What follows is a tentative sketch, based on years of experience working with Catholic clergy in six dioceses spread out from Washington, DC to Japan (Archdiocese for Military Services). It reflects personal experiences working among priests assigned to parishes, and from dealings with bishops and deacons as well. I am not here reflecting on religious life in the Church, whether of brothers or of sisters, for whom I have deep respect and affection; vowed religious life is not my present focus. My primary concern is with the Christian faithful, and my conviction that they have generally not been well served in parishes, at least in recent decades. We have largely neglected to assist the faithful well in their spiritual and intellectual development.
Prefatory Note: When I use the word “spiritual,” as in this brief essay, I mean it in the sense of the German geistlich, which includes what in English is often broken into “spiritual” and “intellectual.” These two components of mental development are strongly connected, as the German word suggests. Especially in America, where there has often been what Fr. Greeley calls “anti-intellectualism,” “spiritual” can all too often drift into what is merely personal or even emotional, and hence become superficial and transient. What has prevailed in Catholic parishes has often been a disregard for the intellectual-spiritual development of the faithful, matters much deeper and distinct from the merely personal or emotional. In how many Catholic parishes is the life of the mind even taken into account? Many American pastors would probably say, “the life of the mind is not our concern.” What we have often offered our people is intellectually dull and mentally unchallenging, pretending that homilies aimed at an elementary school level are sufficient for adults. Even much of the music is jejune with banal texts. The public prayers are often stilted and muttered in cultic terminology alien to the minds of our people. In short, bishops, priests, and deacons are not tending our flocks well. Those with more inquiring minds or restless spirits drift away; those who accept mediocrity and intellectual-spiritual vapidity remain, often bored in their pews.
I. Some good qualities of Catholic priests in America
A. After several years of serving as a Navy Chaplain with Marines on Okinawa and on Mount Fuji, and at Naval Medical Center, San Diego, with permission from my Benedictine abbot, I returned to western Montana to serve as a parish priest. My elderly parents were living in our hometown of Missoula, and I wanted to be able to assist them if necessary, as they had so generously provided for me in my tender years. While serving in the Helena diocese, I experienced an interesting duality: Overall, the priests were friendly to one whom they considered “an outsider,” as I had not been born in Montana (my family moved here before I started high school). Of all the clergy with whom I have worked as a brother priest, I found those of the Diocese of Helena to be the friendliest. They smiled warmly and spoke to me at our various priestly gatherings. The only problem was that within a few months of working among them, as I subsequently learned, a number of them pressured the bishop to have me removed from the diocese. I should have seen the removal coming, for the pastor under whom I served had complained to me, “You believe in the divinity of Christ. I do not; I believe in his humanity. And I do not accept the authority of Rome.” We were at odds, and resolution came in the form of my removal from service in that outwardly friendly diocese.
After dismissing me from my assignment in Kalispell (where I lasted six months), I met with the bishop in private. He told me to live in Missoula with my parents, and that I could serve as a substitute in various parishes until he reassigned me. He also forbad me to visit Kalispell, where I had some dear friends. Unbeknownst to me, within a few weeks of our meeting, the bishop wrote a letter to my abbot, asking that I be called back to the monastery. When my abbot informed me that the bishop had terminated my service from his diocese, I was truly shocked; I felt betrayed, as the bishop had promised to reassign me. I got up the courage and returned to speak with the bishop—a man with a dominating personality who could be quite intimidating, and who had previously yelled at me several times. Despite my fears, the bishop was not unkind to me on this occasion when we spoke in his office. He said that he was convinced that my vocation could have worked in western Montana, but that the diocesan administrator had mistakenly “tried to put a square peg in a round hole” in giving me the assignment in Kalispell, where the pastor and I had different “theologies.” He further explained that “the damned incestuous Butte gang” of priests had pressured him to remove me from the diocese, asserting that I was “too traditional.” The bishop consented to the priests’ request to dismiss me.
As I came to realize over time, this bishop’s decision was essentially political: to keep a degree of peace with an outspoken portion of his presbyterate, he broke his promise to me, an “outsider.” And ideological thinking among the clergy took precedence over the truth of the gospel of Christ. This was my first intimate experience with diocesan clergy, and their political games disturbed me. In time I would come to understand that power politics plays a heavy role among diocesan clergy, especially among those who are not truly “men of the Spirit.” The Catholic hierarchy is fundamentally a social structure in which men seek to gain and to hold personal power, and to advance the positions of those whom they find useful to themselves, or with whom they are in ideological agreement. Truth, charity, and human decency are all-too-often sacrificed for power, prestige, and worldly gain.
I chose to remain in western Montana, which I consider my home, in order to be near my parents in case of need. An older priest assigned to parishes in the Bitterroot Valley, and living in Stevensville, allowed me to live in his rectory. He helped me to deal with clerical rejection, something he had experienced as well, for he did not share the “progressive agenda” of a sizable number of his brother priests in the Helena diocese. This good and humble man gave me genuine pastoral care, showing that he well deserved the sacred title, “Father.” Subsequently the bishop came down hard on this pastor, who was temperamentally a gentle soul. While celebrating Mass, he suffered a major heart attack. For this priest’s goodness and kindness to me, I will be ever grateful. In time I also became grateful for the experience of rejection by the bishop and the self-proclaimed “progressive” priests. My education in the Church had informed me that bishops act in the person of Christ; what I came to realize was that such a claim is at best misleading, and actually fallacious and self-serving. For in reality—not in abstract theological terms—this particular bishop had lied to me, not keeping his word to reassign me to another parish in his diocese. Lying and power games are not of Christ. Realizing that the bishop had not acted “in the person of Christ,” but out of darker and self-serving motives, initially caused me some mental pain. I was forced to “wake up and smell the coffee.” I had to re-evaluate the theological claim that the bishop, or the priest, is “alter Christus,” another Christ. All too often, clergy act in their own narrow self-interest, even while presenting themselves outwardly as “servants of Christ.” And so I chose to live in the truth rather than in the illusion of self-serving propaganda about clergy as “faithful servants of Christ.” Too many serve themselves and neglect the intellectual and spiritual well-being of those in their spiritual charge.
At the same time, I learned a lesson from the “liberal” or “progressive” priests in western Montana: “liberals” in the church are often illiberal, intolerant, and hostile when they encounter theological and political opinions contrary to their own. (The same is true of “progressive” lay persons who are given power-positions by clergy who favor them.) A more traditionalist priest, on the other hand, had accepted as a brother and dressed the wounds of someone who did not share his cherished and more fixed theological views. For in truth I have never been “a traditionalist,” yearning for “the good old days” before the Second Vatican Council. On the other hand, I surely did not share the “progressive” passion for “changing the world” as a substitute for grounding parishioners in Christ. Hence, another lesson learned: how one lives, what one does, are far more important than the ideological or theological views he or she espouses. As Jesus asked about the man who had been beaten up, robbed, and ignored by priests walking on the way to Jerusalem, “Now, which one showed mercy to the man who fell among thieves?” The kindly and charitable priest in Stevensville, Montana, had shown me genuine mercy, whereas the “progressive” clergy had me removed because I did not align with their “values” (a meaningless term often thrown around in our age). Only a priest who practices charity and lives in truth deserves the title, “Father”; the others are pretenders. Priests who do not truly serve Christ in the faithful are betraying Christ; often they are corrupt and corrupting, and should be assiduously avoided.
B. In addition to there being some genuinely compassionate and spiritually nourishing clergy, there are truly talented men serving among the diocesan priesthood. Some are good musicians, some are artists, some write, some are good mechanics, perhaps a small percentage can preach well. There are American priests and bishops who are reasonably intelligent, and have cultivated the life of the mind along life’s journey; but all too many come across as having been mediocre students at best, uninterested in studying philosophy or theology as required in their years of formation. Overall I would agree with Fr. Greeley’s assessment in The Priestly Sins that many priests are not only uninterested in thinking and doing intellectual work, but are actually anti-intellectual. On the other hand, I would maintain that a priest can still nourish others spiritually without being “an intellectual,” if he is truly “a man of God.” So my main point differs from Fr. Greeley’s: from what I have observed, all too many parish priests are not so much “anti-intellectual” only but anti-spiritual; too many are just plain “world” men. Often I’ve heard priests voice disdain for people such as evangelicals or Pentecostals with more simple beliefs, or even contempt for Catholics who find nourishment from Mother Angelica or similar traditional forms of piety. Some people may need these forms of spiritual nourishment, at least at times in their lives. And then there are the traditionalistic clergy, who in reality are religious fundamentalists wedded to their favorite externals, such as rules, rituals, and beliefs, rather than cultivating openness of mind and spirit. These forms of spiritual dwarfing show up in the clergy’s lack of respect for, or wanton ignorance of, the spiritual traditions rooted in Greek philosophy, in Hinduism, in the Buddha, in Lao-Tzu. I suspect few American diocesan priests have ever even read the Dhammapada or the poems of Lao-Tzu; the secular “progressives” would probably have little interest in such spiritual texts, and the immature traditionalists would think them “pagan” and “harmful to one’s Catholic faith.” In reality, study of various spiritual traditions would not be harmful to one’s faith, but to one’s fixed ideological beliefs, whether progressive or traditionalistic. Catholic clergy need a far deeper and richer spiritual and intellectual grounding.
Pointedly, a sizable proportion of Catholic clergy shows little appreciation for the rich mystical traditions within the history of Catholic faith and practice. How many of the clergy even realize that the Apostle Paul and the Evangelist John, for examples, were not just “believers” or “social activists,” but mystics, deserving to be read as such, not as proponents of “the true faith,” Catholic doctrines, or social action. I doubt that many of our American clergy could reasonably explain the relationship between faith and mystical experience. Although some “liberal” priests may know the value of some kinds of questioning, many priests do not seem to realize that faith that does not ask good spiritual questions is mere religious belief, and not genuine trust in God. “Faith without works is dead”; faith without questioning is also dead. Many clergy do not seem to grasp that static religious beliefs are actually a dead weight to the life of the spirit and mind. I heard one high ranking diocesan priest with whom I served read a homily in which he mocked some “far-off `cloud of unknowing,’” and admitted wanting to “build the Kingdom of God on earth.” His foolish opinion shared with those sitting idly in the pews surprised me, because I had assumed that he would know better. His missing the mark regarding the life of the spirit is by no means uncommon among Catholic clergy: they often display a lack of genuine spiritual experience or the understanding that comes from experiences in Christ. It seems that many priests are spiritually and intellectually mediocre at best. They hide behind rules, rituals, and sacraments, or behind programs for social action, and often snugly behind their clerical collars and smiles. The expansion of the mind beyond the confines of churchianity and hierarchy does not seem to be of high priority for most diocesan clergy. The faithful in Christ deserve much better.
Unfortunately, most American Catholics have been so poorly nourished by their priests over the past decades that they no longer understand or consciously desire what they are missing. Many lay persons seem to want to be amused and entertained rather than confronted with the truth of Christ; they want priests or deacons who flatter them, amuse them, entertain them. Yet, one also finds among church-attending Catholics an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with what is being offered them in the church. They are beginning to realize that they are being fed pablum, not solid food. The increasing discontent with spiritually impoverished Christianity is a sign of real growth. The Spirit is stirring. And surely those with the Spirit stirring in their hearts and minds are becoming painfully aware of just how spiritually, intellectually, and even ethically impoverished the hierarchical Church has become. Their spiritual unrest and discontent could possibly help lead to improvements if they find prudent ways to act on such discontent, and seek ways that nourish their minds and spirits. Indeed, some of these spiritually alive lay persons may even begin to wonder: Which is more like genuine communion and Eucharist: absorbing spiritual insight from a man or woman dedicated to the truth of God, or attending a liturgy that is far more of an entertaining show by Father Feel-good than an immersion into Christ?
II. A brief list of serious flaws common in American clergy
1. First and foremost among flaws in bishops, priests, and deacons today, I would point to a lack of grounding in philosophy, mystical theology, Scripture, Eastern spiritualities, ethics, and contemplative practices. Although perhaps a relative few priests do keep immersing themselves in such a grounding, I dare say that most make a weak attempt at best. As examples, I have known few Catholic priests who can read the New Testament in the original (unlike, say, many Lutheran pastors); indeed, Catholic clergy may sneer at a brother priest who reads the Greek or Hebrew to understand the sacred texts with more personal insight. Again, what Fr. Greeley called “anti-intellectualism” among the clergy, or what I would call a disdain for studying the things of God, shows up. Further, I doubt that most priests have ever studied the dialogues of Plato, or the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, despite the spiritual wealth in such texts, or the enormous influence the classic Greek philosophers have had on Catholic theology and practice over the centuries. Priests may vaguely know doctrinalized fragments of theology from St. Thomas Aquinas, but probably few have ever read his treatise on God in the Summa Theologiae. Why? Either because they are not interested, or because they are not willing to make the effort to study difficult material.
This ignorance and intellectual laziness shows up in their preaching and teaching. Indeed, no few priests read or deliver canned homilies at Mass. Could they truly proclaim Christ faithfully from the heart, here and now, if called upon to do so? If the clergy can let Christ speak through them, then why do many of them serve up canned homilies downloaded off the internet? Are they hiding their lack of spiritual life from the faithful? Do they think that parishioners are so stupid or ignorant as not to detect the difference between genuine preaching in Christ and just telling cute and entertaining stories? Do these spiritually lazy members of the clergy know that they are insulting and malnourishing the souls in their care? (Because of the importance of teaching and preaching Christ in parishes, I have likened clergy who pinch homilies to married men who would send a substitute to perform “the conjugal act.”) For in reality, proclaiming Christ faithfully, in word and in deed, is the foremost spiritual act of a bishop, priest, or deacon; substitutes for Christ are not only opportunities lost, but lead to withering of the spirit in the faithful. In short, the American priesthood is not well grounded in the fundamentals of philosophy, theology, and contemplative practice. Nor do they care to be. Most priests I have observed would prefer to watch a contemporary movie than sit still and study a spiritual classic, let alone be content to be “alone with the Alone.”
2. As noted, Fr. Greeley is right to point out the anti-intellectualism rampant among American clergy. And this applies not only to deacons and priests, but sometimes to bishops. Hans Urs von Balthasar noted that few bishops in the United States are solidly grounded in theology. Those with inquiring minds in the church are suspect of being anti-Catholic, or at least a threat to the hierarchy’s monopoly of power in the church. Interviewed by one bishop to serve in his diocese, he asked me two questions: “Do you believe in the Trinity?” and “Do you believe in transubstantiation?” I wanted to say to the bishop, “Grow up,” but I refrained. Rather than laugh at the naiveté and doctrinal straight-jacket of his questions, I patiently tried to move him away from the rigid dogmatism dripping from his questions. My attempt fell on deaf ears, apparently. I do not know that he even understood what I said to him regarding “the Trinity,” nor did he ask discerning questions. Rather than let me serve as a priest in his diocese, he told some of his clergy that I was “not orthodox.” And he never extended the honest courtesy of telling me that he had in fact denied my request to work in his diocese. Politically savvy, he avoided putting his decision in writing; the man had been a lawyer before becoming a priest. As we see in the case of this bishop, so-called “orthodoxy” functions as a present-day refuge for those who do not want to think, to question, to search for truth; the “orthodox” can fall back on fixed answers, as many preachers fall back on canned homilies. That Jesus blessed inquiring minds probably escapes such bishops. Indeed, I wonder if most Catholic clergy marvel at the master of questioning portrayed in the Jesus of the canonical Gospels. Well does Christ ask us, “Who do you say that I am?” Do priests actually ponder this question, or pretend to have found “the answer”? Pope Benedict truly impressed me when he dared to ask, “Has the Church misinterpreted Jesus?” Ah! A good question! And a timely question, to which I add: Has the hierarchy misinterpreted and betrayed Christ? In any case, one finds that all too often, Catholic clergy turned off their own inquiries years ago in order to “think with the Church,” or in order to get ordained. They learned not to question, not to “think outside the box,” and merely to accept unthinkingly what they were taught. In reality, having an inquiring mind is not the way to climb the hierarchical ladder to worldly success. Questioning minds are indeed a stumbling block to churchly power. For those in positions of power like “yes-men,” not thinkers, lest their own questionable lives be examined.
3. Many Catholic priests neglect the spiritual formation of the faithful. They are far more interested in “social justice” in the sense of “changing the world” (a Marxist conception) than in embodying the pastoral attitude of the Apostle Paul: “My little children, with whom I am in labor, until Christ be formed in you” (Galatians 4). Sharing in the formation of Christ in the souls of the faithful as the parish priest’s primary goal seems utterly to have escaped many American clergy. What do they offer instead? Actually, that is a good question. What is offered up in parishes? Frankly, not much of nutritious value, based on what I have seen and heard. Too many priests squander time in handling administrative duties (tasks which should be left to lay persons), or in hiding behind stale and stultifying rituals. As a result, as noted above, many of the faithful are not receiving the spiritual and intellectual nourishment they deserve and need. Often, lay persons do not understand that and why their priests are all-too-often spiritual wastelands. In truth, these men “cannot give what they do not have.” In some cases, they put much energy into administering property well, and perhaps should have been businessmen, not pastors—not those entrusted with the care of souls. Or they may be entertaining, charming, and at best, genuinely kind and charitable, and could have been good social workers. Most pastors seem to forget—or not to have realized—that their task should be to “put themselves out of business,” to let the Holy Spirit do the work in the souls of the faithful. For we all should be matured to find suitable ways to nourish ourselves spiritually, whether the local priest is a genuine man of God, or an empty secular soul, or a walking enrobed relic of an imagined past.
4. Too many Catholic priests are not only “in the world, but of the world.” They have made their peace with our secular, “progressive” culture. Some of them mock genuine spiritual interests, or ascetical practices. The girth of many in the Catholic clergy tells a story, does it not? I recall being invited to join priests for supper in an expensive restaurant on the first Friday in Lent. Although of course the clergy had told their parishioners “you may not eat meat on Fridays in Lent,” they ordered lobster and crab legs—and at the parishioners’ expense. Surprised by such self-indulgence, I questioned them about keeping the spirit of Lent with a more frugal meal. Several of the priests told me, “Lobster is not meat.” I am reminded of the words, “What blind guides, who strain at gnats and swallow camels.” (A couple of these priests looked as though they had swallowed a camel.) Needless to say, I never joined them again for such a luxurious meal at parishioners’ expense. I learned a lesson: it is far more in the spirit of Lent—and contrary to American self-indulgence—to eat a humble hamburger than to dine sumptuously on lobster, crab, shrimp, steak…. Many priests and bishops take expensive eating and drinking as a right, if not even a clerical duty.
Priestly worldliness shows up not only in eating expensive meals, but in their consumption of alcohol—often enough, expensive wines or liquor. I’ve been with no few priests who can put away a considerable amount of spirits before eating, and then drink plenty of wine to wash down their meal; and then they walk away from the table without too much stumbling! For clearly such men are accustomed to consuming large quantities of alcohol. Some of these are alcoholics, who have been protected from exposure by brother priests for their self-destructive life-styles; others are just self-indulgent, and suffer consequences to their deteriorating health.
Regarding sexual matters, perhaps the less said, the better. In St. Benedict’s words, “It is better not even to mention what they do.” So our comments are brief. It is not only that some priests and bishops have abused children sexually, but that no few of them have shared in the cover-up of this problem over many years. This pattern has been coming to light, and is causing an enormous loss of respect for the Catholic hierarchy. What is probably less well known is how many tolerate a brother priest having a sexual partner, and keep silent about it. I shared a rectory with a priest who admitted to me having a girl friend for years, whom, he proudly told me, attended parties as his consort. He also justified having a woman in our parish as a sexual partner because “she isn’t pretty anyway.” The depravity here is evident. Then there are the actively “gay” priests. One of them said to me, “God does not care what a man does with his penis.” To that response I held up a fist to make my point, and asked him, “Does God care what a man does with his fist?” He stalked away. In these cases, the same problem of clerical secrecy and cover-up manifests itself: one priest covers for another. There is a real reluctance to see a brother priest brought to justice; on the contrary, a conspiracy of silence reigns among the clergy. There are no few members of the Catholic clergy who show little interest in seeking to live celibate and chaste lives. In the words of one actively “gay” priest, “I took a vow of celibacy, which means I cannot marry; I did not take a vow of chastity.” Self-deception and deception of others go hand in hand.
5. These remarks lead to the fundamental statement: In addition to being a spiritual wasteland, an all-too-large proportion of the Catholic clergy live as depraved and corrupt human beings. In addition to the examples of depravity just noted, suffice it to say that clerical abuse of parishioners takes various forms. The abuse of children is by no means the only kind of clerical abuse all-too-rampant in the Church. For in addition to profound spiritual neglect and sexual abuse, there are priests who apparently think nothing from stealing sizable sums of money from parish coffers. In one parish in which I served, members of the finance council and I turned into the bishop the case of a priest who had stolen, as we estimated, at least $1.5 million from parish funds. In two different conversations with the bishop, he admitted to me, “the priests feel entitled” to steal monies. Our finance council was promised that this thieving priest would never function publicly again; a few months later, he was celebrating Masses and functioning as if nothing had happened. In the eye of many parishioners, the bishop had exonerated the thief of all wrong doing. Again we see the familiar pattern: abuse or evil committed by a member of the clergy, and an attempt by other clergy members to hide the evil, to cover it up from the awareness of the faithful. Why the cover-up? As one elderly priest said to me, “In France, follow the woman; in the Church, follow the money.” There is clearly a fear that parishioners would not be so generous with donations if they knew the truth of the evils being committed by members of the clergy. Money greases the skids.
III. Concluding thoughts and questions: Is the priesthood necessary?
What lesson is to be learned here? The Catholic hierarchy has for many years tolerated degenerate and criminal behavior committed by its own members. If a lay person stole vast sums of money from the parish or from a store or bank, s/he would be turned offer to civil authorities, and after due process, probably be sent to prison. A priest is excused for crimes, which indeed are covered up so effectively than many parishioners deny the priest ever molested, or stole money, and that those who reported the crime—child abuse or theft of parish funds—are accused of concocting the story to make the priest look bad or “to hurt the Church.” (Fr. Greeley does a good job illustrating this yarn.) In reality, the molesting or thieving priest is a bad human being, should be recognized as such, and dealt with accordingly. The hierarchy’s cover-ups protect deeply corrupt and corrupting human beings, who happen to wear black clothes and clerical collars. They consider themselves to be “ordained by God” in the sense of being a favored few. Sometimes parishioners may know how flawed their priests are, and what kinds of evil they are committing, but they willingly deceive themselves, as they are deceived by the clergy. “I do not care about the character of the priest; as soon as the man stretches his hands out over the gifts on the altar, they are changed into the body and blood of Christ.” That bad men do bad things badly does not appear to dawn on such “true believers.” In many cases of clerical abuse, spiritual neglect, and grand theft, lay people are complicit through silence, and through pretending that the evil deeds were never committed. Simply stated, lay people often share in the conspiracy of silence in the face of evil. Hence, lay persons have helped to perpetuate the degree of corruption evident in the clergy today.
There may be no real solution to these problems which seem endemic in the Catholic hierarchy, which is a virtually closed, secretive society unto itself. Still, one may ask: What can be done with the Catholic priesthood to save it from itself, and to enable priests to help build up Christ in the souls of the faithful? Limiting the pool of talent qualified for priestly ordination to unmarried men who do not wish to marry and to raise families is already a large handicap. One must wonder why married men in the western Church are excluded from serving as priests in nearly all cases. Simply asked, would not some married men be able to serve well the spiritual needs of the faithful? And so could women, especially many of the sisters who already serve lovingly in the community of the faithful. Even if Rome asserts that such questions ought not be raised, one must frankly admit: the Catholic priesthood is in so much trouble, that all questions must be raised, and fresh and truthful answers sought. Nothing about the priesthood ought to be taken as eternally fixed and beyond open and searching examination.
Hence, here is a fitting concluding question: Is the priesthood necessary? Might there be better ways to nourish human beings spiritually, than to impose on the faithful in Christ so much spiritual and intellectual mediocrity, not to mention permitting some wicked human beings to masquerade as “servants of Christ”? Or can the priesthood truly undergo a spiritual, intellectual, and ethical renewal? And are lay persons in Christ willing to do their part in a renewal in the Church?
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
3 January 2019