Matt C. Abbott
Priest-author, SNAP 'answer' Chicago monsignor
By Matt C. Abbott
January 7, 2011

In a recent bulletin, Monsignor Dan Mayall, pastor of Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral, wrote the following (excerpted; emphasis mine):

    'December 29, Wednesday, the Church remembers St. Thomas Becket, an interesting character made popularly famous by the 1964 movie Becket starring Richard Burton as Becket & Peter O'Toole as King Henry I of England which, I think, met with great applause because Becket seemed a likeable and principled hero opposing an autocratic civil authority-the stuff of hit movies of the 1960s, the Age of Aquarius.

    'Thomas Becket (1118-1170) was a gifted ally of Henry I, a monarch with great need to throw his authority around. On recommendation of Church leaders, Henry appointed Becket the powerful Chancellor of England. Subsequently, Henry sought to thwart Rome's authority over the Church (and its priests) by having Becket ordained the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most powerful figure in ecclesiastical England. In that role, Becket strongly challenged Henry's authority over the Church and priests. The Benefit of the Clergy that exempted them from civil discipline as opposed to Church discipline was defended by Becket. Eventually, frustrated by the dual, Henry either purposely or inadvertently ordered the murder/martyrdom of Becket by his loyal noblemen.

    'Fast-forward to the Church today, especially in America. Is Thomas Becket the forefather of American bishops protecting criminal priests from civil accountability? Some modern bishops plead that they were given bad advice by psychologists and other presumed 'experts.' Becket sought no advice. He was positively in the corner of the pope and the Church's supreme authority. There was no democracy in the 12th century. Church fought state. The average Catholic had no voice. That's not true in the 21st century American. I do not presume to supply answers.

    I propose three questions. (1) Does the Church have legitimate authority over priests in all matters of public conduct; or is that authority over-ruled by American courts? (2) Can a bishop, 'father' of his priests, legitimately protect his priests? (3) Is civil law, validated by the spirit of democracy, the supreme authority — even over the pope? I give no answers. On the Feast of St. Thomas Becket, I ask questions. If all this controversy gives you a headache, mellow-out over a 1964 movie classic, Becket. Enjoy the great acting. Take whichever side you want — Church or state — in another era's treatment of a classic debate.

I thought I'd ask David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, and priest-author Father John Trigilio Jr. to answer Monsignor Mayall's aforementioned questions.

Does the Church have legitimate authority over priests in all matters of public conduct; or is that authority over-ruled by American courts?

David Clohessy: Of course the public conduct of priests, like all citizens, is governed by civil laws. That's essentially one reason we're in this mess — because some clergy (especially bishops) pay lip service to civil and criminal laws while actually violating them. Frankly, it's distressing that a priest would even raise this question.

Can a bishop, "father" of his priests, legitimately protect his priests?

David Clohessy: Bishops can, and do, protect his priests. Bishops should, of course, put even more effort into protecting their flocks. Adults, especially well-educated, well-spoken and well-connected ones, can largely protect themselves. Children, however, cannot. That's why bishops must be mature, brave and far-sighted enough to put the welfare of many kids they don't know over the few adult priests they do know.

Is civil law, validated by the spirit of democracy, the supreme authority — even over the pope?

David Clohessy: Yes. Again, it's distressing that a cleric even asks this question. The pope cannot rape, murder or steal. No citizen can. In our society, everyone can believe what they want. Everyone cannot, however, act like they want. That would be chaos.

Does the Church have legitimate authority over priests in all matters of public conduct; or is that authority over-ruled by American courts?

Father John Trigilio: American law affects American citizens. Hence, Catholic clergy who are also citizens of a nation are de facto under the civil jurisdiction of that country insofar as it does not violate any precepts of divine or natural law. Those countries that have legal concordats (treaties) with Vatican City may have specific provisos which recognize the right of the Church to try and penalize her own members, specifically the ordained clergy and consecrated religious. With fewer monarchies around and more pluralism of religions emerging in most nations, there are fewer and fewer concordats than in ages past.

While American civil law must respect the autonomy of Church and state so that the internal governance of the Church is beyond American jurisprudence, American criminal law can and ought to deal with violations of the criminal code. Hence, any deacon, priest or bishop is like any other citizen and if accused of a criminal offense, they have the right to a trial by jury within the same American legal system. If found guilty, they suffer the same penalty as any other citizen. This seems logical and fair enough if, God forbid, a cleric commits murder or sexual abuse.

What happens if a secular law contradicts divine or natural law? In some countries, it is illegal to make converts. Yet, divine law demands clergy evangelize. Abortion is legal in the U.S., yet Catholic hospitals cannot provide an immoral procedure that violates both divine and natural law which prohibit the intentional death of an innocent human life, whether born or unborn. What happens when the federal or state government tries to impose abortion on Catholic hospitals? They either close, or the medical staff go to jail. What happens if the state imposes same-sex marriages? Not just at the secular justice of the peace level but even to the level of church and religious ceremonies?

The problem is that not all illegal activity is per se immoral, especially in a nation where the natural moral law is considered merely a theory or, worse yet, an unviable principle. Nazi Germany had many anti-Semitic Nuremburg Laws that contradicted the natural moral law as well as divine law. Hiding Jews from the death camps was considered illegal and treasonous. Yet many clergy and religious (including Pope Pius XII) broke those anti-Semitic laws in obedience to a higher law.

The priests who sexually abused children, whether pedophiles or ephebophiles, broke both civil and natural law in addition to violating divine law and canon law. Hence, they should be punished from both sides. The few bishops who were truly guilty of tolerating such heinous behavior, or ignoring the problem and simply transferring deviant clerics, are guilty of criminal conspiracy and cooperation in evil. The caveat is that not all bishops were subjectively culpable. Many were given bad advice from the experts of psychiatry who claimed pedophiles could be cured and rehabilitated.

The spiritual reality of repentance and firm purpose of amendment led many prelates to buy into the pop-psychology of the day that all abnormalities can be treated. Look how many centuries alcoholism was considered merely a moral weakness; only in the later part of the 20th century was it recognized as a disease. Similarly, bad advice came from bad advisors, bad medicine or bad science or worse yet, bad theology.

During the aftermath of the dissent from Humanae Vitae, many so-called Catholic theologians denied the existence of ontological evil. The first moral principle (do good and avoid evil) was reduced to 'do as little evil as necessary and as much good as possible.' Mortal sin was removed from catechetical texts from K-12 across America in the 1970s and early 1980s. If seminarians and collegians were taught that there is no such thing as the devil, and that intrinsic evils do not exist, it's no wonder these infected minds would consider sexual deviancy as an alternative lifestyle rather than as sinful and immoral behavior.

Can a bishop, "father" of his priests, legitimately protect his priests?

Father John Trigilio: A bishop protects his priests when he ensures they have orthodox formation in the seminary and when he demands fidelity to the Magisterium and reverence for the sacred liturgy and the sacraments from all his clergy. When he does not tolerate any liturgical abuse, and no dissident theology is taught or preached in his diocese, he protects both clergy and laity alike. While no human legal system is perfect, in today's world, we cannot rely on clerics being exempt from civil law as in ages past.

Today's criminal law investigation apparatus is imperfect and makes mistakes, but the ecclesiastical courts do not have access to forensic investigation as would a local, state or federal investigator. If criminal offenses have been made by clergy, the civil authorities must be involved unless the secular civil law in question is, or may be, in contradiction to divine and/or natural law.

The best way a bishop can protect his priests is by properly educating them, giving them proper formation (human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral), exposing them to the best of the Church's patrimony, and ensuring that the sacraments are reverently, licitly and validly celebrated everywhere in the diocese. If a bishop sees his mission as pastor rather than as manager or bureaucrat, his priests will learn to do likewise. Too many mediocre officials sought to maintain the status quo and not rock the boat. Too many middlemen buffer good bishops from knowing what they need to know about their clergy and what they are or are not doing. We do not need a secular legal exemption as in the Middle Ages, but we need bishops who shepherd more than administrate or manage.

Is civil law, validated by the spirit of democracy, the supreme authority — even over the pope?

Father John Trigilio: Civil law is not the supreme law. The pope is the head of an independent and sovereign nation as well as head of the Roman Catholic Church. As the ruler of the Vatican City, he is subject to no other national laws anymore than the President of the United States would be subject to laws outside America. Even if there were no Vatican City or former Papal States, the pope is supreme head of the Church and his spiritual authority to teach and his supreme authority to govern the Church all over the world has no equal and no superior, save God Himself.

Democracies and republics work well for the common good and are much, much better than socialist, fascist or communist forms of government. Yet the world has seen both good and bad examples of monarchy throughout history, so we cannot infallibly say democratic republics are the only moral way to govern. If democracy was the perfect form, Jesus would have founded His Church with such a structure. He chose, rather, a hierarchical system, with the pope as head and the bishops to assist him. That is why we cannot fall into the trap of thinking all democratic-republic governments are impeccable. Slavery, segregation and abortion all took place within a democratic republic. In comparison, our current form of government works well and better than the alternatives.

The pope owes no allegiance to any country or to the international community. Neither foreign governments nor the United Nations have any authority over the Holy See. Nonetheless, it is for the common good and justice that popes encourage clergy and laity alike to be good citizens of their respective nations and obey the laws of those countries within reason and as long as they do not violate divine or natural law.

The situation Saint Thomas Becket found himself is different from our own in that there is no more Christendom. Many rulers, many governments, many forms of governments and many religions exist today. There is no more Christendom, but Christian culture has not died and is not buried, contrary to contemporary wisdom. The Church is in the world but she is not of the world. Her members are citizens of the earthly Babylons of the world, but we are also and foremost citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.

© Matt C. Abbott


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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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