Modern Questions about the Clergy

How many Catholics are confused or discouraged by the media reports of the Pope’s, a bishop’s, a priest’s or a deacon’s words and/or actions, or even other clerics’ published letters rebuking them? Is it all right or even one’s duty to publicly accuse religious leaders of error or corruption? And supposing that the particular clergyman may be in the wrong, e.g. teaching heretically or behaving badly, would that exempt Catholics from obeying them? These questions arise because the secular and Catholic news media have been publicly pointing out the many flaws of religious leaders.

These are fair questions that deserve good answers. They can be difficult to answer because they involve important and complex issues such as the discernment of good versus evil, the difference between doctrine and discipline, Church’s infallibility, and one’s response in the face of evil. These are big questions. Catholics today may find comfort in knowing that the Church has faced these same problems from the time of Christ, has reflected on them, and has provided answers. This article will mine the guidance found in the Bible and The Catechism of the Catholic Church to answer these questions.

However, a Marian devotee also needs to ask one more question about how to respond to reports of clerical misconduct or heresy: “What would Mary do?” But rather than just hazard a hypothetical guess in attempting to answer this question, we can turn to the Bible and approved apparitions, which provide answers even to the question, “What did Mary do?” Therefore, this article will start with Our Lady’s example as the illustration of the Church’s teaching to provide spiritual light to her children in the midst of a confused and dark world.

Our Lady’s Example in Scripture: Public Revelation

First, it might help to remember that religious leaders have been sinners from the beginning (Gen 3). Even Jesus publicly called the Pharisees and teachers of the law “whitewashed tombs full of corruption and dead men’s bones” (Mt 23:27), and warned His followers (Mk 12:37, Mt 23:1, Lk 20:45) about the “experts of the law” who took advantage of widows (Mk 12:38-40, Lk 20:46-48)! Jesus called even St. Peter “Satan” (Mt 16:23). Therefore, it is clear that the Blessed Virgin lived in a time when at least some religious leaders were heartless hypocrites.

How did Our Lady respond to her religious context? Her Magnificat certainly spoke about scattering the proud in the conceit of their heart, putting down the mighty from their thrones, and sending the rich away empty (Lk 1:51-53)! But Mary’s Magnificat is different from Christ’s public denunciations.

Our Lady takes a quieter approach. Mary proclaimed her Magnificat privately to her cousin, Elizabeth, at her house (Lk 1:39-40). It is likely that she and Elizabeth continued to pray this inspired prayer daily, as the Church continues to do in Her Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. However, her Magnificat was not published for many years, thereby avoiding even an implied confrontation with any particular leader. Like Jesus, Our Lady did not name corrupt people in particular but simply described in general. The Blessed Virgin also described God’s action in dealing with evil people without specifying any identifiable people or actions. As a human being, she left it to God to determine who actually are the evil people. Why?

Discernment of Good and Evil Actions—Objectively and Subjectively

As any human being with the use of reason, Our Lady knew from natural law what constitutes good and evil, and as a Jew, she knew the Ten Commandments (CCC[1] 1954-1964). Therefore, she had principles to judge another’s objective actions. However, she also had the wisdom to recognize that others who do objectively evil acts might not be subjectively culpable due to invincible ignorance, fear, or a lack of reason (CCC 1734-1735, 1793).

Without asking the person who performs the action, Mary knew that she was ignorant of others’ motives, or the circumstances that can change the moral quality of an objective act, i.e. the concrete deed done (CCC 1750). Why? Only God knows people’s thoughts, which Jesus did (Mt 12:25, Lk 5:22, 6:8-10, 11:17), but Mary did not. As people might say when amazed by the strange or bad behavior of others, “What were they thinking?” This humble question recognizes one’s own ignorance of others’ knowledge and motives. This is precisely why Our Lady had asked the twelve-year-old Jesus why He had gone to the Temple without telling His parents so that they had been worried and searching for Him for three days (Lk 2:43-48). Thus, Our Lady avoided the sin of rash judgment about what appeared to her to be Jesus’ disobedience or disrespect to His parents by asking in person why He did it (CCC 2478). His answer showed that she should have known where He was and, therefore, He had not been disobedient or disrespectful at all (Lk 2:49). Mary and Joseph accepted His answer, even though they did not understand it (Lk 2:50)—as this article will emphasize.

Our Lady’s Justice and Charity

Regarding what appeared to be bad behavior of others, Our Lady balanced her love for the truth with good judgment as well as a love for her neighbor as herself. Living the virtues of justice and charity, she respected the human dignity of others who have a “natural right to the honor of [their] name and reputation and to respect” (CCC 2479). Even when the Jewish high priests and leaders falsely accused Jesus of being a criminal (Jn 18:13, 24, 28-31) and blasphemer (Jn 19:7), and then chose the Roman emperor rather than Jesus for their king (Jn. 19:12, 15), such that He was put to death on the Cross, what did she do? She stood at the Foot of Jesus’ Cross (Jn 19:25-27). Her solidarity with Christ prompted her later to pray with the Apostles (Acts 1:14).

While the Bible does not contain everything that Mary said or did, there is no mention of Mary ever criticizing the religious leaders. Why not? Some might object that even if she had, then it simply would not have been included in the Bible. While that is possible, it is more probable that, in her sinlessness (CCC 493), she respected her neighbor’s right to their good reputation. In addition to avoiding rash judgment, she would have avoided both detraction (speaking unnecessarily the truth about the sins or faults of others) and calumny (telling lies about the sins or faults of others) (CCC 2477-2479). Or worse, speaking about the sins of religious leaders could harm the faith of believers or prevent non-believers from coming to faith. She would have known Jesus’ teaching: “Woe to the one through whom scandal is given; better for a millstone to be put around his neck and for him to be thrown into the sea” (cf. Mt 18:6-7, Mk. 9:42); “So watch yourselves” (Lk 17:1-3). Prudence apparently prompted Our Lady to keep quiet what she may have known about the evil actions of the religious leaders of her day.

Discernment of Good and Evil Doctrine

However, there is a difference between bad behavior and bad teaching. Even Jesus noted this: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Mt 23:3). Thus, Jesus explained that one should follow the good teaching even when it is undermined by the bad behavior of those who present it. But how does one know if the religious leaders’ teaching is good?

Thankfully, Jesus provided the Holy Spirit to guide His Church. As He promised the seventy-two disciples whom He sent out to preach, “Whoever hears you, hears Me” (Lk 10:16). Jesus had promised to send the Spirit of Truth, an Advocate who would be with them forever (Jn 14:15-17, 26) and the early Church leaders—St. Peter and the other Apostles—were aware of the Holy Spirit’s guidance (Acts 15:28). This gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles: the Pope and the Bishops in union with the Pope. Therefore, Catholics can know that the Church’s teachings are protected from error when the teaching is: (1) official, i.e. a public, definitive act addressed to the whole Church (2) about faith or morals, (3) proclaimed by the Pope alone, or by the bishops united with the Pope.

The highest or “extraordinary” form of papal infallibility, ex cathedra, i.e. “from the chair”, and the highest form of the episcopal infallibility, expressed in a council, propose teachings as being revealed by God. Catholics must believe these teachings with divine faith (CCC 890-891). But even “ordinary” infallibility, which extends to those teachings that are logical conclusions from these divinely revealed truths, requires Catholic to give “religious assent” to them (CCC 892). As Lumen Gentium 25, clarified:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.[2]

Thus, educated Catholics know that papal or episcopal interviews, discussions about which sports team is the best, the priest’s homily, a religious sister’s book, or a lay woman’s theology class do not qualify as infallible teaching. Catholics can rest assured that the Holy Spirit is protecting the official teachings of the Catholic Church from error, even when the Catholics may not understand them completely.

This lack of complete understanding may seem frightening. But the key distinction here is partial and sufficient versus total. How many people fully understand their car engine or the complexities of an airplane but still happily drive a car or board a plane? They have sufficient knowledge to operate the vehicle or to trust in the driver or pilot to get them safely to their destinations. They have good reasons to trust in the vehicles and operators, just as Catholics do from the Bible and the Tradition of the Church, to trust in the official teachings of the Catholic Pope and of the bishops in union with the Pope.

Development of Doctrine

Sometimes the objection is made that Catholic doctrines could not be infallible because they have reversed over the years to the exact opposite! A common example of this objection is the Church’s medieval opposition to charging interest on a loan, while the modern Church allows this economic practice. In reality, the Church teaching has remained the same in the sense that usury is wrong, but, since the economic systems have changed, what constitutes usury has changed by the circumstances.[3] Thus, while Jesus is the fullness of God’s revelation, the Church’s understanding of the deposit of faith, i.e. the Apostolic tradition (literally “handing down”) of all that Jesus said and did, can develop organically to become “more clear, more precise, more certain and more intelligible with the passage of time.[4] Thus, in the case of usury, the essential teaching about morality has remained the same while the circumstances have changed only the application of the teaching.

The Difference between Doctrine and Discipline

Some people point to changes in the liturgy as example of Church doctrine changing. Unfortunately this objection fails by confusing God-given teaching that reached its fullness in Jesus Christ (“doctrine”) with man-made rules (“discipline”) that help Catholics to put His teaching into practice. For example, Jesus said that His disciples will fast (Mt 9:15) without Jesus specifying the details. Instead, Jesus gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom of God, with an authority to bind and to loose on earth so that heaven itself would respect this authority (Mt 18:18-19). Thus, St. Peter’s “keys” of authority are passed down to his successors. The Pope, through canon law, can then instruct the Church on the rule of fasting, requiring Church members to fast at certain times to help Jesus’ followers to live His teaching. But the details can and have changed over the years. For example, the Eucharistic fast has changed from fasting from all food and drink (even water!) from midnight to the current requirement of one hour from food and liquids except water.[5] Thus, doctrines do not change, but disciplines can.

Our Lady’s Faith in God and Obedience to Religious Disciplines

Mary faced a challenge regarding development of doctrine as she made the transition from the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures to their fulfillment in Christ. St. Elizabeth precisely praised the Blessed Virgin’s belief (Lk 1:45) that St. Luke set in sharp contrast with Zechariah’s distrust (Lk 1:18-20). Mary’s faith in her Son prompted a miracle that led to the faith of His disciples. Mary “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith” to be able to stand with faith at the Foot of her Son’s Cross (Lumen Gentium 58). She then accepted the leadership of the early Church as she prayed with them in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14). Our Lady’s faith in the teaching of her Son prompted her precisely to accept the authority of the Church He established even in matters of discipline, just as she had obeyed the Jewish laws before Christ established His Church.

As an expression of her faith, she had obeyed the Jewish customs of a two-stage marriage, first living apart from her legal husband before moving in with him.[6] She went to the Jewish Temple for her purification on the fortieth day after giving birth to her first male child (Lk 2:22). And all this to a Jewish authority that suffered from the usual faults and sins of humanity as Jesus would later identify in His call for them to convert along with the rest of humanity. Why? Because Mary exemplified obedience to her legitimate authorities in all things that are not sin (CCC 1900).

Mary’s Prudence

Our Lady’s silence in regard to the sinfulness of religious leadership may have also been rooted in the virtue of prudence. This cardinal prudence is the discernment of one’s “true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (CCC 1806). In other words, if the true good of the religious leaders is reform, then would she have been effective in changing them for the better? Since the Jewish leaders did not recognize her as an authority over them, then it is unlikely that they would have listened to her. Therefore, prudence would support her choice to let her Son, Jesus—who, as God, was truly their superior—correct them.

Mary’s Respect for Clergy in Her Apparitions: Private Revelation

Mary’s respect for the Church’s representatives who are legitimate authorities continued even after her Assumption and Coronation, when she really was in a position of authority over them. Our Lady of Guadalupe respected the jurisdiction of the bishop of Mexico City. She sent Juan Diego to his local bishop to tell him of her desire for a church to be built in his diocese. Our Lady of Fatima asked Sr. Lucia for the Pope to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart, since the Pope has jurisdiction over an entire country. Our Lady of Lourdes sent St. Bernadette to her parish priest to express her desire for a church and processions in his parish. At Beauraing, Belgium, in 1932, when the visionaries asked Our Lady what she wanted them to do, she did not answer until asked, “In the name of the clergy, we ask what we must do for you?” She replied, “A chapel.”[7] Even in heaven, Our Blessed Mother has continued to live the virtue of respect for the clergy’s legitimate jurisdiction and to teach her children to do the same.

Imitation of Mary

Thus, a Marian devotee has Our Lady’s virtues to imitate in the face of the media’s attacks on the clergy. When hearing an accusation about the clergy, one should exercise some critical thinking. One could ask oneself if there is even a need to know if the claim is true or not. If not, then there is no need to investigate the claim. If so, then to discern the truth about the allegation, consider the source and its reliability. If the media outlet is not truthful about things one knows about, e.g. the pro-life movement, then one can question what they say about the Church. Even a generally reliable source can be given incorrect information or erroneously convey facts by accident or sincere misinterpretation. Secular and sometimes even Catholic media outlets give such brief summaries that they can foster misunderstanding. Unfortunately, their biases also distort their perspectives, sometimes positively or negatively. It is often necessary to read Church documents and speeches in their entirety, rather than some quotes taken out of context.

While Mary’s children may be able to judge an objective act, to avoid rash judgment about the subjective culpability, one also needs to know the knowledge and intention of the person performing the action. Since the intentions of a person at any given moment may not be discernable from second-hand reports, and one does not usually have the opportunity to ask the person directly, then one may simply have to accept the reality that it is not possible to make a fair judgment of his or her actions at that time. Patience will yield a correct evaluation at the Last Judgment.

Whenever the truth of the matter regarding clerical bad behavior, then normally, unless one is in a position of authority over that person, such as a parent over a child (CCC 2223), or at least a peer for fraternal correction, then it is not one’s responsibility to correct the clergy, but it is one’s responsibility to pray for all those in authority (1 Tim 2:2). Our Lady also taught St. Bernadette and the three children of Fatima to make sacrifices for the conversion of sinners. If one is a peer, then speaking privately to the sinner would also be appropriate if one thinks that doing so will help him to reform. Frequent confession of one’s own sins fosters a spirit of compassion and forgiveness towards the sins of others. Everyone on earth is an imperfect human being. God can work through their faults and sins to bring about a greater good that may not be understood in this life (CCC 324).

Since the media outlets have already warned anyone who needs to know about possible dangers from clerical bad behavior, then one does not usually need to forward an email or talk about it with others. A specific story of sinful behavior could be detraction or calumny that is a three-fold theft robbing the subject of his good reputation, the storyteller of his charity, and the listener of his innocence. Such bad example fosters distrust and anger toward the Catholic Church and Christianity, scandalizing the faithful and repelling non-believers.

Whenever there is a case of confusing teaching, then a Catholic could check all three aspects to see if it would qualify as an infallible teaching. If not, then simply study the official Church teaching to understand the truth. If the confused teaching appears to fit the qualifications for an infallible teaching, then remember that the Holy Spirit protects the official Church doctrine only from error, not from a lack of clarity. The confusion could be on the part of the receiver of the doctrine, just as Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus at age 12 in the Temple. If the teaching is unclear, then remember the organic development of doctrine requires that one give it an interpretation that it does not contradict the past teaching.

Since the media has made many statements about Pope Francis, it is only fair to note that he understands himself to be “a son of the Church.”[8] Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI provided so much teaching in the past that perhaps Pope Francis is focusing on showing the doctrine lived. There is a rotation of gifts with each Pope. He is the Pope God has given us for this time.

Learning from “the School of Mary”[9]

Thus, regardless of reports of bad behavior or confused teaching, the clergy—pope, bishops, priest, and deacons—still deserve respect for their position and obedience in whatever might fall under their appropriate jurisdiction. It would be easier if the Church on earth were not composed of human beings, but “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20). Our Blessed Mother teaches all to have compassion and respect for the clergy on the common pilgrimage of faith toward the eternal home of heaven.


[1]     Catechism of the Catholic Church.


[2]     Lumen Gentium. November 21, 1964. The Vatican.


[3]     Christopher Kaczor, “Did the Church Change Its Stance on Usury?” July 01, 2006. Catholic Answers.


[4]     John A. Hardon. “The Growth of Catholic Doctrine.”  Catholic Faith vol. 1-#2, Nov/Dec 1995, pp. 1-6. Inter Mirifica.


[5]     Cathy Caridi, “How Has Canon Law Changed on Fasting Before Communion?” Canon Law Made Easy: Church Law for Normal People. August 31, 2017.


[6]     John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos, Guardian of the Redeemer, 18. August 15, 1989. The Vatican.


[7]     Don Sharkey and Joseph Debergh, Our Lady of Beauraing: The Complete Story of Our Lady’s Appearances at Beauraing (Garden City, NJ: Hanover House, 1958), 105-106. Paul Piron, Five Children:  The Story of the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin at Beauraing, trans. James F. Cassidy (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1938), 134-135.


[8]     Pope Francis. “Interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro.” August 19, 2013. The Vatican.


[9]     John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 14. October 16, 2002.