Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Discussing some talking points

The Father Corapi story continues to unfold, and several bloggers have been keeping everybody up-to-date as to what's going on. I've read these accounts, and pondered them, but since I don't have any particular knowledge or insight to share about the specifics here, I'm going to discuss some general things that are loosely related not only to this situation, but to any situation in which a priest leaves active ministry (except, of course, for retirement due to age or disability or both). I'm speaking solely of situations where a priest "quits" the priesthood (acknowledging that he is still a priest forever, etc.) whether due to his own desires and requests, or against his will because of accusations, allegations, proven criminal conduct, or the like.

1. The negative feelings of the priest's parish family, friends, family, or even "fans" are real, and shouldn't be ignored. If a priest, for example, in a rural parish decides after an agonizing internal struggle that he can't honor his priestly vows and seeks to be released from them, people in his parish family are going to react. Some will be supportive, understanding, kind, and prayerful; others will feel hurt, betrayed, and angry--even if they, too, are prayerful. These feelings are, of course, greatly magnified if there is any scandal attached to the situation: if, for instance, the parishioners arrive at their humble parish one Sunday to find the bishop saying Mass for them, followed by a meeting in which the bishop formally informs them that their pastor has been removed following a serious and credible allegation of abuse of a child (a situation all too unfortunately prevalent in the last decade).

The fact that people have feelings and need to process these feelings when bad things happen is hardly news. But sometimes, some people seem to think that if the bad news involves a priest, all personal feelings are to be suspended, and any honest expression of anger, doubt, fear, a sense of betrayal, or even depression or despair are to be stifled at all costs. This is not healthy, because it is normal and human to have these feelings and to express them (always striving for modest and charitable expression rather than immoderate and intemperate expression, of course).

This stifling of emotion has led to some difficult times for some parishes when, for example, the parish splits in half as half the parishioners defend Father Whosis out of loyalty and the other half are visibly crying, upset, or frustrated at what is going on--and well-meaning peacemakers try to insist that nobody ought to be reacting emotionally in either direction, or even talking about things at all. I've seen a little of this in the various comment box discussions of the Father Corapi matter, and it bothered me, because merely having feelings about the situation and expressing those feelings isn't the same as attacking and judging or mindlessly following Fr. Corapi, as the case might be.

2. If a priest leaves the priesthood for whatever reason, this does not negate any good influence he may have had on your life or your family's lives. Many, many Catholics during the Scandal struggled with this one. How could they ever look at the baptism photos of their children, knowing what Father Whatsit did to other people's children? How could their happy memories of their own First Communion day be retained, knowing that Father Thusandso was committing terrible sins right around that time? How could Father Thatone's marriage prep class--so full of wisdom and insight!--be looked back on fondly, when Father Thatone ran away with the married parish secretary only a few years later?

The truth is, all human beings struggle with this sooner or later, because we all know people--not all or even mostly priests--who are strange combinations of good and bad (and we ourselves are, too). We remember how relatives could talk fondly of Great-grandfather even though he had a serious drinking problem and very loose habits which were a sad trial to his long-suffering wife; it is not hypocritical, but human, to cherish the good in people, even when that is hard to do. If a priest had a good effect on our lives, we should thank God for that; and if that priest later falls, whether into great sin or simply out of the priesthood, we should not think any less of the time in which he was, probably without knowing it, an instrument of God in our lives: for isn't that what we want people to do in regard to us? And isn't the command to do unto others as we would have others do sufficient?

3. No matter why the priest is leaving active ministry, being laicized, etc. the devil did not make him do it. I want to be careful here, because it is quite true that the devil hates the office of the priesthood a great deal. It offends his unholy pride that God should have allowed sinful mortal men the ability to confect the Eucharist, administer the sacraments, and serve as the living conduits of divine sacramental grace for the benefit of the whole Church--and there's no doubt at all that the devil hates the Church.

But when we speak of individuals, we must admit that the devil hates everybody. His special hatred is reserved for saints, regardless of their vocation in life--he hates them because they draw closer and closer to God, further and further away from his tricks, persevering in grace throughout their earthly lives and, drawing their last breaths, escaping him forever.

Some writers have a tendency to say things like: "Fr. Soandso is leaving the priesthood. This is very sad. The devil hates priests--lay people have no idea how greatly and fiercely he tempts them daily..." etc. This is where I think well-meaning people sometimes end up sailing in rather dangerous waters, spiritually speaking, because the undeniable implication in statements like these is that Father Soandso is not responsible for his actions, or at least his culpability is greatly diminished, because after all Satan won't leave a good priest alone and will increase his temptations until the good priest finally falls into sin. The truth, of course, is that priests, like the rest of us, have free will and face temptations from the world and the flesh as well as the devil. If I choose to have dessert when I know I shouldn't, is that the weakness of my flesh or Satan lurking in the freezer next to the ice cream? If someone trades honor and virtue for unscrupulous business dealings to gain wealth and fame, is that the siren song of the world, or Satan beckoning from Wall Street? The truth is, the devil can tempt us through our weaknesses, but our weaknesses are usually centered around the seven deadly sins, the weakness of the flesh, and the appeal to pride and vanity thrown out by the world. Before we say with assurance that Father Soandso has given in to a diabolical temptation, perhaps we should consider whether our intention in saying this is to speak seriously about the nature of sin and the ubiquity of temptation, or whether we're trying to give him a pass for his actions.

4. Praying for priests is an excellent daily habit; no priest has ever fallen into sin or left the priesthood because not enough lay people were praying for him. How can I say that? Well, again, because for a priest to fall into sin one specific thing has to happen: the priest needs to make a free choice to do something wrong. This is, sadly, a surprisingly easy thing for a priest--or any one of us--to do; we do it daily. Yet sometimes when a situation like the Father Corapi one, or like any instance of scandal involving a priest, crops up there is bound to be at least one person piously suggesting that if only we lay people would just pray more, priests would not be tempted so much, or if they were tempted, they would have the strength to resist.

We all need prayer in our lives; it is our daily connection with God. And it is, as I said, a good habit to pray for priests, whether to pray for them generally, or to pray for specific ones (particularly one's own pastor), or to do both. It is likewise good to pray for the Pope, bishops, deacons, lay religious men and women, and one's fellow Catholics, as well as all Christians, all who don't know Christ, all who don't know God, and the whole world. We don't know how, in the economy of salvation, God chooses to use our prayers; but it seems to me we ought to be sure that God is not looking from Heaven on a priest wrestling mightily with some serious temptation and thinking, "Oh, dear. Only 23% of this priest's parishioners have prayed for him in the last week--so I will withhold My grace from him so that he has no recourse but to fall into this sin." Anybody who thinks that's how God operates needs to re-read the Catechism for starters (and I'd go to Deus Caritas Est after that, but that's just a suggestion). Again, I think the ultimate effect of the "Lay people don't pray enough for priests!" guilt trip is to remove the responsibility for the sin (whether grave or not) from the person who committed it.

None of these points are specific to the Father Corapi situation, of course. But I have seen them, or variations on them, every time a priest is accused of something, found guilty of something, leaves the active ministry seeking laicization (and sometimes marriage), and the like. I thought it might be helpful to some to offer my thoughts on these talking points that seem to swirl around discussions of priests who leave active ministry (voluntarily or otherwise).


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Well said. I can't add a thing, and those concepts I might differ on would add or subtract nothing from the substance.

I'm still not clear that Father Corapi is guilty of anything, any more than I am clear that he is absolutely innocent.

Turmarion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Turmarion said...

Excellent post--much kudos (the reason I removed the first version of this was grammatical--forgot that "kudos" is singular).

Red Cardigan said...

Turmarion--thanks! As to "kudos," though--not necessarily plural; see here:


I'm reminded of the anecdote involving a newspaper editor (long ago) who insisted his staff treat the word "news" as a plural noun. He once telegraphed a reporter: "Are there any news?" and the reporter sent back, "Not a new." :)

English grammar is so absurdly whimsical, isn't it?

Tony said...

1. You see this sort of anger when a congregation (audience) has forgotten the priest as an agent of Jesus and the Church and has fallen for the cult of personality.

I saw this cult of personality almost destroy my parish when out long time pastor retired.

Sometimes you have to say unwelcome things to try and turn the people away from the self pity toward God and God's will.

3. The Devil doesn't make anyone do anything, but he is most persistent with those like priests who are doing God's will. Even lay people as they draw closer to God can find the diabolic temptations increasing. Please don't minimize the power of the Devil. His greatest accomplishment was convincing people he does not exist.

3. So you are denying the power of prayer? I consider prayer the weapon with which the Devil is fought. I can see you're trying to eliminate the excuses for these priests' actions, but don't deny the reasons for it. If prayer helps, it can be a preventative. If there is no prayer, there is less spiritual protection for the priest in question making it easier for him to fall into sin.

eulogos said...

The disagreement between Red Cardigan and Tony here gets into an area of mystery. I think the right formulation might be that God always gives us sufficient grace to resist temptation if we freely choose to resist it, but that as a response to prayer He can and does give us extra graces. Otherwise it wouldn't matter if we prayed for someone or not.

I struggle with this "Am I to blame because I didn't pray enough" issue a lot. My parents died without faith; is that because I didn't pray enough? My son ditched the girlfriend I wanted him to marry. My other son's wife left him. Another son's wife is having psych problems. Are these things because I haven't prayed for them enough? I have prayed for them, but maybe not consistently enough? I can't absolve myself from all responsibility, nor can I consider myself completely responsible for their choices and problems. The only reasonable response is perhaps to confess not praying enough for people who need prayers, and then to make an effort to do it.

Good post about the normal human emotional response to the failings of priests. Many years ago now I fell apart after I found out a man I thought was a holy priest, and who had baptized 7 of my 9 children was an ebephile. This falling apart wasn't on the level of logic, but it was very serious and had all sorts of repercussions in my life and the lives of my children which are not over even now. Even short of this, people will feel betrayed, start to doubt all priests, waver in their own virtue, even doubt their faith, when such things happen. One can't eliminate these feelings just by stern and obvious statements that the failures of individuals mean nothing about the faith. Human beings just don't function that way.

Good post.
Susan Peterson

AmeriCeltCatholic said...

This is an excellent article -- much needed during this painful time, and so much more helpful than all of the anger and accusations and speculation and loss of tempers we have been saying. Thank you for reminding us always to pray for priests, and for all of our other brothers and sisters in the church.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Tony, I think it more likely than not that "The Devil" does not exist. If he does, I doubt very much that he is pleased that people don't believe in him. Both Aquinas and Luther agreed that "the Devil, that proud spirit, cannot bear to be mocked." There is no greater mockery than being entirely dismissed. I would expect those who don't believe to therefore suffer the most persistent attacks, not those who do.

To summarize briefly why I don't believe:

1) God's enemy would not be the instrument of eternal torture of his own disciples. He would cultivate them as his army for eventual active renewal of the mythical rebellion.

2) Satan as presented in the Old Testament, was God's faithful servant, testing believers, not God's enemy. Ask any rabbi conversant with the original Hebrew context. Even the Temptation in the desert is consistent with this understanding.

3) The dichotomy of God and The Devil is Manichean in origin and form, not Judeo-Christian.

4) The notion of fallen angels is a misnomer. Malachim are extensions of God, not agents with free will. The Greek Angleos (messengers) was a poor translation.

5) "The Devil made me do it" is the ultimate denial of personal responsibility.

Although I do not devote large amounts of time and attention to prayer, I have acquired the habit in recent years. Perhaps this provides me sufficient protection that I simply don't recognize what is lurking out there. But I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the devil can even distort a man's discernment processes to the point at which he believes he is called to ordination when in fact he is not.