Father Jonathan Morris, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and former member of the Legionaries of Christ, recently has attracted a great deal of attention by publicly announcing his decision to petition for laicization and by offering a nationally televised apologia for that choice.
I would like to make two immediate points. First, God bless Father Morris, who seems to be a priest of sincere Catholic faith, animated by a strong desire to do God’s will. I do not know him personally, and truly wish him well and pray for him. Second, in his public statements on this matter, I wonder whether Father Morris has (unintentionally) acted against God’s will, causing harm to his viewers and readers, especially to other priests and seminarians. I am particularly concerned about the possibility of scandal given to seminarians and young priests, as I am a seminary formator and faculty member.
Some readers will note that I refer to Morris as “Father,” despite the fact that he chosen to present himself on Fox News as “Jonathan Morris,” wearing a suit and tie rather than clerical clothing. I use this title because Morris is still a priest, though he notes that his archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, has granted Morris’ request and suspended him from exercising public ministry as part of the process of petitioning for laicization.
I do not intend in this article to say whether Morris’ petition itself is in harmony with God’s will. This is a complex and to some degree a personal question. Rather, I would like to offer some general thoughts regarding petitions for laicization, and a more specific critique of Morris’ public statements.
Called to a new state of life?
Is it possible that God might call a priest to petition for laicization? To quote P.G. Wodehouse’s super-valet Jeeves: “The contingency is a remote one.”
I am an avid reader of the works of Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957), who among other priestly duties was called upon frequently to preach to his brother priests in England. In one sermon given during a retreat for priests, entitled, “Accidie,” and posthumously published in The Priestly Life (1958), Knox gives his own answer to this question, advising priests who question their prior vocational discernment as follows:
As to whether God meant you to be a priest, stop worrying. He certainly means you to be a priest now; your priesthood is contained, if not in his antecedent will, at least in his consequent will. You may have crept in under false pretenses like the Gabaonites, but he is faithful to his word, and he promises us the graces we need for our state of life as long as we do our part. He wants you, now, to be a priest, and a good priest.
Knox offers this word of consolation (and challenge) after a long consideration of the struggles priests undergo, particularly the temptation to doubt the discernment of their seminary years. Knox’s spirituality was strongly influenced by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who emphasizes the importance of one’s current state in life in the discernment of spirits and of God’s will.
A person cannot regard himself as a tabula rasa when engaging in discernment. Knowing one’s state in life, and the possibilities and limitations entailed in that state, help the discerning Christian to understand spiritual movements and the possibilities (and impossibilities) related to God’s will for him.
For example, for the person who is basically maturing and growing closer to Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit is strengthening and encouraging, giving peace, comfort, joy, and delight, and sustaining growth. The evil spirit discourages, proposes problems with the positive course of one’s life, stirs disquiet and anxiety, as well as sadness for things left behind when one follows Jesus, and generally prompts turmoil and the temptation to turn away from Jesus and to something else.
If a person was basically moving deeper into a life of sin and further away from Christ, the effects wrought by the work of these spirits would be reversed, with the evil spirit acting as a cheerleader and the good spirit stinging the conscience and prompting repentance and conversion in the sinner.
The practical effect of misunderstanding these movements is clear. One could easily mistake feelings of “peace” with the action of the Holy Spirit, when in fact a habit of moving away from God has made the influence of the evil spirit feel more peaceful. So, for example, a priest who has been struggling with his vocation, perhaps indulging in thoughts or actions that have strained or even seriously wounded his relationship with God (here I stress that I am not referring to any particular priest), could feel a false sense of consolation when he makes a decision that is against God’s will, namely, to leave the priesthood. He might experience a great deal of inner turmoil at the thought of remaining faithful to his vows, and mistakenly think that such feelings could never come from the Holy Spirit.
It is also important for priests to recognize that all discernment is imperfect, even the extended and closely guided discernment of their seminary years. Returning to the case of Father Morris for a moment, it is only fair to affirm that in his Fox News interview he points to a serious flaw in his own discernment, aggravated by the direction given to him by his superior in the Legionaries. I am not dealing here with the questions posed by such a basic problem of discernment. But every priest can find some evidence of flawed discernment as he looks back over the years leading up to his ordination. Such flaws do not necessarily mean one’s discernment was fundamentally unsound.
When a priest wrestles with questions about his prior discernment, as Knox notes, he must remember that the grace of the Sacrament of Holy Orders provides strength to remain faithful in God’s service and the consolation of knowing His will here and now. Again, I do not pretend here to address every priestly crisis, but only to offer some general thoughts that ought to guide priests during times of vocational doubt and discouragement.
“Letting love conquer sorrow”
In his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Pope St. Paul VI affirms the tremendous value of priestly celibacy, at a time when its value was coming under heavy fire even from within the Church. In Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Paul VI also addresses the specific challenge posed by priests who seek dispensation from the clerical state.
Paul VI strikes a balance between upholding the permanent nature of priestly consecration and the Church’s need to deal with priests in crisis in a way that will be conducive to their salvation. In granting dispensations from the clerical state, the Church is not endorsing the departure of the priest, but rather is “letting love conquer sorrow”:
There are some whose priesthood cannot be saved, but whose serious dispositions nevertheless give promise of their being able to live as good Christian lay people. To these the Holy See, having studied all the circumstances with their bishops or with their religious superiors, sometimes grants a dispensation, thus letting love conquer sorrow. In order, however, that her unhappy but always dear son may have a salutary sign of her maternal grief and a keener remembrance of the universal need of God’s mercy, in these cases she imposes some works of piety and reparation. (par. 88)
Throughout this section of the encyclical, Paul VI strives to balance justice and mercy. For example, he refers to such departures from the priesthood as “lamentable defections,” yet affirms that such priests “remain our dearly beloved brothers” (par. 83). The fault for such defections, Paul VI teaches, lies not with priestly celibacy itself but with negative factors either before or after ordination:
Their sad state and its consequences to priests and to others move some to wonder if celibacy is not in some way responsible for such dramatic occurrences and for the scandals they inflict on God’s People. In fact, the responsibility falls not on consecrated celibacy in itself but on a judgment of the fitness of the candidate of the priesthood which was not always adequate or prudent at the proper time, or else it falls on the way in which sacred ministers live their life of total consecration.
Whenever The Church grants dispensations from the obligations of the clerical state, she acts with “heartfelt regret” (par. 85). Paul VI states that the imposition of “works of piety and reparation” upon the priest dispensed from his clerical obligations expresses this regret, confirms faithful priests in their commitment to celibate chastity, and warns those aspiring to the priesthood of the gravity of the priestly vocation and the selflessness it requires (par. 89).
The possibility of scandal
At first glance, there seems to be a certain logic in Father Morris’ decision to announce and explain in such a public way his decision to petition for laicization. His ministry has been highly visible, including the authorship of books and articles on the Catholic faith, as well as his service as an analyst for Fox News.
He contrasts his decision with other Catholic priests and Protestant ministers who have more quietly left their ministries, disappearing from the public eye. Morris reports that he “has no ax to grind” against the Church, and that God is not calling him away from public life, at least not in the long-term. By offering a public testimonial about his decision, then, he can set the record straight, affirm his love for God and the Church, and chart out what he knows of the path ahead for those who have been his viewers and readers throughout the years of his priesthood.
It would be possible, though difficult, to perform a point-by-point critique of Morris’ public statements. The difficulty lies in the inevitable ignorance of important details any outsider must struggle against, as well as the need to strike a delicate balance between criticism of a particular public action and mercy for a man who has clearly undergone a great trial and who is trying to do God’s will as he understands it.
Instead of taking this course, I will offer a few words about the impression given by Morris’ statements, and the possibility of scandal being given, especially to priests and seminarians. I do this, fully acknowledging that impressions are always to some degree subjective, and that the possibility of scandal is not the same as actual scandal.
My impression as I have read and watched Morris’ testimonials is of a relatively smooth transition from the clerical to the lay state. I am certain Morris does not mean to make this change look easy, and in fact he makes some comments that highlight its difficulty, but the overall impression given is summarized by the following quotations from Morris’ Fox News online article:
- “My faith in God and my love for my Church is stronger than ever.”
- “In this new chapter of my life, I won’t be rejecting my past, but rather taking what I have lived and learned, the good and the bad, and using that experience as I take on this new challenge.”
- “As daunting as all of this change is, I am reminded often in prayer that the most important thing in my life has not changed. As a friend recently wrote to me, ‘You’re still working for the same boss!’”
- “For years I have preached and even written books on waiting in peace for God’s perfect plan and timing. Now I have a chance to live it!”
It stands to reason that for every priest who leaves the priesthood, there are many more who are tempted to do so, including some who are grievously tempted. It does not help them to see only the kind of spiritual soufflé presented in a statement like Morris’, one which so heavily emphasizes the positive aspects of what, from anyone’s perspective, ought to be viewed as a sorrowful turn of events. Of course, our hope must be constant, but Morris’ overwhelming positivity threatens to stifle in his readers and viewers that grief which is a necessary ingredient in any Christian’s thinking about such a vocational change. This positivity is especially strong in the early portion of his televised interview with Martha McCallum on “The Story” on June 10th.
Another difficulty lies in Morris’ seeming presumption that his petition will be granted. I have not seen him make any mention of what he would do if he were instructed to return to the active ministry. Setting aside the question of the probability of such a negative reply, it is certainly a possibility, and the impression given is that Morris has made an irrevocable decision to leave the priesthood.
Then there is the praise Morris offers to Cardinal Dolan for his role in the petition process. In his interview with McCallum, Morris expresses his gratitude for the fatherly way in which Cardinal Dolan has supported him throughout this process. Given the context, in which Morris unambiguously describes his decision as God’s will for him, the impression given is that Cardinal Dolan may hold the same view, also with no reservations.
Yet, given the seriousness and complexity of the questions involved in such a decision, it would seem that a much more qualified expression of one’s knowledge of God’s will is called for. And it would seem that any statement regarding the involvement of one’s bishop ought to include the cautions the bishop surely expressed about pursuing such a petition.
I have no doubt that over the many years of his priesthood, Father Morris suffered much and took his decision to petition for laicization very seriously. Yet as a public figure he is responsible for his public statements on this matter, and I am afraid that the impression he has given is that there is a relatively smooth path out of the priesthood for those so “called” by God. Perhaps Father Morris’ decision to handle his decision differently from other clerics by making public statements has not been as helpful as he hoped it would be. Perhaps, in fact, such a statement can sow seeds of doubt in the hearts of men who might otherwise have trusted in the constancy of the Lord and the permanence of their call to His holy priesthood.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!