A Faith Robust Enough to Put People in Hell
By Thomas Storck
Recently I became aware of the case of John Feit, a former priest credibly suspected of a rape and murder in Texas in 1960. Feit had, shortly before, assaulted another young woman, and much evidence points to his guilt in the second assault and murder.
Although I’d lived through the depressing revelations of the past couple decades of clerical crimes, for some reason this case unsettled me more than they had. Perhaps because it occurred when (so it seemed) the Church was more disciplined and aware of her divine origin and mission, not only the crime itself but the apparent complicity of parish and diocesan officials in hushing it up gave me a momentary crisis of faith.
But next minute I recovered as I reflected that a real robust Catholicism would not be surprised at this. Bishops and priests guilty of serious crimes? “I do not think there are many among bishops that will be saved, but many more that perish”—words of St. John Chrysostom, Father and Doctor of the Church, a bishop himself. It is only a watered-down Catholicism that will be disturbed by such misdeeds, a faith too timid to face the ugliness of human sin, and which perhaps assumes universal salvation because hell and damnation are not nice topics and best avoided. But this is not the robust Faith of the Church, a Faith that teaches that human acts matter, that they can have eternal significance, and that our destiny is either heaven or hell.
The kind of uncritical reverence of the clergy that is unduly disturbed by clerical sin became common in the Church only after the Council of Trent. A biographer of St. Anthony of Padua, writing in the 1930s, noted that
It is worth remembering that the policy of silence within the Church concerning abuses in the Church is purely of post-Reformation origin. What would be noticed to-day with averted gaze and a finger on the lips would be shouted about by Anthony to the four winds of Heaven. The policy of silence has introduced into the ecclesiastical atmosphere an occasional touch of unreality perhaps not wholly to the benefit of religion.
The faith of the patristic and medieval Church was strong enough that Dante could place more than one pope in hell. Nor is Holy Scripture reticent about the crimes of those dedicated to God’s service, such as the sons of Eli in the Old Testament, priests who stole from the offerings made to the Lord and “lay with the women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” And like many bishops of today, their father Eli was guilty of doing nothing effective to stop them. Instead God himself intervened, and Eli was told by a prophet that his sons would be killed on account of their crimes.