My friend Tom Leith notes that most people view marriage as a legal or consensual arrangement, not as an ontological change. By "ontological change" he means a change in our very being.
There are many of these ontological changes that we go through in our lives. Adolescence is the first big one, one in which we grapple with the great change of going from being a child to being an adult. But we recognize other ontological changes in life as well, if only subconsciously.
When a man becomes a father or a woman becomes a mother, we realize that this changes who we are. At least we used to recognize that readily. Many people are very casual about this ontological change these days and don't recognize the responsibility suddenly thrust upon them by becoming different people from what they once were. And we fathers are surprised to learn that, foolish and inept as we sometimes are, our children nonetheless view us as entirely different sorts of creatures from every other person on the planet. Mommy or Daddy is something other and something greater than Aunt or Uncle or brother or sister. Our kids see that, sometimes to our embarrassment and chagrin.
And even our attitude toward marriage still has vestiges of this. "You can't do that now. You're a married man!" "Now that you're a wife, things will be different for you." Even under the modern assumption that marriage is just a more formal kind of "shacking up", there exists the recognition that a married person is a different kind of being from a single person. With rampant divorce and remarriage and the sham of "gay marriage", we're losing sight of this, but at some level we still get it.
This alteration of our being is also, for better or worse, true of the priesthood. Many Catholics may not believe or may not even know the doctrine that the Sacrament of Holy Orders brings about an ontological change. A man who becomes a priest is no longer what he once was. He is changed in a fundamental way, and even if he leaves the priesthood or is laicized, he still remains a priest for the rest of eternity, whether or not he functions as one.
Indeed, the sacraments of Holy Orders, Matrimony, Confirmation and Baptism all confer a change in the order of being. By virtue of the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, a baptized man is dead to the Old Adam and remade in the New Adam. He dies to sin and to his natural body and begins the process that will end in his existence as a life-giving spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15:44-49)
But we baptized Christians all know that it doesn't seem to work that way. "How can we, who are dead to sin, still live in it?" Paul asks (Rom. 6:2). Well, it's easy! We're still sinners! Apparently God allows this so that we will not be "too elated" (2 Cor. 12:7) or puffed up. The transformation of our existence from sin and death to sanctity and life is allowed to be drawn out over time, and the effects of the change wrought by our baptisms and confirmations is something that we must help build up and cooperate with, working out our salvation (Phil. 2:12) hand in hand with God and His grace.
This is a mystery, though we see it even in other natural changes in life. Just because a bachelor becomes a husband, he doesn't automatically fall into the role. He has to work to be true to the new status he has been granted. Those of us who are fathers deal with the same thing. And even if you're promoted at work, suddenly becoming a boss or a manager of some sort, you know that your new identity is something you have to suffer and sacrifice for in order to fulfill.
Of course as an actor, this is something I understand well. The mask you don on stage, your role, does not by itself transform you. You have to work to be true to the mask, sometimes (if the role is challenging) with a great deal of frustration over many public rehearsals and private struggles. At times, however, it "clicks" and you "become" your role - though there is always that artistic distance that any game or artifice demands.
And so everything that we aspire to opens us up to risk - the risk of hypocrisy. How often we fail to conform to the masks we don or to the ontological change that we are called to be true to! Most of us are pretty rotten at filling our roles - we're sorry examples of the ideals we aspire to. We're mediocre husbands, poor parents, lousy managers and - most typically of all - Bad Christians.
And the higher the goal, the greater the disparity when we don't reach it.
Take, for instance, Holy Orders. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the majority of bishops and even a solid contingent of priests are not only bad at what they do (which is to be expected, as they are called to be remarkably great), but simply scoundrels, bad men who have adopted a mask that allows them to exercise their badness is ways that normal people can't.
Here's a long description of a priest who simply appears to be a predator in a collar. It's by Peggy Warren of Wichita, a woman who (if her story is true) was preyed upon by a priest and treated with contempt by his bishop, while, because of the whole sordid mess, her marriage and sanity began to crumble around her. I'm not sharing her story to enter into a discussion on the fiduciary duty of priests and to examine how abuse can happen even between adults, when one of them is in a position of authority and the other is vulnerable. I'm sharing it because priests having affairs with married women is much more common than priests molesting children, and this flouting of marriage and the priesthood does an incredible amount of damage, despite the fact that bishops take it lightly.
Note that it's the ontological change, which is apparently viewed as a mere mask by the priest in the story - it's this ontological change or alteration of identity that allows the abusive relationship to happen. The priest was able to begin his long process of grooming, he had access to the wife, to the home, to the family in the way that he did because he was a priest. No unmarried guy off the street would have been given the opportunity this man was given. He was operating under cover, a convenient cover that works automatically in the minds of many people. "Father is a priest! He's a nice guy! Why would I worry that he spends time alone with my wife in my living room after I go to bed at night?"
This is a simple truth about human nature that we don't want to admit any more. We are so busy ourselves struggling to conform to what we ideally are meant to be - our idealistic identities- that we can't imagine someone using an idealized identity as a cover for doing wrong. Priests who molest children or who target vulnerable married parishioners are probably not struggling at all to be true to their vows. They are much more likely opportunists who see that the priesthood is a role that brings automatic trust and even a kind of adoration from people who would otherwise be very suspicious of them and who might see them for the scoundrels they are.
And yet ... and yet we must not become cynics.
Even on Peggy Warren's website, she acknowledges that "women are attracted to holiness". We give this kind of credit (this "taboo" as Freud would call it) to priests and to fathers and to leaders because we recognize a real thing. Our masks are not just things we hide behind or false fronts we adopt in order to fool others. They are the images of who we are ideally meant to be, of who in some sense we are becoming, of who in some sense we are. Good priests, true priests, are indeed loving and holy, good fathers are caring and wise, good leaders are brave and devoted to doing the right thing. This is true even in a world full of perverts in collars, absent dads who don't pay child support, and crooked politicians intent only on lining their own pockets.
We are called to be more than what we are, to be reborn as the true selves that we only imperfectly and occasionally manage to be.
And to be fair to the priest in question, it is a terrible temptation to find your rotten self suddenly trusted and revered simply because you wear a collar, or because you happen to be "daddy" or because you've been promoted, or because you have a knack for entertaining people. But if we give in to the shadowy whisper, we end up using these gifts of blind trust to our own sordid advantage - and the next thing you know we not only fail to meet our aspirations, on the contrary we find that we are far, far worse than we have ever known ourselves to be.