Our Emersonian Pontiff

Is clerical haberdashery really such a problem that it merits a prominent place in the pope’s intervention in a synod as overhyped as the one concluding in Rome these days?

Papal imprudence started very early. On the heels of Jesus’ declaration that St. Peter was the Rock on which He was to build His Church, the apostle tried to tone down Christ’s teaching, rebuking the Lord saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew16:22). Scripture attests that even after Pentecost the Vicar of Christ could equivocate. St. Paul criticized St. Peter for his attempts to placate the Judaizers by stopping his practice of eating with the Gentile converts.  

So, I shouldn’t be surprised that the Holy Father and/or his speechwriters would think that the Synod on Synodality would not be complete without a strongly worded dissing of the clergy. “When ministers go too far in their service and mistreat the people of God, they disfigure the face of the Church with macho and dictatorial attitudes,” according to the Vatican website translation; “It is painful to find in some parish offices the ‘price list’ of sacramental services in the manner of a supermarket.”

I have been reading the book interviewing Cardinal Müller called Vatican Confidential. It should be read by every priest and bishop in the land, I think, because it gives some perspective about the style of governance current in Rome. “Macho and dictatorial” are, like beauty, in the mind of the beholder at times, but neither adjective is a complete stranger in the Vatican. 

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There is a serious disconnect between the professed openness to all people and the way collegiality is not practiced by the Holy See. Müller speaks about how bishops are stifled and threatened (I know some cases personally) because of honest disagreements with the Holy Father in points that are not central to Church doctrine. The pope, who preaches “listening” to the marginalized, could not give a personal interview to the retired cardinal of Hong Kong, who had traveled to Rome to make a case for his people’s struggle with the dictatorship in China.  There is a serious disconnect between the professed openness to all people and the way collegiality is not practiced by the Holy See. Tweet This

I know that the pope is a populist, and nothing seems to warm up a Catholic crowd these days like giving it to the clergy. Because I never saw a price list of sacraments in all the parishes I have seen, in several countries, I cannot speak to that practice. Obviously, it is completely wrong to make the parish into a “sacred store.” Corporate styles of planning and bureaucratic power in chanceries appall me, too. We are in the Age of Consultants and outside experts, too, in many dioceses, and it does tax the spirit a bit. Careerism among presbyters is also a terrible thing. But “let’s blame everything on the priests” doesn’t get us very far, does it?

But the pope chose a strange moment to reiterate his familiar condemnation of the clergy. A renewal of the Church implies working with the ordained, not against them. St. Francis of Assisi kissed the feet of a priest who had fallen into sin and thus converted him. Has the pope, in his wide reading, never come across the saying of St. Francis de Sales that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? 

And does the pope really spend time in “ecclesiastical tailor shops” spying on clerical dandies? From his critique of a “business” style of pastoral leadership, Pope Francis waxed furious about “the scandal of young priests trying on cassocks and hats or albs and lace-covered robes.” Most saints have been anything but fastidious about what they wore. I saw St. Francis’ habit in the museum in Assisi, all patched and discolored. St. Josemaria Escriva (a great opponent of clericalism himself) wore a threadbare cassock that embarrassed some of his own spiritual sons. 

But is clerical haberdashery really such a problem that it merits a prominent place in the pope’s intervention in a synod as overhyped as the one concluding in Rome these days? I find the clerical GQ crowd a bit much, but aren’t they really attempting to articulate an identity as priests? I just can’t get visceral about someone wanting to wear a beretta. I am more concerned about the secular garb some of the brothers are fond of—and secular vacations, and accessories that you do not find in Roman tailor shops, etc.

The judgmental tone some bishops take about priests reminds me of the boy in my mission who was berated by his father and then went outside to kick the dog (which then barked fiercely at the chickens in the yard just to even things up). Remember the old saw about charity beginning at home? Not for some of the hierarchy, apparently. Stress makes one regress, they told us in Missionary School. 

The conflictive environment in which we live makes displacing blame an attractive gambit, but it is meretricious and counterproductive. Priests and bishops and popes should try to work together. Archbishop Rivera of San Salvador used to say about his priests, some of whom would never be accused of being “A-team,” that “con estos bueyes tengo que arar” (“with these oxen I have to plow the field”).

It is hard to ignore or understand the contradictions that are so striking in the public ministry of the Holy Father. He just published a beautiful exhortation on the Little Flower. That would have been a much better intervention to make at the synod. The saint who lived to love Jesus and make Him loved is a great inspiration for a Church that is in decline. 

The pope recounted the beautiful story of how Therese, as a young girl, prayed for a man who had murdered three people (which, I think, most would think much worse than buying a lacy alb). The saint begged God to give the man the grace of repentance. This young girl, who had confidence God would hear her prayer for the criminal, was most gratified to read (in the royalist French newspaper) that the man kissed a crucifix as a sign of his change of heart on the scaffold. A beautiful story and a wonderful example of God’s mercy. The Exhortation is a great example of catechesis, as was the recent essay on Blaise Pascal given in the pope’s name. 

The intervention at the synod, in toto, was confusing. The pope seemed to imply that the bishops at Ephesus only followed the crowd’s insistence (and physical threats) about Mary as the Mother of God. He neglects to mention the rowdy monks who excited the city to near rioting, but his point remains divisive: the people know more than you bishops. “Us versus Them” has limited utility as a pastoral vision. Ditto for calling EWTN “diabolical” and the Catholic Church in America “reactionary.” Oscar Wilde supposedly said he was never so true to himself than when he was inconsistent, and all of us are inconsistent, but sometimes I think the pope is Emersonian in his contradictions.

Emerson said, 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do…. Speak what you think today in words as hard as cannon balls and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.—“Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.”—Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?…To be great is to be misunderstood. 

There is such a thing as being misunderstood, as in, rejected, and another reality to confuse the audience with lack of clarity. I’m sure St. Peter wished he had been less impulsive in expressing his disagreement with Jesus about the wisdom of the Passion—also, that he had caved to some Old Testament prejudices at mealtime in Antioch. 

Sometimes, I wish we didn’t get the first draft of some of the pope’s opinions. There’s an expression in Spanish about thinking “con el higado”—with the liver, once regarded as the seat of violent impulsiveness—instead of with recollection. A second or third draft might be less rhetorical but more effective—just saying. I’ll stop there.

[Photo Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA]


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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