. And faith leaders will always attract special attention from Satan. If they are weak, he will topple them with ease. The higher on the ladder they have climbed, the farther they will fall. It takes an angel to make a demon. It takes a bishop to make a McCarrick. Besides, we cannot be surprised by this corruption and moral cowardice because there is a long and storied history of it, starting with the Apostles themselves. Jesus chose twelve of them. One betrayed Him, one denied Him, and only one stood by Him at the Cross.
This is the encouragement I try to provide, however insufficient it may seem. But the fact still remains. Scandal has swept the Church. Not just scandal in the sense of sex scandal, but scandal in the sense of an evil that brings spiritual harm to those who encounter it. This is what prompted those harsh rebukes quoted at the beginning. Bishops and popes are in a position to scandalize because they are in a position to lead. They will guide their flocks one direction or another: toward the Promised Land or into the desert. They can fortify souls or ruin them. Many leaders of the Church have chosen the latter course, and for that they will face the most severe judgment. After all, it was for the wicked spiritual leaders that Jesus reserved His most startling warning: “It would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Right now it is the faithful who feel that they are drowning in the depths. The corrupt men in the hierarchy remain on dry land and look with disdain on the souls they have abandoned. But the tide will reach them one day. And when it does, woe to them. In the words of Jesus Christ, it would be better for them if they had never been born.