More difficult to deal with, at least for me, has been an attitude of naive respect for me and for every Catholic priest, especially when this attitude is expressed by words suggesting that “all priests are holy,” or “we just assume that priests do not sin,” and so on. People who cling to this attitude, in light of concrete evidence, are setting themselves up for strong disillusionment when the light finally dawns on them that priests and religious in the Church are first and foremost human beings, and that all human beings are in the same boat: we are somewhere between holiness and wickedness or vice, between God and sheer selfishness. Viewed morally or ethically, religious or members of the clergy (Catholic or Protestant) may be no better or worse, overall, than a general sample of the population in a given culture. In short, lay people, religious, and clergy all far short of the Gospel of Christ.
To put the matter more concretely: If I do well well, appreciate the good deeds and “give glory to God.” If I do wrong, then I am responsible for that wrong-doing, and I do not ask for you or for anyone to white-wash my wrong-doing and say, “But he’s a priest! He could not have done that.” Truthfulness and a firm grip on reality honor the Creator far better than starry-eyed, naive beliefs about “priests are all holy” or “the priest is another Christ,” and so on. Indeed, I think that naive beliefs about clergy, and misleading claims of the priest as “another Christ” have contributed to a failure to face reality and to correct clerical failures in a timely manner.
A concrete case of “vocation.”
I use my own case because I am familiar with it, and it gives perhaps a different look at clergy, and how to view us in a truer light.
I do not think of myself first and foremost as a priest, or even as a Benedictine. (And I most certainly do not think of myself as “another Christ.”) For many years I have thought about this matter of self-interpretation, which relates to the issue of vocation or calling. I think of myself first and foremost, and most essentially, as a human being under the one God, part of common humanity, a member of mankind. Secondly, I am a male human being, and now a man in upper-middle age. Next in the order of what is essential, I am a human being in Christ, one who seeks to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and to rise and follow again and again. Fourth, I am by calling and gifts a teacher, a man who seeks to share in the search for wisdom and knowledge with others. And then, further down the chain, so to speak, I have been a Benedictine monk since my late twenties; and now, living outside of the monastery, I am in effect a poor monk indeed, as monks take vows to their community for life. Still, I am a man formed spiritually in the tradition of St. Benedict, his Rule, and the communal life and prayer of English Benedictines. And then, less essentially still, I am also an ordained priest in the Catholic Church. I did not put myself forward to be ordained, but as befits a Benedictine, I was asked by my Abbot to pursue theological studies with the goal of serving as a priest--most importantly for our Benedictine community, or if needed, “outside the walls” of the cloister.
From my experiences in speaking with diocesan priests (men ordained to serve as priests in and for a particular diocese), our self-conceptions are in some significant ways different. My attitude is, in effect, more closely akin to that of fellow religious in the Church--brothers and sisters living the vowed life. Hence, I am a Benedictine brother (monk) who happens to be serving as a priest, and doing so willingly and thankfully, at least for this period of my life. But whereas I can serve in one diocese or another, or not serve in a diocese as a priest, but perhaps as a Benedictine teacher (which I have done much of my adult life), I am always a Benedictine, even when I am not functioning as a priest. As a Benedictine, my foremost obligation is crystal clear: to seek God. And this calling, I believe, accords as well with my call to follow Christ (general Christian vocation), and my foremost duty as a human being under God: “Seek the LORD and you will live.” As a priest, I need not serve in a parish or in any outwardly priestly role in the Church, but I am obligated to “offer myself up as a living sacrifice, which is my reasonable worship” (Romans 12). Then again, every Christian as Christian is called to make that same self-offering. This is an aspect of “the priesthood of all believers,” borrowing Luther’s apt phrase.
In short, as a man, as a Christian, and as a Benedictine, my foremost duty is to seek the living God, and to live in charity with my brothers and sisters (fellow human beings), and with all of God’s creation. Even if I were dispensed from my priestly or Benedictine vows, I would have the same duties. And if I work as a priest, or retire from active priestly minister, I have the same essential duties to love God and neighbor. The way that is done, the particulars of one’s life, must change with circumstances; one must be open to new or to different ways to “seek God and live.” I do not feel forced or compelled to remain serving as a priest, or even to remain a monk. I must follow wherever God leads, and seek to be open to undergo much change on my journey home. That, in short, is one decisive component of my self-understanding of my vocation. Note: There is here no room for me to think of myself as “having arrived,” as “another Christ,” or any other ideological or theological misunderstanding.
What I write is intended to be general, and apply to others, but I will proceed using my own case for study.
A question seems fitting, ever to be asked again with genuine concern by every one of us: “LORD, what would you have me do? What are you asking of me here and now? How would you have me do your will?” Because I am here--not there, or elsewhere--I presume that I should remain here “for the duration,” doing what duties require, and especially, seeking God. For I have learned that as a priest in active ministry, it is very easy to get so caught up in particular tasks--there is always more work than I can do--that I forgot my deeper, truer task and duty: to seek God.
And what does it mean for me, here and now, to “seek God?” The easy and obvious answer is, “Prayer.” But prayer means many things, and must change as one changes, or else it becomes a stale exercise. According to Benedictine wisdom, “Pray as you can; don’t try to pray as you can’t.” So one could and should ask, “How am I to pray? What kinds of prayer are most suitable for me?” Or letting go of the word “prayer,” and still wanting to know what it means to “seek God,” I wonder: How can I turn my heart and mind more fully, more truly, to the presence of the living God? What must I let go of to move into God? What must I leave behind here and now? Abraham, the man of faith, left homeland and kinfolk behind to seek the living God. What am I leaving behind now? Or to what am I clinging, that is hindering my soul’s life and movement into God?
To ask these questions is in part to answer them. To anyone willing to be honest with himself, one knows what one needs to renounce, to let go, for the sake of “entering the Kingdom of God,” or living in the truth of God here and now. By God we move to God. With trust in the power of God in us, we renounce the hindrances, and keep still, waiting for the time God has chosen to act, or to speak, or to guide us into deeper silence.
How does one who seeks to follow the human vocation to seek God live with the serious flaws in the human condition, and especially with one’s own sinfulness? And more specifically for a man or woman in the Church, how does one who tries to seek God as a faithful Catholic deal with the scandals provided by clergy, let alone with one’s familiar sins and weaknesses?
When a priest fails in serious ways to present Christ in word and deed, his failure may well have strong effects on many of the faithful. Sins that are private limit a priest’s freedom, energy, and quality of person to give himself generously, as his duties require. But sins that cause a public scandal, and especially those that make Christians feel betrayed or abused or used, may have spiritual effects in human beings for years to come. Whether reasonably or not, many of the faithful expect their priests to be “men of God.” If they are found to be seriously deficient in basic human virtues--kindness, generosity, truthfulness, honesty, courage, prudence, hard work, charity, self-control, and so on--they in effect damage human souls, especially in men or women who were overly trusting or naively trusting in the first place. Those with the most unreal expectations are likely to be the most deeply damaged by clerical failures. Their souls suffer. More explicitly, their emotional life undergoes waves of anger, sorrow, grief. And their minds are often plagued by doubts about God and Christ, a deep distrust of the Church and “organized religion” generally, and clergy are viewed with suspicion, distrust, distaste, contempt. We have seen these effects not only in young people who were literally abused, but in adults as well who have at times felt “betrayed” by priestly sins.
A question emerges into consciousness: Have you been scandalized in the Church? Have I been scandalized? One powerful effect of being scandalized is that one becomes “obsessed,” in effect, by the religious or clergy who have given scandal--from sexual indiscretions, from sexual abuse of children, from habitual lying or deceit, from prolonged misappropriation of parishioner contributions or of church property, from an evident “will to power” that shows up in some clergy. The person who has been scandalized--deeply wounded--by a priest or religious in the Church may find himself or herself wrestling with powerful forces in one’s soul. The greatest danger of which I am aware is that feeling deeply and personally betrayed. In those who feel betrayed, the Church member may have to wrestle with anger at God “for allowing it to happen,” or even feel that God has abandoned His people, and left those abused or betrayed or victimized to blow defenselessly in the wind. More directly, any and all clergy and religious become viewed with deep suspicion, rendering their attempts to minister in the Church much more difficult.
The person who has been scandalized in the Church may find himself just shaking his head and asking, “How could he have done this to us? Why did he do it? And worse, why did he get away with such evil-doing for so long? Where were his religious or ecclesiastical superiors? Why did they not correct him, or remove him from active ministry or from religious life in the Church?” Or, in some extreme cases, “Why did the hierarchy fail to confront evil, but sell themselves out to `the powers that be,’ and then remain dumb in the face of very serious evil?” (The disgusting cases of Catholic and Protestant church authorities during the Nazi era come readily to mind with this question.)
Finally, questions emerge that look towards healing and recovery in the Church: Having been scandalized, what do we do? Having seen failures to correct serious wrong-doing, should one simply be silent, or challenge neglectful authorities? How does one help a fellow human being overcome the “obsession,” anger, distrust, and so on, engendered by these scandalous actions? In the face of real evils in the Church, what should the faithful do?
I raise some questions now, and intend to take them up in more detail later. These are painful issues, but must be addressed.