The Dignities and Duties of the Priest


St. Alphonse Liguori C.SS.R.
Doctor of the Church

-----------------------------Chapter Nine-----------------------------

The Sin of Scandal

 THE devil first procured the invention of deities addicted to vice, he then sought to induce the Gentiles to worship them, that thus men might consider it lawful to sin as often as they pleased, and that they might even lose all horror for the vices with which they saw their gods clothed. This, Seneca, who was a Gentile, confessed: "Since we have such gods the horror of vice should disappear from among men." "To attribute vices to the gods-----what is it but to inflame passion in the hearts of men, at the same time legalizing all the disorders through the example of the divinity?" Hence, as we read in the works of the same Seneca, the unhappy Gentiles would say: "Why should that be forbidden to me what the gods have a right to do?" But what the devil obtained from the Gentiles by means of these pretended deities, whom he proposed as models for imitation, he now obtains from Christians by means of the scandalous priest, who by his bad example persuades poor seculars into a belief that what they see in their pastor is lawful, or at least not a great evil in worldlings. "Seculars think," says St. Gregory, "that all is allowed them what they see their pastors do, so that  they imitate them the more ardently." God has placed priests in the world that they may be a model to others, as our Savior Himself was sent by His Father to be an example to the world: As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you. [John 20, 21] Hence St. Jerome wrote to a bishop to guard against actions by the imitation of which others might be drawn, as it were, by force into sin.

    The sin of scandal consists not only in directly advising others to do evil, but also in inducing them indirectly by acts to the commission of sin. Scandal is thus defined by St. Thomas and other theologians:

"Every word or action, more or less inordinate, that constitutes for the neighbor an occasion of falling into sin." [2, 2, q. 43, a. 1]

To understand the grievousness of the sin of scandal, it is enough to know, that according to St. Paul he who offends against a brother by leading him into sin, offends against Jesus Christ: When you sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. [1 Cor. 8, 12] St. Bernard assigns the reason, saying, that the author of scandal robs Jesus Christ of the souls redeemed by His Blood. The Saint goes so far as to say that Jesus Christ suffers more from those that scandalize others than He did from his crucifiers. "If our Lord," he says, "has given His Blood to redeem souls, do you not think that of these two persecutions, the one in which scandal robs Him of souls purchased by His Blood, the other in which the Jews shed His Blood, the first is much more cruel to His Heart?"

But if in all, even in seculars, the sin of scandal is so detestable; 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 is called the salt of the earth and the light of the world. [Matt. 5, 13] The office of salt is to preserve soundness and prevent putrefaction. and the office of the priest is to preserve souls in the grace of God. "What," says St. Augustine, "shall become of the people if the priest does not perform the office of salt." Then the Saint proceeds to say, this salt shall be fit only to be cast away by the Church, and to be trodden by all. But what, if, instead of being a preservative, this salt be employed in producing and promoting corruption? If instead of bringing souls to God, a priest is occupied in leading them to perdition, what punishment shall he deserve?

The priest is also the light of the world. [Matt. 5, 14] Hence. says St. John Chrysostom, he should shine with the splendor of his sanctity so as to enlighten all others to imitate his virtues. But should this light be changed into darkness, what must become of the world? Shall it not be brought to ruin? says St. Gregory. The Saint has written the same to the. bishops of France, whom he exhorted to chastise the priest who is guilty of scandal. This is conformable to the words of the Prophet Osee: And there shall be like people like priest. [4, 9] By the mouth of Jeremias the Lord has said, And I will fill the soul of the priest with fatness: and My people shall be filled with good things. [31, 14] Hence St. Charles Borromeo says that if the priests be fat and rich in virtue, the people, too, shall be rich; but if the priests be poor, the people shall be in still greater poverty.

   Thomas de Cantimpré writes that in Paris a devil told an ecclesiastic to preach to the clergy of that city, and to say that the princes of Hell saluted and thanked some of them for having caused the damnation of an immense multitude of souls. Of this the Lord complained by the Prophet Jeremias: My people hath been a lost flock; their shepherds have caused them to go astray. [1, 6] There is no alternative, says St. Gregory; when the priest walks into the precipice, the people, too, are dashed to ruin. The bad example of the priest necessarily produces immorality among his people, says St. Bernard. Should a secular mistake the way, he alone is lost; but when a priest errs, he shall cause the perdition of many, particularly of those that are under his care, says the same St. Bernard. The Lord ordained in Leviticus that for the sin of a single priest a calf should be offered, as well as for the sins of the entire people. From this Innocent III concludes that the sin of a priest is as grievous as the sins of the whole people. The reason is, says the Pontiff, that by his sin the priest leads the entire people into sin. And, long before, the Lord Himself said the same: If the priest that is anointed shall sin, he maketh the people to offend. [Lev. 4, 3] Hence, St. Augustine, addressing priests, says, "Do not close Heaven: but this you do if you give to others a bad example to lead a wicked life." Our Lord said one day to St. Bridget, that when sinners see the bad example of the priest, they are encouraged to
commit sin, and even begin to glory in the vices of which they were before ashamed. Hence our Lord added that worse maledictions shall fall on the priest than on others, because by his sinful life he brings himself and others to perdition.

 The author of the Imperfect Work says that all that see a tree covered with pale and withered leaves immediately infer that its roots have been injured; and when we see a people immoral, we may justly conclude, without danger of rash judgment, that the priest is a man without virtue. Yes, says St. John Chrysostom, the life of the priest is the root from which the people, who are the branches, receive nutriment. St. Ambrose also says that priests are the head from which virtue flows to the members, that is, to seculars. The whole head is sick, says the Prophet Isaias; . . . from the sole of the foot unto the top of the head there is no soundness therein. [1, 5] St. Isidore explains this passage in the following words: "This languishing head is the priest that commits sin, and that communicates his sin to the whole body." St. Leo weeps over this evil, saying, How can health be found in the body if the head be not sound? Who, says St. Bernard, shall seek in a sink the limpid water of the spring? Shall I, adds the Saint, seek counsel from the man that knows not how to give counsel to himself? Speaking of the bad example of princes, Plutarch says, that it poisons not a single cup, but the public fountain; and thus, because all draw from the fountain, all are poisoned. This may be said with greater truth of the bad example of priests; hence Eugene III has said that bad Superiors are the principal causes of the sins of inferiors.

  Priests are called by St. Gregory "The Fathers of Christians". Thus also are they called by St. John Chrysostom, who says that a priest as the representative of God is bound to take care of all men, because he is the Father of the whole world. As a parent, then, sins doubly when he gives bad example to his children, so a priest is also guilty of a double sin when he gives bad example to seculars, says Peter de Blois. St. Jerome made the same remark in a letter to a certain bishop: "Whatever you do, all will think they may also do." When they sin at the sight of the bad example of a priest, seculars, as Cesarius has observed, say, "Do not also priests do such things?" St. Augustine puts the following words into the mouth of a secular: "Why do you reproach me? are not priests doing the same? and you wish to force me not to do so?" St. Gregory says that when, instead of edifying the people, a priest gives scandal, he renders sin, in a certain manner, honorable rather than an object of horror.

Such a priest, then, is at the same time a parent and a parricide; for, as St. Gregory says, he is the cause of the death of his spiritual children. "You see," says the Saint, "what blows daily are given to the people, and whose fault is it but the fault of priests? We are the cause of the death of the people, while we should be their leaders to eternal life."  Someone that has lost the Divine light may say I must give an account of my own sins, but what have I to do with the sins of others? He may say what he pleases, but I exhort him to listen to the words of St. Jerome: "If you say I have enough to do with my own conscience; what do I care for people's talk? listen to the words of the Apostle: "Providing good things, not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of all men."  [Rom, 12, 17] St. Bernard says that the scandalous priest kills others at the same time that he murders his own soul. And in another place the Saint writes that there is no plague more noxious to the people than ignorance in a priest united with irregularity of life. In another place the same Saint says that in their sermons many priests are orthodox, but in their conduct they are heretics; because by their bad example they inflict a deeper wound on religion than heretics do by teaching false doctrines, because acts have more force than words. . . . By his bad example the scandalous priest brings disgrace even on his own ministry, that is, on his sermons, Masses, and all his functions. Against this the Apostle has warned priests: Giving no offense to any man, that our ministry be not blamed, but in all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God. [2 Cor. 6, 3] Salvian says that through certain priests the law of Jesus Christ is dishonored. St. Bernardine of Siena writes that many, seeing the bad example of the scandalous ecclesiastic, begin even to waver in faith, and thus abandon themselves to vice, despising the Sacraments, Hell, and Heaven.

 St. John Chrysostom writes that the infidels, seeing the vices of certain priests, would say that the God of the Christians either was not the true God, or that He was not a God of sanctity. For, said they, were He holy, how could He tolerate the sins of His priests? In the instruction on the Mass we  related at length the fact of a heretic who had resolved to abjure his errors, but being afterwards present at a Mass celebrated in a scandalous manner, he determined to remain in his heresy, and said that even the Pope did not believe in the Mass, for if he did he would condemn such priests to be burnt alive. St. Jerome said that among those that had infected the Church and perverted the people, he found in history the names only of priests. And Peter de Blois says: "On account of the negligence of priests heresies came into existence." In another place he says: "On account of the sins of priests the holy Church of God has been covered with opprobrium and trodden in the dust." St. Bernard was of opinion that greater injury is done to the Church by scandalous priests than even by the heretics; because we may guard against heretics, but how can we guard against the priest of whose ministry we must necessarily avail ourselves? "See," says the holy Doctor, "what poison is now ravaging the whole body of the Church! The more it extends the less it can be checked, and the greater the danger of becoming more hidden. Let a heretic preach impious doctrines, and he will be expelled; let him have recourse to violence, and we shall flee from him. But now how can we reject or expel priests? We need them, and all are our enemies."

   Oh! how great the punishment which is reserved for the scandalous priest! If against every secular that gives scandal vengeance has been threatened, Woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh, [Matt. 18, 7] how much more tremendous the scourge that shall fall on the scandalous priest, whom God has chosen from among all men for His Own minister!  . . . Jesus Christ has chosen him to bring forth fruit by saving souls . . . And by bad example he robs Jesus Christ of souls redeemed with His Blood. St. Gregory says that such a priest merits as many deaths as he gives examples of vice.

Speaking especially of priests, our Lord said to St. Bridget: "Upon them greater malediction will come, because by their conduct they damn not only themselves, but also others." To them is entrusted the care of cultivating the vineyard of the Lord; but He casts out of His vineyard the scandalous priest, and places in his stead others that will bring forth good fruit: He will bring those evil men to an evil end: and will out His vineyard to other husbandmen, that shall render Him the fruit in due season. [Matt. 21, 41] Alas! what shall become of the scandalous priest on the day of judgment?  I will, says the Lord, meet them as the bear that is robbed of her whelps. [Os. 13, 8] With what rage does the bear rush on the sportsman that has killed or stolen her whelps! It is thus God has declared that He will meet on the day of judgment the priest that has destroyed instead of saving souls. And if, says St. Augustine, we shall scarcely be able to give an account of ourselves, what shall become of the priest that shall have to render an account of the souls he has sent to Hell?' And St. John Chrysostom says, "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." Oh! how many seculars, how many peasants, how many weak and tender women, shall cover the priest with shame and confusion in the valley of Josaphat! "The layman," says St. John Chrysostom, "will on the day of judgment receive the priestly stole, but the sinful priest, stripped of his dignity, will have to take his place among infidels and heretics."

   Let us, then, dearly beloved priests, guard against bringing to Hell by our bad example the souls for whose salvation God has placed us in the world. And for this purpose we must avoid not only actions that are in themselves unlawful, but also those that have the appearance of evil. From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves. [1 Thess. 5, 22] The Council of Agatha ordains "that servant maids be removed from the houses of priests." To keep young servant maids, though they were not an occasion of evil . . . has at least the appearance of evil, and may give scandal to others. Hence the Apostle has written that we should sometimes abstain from what is lawful, lest it become a stumbling-block to the weak. [1 Cor. 8, 9] It is also necessary to abstain with great care from giving expression to certain worldly maxims; such as we must not allow others to take precedence; we must enjoy the present life; happy the man that abounds in riches; God is full of mercy and has pity on us, even on sinners that persist in sin. But how scandalous would it be to praise persons for sinful conduct! For example, for resenting an injury, or for maintaining a dangerous friendship. "It is worse," says 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.