We thought in particular of priests. Our priestly heart wanted to comfort them, to encourage them. With all the priests, we pray: Save us, Lord, we perish! The Lord sleeps while the storm is unleashed. He seems to abandon us to the waves of doubt and error. We are tempted to lose confidence.
So begins From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, co-authored by Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah (yes, they really did co-author the book!). It is most encouraging to have these words of affirmation from the Pope Emeritus and the man I hope is the next to wear a white cassock. Those words reminded me of the wonderfully supportive Holy Thursday letters of St. John Paul II to his “beloved priests.” Such papal sentiments have been terribly lacking over the past seven years. My point in this present exercise, however, is not to dwell on the lack of papal buoying up but to bring to the attention of our readers a problem closer to home – and that is the double-standard priests experience within their own dioceses.
Over the years, I have offered lectures, missions, retreats in over ninety of the dioceses of the United States, which has given me a unique perspective on the state of the Church in our nation, and in a particular way, the state of the priesthood. One cleric recently observed that I probably know more priests in the country than any other priest! It saddens me to say, but honesty compels it, that the vast majority of our priests are deeply demoralized.
Pastors say that they are caught in an untenable vise between diocesan bureaucrats who never learned the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and all too many laity who have what I call “stole envy,” that is, they want to run the parishes and the clergy. As a result, the average pastor is reduced to a sacramental magician. A further result is that in not a few dioceses, priests now regularly inform their bishops that they do not wish to be pastors – so thankless a position has it become in so many places. In addition to anecdotal evidence for such conclusions, I also can call upon my own personal experiences; besides all the various positions I have held, three times I was called upon to serve as a parish priest for a total of fourteen years. While I believe I did a “good job” and have many wonderful memories of those assignments, I can identify completely with the sentiments of frustrated parish priests. Truth be told, priests will tell you that when their cell phone rings and the chancery number pops up, they freeze!
The degree of priestly frustration has only been exacerbated since the so-called “Dallas Charter” of 2002. Caving to public pressure, the bishops embarked on a program against which none less than Cardinal Avery Dulles warned them, particularly in terms of the relationship between priest and bishop being mutated from that of father-son or brother-brother to that of CEO vs. employee – indeed, an adversarial relationship. Many of the norms were inherently flawed or hardly thought out. I am thinking, for example, of the so-called “credible” accusation. As late as last year, bishops had to admit that the definition of “credible” was, in fact, not precisely defined at all; it might mean simply that “something could have happened.” In the wake of such a “credible” accusation, in swift succession, the priest must leave his residence immediately, is prohibited from wearing clerical garb, and is barred from public ministry.
As unjust and foolhardy as those requirements are, we have discovered that insult is added to injury by a double standard worthy of Animal Farm, wherein “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” To what am I referring?
At the present moment, two sitting bishops have been publicly accused of sexual abuse of a minor, dating back decades. I know both men and do not believe the accusations are even remotely credible. However: those two bishops continue to live in their episcopal residences; they continue to wear clerical garb; they continue to exercise their public ministry as an investigation occurs. Let me underscore, so as to be absolutely clear: I think this is the right way to proceed. However, why are the same situations with priests handled differently? Truth be told, there may actually be other bishops who have been accused but not publicly, and no one has been informed – again, unlike the method applied with priests. The public announcement of an accusation already damages the reputation of the priest, a reputation which is hardly ever restored, even if he is eventually judged innocent of the charges. That is why the universal norms of the Church read thus:
Care is taken to keep the identity of the person who experienced the alleged abuse and the alleged offender from being revealed. For the former, the motivation is to protect their right to privacy. For the latter, the motivation is to protect the alleged offender’s reputation since there is the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. (See: “The Protection of Minors in the Church”)
Yet another example of a double standard: Last month, we were treated to the papal slap seen ’round the world. Once more, let me be clear: The Pope’s reaction to the over-zealous admirer was certainly normal and innocent. However – and it’s a big “however” – if a priest had done the same, he would have been shuffled off to the one of the many horrible clerical gulags for “anger management” issues.
Moving higher up the “food chain,” as I have already hinted, how do priests feel about the barrage of papal negativity slung in their direction for the past seven years? Can one not expect St. John Paul II’s “beloved priests” to experience deep sorrow and even anger at the papal “nastigrams”? Just two weeks ago, word has it, the Pope told a group of American bishops on their ad limina visit that their biggest problem was “rigid seminarians.” Sadly, no bishop had the courage to challenge such an unfair and unfounded broadside.
Not infrequently, when a conflict surfaces between a priest and his bishop, the bishop is quick to remind the priest: “On the day of your ordination, you placed your hands between mine, promising me and my successors obedience and respect.” Fair enough. However, that powerful gesture has its origins in the feudal society of the Middle Ages. The knight did place his hands into those of the lord, promising obedience and respect. The lord, however, had his hands over those of the knight, pledging protection and support. That’s the part of the story that rarely receives due attention.
These are but a few poignant examples of why priestly morale is so low and also why vocations to the priesthood are in a downward trajectory. Unhappy priests do not recruit other priests. Granted, there are priests who are hyper-sensitive; I am not talking about them. I once worked for a bishop who, confronted with his abuse of power and even cruelty, would say: “I am sorry that hurt you.” Notice, it’s not “I am sorry for committing an offense”; rather, “It’s too bad that you are so thin-skinned as to take offense at my action.” Perhaps the soliloquy of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice would be apt material for papal and episcopal meditation, as well as for laity prone to anti-clericalism:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. (Act 3, Scene 1, 58–68)
I think Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah would understand such sentiments.
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