“Do you not know,” says Saint Paul, “that we shall judge angels?” Therefore we are within our rights to judge a mere man’s actions, setting aside any presumption that we know for certain what is in his heart. Not only may we do so. We must. Public order demands it, and justice, and that part of charity, requiring the tact of a surgeon, which concerns the correction of sinners.
I have been reading, for one of our humanities courses at Thomas More College, the decrees of the Council of Trent, and what leaps to my attention, aside from the canons regarding the sacraments and other points of faith, is that reform of the Church could only come about by means of many acts of prudential judgment. Sometimes these were gentle, and sometimes severe, but the alternative was that every bishop, priest, cleric, and layman should do what seemed best in his own eyes – to use the quiet and terrible words that end the book of Judges.
The council fathers commanded these judgments everywhere and for all kinds of purposes, from choosing which boys might be admitted to minor orders, to choosing which men should be elevated to the episcopacy, to admonishing bishops to be frugal and not ostentatious in their dress and board, to using discretion when declaring that stubborn and public sinners had torn themselves out of the life of the Church.
The lives of clerics are especially to be clean, because if bishops condone men “given to evil and corrupt morals, how shall they reprove the lay people for their transgressions when these can by one word repulse them for permitting clerics to be worse than they?” (Fourteenth session, November 25, 1551). “No one shall be chosen to govern cathedral churches unless he is born of lawful wedlock, is of mature age, is known for his integrity of morals, and possesses the required knowledge” (Seventh session, March 3, 1547). “There is nothing that leads others to piety and to the service of God more than the life and example of those who have dedicated themselves to the divine ministry. For since they are observed to be raised from the things of this world to a higher position, others fix their eyes upon them as upon a mirror, and derive from them what they are to imitate” (Twenty-second session, September 16, 1562).
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