Letter to a Priest

“The synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulas but the free availability of God’s love and forgiveness.” ∼ Pope Francis

I do want to love this pope, the sure desire of any Catholic heart. But this rhetorical tic—to which he resorts so frequently that he must think it a profound path to genuine insight rather than a substitute for it—of setting at odds the spirit and the letter of doctrine is not making it easy. Every powerful gesture he makes, like visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor, or embracing a disabled child, must stand beside a cloud of utterances either impervious to interpretation, or so clearly censorious as to be unmistakable in their intent. The implication of the latter sort is that, if you are among those who insist that true doctrine must be defended before all else, then you cannot be among those who “uphold its spirit.” You don’t live the doctrine, but relish laying it down. You don’t really care about those “difficult cases and wounded families,” or, to unmask the rhetoric, your devotion to doctrine has maimed your capacity to love

How can you know the spirit of a thing without knowing first the thing itself? Upon reading the pope’s words, I thought I saw a ghost rising from its grave, the specter of that vague entity once called the Spirit of Vatican II. In reality, it has never received a proper burial and probably never will. It was, of course, the complete fabrication of renegades hoping to corrupt doctrine through an abrogation of discipline. This cannot be what Francis wishes, but there his words are, a voice of encouragement to the Catholic left who will gladly, with renewed vigor, destroy a discipline to devour a doctrine. Must we now look forward to fighting again the battles of the past? I don’t know if I’d have the energy, but during the previous two pontificates, at least we knew we had the pope at our backs. This pope has compelled me to recollection.

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Like most of you, I try to follow St. Peter’s advice and always be ready with a reason for what I believe, though I’d rather not have to ready myself against fellow Catholics, especially priests, let alone a pope. I (like most of you?) would much rather just sit in the pew and trust that the guys in the robes will say and do the right thing. Having to enter a Catholic church with my error-radar raised high, probing the air for evidence of an enemy incursion, is distracting, but over the years I think many of us have developed the habit, some willingly, others with reluctance. I hope I’m among the latter. I get the sense that some who would argue for the Tradition have enjoyed the confrontations of the last forty or fifty years (what Monsignor Kelly called The Battle for the American Church) a little too much. I haven’t. I knew before I joined up that the Church to which I was converting could be as fractious in its own way as our political culture was in another, but that doesn’t mean I liked it. I didn’t take the oath in order to find a good argument. I took it because of Christ’s wish that we all be one, and I saw the only hope for that oneness in this particular gathering of souls.

I was raised to hold the Episcopalian priests of my childhood in high esteem. To me they were practically perfect. I knew they were men, but instinctively considered them something more, as though touched by heaven in a way the rest of us aren’t. With Saint Paul, I tried to put away childish things when I became a man. Priests are people too, we hear. It’s a fact, unpleasant though it may be. Becoming a man has not made it much easier to accept. They are just human, (and in the light, or darkness, of the 2002 revelations some have seemed less than that), but we don’t want them to be “just human.” We want them to be more. Some are. I have known a couple, and so, probably, have you. But you’ve also known the other kind, the one who feeds the disunity, who sets your teeth on edge, who makes you want to go parish shopping. You’re not sure how to deal with such a one. Should you confront him? Most of the time you don’t. You keep your mouth shut, offer it up to God, cling to the truth in spite of him. You vent to your family and like-minded friends.

Erosion by Emphasis
Usually it’s not a matter of outright heresy, but of what we might call erosion by emphasis, his preferring, for example, the unifying significance of that communal meal known as the Eucharist to its previous incarnation as the body and blood of him who died in agony on a cross and whose blood spilled to the ground for our sins, of which we are unworthy but partake at his gracious command. This latter sacrificial and redemptive understanding is not so much overtly displaced as made to recede into the background where it need not trouble us unduly, or interfere with the “celebration.” Or perhaps he engages in what some consider an understandable, socially necessary, and rather mild form of disobedience, such that, while Rome commands that neither the letter of the liturgy nor of the Bible quoted therein be fooled with, he sets about with a flailing scythe, severing every masculine pronoun from its Scriptural root and stalk, not so much feminizing the Mass as neutering it utterly, as though Christ were neither a man nor born of a woman, or, if he was, it’s not important.

Like most people, I usually keep my mouth shut. Usually. On the other hand, it’s hard to let the subterfuge pass unchallenged Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year. To do so seems an abdication of duty. I have confronted a few priests, as politely as possible, and hated every second of it. I had to argue about contraception with the priest who brought me into the church. (This was in 1979, at a student parish in Gainesville, Florida, some months after he brought me in.) The disagreement remained cordial, because I could not be rid of my affection for him, for the role he had played in my life. But he would not be moved. I was tougher than the Church, he claimed, though the only resource I cited was Humanae Vitae. He referred me to a famous footnote at the bottom of a page in the Council documents, and to the cerebrations of eminent clerics like Richard McBrien.

At another parish, the pastor made a contemptuous remark during a sermon about that embarrassing precept concerning the One True Church. On the way out I shook his hand and politely noted (all right, my tone was polite, the words carrying a clear rebuke) that he had just made a mockery of a two thousand year old creed. His smile gave way to red-faced anger. “Oh, yeah?” he said belligerently, like he wanted to step outside or something. I moved along. He was later relieved of his position and forced into rehab, not for lousy sermons but for an alcohol problem. I had noticed he seemed red-faced on more than one, unprovoked, occasion.

Dancing in the Aisles
One day I entered the vestibule of the church attached to my kids’ school (I often joined them for weekly Mass) to be greeted by a sight I’d hoped never to see: pubescent twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls in diaphanous skirts, their leotards clearly visible beneath, practicing their moves as they prepared to liturgically twirl their way down the aisle. The priest and the processional were ready to go. This time the red face of anger belonged to me. “This is forbidden,” I addressed the priest. “Oh no,” he began, “Vatican II…” “It’s forbidden,” I interrupted. (Do these priests really believe everything they say about Vatican II?) I marched into the church and snatched the seven-year-old from her seat. I left the kindergartner because I couldn’t find where she was sitting. We marched back out, the priest pleading as we passed him, “If you’d stay you’d see how worshipful…” “It’s forbidden,” for the third time. It’s a simple thought, but one the usurpers can’t get through their heads. I took the seven-year-old straight to the rectory where we had a sit-down with the pastor. He was laid back, reluctant to intervene. Was I sure it was forbidden, he wanted to know? I thought it odd that he needed to depend on a layman for the answer.

A week later I provided documentation with which he could not argue but, judging by his expression, having to acknowledge it seemed to leave a bad taste in his mouth. He did not thank me for it. I found out later that other parents and teachers (by no means all—it was a teacher and some complicit parents who had been allowed to choreograph the whole affair) were offended by the presence of the liturgical nymphs in fairy dress, but to my knowledge not a one of them made any protest. But it never happened again, at least not while my kids were there, and that’s the only time I ever made a scene, occasioned by the reformers’ using the element of surprise to spring this spectacle upon an unwitting congregation.

By the 1990s we had moved to Orlando where we attended the diocesan cathedral. A deacon gave the sermon one Sunday while the pastor remained in his chair. The deacon let us know that some teachings never change, but others do, and that one day women might be permitted to receive Holy Orders. An awkward smile crossed the pastor’s face, and I think he might have squirmed a little in his seat, but he remained in it. I later asked the associate pastor, a conservative fellow, if anyone screened what the deacons might say. “The faith of the people of God will prevail,” he announced, absolving himself of taking any action, and betraying a quaint ignorance as to currents of faith among the “people of God.” Most laymen I knew thought the sight of women in white collars inevitable, if not just around the corner of the next decade. The welcome new presence of girl altar servers was evidence of progress and possibly of proof.

On another Sunday, the pastor himself relinquished the pulpit so that a woman from the choir, who was also an actress, might strut her stuff. It was that time of year when the Gospel tells of the Samaritan woman at the well from whom Jesus requested a drink. Dressed in peasant garb and carrying a straw basket (looking more like a Swiss maiden than a Samaritan), she began her routine seated on the steps leading up to the altar, from which she eventually rose to stride before the “audience” while delivering a dramatic, consciousness-raising monologue on the status of women in the time of Christ, and the apparently perfect concurrence of his mission with their progress in modern times. I was also in the choir, among that number let in to provide relatively on-key background noise, and about midway through her act I couldn’t stomach anymore. I and my robe simply walked out. I was near the side door anyway, so no scene or scandal was made.

After Mass, I met the pastor at the back door of the sacristy as he was emerging into the courtyard. “Is this how it’s going to be from now on?” I asked. “The homily given over to performance art by actresses from Universal Studios?” “Oh no,” he protested, and went on about how it was a one-time thing, a special occasion of some kind, but I could see from the manner of his mumblings that he knew he’d done wrong. And this guy, like his associate, was a good guy, straight up and down, orthodoxy on the hoof. He had supported the desire of my wife and me to educate our kids at home rather than through the parish’s religious education program. The unhabited nun who ran things didn’t like the idea, believing there was more to catechesis than doctrine, like “community,” but in this case the pastor had the last word.

So he was one of my good guys, but the good guys, in this age of the laity, want to please too many people, and we end up with an actress using a church for her stage. The rebels don’t care about pleasing you. They have an agenda and want to ram it down your throat. Join the New Church, or find space to recline on the rubbish heap of an antiquated and dying dogma. Come along or be left behind. The good guys don’t go after you like that. They want to persuade. The rebels want to impose. The good guys could take a lesson.

Doctrine and Discipline – a Unity
Some of the abuses I have described are offenses against doctrine, others against discipline, but I have never been able to separate them fully. Flouting a discipline bears contempt for the authority of those ordained to exercise it, and ultimately for Christ to whom all authority is given, and who prayed before his agony and death that we would be one in him as he is in the Father and the Spirit. He even gave them a silly little discipline to practice that very night, the washing of each other’s feet. He gave them that night a sacramental and a sacrament. Would he have done so were they not connected? Does the preeminence of one trivialize the other? And was Christ in the habit of recommending trifles? I know that priestly celibacy is not a mark of the Church, but does that mean that the Holy Spirit did not lead us to it? Newman said that those who truly love their religion revere its forms, because those forms, those disciplines, depend at some point on a doctrine, and the doctrine on a Person. And so I see an attack on one as an attack on the other, an assault on either as one against the person of Christ himself.

Which brings me to my final example. Sometimes the attack can be unintended. The homilist thinks he is expanding our knowledge of the God-man called Christ, without realizing that he has stuffed him into a very narrow box. The trend of the last few decades has been to emphasize the man side of this relationship to help us see how intimately bound to us he is in his humanity. And so a new fashion in our comprehension of Christ’s consciousness came upon the scene, which was to deny that Christ’s awareness of his true identity and the nature of his mission could have found completion during his earthly sojourn, but came into its fullness only after the Resurrection.

I heard this set forth one evening during an inquiry class presided over by a black priest in the employ of the parish governed by the red-faced, alcoholic pastor. This black priest offered the most dramatically reverent rendition of the vernacular Mass that I have ever seen, and I valued him for it. But he had been doing some reading and had found the new theory (which was not new at all) convincing. It was now his opinion that Christ did not fully know who he was until post-Resurrection. Since the effect of the theory was, by necessity, to deny Christ possession of the beatific vision while on earth, compelling him to discover his destiny by a fortuitously stumbling route, I raised (politely, of course) certain obvious questions (since, for example, as the second person of the Holy Trinity, it was his vision, how might it be denied him?) to which he responded by raising his hands soothingly to reassure me that it was only his opinion, and that mine was okay too.

The session proceeded in all cordiality, and no bonds were severed, for he ended up baptizing one of my children. But a few years later in Orlando, I was reminded of him by another priest that my family admired. He, too, was very reverent. My eight year old pointed out the extravagant bow he made toward the Blessed Sacrament before leaving the sanctuary at Mass’s end. (Kids really do notice these things.) He also cut a dignified figure: he was tall, balding, well into middle age, and he gave sermons that sometimes hung in the air for a longer time than it took to deliver them. You could see the intelligence in the eyes behind the glasses. Which meant that, like the black priest, he probably read a lot.

One Sunday, perhaps concerning Christ’s temptation in the desert, the priest shared his belief that Christ could have sinned but chose not to, the point being, I suppose, that, according to our choices, the very earth may hang in the balance, certainly our lives. A very good point, by the way; however, his manner of making it forced an immediate extrusion of the radar. On the way out, wife and kids in tow, I paused to shake his hand and ask quickly, “Are you sure, Father, that Christ could have done something contrary to his very nature?” He cocked his eyebrow, as though in response to an impertinence, and said that, oh yes, for he was a man and to deny him the freedom to choose was to impair his freedom of will, as he turned to the next proffered hand waiting in line to shake his own.

I understood; the moment was inconvenient. But the conversation was clearly over. So I wrote him a letter. I walked it up to the rectory in a sealed envelope with his name writ large across the front, and handed it to the secretary. I don’t know if he ever received it or even read it, because no response was ever forthcoming. It was the last letter I remember writing to any Catholic personage or institution, and it is likely to remain the last.

Now, am I to presume that either of these two priests was somehow injured in his relationship with his Savior? I wouldn’t venture to say. The state of a man’s soul is private, but his utterances are public, and with these we are free to take issue because they might affect the state of another man’s soul, or of a child’s. Neither of these men, as far as I could honestly tell, was attempting a coup d’état or mounting an overt siege (a la Hans Küng) against the rightful occupant of the throne in the castle of Truth. Each wanted to enlighten our understanding, not darken it; he wished to help, not hinder, nor give aid and comfort to the enemy. It may be that both were more infatuated with their own intellectual prowess than with imparting truth to our minds, but this I cannot know. As I said, the attacks were most likely unintended, but I don’t think them any less seditious for being so subtle.

Orthodoxy is a balancing act, a very delicate one (making the Church’s perdurability through two millennia all the more remarkable), and if the scale is tipped ever so slightly to one side, Christ’s person will suffer, our understanding of it, that is, which cannot but cause our faith, and our relationship with him, to suffer as well. All the heresies that have arisen through the centuries, in defense against which many councils have been called, were really just fights about the answer to that one question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Confronted with a mystery, the tendency of our minds is to seek a solution. That some mysteries do not admit of one, that we should in fact desire some to remain insoluble, is a proposition we find irksome. In our lust for certainty, our pride of intellect, our arrogance of will, we can wander far afield. And I would maintain, against the common wisdom, that only one road leads to Rome, that of obedience; the road of disobedience and dissent leads into the wilderness, and to the outposts of fragmented faith, apostasy, and unbelief. It was an act of disobedience that got us into this mess in the first place: “Do not eat of the fruit of this tree.” Our earthly mother and father did not doubt God’s existence, nor wish to fine tune the nature and extent of his attributes. They simply doubted his seriousness in issuing a command that forbade a certain activity. The instant they doubted they were corrupted, allowing instant access to that arrogance of will, that pride of intellect, and that lust for certainty, which put suddenly an entire race deeply in trouble, and ended up nailing God to a tree.


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