Facing Scandal Head On
Catholic prelates of our age could learn from Pope St. Gregory VII
For three days in the winter of 1077, King Henry IV of Germany knelt barefoot in the snow, clad in a coarse wool shirt, outside a castle gate in northern Italy. Inside the castle was Pope St. Gregory VII. The king desperately wanted the Pope to hear his confession and lift a ban of excommunication that had been placed on him for his great and obstinate public sins. When the Pope excommunicated him, all Christians were absolved of obedience to him, which mobilized his political opponents. The king’s spiritual ruin was being followed by his political downfall. The Pope did finally hear his confession and gave him communion, but not without first warning him about the necessity of sincerity of heart: “If you are approaching with a good heart, and intend to observe what you have promised, may this Sacred Body be to you the salvation it was to most of the apostles; otherwise you will receive it unworthily, and without a doubt will eat judgment to yourself.” Ultimately the Pope’s words proved prophetic as Henry’s restoration did not last long. He was eventually excommunicated again in 1080, but it was not because of the saintly pope’s lack of pastoral concern and mercy. In fact the Church was forever changed by the exercise of his pastoral authority.
Catholic prelates of our age could learn a lesson from the saintly pontiff, especially in his handling of public sin. There are many Catholics who obstinately and publicly sin while still labeling themselves as Catholics in good standing. One particularly egregious offender this week signed a law allowing unrestricted abortion up until birth in his state. All this while touting his Catholic credentials. There is urgent need for the Church to act decisively. To wait would be to further damage the Church’s moral authority.
What made Pope St. Gregory VII one of the great reform popes was not that he was a great moral teacher, but that he restored moral authority to the papacy and the Church. “Who am I to judge?” was not a rhetorical question. He knew that Christ had given him a share in His own authority as “judge of the living” to guide the flock. He knew as a moral judge that he could absolve or condemn. He knew that he could impose public punishment up to and including excommunication.
Public sin always requires a public response to avoid further scandal. All sin wounds the Mystical Body of Christ but only some of it does so exteriorly. Sin must be called out as sin or else a moral laxity in the entire community sets in. It is always best when the sin is called sin by the sinner himself, so a true shepherd will address the issue privately at first. But the public sin and sinner must be singled out and the shepherd may need to exercise his obligation to remove the sheep from the flock.
To allow someone to continue to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist when they are in grave sin is obviously a great sacrilege. Just because the person is physically able to receive the Eucharist doesn’t mean he or she should. One of the purposes of excommunication is to protect the person from further sin. By not acting, the prelate is essentially telling the person “to hell with you.”
Excommunication is also medicinal in that it gives the person, and those in a similar albeit more private situation, time to reflect upon their sin and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. St. Gregory, in speaking of the Church’s moral authority said, “When with the words ‘Feed my sheep,’ God thrice entrusted His Church to Blessed Peter, did He except kings? When chiefly to Him He gave the power of binding and loosing in heaven and in earth, He made no exceptions; He did not withdraw anyone from under his authority. He who asserts that he cannot be bound by the Church’s bonds, confesses that he cannot be loosed by her authority. And he who makes such an assertion, separates himself wholly from Christ.” Until someone recognizes the Church’s authority to bind, he will never be able to take advantage of her power to loose. The Church’s binding and loosing authority is two-sided. To attempt to exercise one without the other is to do great harm to both. By using excommunication, prelates lead sinners back to the Church through Confession.
If it is the prelate’s prerogative to judge, then how can we as lay people call upon him to excommunicate others? After all, isn’t that awfully presumptuous and judgmental? St. Thomas says that a man has an obligation to correct his prelate in charity when the prelate’s soul is at risk and ought to do so in public when there is eminent danger of scandal (ST II-II q.33). This of course must always be done in the gentle and respectful manner of a son to a father.
St. Gregory sought only to save souls. The same choice awaits the Pope and bishops. Pope St. Gregory, pray for us!