10 Feb 2019
You ask me, in effect, what can one do in our society, given the problems.
I will write more later, but here is a first answer:
One thing comes to mind immediately: community need not now be limited by space-time. Because of the internet and availability of resources (such as classics from the past), the community may well take non-traditional forms. There are some things that the local community can provide—such as the kinds of socializing and friendships your children need. There are goods that can be provided only by means of a wider reach (as through the internet) and especially drawing from resources in the past.
Second, did you read my most recent posting, “Do no harm”? I am asking if my criticisms of the institutional church, especially, do more harm than good. I may copy part of the conclusion in my longer response, but for now suffice it to note that many in the pews, who could be hurt, are not putting forth sufficient effort in their own spiritual lives. They have been lazy and passive. Yes, they will be hurt But one cannot force them to be free (playing on a famous phrase from Rousseau’s Social Contract). I’ll develop the thought later.
Third, genuine faith (fides caritate formata, faith enlivened by charity) is always needed. Institutional religion does not require or build much genuine faith. Each much make the effort. (“You yourselves must make the effort,” declares the Buddha in the Dhammapada, “the Tathagatha is only a teacher.” You ask, “To whom shall we go?” Well, you asked it in the right context: to the living Christ (not an institutionalized Christ). The living Christ is the inner light. If we will not attend to that light, for whatever reason, what can be done?
Fourth, although I may be wrong, I think that the institutional church, though not all bad, has been highly corrupt, and seems to be imploding in our present day. The community of the faithful needs to endure. I am not convinced that the hierarchy, as it developed historically (bishops—priests—deacons) is any longer the best or a viable solution. The problem is not with the teachings, nor with the Sacraments per se, but with human beings for whom power and position and privilege “go to their head.” I run into one case of this problem after another. And many lay persons are waking up to it. That is why one may say, “Gentlemen, the game is over.”
Fifth, what should one do? On that I shall think, and respond in a second note. If you do not mind, I will develop my response to you (without personal comments, which are unnecessary), and post it online. Your situation is by no means unique. In fact, you are voicing what I have heard, in various ways (less articulate than yours) over the past number of years. And we are hearing a crescendo of troubled voices. What is to be done?
On a personal note, I am not surprised that your response has been to be bothered by more criticisms of the institutional church. I have heard similar responses from a traditionalist friend in Ohio as well. Traditionalistic clergy would dismiss my thinking as “liberal,” which is superficial at best. Your experience in the church and mine have been very different. I have seen far too much to keep silent. Nor do I have a family to tend, and want to believe that the church may offer genuine assistance to them. It may, and it may well harm them. More on all of this later, unless I find nothing useful to say.
Peace in Christ,
The oath attributed to Hippocrates, ancient Greek founder of the art and science of medicine, has for some centuries been understood to embody the core teaching, “Do no harm.” Although the words are not literally in the original Hippocratic oath, they are surely implied. Often these words echo in my mind, perhaps because my father was a physician, who often told us that too many physicians worked for money, rather than the health of their patients, often performing unnecessary and costly procedures and operations. Our father would often say, “Let nature run its course.” Overall, his medically inspired teaching to his children was: “Do no harm.”
Before applying this principle, we reflect briefly on some of the words of the original Hippocratic oath, as translated by W.H.S. Jones in the Loeb edition, and as reported on Wikipedia online (hence readily available to readers). A few sentences from the original Hippocratic oath:
“I swear by Apollo Physician [Apollo is the Sun god], by Asclepius [god of healing], by Hygieia [literally, goddess named for Health], by Panacea [goddess, meaning “all-cures’], and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture. To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents….I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing….I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm…”
To do good to the patient, and not to do harm or evil, is the clear intent of the phyisicans’ Hippocratic oath. And to do good and not evil is the most succinct summary of human ethics, clearly developed as such in the dialogues of Plato, in Aristotle’s unsurpassable Nicomachean Ethics, in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the New Testament. When St. Thomas Aquinas seeks to express the core teaching of what he calls the “natural law,” he draws on the same teaching: to do good and to avoid doing evil. That is the summary of the divine and natural imperative for human beings.
In writing these little essays, am I doing good, and avoiding evil? I often ask myself this question. While I write only what is true to the best of my understanding and judgment, I am aware of an existential problem: It could be that in criticizing the churches, the hierarchy, our American way of life, and so on, my words will serve to weaken attachment to these, at a very time when there is so little for many to cling to for some sort of guidance and direction in life. That is a risk I have been taking. If my words cause one to try to dump the Christianity of the churches without having a living spiritual foundation, then they may do that person harm. If the best that one can do is to attend church (or synagogue), keep the customs as taught, share in the rituals, and be a patriotic citizen of his or her country, then that is what a particular person ought to do. If someone cannot bear the criticisms I offer of institutional Christianity and our present American way of life, then he or she may not be able to rise above the flaws and failures; keeping still and minding one’s own business may truly be what is best for that person. Only I would add this warning: beware of the subtle poison of “see no evil, hear no evil…”
The examples of Moses, of the Buddha, of Socrates, and of Jesus are often before my mind’s eye. These four men had more to offer human beings than any others I know in the course of human history. Each one was the carrier of a major spiritual breakthrough to humankind; two of them paid for the truth they spoke and lived by rejection and death at the hands of authorities in their societies. By divine intervention, Moses broke from Egypt, and led the Chosen People to freedom under God. The Buddha, borrowing from the rich Hindu spiritual traditions and practices, suspended beliefs in gods and religious practices for the movement into the abyss of peace and silence beyond all world-immanent content (whether real or imagined). In leading human beings forth into true freedom and enlightenment, both Moses and the Buddha implicitly or explicitly broke from their cultures and traditions. Socrates did not urge an exodus from Athens, but as he claims in Plato’s Apology, he had been sent by the God as a “gad-fly” to sting the Athenian people and wake them up to reality. The Athenian powers that be chose the unexamined life, which is mental death, over questioning one’s life and hence living in uncertain truth. The lover of wisdom Socrates gladly accepted physical death over certain mental-spiritual death of the unexamined life. Sentenced to death by poison, Socrates declares, “Now it is time to go, I to die, you to live; whoever of us has the better fate is unknown to anyone, except to the God.” As for Jesus, as far as we know from the textual evidence, he was and remained a faithful Jew; he attended synagogue, kept the feasts (especially Passover), revered the Law and the prophets. But above all, Jesus was utterly faithful to the God who had spoken to Moses, “I AM WHO AM.” It was this living and true divine Presence, unencrusted by doctrines and rituals, that Jesus presented to those who “listened to his word.” Did Jesus do harm? Only to those who hardened their hearts to the divine Presence active in and through him. To those who listened and responded in openness of heart, Jesus was Christ the liberator, who declared, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” To those who chose ritualized tradition over ever-seeking God, Jesus was another false Messiah, who had to be silenced: “Crucify him.”
The Christianity of the churches has often become a stumbling block to men and women seeking to live in openness to truth. Those with more enquiring minds open to philosophy, or those who desire to practice meditation drawing from Hindu-Buddhist traditions, have often been criticized, or told to “be quiet,” or even not to read philosophy or to practice “Eastern meditation.” Ironically, the portrait of Pharisaical teaching and practices so denounced in the pages of the New Testament is often presented before our eyes by clergy in the churches: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Some of these clergy who condemn “non-Christian philosophy and religions” are themselves products of mass secular culture, including superficial pop-psychology. And above all, humanity remains humanity, and spiritually dull, power-seeking, and money-loving men and women often push their way to the top of the human heap, assuming leadership roles in the churches. Christian clergy are all-too-often as self-satisfied, as self-important, as spiritually insensitive as the Pharisees caricaturized in the Gospels. Frankly, often enough, the “faithful” in the pews may be in a similar boat. Far too many do not want the hard reality of living in uncertain truth; they prefer to remain more or less asleep in their certain untruths. They fail to ask searching questions, or call clergy to account for their shallowing preaching. In short, for those with enquiring minds and open-spirits, the churches today are all-too-often inhospitable places.
Generally, the Christianity of the churches often adds to the spiritual and mental diseases of our age, rather than help alleviate them. Ours is indeed a sick era in history. (Whether sicker or worse than other eras is not here the question.) Many human beings in our midst are suffering from a spiritual and intellectual wasteland within. From what I have seen of Protestant and Catholic churches, this wasteland is largely ignored, covered up, or increased, rather than treated with appropriate intellectual-spiritual therapy. In other words, as I survey the non-wondrous landscape of Christianity, I see so much damage being done, and insufficient good for our people. But if a truly needy soul is genuinely nourished by attending church, by singing hymns, by listening to stale or insipid preaching, by praying comfortably in public, then I am happy for that person, and would encourage him or her to continue. However, each of us must be radically honest with ourselves, and ask: Am I being nourished, becoming a better human being, by sharing in the religious practices of my church? If the answer is “yes,” that would indicate that one may well continue on that path. And yet, each one should also answer a more probing question: am I doing all that I can to grow spiritually, to be awake and alive during my own lifetime, or am I being spiritually lazy, and depending too much on outer rituals and actions?
If I did not believe that there is better in store for many of my fellow human beings, I would not write as I do. I would not criticize the Catholic hierarchy as I have done if I did not believe that it is often doing far more harm than good, and if I did not believe that “we the people” could do better than be foolishly submissive to a scandalous and morally deficient body of men. One deceives himself or herself by thinking, “the bishops, priests, and deacons are not perfect, but they are not so bad, either.” To those who deceive themselves, I seek to sound a wake-up call. In reality, however, “the cat is already out of the bag,” many men and women content to be silent in recent decades have come to understand what a wasteland is displayed to them in the ordained clergy of the churches. Frankly, it is about time that more in the pews begin to see the corruption that has been present, but often cloaked beneath clerical vestments.
“Do no harm.” I do not wish to harm the “Christian faithful,” or those more or less simple souls who cannot or will not think through problems in the churches. Many Protestants, for example, remain attached to the “holy Bible” in ways that are not mentally healthy. Still, to read the Scriptures attentively and prayerfully is a good and salutary spiritual exercise, and I would not wish them to cease, but rather, to do so more intelligently and honestly, if possible. Many practicing Catholics remain emotionally attached to the hierarchy and the rituals in ways that are not mentally or spiritually healthy; but to share attentively and lovingly in the sacramental life of the Church may give them some comfort, peace, and sense of the holiness of God. I do not wish to harm any human beings, and surely not simpler men and women who are truly doing the best they can to respond to what they believe to be their vocations, their callings, their faith.
And yet, it is good that each of us asks more questions, and not be content with the status quo, especially as the churches are dwindling in numbers, and often lacking in vitality. After all, Christ called the “poor in spirit” to follow him; he did not call the self-satisfied to remain relatively lifeless on their church pews. Furthermore, the conduct of a number of clergy has been so bad, so wicked, and so destructive, that one must speak out, must act, and must not let personal likes and dislikes cloud one’s vision. Some of these clergymen are bad human beings, corrupt in deeds and in their blind hearts. Some are just plain wicked. Do not be deceived. Worst of all, many in the churches today are being given a stone or a scorpion, when they really need spiritual bread: the living Christ, the truth of reality, and not some pretty substitutes.The “faithful” have been foolishly content with moldy bread and contaminated water.
“Do no harm.” The burden on each of us is not to harm others—nor to harm ourselves. When a bishop has let a priest-scoundrel get away with doing evil for years, that bishop has harmed many human beings—even if he tells himself, “I am being compassionate to a wayward brother priest.” How we deceive ourselves. Far better for the scoundrel and for the faithful who have been cheated and deceived if the wickedness had been publicly admitted, publicly addressed, and the evil-doer had been lopped off the tree as the dead branch he really is. Far better for the molesting or thieving priest to do time in prison, where he belongs, than to parade himself in clericals in public, as if he is a good and faithful servant of Christ. For the sake of its own presumed reputation (which is now lost anyway), the hierarchy has sacrificed the spiritual welfare of the people. And meanwhile, the scoundrel priests laugh, thinking, “I got away with it.” And what happens to the Christians in the pew? They are taught a lesson: “the Church we believed to be holy and good is in reality a corrupt and destructive human institution.” Such are the words I hear from many of the faithful who have been scandalized—not so much by the evils done, as by the excuses, the cover-ups, the pretending that nothing was wrong. As I noted above, stop pretending you are holy, Christian clergy; the cat is indeed out of the bag.
By being so blunt, as honest as I can be, am I doing harm? To those who live enshrouded in pretense, my words no doubt sting and arouse anger. So be it. To those who truly want to live good lives, how can the truth do harm? “Their wounds are foul and festering, yet they refuse to come to Me, that I may heal them.”
08 Feb 2019
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. There is one need: Mary has chosen the better portion, and it will not be taken from her.” In the evangelist Luke’s story, Mary was “sitting at the LORD’s feet and listening to his word” (Luke 10:38-42).
What is the one thing needful? Or is there one In the context of Luke’s story, what is necessary is not serving food, but placing oneself close to Christ and “listening to his word.” To be “in Christ Jesus” means, among other things, that one draws near to God and “listens to his word.” To be a disciple of Christ, first and foremost, one must be attentive to his word; for “Christ is the Teacher; the rest are learners (disciples).”
The one thing necessary is not “being a Christian” in the exterior sense of belonging to a church, or calling oneself “a Christian.” It is not necessary that one be an active member of a religious community, of the priesthood, of an institutional church. According to the passage in St. Luke’s gospel, one must draw near and listen to Christ. Period All the rest can be a distraction, acts of avoidance, trying to “game God,” if you will.
But is the evangelist Luke right to say this? If there is truly “one thing needful” for a human being to do, what is it? “What must I do to be saved?” “How does one enter into life?” “LORD, what would you have me do?” Are these good questions, or misleading ones?
The word that resounds in my mind, as I ask such questions, returns again and again to the simple, straight-forward words of Jesus, for one: “Seek and you will find…” Seek, and do not pretend to find, do not assume you have found, but keep seeking. Seek what? “Seek first the reign of God, and his righteousness,” as Matthew has Jesus speak in the famous “Sermon on the Mount” (MT chapters 5-7). In the background one hears the prophets: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” In a phrase: seek the presence of God.
To seek to enter into the divine presence is, I submit, one way of expressing the one thing needful for every human being to become truly happy and fulfilled. Because we are bodily creatures, we must also seek shelter, food, clothing, companionship. As Matthew also lets his version of Christ tell us, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Seek first his reign, his way of righteousness, and all of these other things will be added to you.” Or not, perhaps. What does it mean to “seek God’s kingdom, God’s reign”? Not what the chattering voices in churches often tell us: to be members of the church; to put donations in the plate; to “build the city of God;” to work to establish some organization, community, way of life on earth. These are all secondary—as secondary as the churches are themselves. Secondary at best. What does it mean to “seek the Kingdom?” It means to seek to enter into the Presence—“not tomorrow, not today, but now,” borrowing a phrase from Dr. M. L. King, who was speaking then of social action. I am speaking of pre-social action, non-social action: spiritual action.
And what does it mean to seek to enter into the Presence? This seeking is the one thing necessary, the one thing needful. Not church attendance, not giving money, not spending all of one’s time and resources “doing good for others,” however good and beautiful and needful such actions are. Most necessary because utterly foundational for a human life is that a man, woman, or child turn his or her inner heart in the direction of that which is called “God.” Or one can call it “nirvana,” or “inner peace.” All such experiences can be truly clarified only by one who engages in the activity. Do not begin with speculation, and surely not with arguing about that which one ought to seek with the inner heart. Just do it. Whether you begin by calling it “You,” or “God,” or “Peace,” or “holy Mother,” truly does not matter. “Spirit,” “YHWH,” “Krishna,” “Tao.” It does not matter, for it is not confined or limited in any way, and not by any name we little ones wish to give it. Be wary of anyone who tells you, “You must do it my way, using my words.” Baloney. It knows no barriers, no formulations, no doctrinal fixations.
The Christianity of the churches (especially the Protestant and Catholic churches, but probably Orthodox churches as well) have for too long been content to play church, to “get people involved,” to try to organize for action in some way, or just to get folks to “attend the services.” All of these promotions by the churches are secondary at best, and often another form of distraction, a derailment from a genuine life. “For what does it profit a human being to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?” What does it profit one to get involved in churchy activities (including liturgies, sacramental, committees, etc) if one neglects to “sit at the LORD’s feet and listen to His word”? What gain is there in any exterior activities called “religious” unless one first and foremost keeps seeking to redirect the heart within: in a phrase, to seek God?
What does it mean to seek God? What does it mean to “seek to enter into the divine Presence?” First of all, it means to let go of the exterior—all things and persons—and to move the mind in silence towards that which is not seen, felt, heard, known. “The Tao that can be expressed is not the Tao,” and the god that can be imagined or even imaged in one’s mind is not truly God, or that which simply is. The God one imagines is not God. To seek God is to become simply present to that which presents itself now: a voice out of a flaming fire, as to Moses “the man of God”; a still small voice, as to Elijah the prophet; “the drawing of this Love and the voice of this calling…”
Ever begin afresh. That which one seeks is like the sun of Herakleitos: it is “new every day.” And what is most necessary, what is seeking the divine Presence? To keep responding to the unknown which is moving you to seek it now. Live a life, here and now, attending and stretching into the unimagined. What can be named is only a name; let it go. What can be imagined is a mere image; let it go. What you have heard said, is a mere reporting, suspend. What you remember, is fading. You—attend now. You are being drawn. Will you respond? Or do you prefer to play doctrinal, liturgical, sacramental, churchy games? Let them all go. You, attend now. For you, as you truly are, are being moved into that which truly is.
And what does this mean? It means not describing in words, but being-doing in practice: No one can fully or adequately explain to another what to be, what to do, for each is being drawn as one is, not as another is. It has its own ways, apparently, with moving each into it—into the unnamed, unspoken, into the abyss of dark stillness. Just do it. No one else can do it for you. You are a unique being, and that means that you must respond as it moves you to respond: making no excuses, clinging to nothing, hiding behind no churches (like Adam hiding from the divine Presence in the garden).
Mary responded as It presented itself to her: she sat at the the feet of Jesus and listened to his words. She was stirred, and she dropped down at his feet, enthralled by his words. This woman became utterly absorbed in what Christ was saying to her. Nothing else mattered to her at that time. She became one with Christ speaking to her. Martha was not even fully engaged in serving food, for she was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Martha was a model of the hyper-active Christian or social do-gooder. Mary is a model of genuine divine service, of true worship. “God is Spirit, and those who worship must do so in spirit and in truth.” Mary, this character in St. Luke’s brief story, is worshiping in spirit and in truth: she is being who she most truly is, doing right now what matters for her genuine life: being in the presence of the LORD, and listening. Mary and the word become one. And ever again, “the word was made flesh,” here and now in Mary, listening.
“Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” For many of us: it is so hard to listen in churches because of so much noise and commotion. “You have made this place a den of thieves,” as Christ says. Much of the training in Christianity received in the churches is precisely how not to be a true seeker of God. The training in churches is to be a busy-body among busy-bodies, embodied in the man who cannot sit still, but who looks around for someone else to watch. So much time wasted in the churches, by the churches. Better to turn the lights down low, and teach the faithful how to sit still and listen to the silent voice. Perhaps we need to suspend our ritualistic services, take out cushions, and just sit still.
And that is what I must do, and will do, right now. “The rest is silence.”
06 Feb 2019
“The word of the LORD came to me:
`Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel:
Thus says the LORD God:
Woe to the shepherds who have pastured themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, shepherd sheep?
I swear, I am coming against these shepherds.
I will claim my sheep from them
and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep
so that they may no longer pasture themselves.
I myself will shepherd my sheep, says the LORD."
(Ezekiel 34:1-16, passim)
Not only the Catholic Church, but the other Christian churches, too, have often been betrayed by poor shepherding. If you doubt this, where have you been? What one finds in churches are often false shepherds who seek to live a life of ease, and who neglect the spiritual welfare of those human beings in their care. What have they done instead of nourishing their people? “They have fattened themselves for the day of slaughter.”
How many clergy today—Catholic or Protestant—even know what it means to care for souls, to help build up Christ in the mind and heart and soul of each of the faithful? How many so-called “pastors” or “ministers of Christ” are pastors at all? Do not many of them put on clerical dress, but remain (underneath the pretty clothes) all too empty of Spirit themselves to inspire, to guide, to help cleanse, to help heal those in their care? How many so-called “pastors” are going through liturgical motions—often quite empty gestures—and neglect to nourish the people on the living word of God? They think that sticking a host in someone’s mouth or hands is the best way to share Christ. That would be the best way if human beings had no minds—or for minds that are not enquiring, who are truly the “poor in spirit.” These so-called “pastors” and “priests” put on a fancy show, but do not communicate the Spirit of the living God, for they cannot give what they themselves do not have.
How many clergy are so attuned to the word of God echoing within their own hearts that they are able to share that living word with their people? How many are capable of hearing God’s word and trembling before the Almighty? How many can do as the Apostle Paul says, preaching Christ “from faith to faith,” from the faith of the speaker into the faithful heart of the hearer of the word? From what shows up in various churches and denominations: all too few ministers have the trust that comes from a split-open heart. So many are of these clerical cardboard cut-outs are in truth failed shepherds. Why? Not allowing themselves to live under the present Judgment of God, they cannot communicate the powerful truth of divine judgment and mercy to anyone, to man and beast alike.
What does it mean for a man or woman to be a true pastor? A true pastor is a man or woman who daily and frequently presents himself or herself before the presence of the LORD. A true pastor is a naked soul tended by God, because this human being allows the light of the divine Mind to shine in, to reveal hidden secrets of the heart, to judge by divine truth, to convert his or her heart again and again. A true shepherd lives in the presence of God, for God, and for his or her own true spiritual welfare. Living in the presence of God, one ever stands judged; and one who is judged and turns back to God is healed by timely and kindly mercy. Only if a human being willingly stands before the burning fire of God can that person carry the living word of God to others. Frankly, it is that simple, regardless of churchy gobbledygook or hierarchical pretensions. Mere ordination no more makes a real pastor than a wedding ceremony makes a real marriage.
How many clergy, Catholic and Protestant, merely play church? They squander the time they’ve been allotted to communicate Christ by putting far too much emphasis on liturgical roles and liturgical rules. In truth, that may be the best some of these fellows can do. Instead of standing spiritually stripped before their people gathered in prayer, they clothes themselves in fancy vestments, pre-fab prayers, and canned homilies, for they dare not just open up their own hearts and mouths and speak as the Spirit gives utterance. They cannot do this, because they have been hiding from God behind the walls of Churchianity. And when they preach, it is not words taught by the Spirit to them in prayer, in study, and in life’s experiences; rather, they read words concocted by someone else, taken from a magazine or downloaded online. Do they even bother to credit the source of these borrowed or stolen words? Hardly. They present someone’s musings as their own. And they are usually safe, general, and feel-good babble. Why can they not preach the Word in truth? Perhaps because they are boxed in by fear or a lack of trust. Whatever the cause, they do not listen to the word in the presence of the faithful. They do not pray for the working of the Spirit, letting the divine speak through their mouths into the minds and hearts of the faithful. And why do they not speak in the Spirit by the Spirit, here and now? Because they do not know how to do it, or perhaps they are afraid that too much will be revealed about themselves that they prefer to hide. (Have you noticed how many clergy hide?) Above all, they do not speak by the Spirit—who is not canned or boxed or fixed in scripted words—because they are not men and women of the Spirit. They pride themselves on being “ordained clergy,” but barely anointed by the Spirit of the living God. Rarely if ever does it cross their minds that Jesus was not ordained anything by human beings; he was a man of the Spirit alone.
False pastors—pretending priests, if you will—do not know that a genuine communication of the Word of God in the present, standing with and for God’s people, is the primary means by which a true pastor tends the flock entrusted to his or her care. If this clergy person would truly trust God, and let divine wisdom and understanding speak through his or her mouth, then the faithful would see what it means to have real faith, and not mere churchy belief. No one is spiritually enlivened by churchy beliefs. They are “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” to themselves, and most unfortunately to their fellow human beings. And even more importantly, if the assigned minister were actually to speak God’s word from his or her own heart to the heart of the faithful, hearts would be nourished on real heavenly food, and gradually set aflame with the same divine Spirit active in the preacher’s heart.
Why is the Spirit not so evident in our churches today? Because those who have been “ordained” or “called” to speak words as taught by the Spirit do not listen to God, do not hear God, are not confronted by God, judged by God, liberated by God. All too many of these clergy-folks are on spiritual life-support, nourishing themselves on stale rituals, written words, man-made rules. How can men and women who are themselves so malnourished truly share in the feeding and tending of God’s people? They can’t.
And frankly, the people in the pews are a major part of the problem. For far too long, for many years, Catholic and Protestant ministers have gotten away with spiritual deadness, for feeding the people psycho-babble and social claptrap. The faithful have not demanded far better from those entrusted with communicating Christ Jesus to them. And why not? Many of the faithful are not so faithful at all! They, too, want a life of ease, of pleasure, of doing whatsoever they want. “God forbid that we be judged! God forbid that we be confronted by the truth! No, no, give us only sweet words, pleasant words, make us smile and laugh at church. Keep that living God stuff far away. We like it much better just the way it is: comfortable, easy, not challenging, not provocative, not anything but easy mush. That’s just the way we want it.”
“And NOW is the Judgment,
that the Light has come into the world,
but human beings loved darkness rather than light,
because their deeds were evil.
For every one who does evil hates the light,
and refuses to come to the light,
lest his deeds should be exposed.
But he who does what it true comes to the light,
that it may be clearly seen
that his deeds have been wrought in God.” (John 3)
Well, “Christian faithful,” have you really been faithful to God? Or have you been faithless? Have you been listening to the voice of the living God, or to your own self-affirming voices? Have you allowed the divine light of truth to penetrate your hearts? Here’s a simple test, brothers and sisters: Before the church service begins, do you even bother to ask the Holy Spirit to rip open your heart to the truth of God? Or are you too busy making faces at babies and babbling to children to bare your soul to God? As Jesus asked Judas, “Friend, why are you here?” Why are you sitting on that pew?
In short, there are two main reasons for the failure of pastors to shepherd human beings: The pastors are often mere churchmen, mere pretenders, largely devoid of the Spirit themselves; and that is exactly what many church-goers want: smiley clergy dressed up, pretty music, and comfortable, non-provocative, feel-good words. In other words, they want to remain as they are: spiritually moribund.
Well, one usually receives from God what one truly wants. God is blameless. We are the ones who have fallen far short of the divine Judge.
—Wm. Paul McKane, MTmonk
02 February 2019
Feast of the Presentation
While serving as a priest-chaplain in the largest military hospital in the world, I was fortunate to get to know well a man dying of cancer, Joe Condon. Joe was not only a life-long Catholic, but a man who had been living a life of genuine prayer. He studied his faith and sought to put it into practice. He would sit alone in silence everyday for meditation; and for years he had prayed to “meet a monk before I die.” Long retired, Joe attended daily Mass. As we spoke, he told me how disappointed he was in the parish priests he had known over the years. Joe looked me in the eyes, and said, “Father, they are not pastors. They are administrators.” Never having been a Catholic parishioner nor known many parish priests serving in the military, I asked him what he meant. He explained to me that the priests assigned to his parish in the San Diego area showed little or no interest in shepherding souls, but considerable interest in maintaining the buildings, having a large staff, making sure that the property looked good. But these priests showed virtually no interest in helping parishioners deepen their spiritual lives. As he said, “They can’t. They don’t have it to give. They are administrators.”
Even while celebrating Joe’s funeral in his home parish, I had to deal with his high-handed, self-important pastor, who insisted on leading a rosary before Mass, and raced through the rote words as if he was in a rush to get to a bathroom. What this pastor called “praying the rosary” seemed to me like a nearly blasphemous, noisy exercise of no genuine spiritual value to anyone; no doubt it served to flatter this monseigneur’s ego, that he was “doing something.” In reality, he came across as a hindrance to a genuine spiritual life, not a servant. Joe had attended daily Mass, yet I saw no understanding of who Joe was, nor any compassion extended to his very large family. This was my first taste of what Joe meant when he said, “Father, they are administrators.” They are indeed “worldly men,” who care for things, not for human beings.
Over time, while serving in Catholic parishes around the country, I have come to understand better what Joe Condon meant, and also to see other ways in which Catholic clergy seem to “play church” rather than seek to nourish human beings by and in the Spirit. Now I would say that there are various ways in which parish priests may be anything but genuine pastors—men entrusted with the care of souls. At the outset, I note that there are indeed some men who seek to serve the faithful, and who display a good practical understanding of what it means to be a spiritual father. Based on my experience in some six dioceses throughout this country, I would say that these men are all too scare, and surely an exception rather than the rule in the desert of the Church.
Furthermore, it seems useful to categorize the priests who are more or less just “playing church,” and who are in reality pseudo-pastors. We list them under several headings, depending on their predominant way of depriving human beings of genuine spiritual, intellectual, and loving care:
1. First, there are priests who really are primarily administrators of things, and not shepherd of souls. Indeed, they give the impression that they are not interested in human beings except to the extent that they “contribute to the parish” by giving generous sums of monies, and perhaps their time in unpaid labor. These administrators seek to maintain the church’s property, to make things “look good,” but are nearly devoid of a sense of the vacuum in their own soul, and in the souls of people in the pews. They stage a grand “production,” and overlook the real spiritual needs of the human beings sitting in front of them. These men are far more at home with handling things, than with working with and for human beings. And what many of them most like to handle is money: the more, the better. They seek to have large sums flow into the parish coffers, in part to impress the local bishop, in part to keep up appearances in the parish, and just possibly to “feather their own nests.” These administrators have real skills in raising money, and are rarely lacking it themselves. Their Lexus or Mercedes is washed and polished.
2. Second, there are the priests who play church by being virtually nothing more than sacramental ministers. They wear clerical garb around in public (often complete with a Roman collar), sometimes even parading about in black cassocks in public places. They are on display. They set their noses in the air, and talk about “Holy mother church,” “the Holy Mass,” “the holy Eucharist,” “holy days of obligation,” “holy priesthood”—holy cow, holy everything! These walking Infants of Prague sprinkle everything they say with “holy” (and sometimes even with “holy water’), perhaps hoping to give the impression to everyone that they themselves surely must be “holy priests.” How “holy” they may be is “unknown to anyone, except to the God,” but they surely know how to put on a wholly religious show. They play church. And in reality they come across as little more than walking Infants of Prague, dressed up for liturgical services, and not being real flesh and blood, not sharing in the weaknesses and sufferings of their parishioners. To share Christ, they are content to stick a host in someone’s mouth, and do so proudly, because they believe that “the sacraments work by their own working.” To visit the sick means for these churchy fellows to wipe some oil on a forehead and depart quickly from the hospital room, lest they be contaminated. They do not know that to share Christ means to communicate heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind, and willingly to share in the sufferings of others.These men, like the administrators, have not learned to give themselves. They are, after all, “too holy” for such mingling with the masses—except at “Holy Mass.”
3. Third, the worst group of parish priests: not shepherds at all, but habituated fleecers of sheep. These men are professional con-artists, who typically wear clerical garb around as a cover up for the scoundrels they really are. In meeting them, one wonders, “Why did this man ever become a priest?” They show little or no interest in God, no genuine love for the faithful, and much concern with getting money—not only for the church to keep up appearances, but most importantly, for themselves. These priests willingly go by the title, “father,” but they are no more genuine fathers than are the brutes who abuse children. In reality, these false shepherds abuse their parishioners by lying to them, deceiving them, and stealing monies from them. Indeed, some of them are such criminal personalities that they even steal chalices from the sacristy, sacred objects from the church, or put church property up for sale—all to swell their own private coffers. These men, long protected by the hierarchy, belong in prison, not in parishes.
What is a pastor in the context of the Catholic church, or of any of the churches? Whoever genuinely loves, cares for, looks after the spiritual and intellectual needs of others is a pastor. A good parent is a pastor of his or her children. A genuinely loving and self-giving spouse is a pastor to his or her beloved. A priest assigned to parishes is in reality a pastor if and only if he genuinely loves his people, seeks to get to know them personally, has a strong interest in their spiritual and intellectual well-being. A priest as pastor would not dump down-loaded or borrowed homilies onto those gathered at the Eucharist; rather, he would seek to help form those present by sharing in the living word of God, present here and now. He would seek to help open their minds with gentle persuasion, with kindness, with words of truth spoken from his heart to theirs. A genuine pastor, caring for those to whom he has been entrusted, seeks to help bind up their wounds in any way possible, and is ever mindful of his foremost duty: to help lead them into eternal life. A good pastor is not afraid to “smell like his sheep,” because he lives among them, is one of them, spends his time with them. Those in his pastoral care are in effect family members he knows by name and seeks to help grow into Christ.
In short, a real pastor knows the basic duties of being a shepherd of souls: helping to lead his people into eternal life, into “the Kingdom of God.” Second, he is available to his people night and day, whenever they need him. Third, he is readily open to hear them, to listen to their concerns, and to share his heart and mind with them. All to the glory of God.
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB
31 January 2019
Feast of St. John Bosco
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
Below I openly share a letter I have written to Fr. Andrew Greeley (1928-2013). Note: I do not cite page numbers from the novel under consideration, as my copy is an e-book, with pagination dependent on the size and style of font, and hence not standardized. A search could easily discover the quotations or references in their original context.
Dear Fr. Greeley,
We have not met, and to date I have read completely only one of your novels, skimmed parts of one or two others, and wish to read some of your published prayer journals in coming months, to better understand what good you have to offer. Having just finished reading a novel you had published in 2004 called The Priestly Sins, I wanted to share a few of my opinions, and some of my analysis, of your book.
At the outset, I want to be clear that I much enjoyed reading The Priestly Sins; I read it closely. As a slow reader, when I read, I prefer to absorb what I am reading, thinking about the characters actions, and intellectual content. I do not read just “for pleasure,” but to gain some knowledge, insight, and enjoyment from what I read, whether “fictional or non-fictional.” Your novel combines fiction and non-fiction, as perhaps any writing by a human being does, whether knowingly or not. What I most appreciated from The Priestly Sins are your handling of the problem of corruption and deceit prevalent in the Catholic hierarchy, and at least two memorable characters whom you concocted in your story: Fr. Herman Hugh Hoffman, and Kathleen Quinlan Shannon. You have a gift for story telling.
For the most part, I would say that your novel is a fictionalized-yet-largely-truthful portrayal of clergy sexual abuse, and the way such cases have been mishandled by bishops and priests for many years. I would recommend The Priestly Sins to lay persons and clergy alike. Many of the Catholic clergy are indeed part of the system of wrong-doing, evil, deceit, and cover-up, as you present in your story. You chose to attach an “End Note” which reads, in part: “Like all humans, all of us priests are sinners….” The “worst sinners are not the predators possessed by their own uncontrollable urges, but other priests who know about what the predators have done and remain silent or even defend them out of mistaken loyalty. And still worse are the bishops and bureaucrats who hide the truth, then reassign these desperately ill men to other parishes, where they can continue to destroy the lives of children and young people….So in order of responsibility for the [clerical abuse] crisis—the abusers themselves (who are developmentally arrested men and not totally responsible), priests who persist in clerical culture denial, bishops who reassign abusers, and the Curial dicasteries [departments] who appoint such bishops.”
First, I would challenge your analysis of “uncontrollable urges.” These urges are not fully “uncontrollable,” or abusers would not scheme to find hidden places and times for their crimes, such as taking young boys or girls fishing or camping out without other adults present. Abusers are clever and wicked schemers, often quite bright and fiendishly scheming, driven not primarily by sexual urges, but by their lust to dominate others. The drive for power over others is what shows up not only in those who abuse children emotionally, physically, or sexually, but in the clergy (and others) who have spent years denying, excusing, and covering up such evil deeds.
More fundamentally, you neglect to analyze the lust for power at work in many Catholic clergy, and not only in child abusers. Why do you think so many priests and bishops have hidden the truth about child abuse in the Church? What motivates their silence? Is it not in large measure a desire to maintain their own positions of authority and power over others? Is not the cover-up of child abuse one symptom of the attempt of clergy to dominate the lives, minds, and actions of the people whom they purportedly “serve”? (“Service” can often be a euphemism for fleecing.”) In addition to the lust to dominate on the part of clergy (whether child sexual abusers or not), what about the desire for position and wealth? Your novel offered no reflection on priests being driven for “worldly success,” especially as measured by power, prestige, and wealth. Yet you yourself are a priest, and so am I, and we have surely seen much worldly ambition dressed up in clerical garb. And what about you, Fr. Greeley? You wrote an enormous number of books. If most of them are like The Priestly Sins, I would say that you may well have aimed more at sensationalism and sales (hence, money in your pockets) then at truth. The book, though enjoyable, shows signs of being hastily written and insufficiently edited. Did you not in some sizable measure write for profit, as distinct from writing for truth or for benefit your readers? No doubt you did have some genuine concern for truth and for benefiting your readers, but your penchant for sensationalism and the sheer quantity of churned-out books makes one wonder about the power of the profit motive in you. I propose this matter not to condemn you or your novels, but to encourage some genuine self-examination. It is never too late to change, Father.
To put the matter positively: If you had edited your book more closely, and polished its content and style, you may have been more effective in achieving what seems to be a primary aim in your writing The Priestly Sins: to expose issues of clerical abuse, and especially of cover-up and deceit, all-too-rampant in the Catholic hierarchy. The thrust of your argument is highly important, and I think that it deserves a more careful presentation. If I had your ability for story telling, I would express my thoughts and questions in story form, as you did; but I’m not an Irish-American, not so clever of tongue, but perhaps closer to what you would call “a bumpkin.”
Had you given more thought to the matter, or at least have allowed your thoughts greater weight in the story, you may not have overlooked, as you do, a major kind of clerical abuse that is practiced and permitted: Many members of the clergy today, I believe, abuse their parishioners by wanton spiritual neglect. You are effective in pointing out the authoritarianism in traditionalistic clergy (who are often too young to remember the Church they pretend to adore), dressed up in capes and birettas and similar costumes, and seeking to dominate the minds of the people through highly dogmatic views, quick to site the “rules of the Church.” At the same time, you do not seem sensitive to the larger issue: Many Catholic priests show little concern for the spiritual well-being of their parishioners. You seem oblivious to the fact that an over-emphasis on “social justice” issues is a cover for a lack of spiritual depth, and that genuine “concern for souls” is and ought to be of highest concern to clergy. You were eager to portray your young hero priest, Fr. Herman, as a most pleasant priest willing to tell stories about old monks and dragons, to sing with parishioners, tell stories, and to play the accordion—and of course indulging in beer and plenty of wurst—but you never display Fr. Herman speaking on the importance of eternal life, of seeking an ongoing union with the living God. In short, you are good at ridiculing traditionalism among elements of the clergy, but show a lack of awareness of the even vaster problems of secularism, of all-too-worldly priests who may be good at playing golf, drinking booze, or telling jokes and entertaining stories, but who really show little interest in helping ground their people in the reality of the living God.
As I see it, Fr. Greeley, you are yourself too immersed in the Church to realize to what extent clergy abuse and cover up are both symptoms of the spiritual wasteland that is the reality of churches today—reality of our “modern life.” In short, clerical abuse is far more pervasive than you present in your novel, and its roots are deeper than sex, deeper than the lust for power (as mentioned above): beneath the sicknesses of child abuse, cover-ups, lies, and the scrambling of priests to climb the ladder of success in the Church, is the stark reality of the neglect of God. How many priests focus the attention of their parishioners on God, and on deepening their own love-life with God? On the contrary, we all know clergy who would far more readily mock “the cloud of unknowing” than seek to enter into it. Although you present believable examples of clerical stupidity and anti-intellectualism (a major theme of yours), you do not uncover the enormous problem of spiritual emptiness. This spiritual wasteland is the real poverty and disease of the Church.
Spiritual neglect and emptiness are not only rampant in clergy, but in lay persons as well. When you note those who are to blame for the problem of child abuse in the church (quoted above), you do not mention the lay people. Why not? Is it not the case that many lay persons have been far too comfortable in churchianity, too complacent on their butts, far too satisfied with empty sacramentalism and ritual, and not engaged in seeking their own life in and with God? Have not our people often allowed priests to get away with poor preaching, with spiritual mediocrity, and even with serious wrong-doing? Have not lay people in the Church often turned a blind eye to clerical abuse—whether of children, or of the neglect of the souls of their people? Have not lay people tolerated or refused to admit that no few of their priests regularly steal from them, believing that they are “entitled” to steal church monies? Lay people have kept deadly silent in the face of priestly sins, wanting like little children to think of priests as “other Christs.” What dangerous nonsense. In short, lay persons as well as clergy share in the blame for the wasteland that we see in the churches today.
Finally, Fr. Greeley, I offer a few tentative observations on style and content in your novel.
First, I repeat: I recommend your novel to clergy and lay persons alike, because I think that it is worth reading. In your two main characters of Fr. Herman Hoffman and Kathleen Quinlan Shannon, you created impressive, colorful, memorable characters. (How can I forget Kathleen’s red hair, green eyes, quick wit, lively spirit?) Although not a writer myself, and surely not a story-teller, I still offer some remarks on your style and some content.
You seem far more at home, and better, at imitating Irish-American speech than that of German-Americans. You throw in a good number of Irish expressions and linguistic turns of phrase. They are enjoyable, even if rather obvious and possibly a little hackneyed. On the other hand, your writing does not indicate a deep familiarity with German farm people. Although you do lace the pages with “ja, ja,” “nein,” and “ganz gut,” and so on, I did not find in the speech of your German-American characters either some of their distinctive words in English, or the kind of syntax that one can hear from their lips. German farm people often have some unusual names for things, but I saw no evidence of your knowledge of these. Older German farm folks often speak American English with some influence from German syntax, and these you omitted. Although their diction is rarely as transparent as the Pennsylvania Dutch witticism, “Throw Mama down the stairs her shoes once,” as a priest among German farmers in Iowa and South Dakota I regularly detected a subtle influence of German in syntax, word choice, intonation, and almost always in pronunciation. (Anyone with an ear for languages readily hears German or Norwegian pronunciations in nearly every sentence.) You did not imitate the German influence well at all, and surely not as effectively as yourself used Irish-American patterns of speech and expressions. I have the clear impression that you are far more familiar with Irish and with Irish-American culture than with German farm culture of the Midwest. You can understand my meaning, eh?
Your appreciation for the talents, skills, love of learning of Volga-Germans is evident, and adds interest and pleasure to your novel. However, you may be beyond your realm of actual knowledge and understanding. Especially when you mention Bach (perhaps 20 times in the novel), your knowledge seems shallow. Very few families or communities could “sing a Bach cantata” at home or in church. Bach is highly demanding. At best, someone could play the instrumental parts on the piano, as one or more sang an aria; but I cannot imagine a family singing a chorus from a Bach cantata (a closing chorale, ja, but not an opening chorus). At some point, you mentioned “Bach at his most melancholy.” I invite you to find one composition by Bach that is highly melancholy, or even melancholy at all. Bach can express sadness and peace of soul very well, but he does not capture melancholy; for that, you can find plenty of examples in the agnostic composer Brahms, who suffered from what Nietzsche called “the melancholy of impotence.” Bach, who fathered twenty children, was neither impotent, nor melancholy.
In short, Fr. Greeley, you come across as an entertaining writer who knew how and what to write to rake in the bucks, but your writing is too facile, too unpolished. Again, I praise you for your story of clerical abuse and its cover-up, but in a later novel (if you return to earth, perhaps as Irene), you may imitate German craftsmanship and produce more polished writing. And display, if possible, a more profound insight to the way that clergy have abused their people through widespread spiritual neglect.
Finally, my friend, you tell the truth in claiming that Russian-German farmers often have a good intellectual and artistic culture. You need to broaden that out: rural Americans, especially those rooted in the land as farmers or as ranchers, are often more intellectually open and interested in learning than many urban dwellers. I have lived and worked among largely German-American farmers and ranchers for about twenty years, yet I never heard one call himself a “bumpkin,” or a “hick,” or a “hay seed.” You city dwellers call people of the land by such names. By having your main character, Fr. Herman, refer to himself repeatedly as a “bumpkin,” you reveal to your readers more about the attitude of city-dwellers towards rural people, than the way we see ourselves. You may see us as “bumpkins,” but we pity you as immersed in a noisy, congested, often meaningless urban life—dwellers in decaying, dying big cities. One day you may find a home with Irene living on the open Prairies.
Wm. Paul McKane, OSB