One of my favorite television series of all time is the British sitcom Yes, Minister. It’s the story of a British cabinet minister who has to sail the sea of politics to get things done and promote his career who’s frequently frustrated by his Civil Service secretary, the non-partisan professional that’s supposed to help him. The stories are great unpredictable fun, and usually Minister Jim Hacker lost to Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby’s chicanery, but always for different reasons responding to different crises. In the last regular episode, the two have to work together toward an unsavory end, and when they succeed, Hacker is commiserating with his wife over the injustice of it all over a couple of drinks. She tells him (to the effect): “At least you’re a Whiskey Priest, you know what’s right and wrong, Sir Humphrey doesn’t.”
The term comes from a novel by Graham Greene The Power and the Glory about an alcoholic Irish priest who ministered underground in Mexico in the 1920s and 30s before being betrayed and murdered after being called to anoint a dying man. It’s a term that refers to someone who has a huge moral failing that preaches virtue even though they have a hard time practicing it. On the surface, the idea may not make a lot of sense, since we disdain hypocrisy (and should!) and tend to think any virtue someone preaches but can’t follow themselves isn’t worth very much.
The virtues we know we should practice are difficult at least. If vice wasn’t fun and didn’t feel good (at least in the beginning), we’d all be virtuous in a heartbeat. I think St. Augustine’s Prayer: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,” has been on the lips of many believers of all faiths and perhaps a few atheists as well. One of the great things about my Church is that we know we’re all sinners and we all have some work to do, and if we have our heads on straight, we won’t be tempted to think we’re preaching from a moral high ground.
There are plenty of heroes through time who’ve asked people to follow them on the high road. Surely there are many today that are highly visible in every denomination. A well lived life can be very inspiring, but there’s a great danger: any flaw of the hero is going to undercut, if not negate the message. When a hero falls from grace, the temptation is to believe nothing they stood for really matters, and we have to start over in looking for guidance. I’m not saying we shouldn’t admire good people for who they are and what they do, but we have to be careful how much we invest in them or high we put them on pedestals.
Pope Francis recently called all priests to renewed humility, not to pretend we’re sinless or that we have no connection with our people. There’s a great temptation to stand in the pulpit and at the altar and feel the rush of elevation, that we’re bringing something down from on high through our own merit. We are bringing down something from on high, but it’s in spite of us as well as being because of us.
Falling short of the standard of perfect discipleship doesn’t mean we’re hopeless. It’s called being human and none of us can escape this in our lifetimes. I don’t think it’s a call to senseless self-shaming, either. The only reason we can say anything, any good identity is because of the goodness of God, the goodness of Christ. We know we should live by virtue because Christ did, it leads us to the best Life can be, and that validates the effort even if our example can’t. Christ gives us the vision of what we should be, and our challenge is to live up to that image He has for us.
In a way, every Christian is a Whiskey Priest; it’s something that sets us apart from other world religions. (Caveat: I don’t like Bourbon or Scotch, but you know what I mean: I have my vices.) We know we’re our own worst enemies, and if we don’t remember it, we’re in trouble. It can be a great obstacle for those outside Christianity, a fatal obstacle at times, and that’s a challenge for us to do better. The message is more important that the messenger on my side of the street, or should be. Heroes on pedestals are standing still, and when they fall they shatter. We know enough to know we’re on the right path, and if we’re honest with ourselves and with those we walk with, perhaps we can see the miracle of a perfect God working through imperfect people.
Perhaps we should be glad to be Whiskey Priests. At least, the ultimate goal of our mission isn’t really imperiled by our weaknesses. The guy who makes it happen can’t fail.