Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On priests and the interview

On his blog today, Rod Dreher shared a reaction to the pope's interview from a Catholic friend who spoke about his priest's thoughts and feelings:
One more thing on the way Francis’s interview is reverberating through American Catholicism. A friend reports talking with his priest this past weekend about it. His priest is publicly enthusiastic about the Interview, privately not so much. My friend reports his priest fears that the Pope implicitly accuses priests who are serious about moral issues of being petty. Writes my friend:
At the moment, he is feeling a certain feeling that is analogous to what he felt at the height of the abuse crisis, when just being a public priest casts you as one of the bad guys in public perception; it’s similar after this interview, in that being morally serious is now likely to get you publicly cast as a problem.
My friend said he put the question I asked here the other day to pastors — “Is Francis’s interview making your job easier or harder?” — and said the priest instantly said, “Harder.” Why? Because he fears that a number of people will reject any attempt to talk about the Church’s teachings on abortion and sexuality as moralizing of the sort the Pope rejects. My friend says that Father X. is “far, far from moralistic. He is not at all a doctrinaire or ideological conservative. … This is a guy who in his ministerial practice is doing exactly what Francis would want. But he’s not finding the interview helpful.”
I can understand why Rod's friend's priest might fear this sort of thing.  In the fairly recent past, orthodox and faithful priests had their legs cut out from under them all the time by their bishops, sometimes for prudent reasons, but often times for no reason whatsoever.  Faithful Catholic priests in America are a little shell-shocked these days; it seems like some bishops fall all over themselves to cover for these sorts of evildoers while disciplining a faithful priest for so much as mentioning controversial issues in a homily or other public speech.  There is a morale problem among parish priests, especially here in America, and a lot of it has come from having careerist bishops who were more concerned about potential litigation than about doing the right thing.

On the other hand, I don't agree with all of the various priests or their friends who have written and commented saying, essentially, "Oh, I (or Father) would never be mean to any sinner regardless of how stern he is about those things in his homilies!"--implying that the pope is creating a false image of orthodoxy which is really quite gentle and cuddly when you get to know it.  There are some wonderfully kind and nice orthodox priests out there, but there are some stinkers, too (which is pretty much true for every class of humanity).  I remember one priest (note: not Fr. Z, in case anyone has false suspicions here) years ago writing on a blog that he regularly chastised sinners who wouldn't use the real, foul, ugly names for their sins in the confessional: none of this "I slept with..." or "...self-abuse..." nonsense; he made them proclaim the actual words of the sins aloud or else (at least, this was the strong implication) he would not absolve them.  Now, maybe in his mind or in the minds of some priests that's exactly the sort of pastoral meeting of the sinner where he/she is that Pope Francis is calling for, but I sort of doubt it.  If you get a sad, sobbing young adult in the confessional willing to admit that his or her sexual habits haven't exactly been in line with Jesus' way of thinking about all of that sort of thing, isn't that a good place to start?  What's the point of berating and shaming and excoriating them at that point?

I know that there are some orthodox Catholic priests out there who do an amazing, wonderful, exemplary job of being both morally serious and full of warm and loving kindness for each member of their flocks.  But we shouldn't pretend that achieving this balance is an easy thing, or fail to acknowledge that some of our very best priests (from the perspective of orthodoxy) might occasionally be abrupt or cold toward seekers and the just-barely penitent (even if they know this is a failing and strive very seriously to correct it).

A final word to disheartened orthodox priests: if you have read and pondered Pope Francis' words and discerned that you are already doing everything the Holy Father wants, and more, then you shouldn't worry about this, because you're not part of any problem, but a big part of the solution.

3 comments:

Turmarion said...

Very good post, Red. One passage stands out:

I remember one priest...years ago writing on a blog that he regularly chastised sinners who wouldn't use the real, foul, ugly names for their sins in the confessional: none of this "I slept with..." or "...self-abuse..." nonsense; he made them proclaim the actual words of the sins aloud or else (at least, this was the strong implication) he would not absolve them. If you get a sad, sobbing young adult in the confessional willing to admit that his or her sexual habits haven't exactly been in line with Jesus' way of thinking about all of that sort of thing, isn't that a good place to start? What's the point of berating and shaming and excoriating them at that point?

I totally agree; but I'd like to point out, in a gentle and charitable way, that this is exactly the point I've often made in discussions with you in regard to the language you often use in regard to such matters. Yes, it's not the confessional; but one can't draw artificial lines between addressing an issue in a culture-war sort of way against one's ideological opponents and speaking in a hurtful way towards people who may be struggling.

The long post you wrote addressed towards the young gay man on one of the threads on Rod's blog was a model of grace and charity, and in fairness I have noticed you doing somewhat less slinging of certain "foul, ugly" names for sins. I hope this is an ongoing patten.

It put me in mind of this post at Leah Libresco's blog and the two fascinating blog posts linked from there.

In any case, I'm not intending to be confrontational or anything--I just think this is worth pointing out, and I certainly believe that all of us, wherever we are on the spectrum of views, would do well to take Francis's words to heart and let them challenge each of us in various ways.

Red Cardigan said...

Turmarion, you're right in that I've evolved on this over the years (much as I think Rod has also said that he has).

Some of that is honestly a "writer" thing: it can be fun to sling clever and alliterative mud, and you trick yourself into thinking that this is something accepted because everyone knows it's a literary device.

But when you're engaging with real people the literary device defense doesn't hold up so well. I still employ this sort of thing on occasion when I'm speaking of two groups of people: public figures (who would not be public figures if they had thin skins and who are sometimes inclined to be appreciative of these sorts of efforts) and fellow writers (especially Maureen Dowd; for some reason, I think that the way she chooses to write opens her up to the occasionally brutal but honest bit of criticism).

For average individuals, not so much; I don't know where they are coming from or where they really are, so to speak. However, when speaking of certain sins absent the context of the sinner (that is, in the abstract) I see no reason to employ euphemism. Abortion in particular should not be reduced to "termination of pregnancy" or some such phrase--it's a matter of truth and honesty (because birth terminates a pregnancy, too, but there's a huge difference between a living, intact baby and assorted fetal body parts, as I think most people could agree).

This is long and rambling, but the bottom line is that I'm trying harder to show charity to my fellow sinners, while still opposing sin as forcefully as possible. Thus, I would have no problem with a priest thundering against sins by name from the pulpit (alas, few do!) but find it a little off if he refuses to extend mercy in the confessional.

Tony said...

My friend Phil is a Baptist pastor, and told me that he likes the new pope because "he is less a Vatican bureaucrat and more a parish priest".

This is true, but it is a double edged sword. The pope emeritus used to be Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and as such was very careful and precise in his words.

This pope is not. In an effort to be pastoral, he is speaking in a very sloppy manner.

I am currently taking an involved course in Pastoral Care Education (to learn how to be pastoral) and we were assigned the pope's interview as a reading assignment.

He speaks in a parable that is sloppy. He says (and I paraphrase): "When you are in battle, you heal the wounds, you don't worry about checking the patient's cholesterol".

What does he mean by that? The press might interpret that to mean that speaking against contraception and homosexual acts are "checking cholesterol". Another example was: "We should not concentrate so much on small minded rules". What does he consider a small minded rule?

I'm hoping to get clarification (or not) next week. But I consider this pope as hurting the teaching of the church in the world by giving the press a lot of wiggle room to interpret his words as they wish and mis-inform both the faithful and non-faithful alike.