The Catholic Church apparently sees itself in the midst of a public relations crisis. From Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech, to the flood of priestly sex abuse scandals, to the release of new canonical norms pertaining to those scandals, to the news this week that some number of Catholic priests in Rome are leading double lives as active homosexuals, the Church seems intent on disproving that old saw about there being no such thing as bad publicity.
Since "public relations" is more or less the art of lying about oneself to large numbers of people, I've never been much troubled by assertions that the Church is not very good at it. An organization whose mission statement includes the certitude that "men will revile [it] and persecute [it] and utter all kinds of evil against [it]" should not waste too much time with media consultants cultivating a glossy corporate image. The real problem, I think, would be if the Church started trying to get really good at PR -- imitating celebrities and politicians and oil companies in a concerted effort to "spin" whatever bad news comes their way.
I fear something like that may be going on in Italy right now. The reaction of the Diocese of Rome to reports of "gay priests' wild nights" has been to issue a statement calling on any such priests to come forward publicly and renounce their priesthood. To those who long to see the Church adopt a get-tough policy (verbally, at least) against miscreant priests, the Rome Vicariate's statement probably looks like a welcome step in the right direction -- a strategic response, PR-wise.
I find it a little disturbing.
The pastoral care of sinners, and the discernment of what is and is not a genuine priestly vocation, are matters to be handled in chanceries and rectories and confessionals -- not in the headlines of Italian newspapers. Some of the priests involved in this story probably should never have entered the priesthood, and should leave it under the guidance of competent spiritual direction. But there may be others with real vocations who have gotten themselves caught up in a destructive, habitual, and seemingly hopeless pattern of sin. Does the Church have no pastoral obligation to priests in both of those categories? And is a face-saving blanket pronouncement that calls on all the priests involved to come out of the closet and get out of the priesthood an honorable way of meeting that pastoral obligation?
The message of Jesus Christ has always been:
"Hey, sinners! Stop it! I'll help you."
The Diocese of Rome has decided instead to shout:
"Hey, sinners! Go away and quit embarrassing us!"