The Pope Reflects on Mystery of Iniquity and the Need for the Church to be Sober About It.

I just finished reading Pope Benedict’s Book: Light of the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald. There are so many excellent points in the book it is hard to know where to begin. I thought, perhaps over the next few weeks to occasionally present a clip from the book and make it the basis of a reflection and conversation. In my Kindle I marked a number of texts for this purpose.

There is a very helpful discussion in the book on the mystery of iniquity and the Church’s need to be sober about this fact even with, and especially in her own ranks. The matter surfaced in the discussion between Mr Seewald and the Pope about the clergy sex abuse crisis that has swept the Church, first in America, and then in Europe. Peter Seewald asks the following question:

The causes of abuse are complex. Aghast, one wonders most of all how someone who reads the Gospel every day and celebrates Holy Mass, who is constantly exposed to the sacraments and is actually supposed to be strengthened by them, can go astray in this horrible way.

And the Pope Answers:

That is a question that really touches on the mysterium  iniquitatis, the mystery of evil. One wonders also in this regard: What does someone like that think in the morning when he goes to the altar and offers the Holy Sacrifice? Does he actually go to confession? What does he say in confession? What consequences does that confession have for him? It really ought to be the major factor in extricating him from it and compelling him to amend his life. It is a mystery that someone who has pledged himself to what is holy can lose it so completely and then, indeed, can lose his origins. At his priestly ordination he must have had at least a longing for what is great and pure; otherwise he would not have made that choice. How can someone then fall so far? We do not know. But this means all the more that priests must support one another and must not lose sight of one another. That bishops are responsible for this and that we must beg the lay faithful also to help support their priests. And I see in the parishes that love for the priest grows when they recognize his weaknesses and take it upon themselves to help him in those weaknesses (Light of the World, Loc. 582-92)

While the context of their discussion was on priestly sins, one may also apply this to many circumstances. For example, how can a man who married his wife and once loved her intensely, fall so far as to be in intimacies with another woman?  What does he think as he returns home and his children run to greet him? How has he gotten to this point? How can he do this to his family? Or perhaps one can imagine that even murderous felons were once innocent children who played simple games and wept grievously if they but fell from their bike. What happened to them that they have become calloused and hardened to the point that, taking the life of another, or brutally harming them, causes them little compunction.

There is indeed a downward path or trajectory of evil,  though its intensity in some remains mysterious. But the fact is, little sins and insensitivities   lay the foundation for greater ones. As one gives way to repeated sin and fails to repent, that sin becomes custom or habit. But having descended one rung on the ladder, the next rung now seems not so far, nor the one below that. And as one descends further into the darkness the eyes adjust to an increasing dimness, such that the light above now seems quite obnoxious. And behaviors once thought shameful, even impossible to one, now seem within reach and somehow plausible. As the memory of the light fades, the once unthinkable now becomes a daily fare. The descent on the moral ladder continues, one rung at a time, and the light gradually disappears.

St Augustine put it this way: Because of a perverse will was lust made; and lust indulged in became custom; and custom not resisted became necessity (Confessions 8.5). Evil does grow, hearts do harden, intellects do grow dark, very dark. 12-Step meetings often reference the “stinking thinking” that reinforces addiction, bizarre behavior,  and makes every form of lust one’s “God-given right.”  The only way to break this cycle is honest,  frequent confession and authentic accountability to others.

Accountability – Hence the Pope rightly observes that priests must support one another and bishops must be responsible to shepherd their priests and hold them responsible and accountable for the health of their spiritual and moral life. Lay people too must not only pray for their priests but also be of active assistance. This assistance can take the form of simple encouragement, but it may also have to take the form of alerting those to whom a priest is accountable, if the matter is serious.

But here too this is not a matter only for priests. Everyone benefits from frequent, honest confession and accountability to others. I am aware of an increasing number of individuals who struggle with Internet pornography and have made the decision to be accountable to certain close and trustworthy friends. These friends closely monitor the Internet habits of the one struggling by receiving access to the computer cache, and other data made available to them via an ISPN. Accountability, along with Sacramental confession are essential components of the moral life. Otherwise, the mystery of iniquity too easily grows and overwhelms

Salutary Punishment – In the life of the Church there is also need not only for accountability but also salutary penalties which exist, not only for the good of the offender, but also to protect the common good. Here is what the Pope has to say in Light of the World:

The Archbishop of Dublin told me…..that [in Ireland] ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect—there is much to criticize about it—but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-sixties, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people. Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.  (Light of the World, Loc  468-76)

This, of course, is a consistent problem in the Church today, also in many families, and to a certain extent is the wider society. Fraternal correction has fallen on hard times and the results are disastrous. Grievous sins often go unremarked, let alone punished. Pulpits are too often silent, pastors, teachers, educators and parents are slow to teach and correct. In many western countries the criminal justice system is quite often askew and many serious criminals are only lightly punished, and too easily walk in wider society where they can, and do harm, again, and again.

I have written here before on the biblical teaching on Fraternal Correction ( There is no need to repeat it all here except to emphasize as the Pope already indicates, that Fraternal Correction is ordered to love, it is a work of charity and is also listed among the spiritual works of mercy.

Note however that Pope Benedict is speaking of more than correction, he also includes salutary punishment. For correction without any punishment ever, even on the horizon, is usually ineffective. Human nature, (at least the fallen version of it), usually requires more than merely verbal warnings and rebukes. There is a place in the Christian community for punitive measures. We do not punish for its own sake but rather as a medicine for the sinner and protection of the common good.

Both Jesus and Paul go so far as to prescribe excommunication for more serious matters, if the sinner is unrepentant (cf: Matt 18:15ff, 1 Cor 5:1ff). Sadly the Church has, at least collectively speaking, been loath to use many canonical penalties, let alone excommunication. The result is that error and misbehavior often go on openly, and for decades. The result is an uncorrected sinner who then harms the faithful by bad teaching and/or example. The Pope’s words here are powerful and one would hope they indicate a change of thinking at wider levels in the Church too. Mercy has its place but love must also insist on truth, respect the common good, and the true good of the sinner.

A fabulous book and conversation with the Pope overall and must reading as soon as possible.

21 Replies to “The Pope Reflects on Mystery of Iniquity and the Need for the Church to be Sober About It.”

  1. The tempter would have us believe that temporal justice – punishment, for example – is all that we need.

    But we also need prayer. Each of us is our brother’s keeper. If a man is dead to God, he needs prayer.

  2. I wonder if St. Teresa of Avila ever could have imagined anything like this when she said, “Let nothing disturb you,
    let nothing frighten you, all things pass away: God never changes. Patience obtains all things. He who has God
    finds he lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”

    I recoil to reflect on this topic, the implications are too overwhelmingly sorrowful and immense. Thank you for your fortitude in broaching this subject, it surely helps. Be assured of my continued prayers.

  3. I have been called to pray daily for priests and for vocations, and try to support my parish priests in any way they need. I found this post almost painful to read, as it expressed what I have thought many times regarding those who have fallen away from God and His purpose. I grieve for the lost, and feel the hurt from their sins in addition to my own. Some time ago, I added a prayer for those who have fallen – that they may rise, pick up their mat, and walk in His light once again.

    1. Yes, thanks. I know of a brother priest who often prays for priests in this manner: “We pray O Lord for those brother priests who have fallen under the burden of office.”

  4. I think a the tragedy of our times is not only those who have fallen so seriously but also that many who could have reached very high levels of sanctity never will. Because of lack of spiritual direction in a hostile culture so many accept a minimal socially acceptable following of Jesus. When I read the riveting exhortations of great spiritual directors such as St. Alphonsus Ligouri I am shocked at the difference in these considerations of following Christ and what we hear in the church today. It is as if I am hearing about two different faiths.

    1. Yes, I know what you are saying. We seem in modern times to have reinvented faith to a certain extent in that we have emphasize faith as consolation often to the exclusion of the demands of faith or of its radical departure from worldly norms. So argue that St. Alphonsus et al. are extreme. Even if one were to accept that, we have surely over-corrected.

  5. Thank you very much for this post. I do a lot of reflecting on why people turn evil, or sin. Perhaps this is my interest in forensic psychology speaking – if I don’t end up with a career as a Physician Assistant, I will most likely end up studying forensic psychology, which is the study of criminals’ minds. To some people, it’s very simple why people sin, or turn evil – “They are bad people, that’s why they did it.” To me, there’s often many underlying factors as to why someone did what they did. It doesn’t make it right, at all, but it helps me understand perhaps why they did it, and makes me see all sides of the story. Working with psych patients, especially ones that have been criminals, I’ve learned to be very wary but also to listen to them. I never forget what they are or what they did, but often times, like many of us who have had rough patches in life, they want someone to listen, and to care.

    When I do try to pray, I pray for everyone – those that have fallen, parish priests, those in politics, my patients, my coworkers, etc. I am praying for y’all and hoping everyone is having a good Christmas season thus far 🙂

    1. I am mindful of that old song from West Side Story wherein the gang members sing: “We’re not depraved, we’re just deprived.” Here too we seem to be in struggle to find the middle wherein we accept that social conditions and personal history play a powerful role in one’s behavior patterns but we also accept the role that pure evil plays to include demonic influences.

  6. The connection between law and love is essential. While ecclesiastical penal law was in force in Ireland until the fifties, it might well be hard to make the argument that a sense of the love of God prevailed in the Church in Ireland inthose days.
    I think it would be interesting to speak more specifically about who is in a position to correct and/or punish. You mention that the laity should speak to “those to whom the priest is accountable”–this is an important discussion being hashed out currently in many circles. Does that mean the Bishop? The police? The other members of the parish? I would add “To whom is the Bishop accountable?” It seems that this has never been resolved in this sex abuse crisis. Examples like Cardinal Law come to mind–was the move to Rome an example of him being punished or simply “transferred”? The USCCB for instance sems to have virtually no authority with regard to individual Bishops who choose to reject statements by the Conference,beyond perhaps “disapproving” (Is this what they did with their rejection of tradition in passing over Bishop Kicanas as the new President?). Perhaps a thought for a future post…

    1. Yes, all very important questions for which I don’t have good answers. I think in the case of a priest, if he is not pastor, the the Pastor is his immediate supervisor. If a pastor then the Bishop. But what to do if the bishop just shrugs. At this point things become murky.

  7. I speak from experience when I say that two things are absolutely nessessary to stay free from or extricate one’s self from addiction to sexual sin. There is grave risk of falling into the trap of habitual sexual sin if one does not love God more than he loves himself and make use of frequent confession.

    Just loving God is not enough. Until one loves God more than himself, he will not be willing to do what it takes – to suffer through the bouts of temptation no matter how bad it hurts – to suffer for Christ. Until one loves God more than himself, he will always give in to his own desires. It’s just that simple and one must, through a conscious act of the will, make the descision to do so.

    The first Chapter of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Prologue 1.1) states, “He (God) calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength.” There is good reason why this is in the first Chapter and our Holy Church is very wise. Seeking God is the first step in coming to know God and ultimately, to love God more than we love ourselves. One must make a conscious act of the will to actively seek God – read whatever you can get your hands on, listen to MP3’s, go to Bible study, Mass and adoration, whatever – with all his strength. Then you will come to know God and eventually, with God’s help, come to love him more than even your own life.

    After my confession of 37 years, I noticed that in the Catechsim, the sacrament of pennance/reconcilliation was under the heading of “Healing” and not “Forgiveness.”. Again, how wise our Church is becuase confession is Christ’s primary means of not just being forgiven for what we have done, but of the Holy Spirit healing us of the disire to do it in the first place. The Holy Father is absolutely correct to bring up confession early in his response to any question regarding sexual sin. There is a reason why St. Augustine named his book on how he sought, found and came to love God and break his addiction to sexual sin “The Confessions”.

    Accountability partners, fraternal correction, internet filters, getting rid of your TV, bouncing the eyes… these are all good technigues when used properly but are all ultimately only manifestations of Old Testament “Thou shalt not” law. Ultimately, very real healing from sin, true righteousnessa and a life of purity can only come through grace. And this is not a bunch of wishy-washy spiritual mumbo jumbo; It is a very practical application of the gifts given to us by Christ through his Church and to that end we must follow the Catechism – seek God and generous use the sacraments of healing.


  8. Msgr. Pope:
    I agree we need to pray for the Church and its members, especially those who are burdened by their office. But I also see in the tragedy of the priestly abuse scandal that there are echoes of the same conflict between Church and secular authorities over wayward “clerks” that has existed since at least medieval times. With the recent administrative reforms implemented in the U.S. at the behest of the USCCB, it is now clear that the Church in America respects and is cooperative with lay authorities in their mission to punish criminal wrong-doing. The Church, like humanity in general, has had to learn this lesson through the school of hard knocks, otherwise known as tort law. However, it is not at all clear that the Church in Europe has learned this lesson, or at least not yet: pace Ireland and especially Belgium. So it is not enough to merely condemn bad conduct and ask that we pray for everyone involved: the Church as an institution must do everything it can to ensure such conduct is not condoned and surely never hushed up. But I look forward to reading the Pope’s latest book and am glad to see that he has adopted a reasonable, and appropriately humble, approach to the problem. May God grant him wisdom to continue with effective reforms that will hopefully eradicate this evil from the Church here forward.

  9. Thank God the USCCB does not have power – the USCCB does not speak for the Vatican. The Bishops of the USCCB often do not even agree with each other regarding a teaching or a discipline of the Church regarding issues such as abortion, same sex marriage/relationships, refusing the Blessed Eucharist from ‘Catholic’ politicians who openly and defiantly promote abortion and same sex marriage and other issues which are clearly against the teachings of the Church.

  10. “I thought, perhaps over the next few weeks to occasionally present a clip from the book and make it the basis of a reflection and conversation.”

    Please do so, Monsignor! It truly is an excellent, inspiring and just enjoyable book. And your blogs are always excellent, inspiring and enjoyable too. So please, please, I would love to read your reflections on this book.

    God bless.

  11. Jesus did not only prescribe excommunication for child-molesterers, by the way.
    He prescribed a millstone around their neck, and then they were to be thrown into the ocean.

    Why this is not standard prosedure today, not even God knows.

  12. Just purchased the book. I think I will read the pope’s reflections many times. Much thought for reflection. I anticipate your commentaries in the near future.

  13. I have fear and awe of the Lord but I also have fear and awe of evil. Anyone who thinks they can whistle past evil is fooling themselves. As I get older, I fear evil more and more and pray that I continue to run to the loving arms of Our Lord and His Mother to turn me away from evil.
    The Sacraments are not bullet-proof. We must be humble and acknowledge them as gifts which, if not used properly, can be taken in vain.

  14. Having read the pope’s reply only in excerpt form in this post, I wonder (considering his age and the era he grew up in) if Benedict is at all aware of the pathological nature of this condition? Perdophiles (and even those with any of a myraid of addictions) are compelled to act and when they are not under this compulsion they typically DO regret what occured. Addicts of any kind can find recovery, peace and happiness if they are willing to make this difficult journey of surrender to God and fellowship with others in humble honesty. Pedophiles, it seems, are incurable as far as present knowledge and treatment are concerned. To judge anyone as to what he thinks when at the altar etc is really spiritually dangerous and a territory that belongs to God ALONE…not to any pope, bishop, cleric or layperson. And that’s Gospel truth.

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