success stories

How Priests Around the Country Deal With Controversy

Taken from the Book: Grace Under Pressure
National Catholic Educational Association, NCEA, Washington, DC

Jim, a Midwestern priest, related an incident that took place on an elevator: “I was visiting a hospital and I got on an elevator. There was a lady and her little boy, and they were kind of apart, but he definitely wasn’t in the way. I come on with my collar and I go to the other corner and she grabbed her little boy and kind of clutched him to her. Boy, that is when the whole thing hit me. She didn’t know me. I am a pretty good person. I am a good person. And, ooh, that really hurt.”

Given all the publicity about priest pedophilia cases, it would have been impossible to talk to a group of priests and not address the issue. But rather than focus solely on pedophilia, we asked more vaguely about “the controversies” facing the Church in order to see what other issues would surface, such as morale problems, women’s issues, and so on.

The priests in this study are, as we will see shortly, and as Jim’s story indicates, concerned about the impact of pedophilia cases on the Church and the priesthood. But pedophilia did not top the list of controversies that concern these men. They were far more likely to talk about the growing gap they see between Church leadership on one side and the clergy and laity on the other. Many of the pastors expressed gratitude that they could involve themselves in parish life and distance themselves somewhat from some of the institutional issues of the Church. John, a Western pastor, said, “I think people experience Church and affirm Church at the local level.”

Eric, a Southern priest said, “I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the larger hierarchical Church controversies, to be honest with you. I am much more centered on the local church level. I am, however, very much involved in the bigger social issues of racism and violence and that kind of stuff.”

Art, a Southern priest, put it this way: “Yes, there are theological issues that are going to be discussed for a while . . . . the issue of women priests, celibacy, and things like that, but the issues of priesthood for me are the issues of the daily living out of the Church, which is by and large the people right here along with us.”

Joe, a Western priest, sees a fearful Church. “As I look at the Church today I think that we have a Church that is working out of, at least in part, a model of fear. We have a fearful Church. I think leaders are fearful. It’s like we have to mouth the party line and we are afraid to question whether what we are doing is the best way. We can’t just bring it out on the table and say, ‘I think this is a bunch of crap.’ We are afraid to do that. Bishops are afraid. I think that those in positions of leadership are afraid of what the Vatican is going to say. So I think we do have an atmosphere of fear which is the worst possible way to live. And I think that we have to make a decision personally that we are not going to live out of fear. The right wing is everywhere. The Vatican is responding to the American scene because of that. I think that we have to be careful not to get caught up in being fearful.”

Peter from the South doesn’t seem to be caught up in being fearful. He talks about his reactions to controversy as ranging from acceptance to proactively opposing and speaking up. A lot depends on whether he is convinced it is a worthwhile issue or that something that is being done is unfair or unjust, and whether his speaking up can make a difference. “It is somewhat like the serenity prayer, [ this can be found in Inspirational Quotes on our web site] knowing what you can change and what you can’t change,” he said. “Sometimes it is a matter of doing everything that I can, doing the best I can, and then releasing it and letting it go. If an issue comes up, I will speak my piece and then step back and let somebody else speak their piece and then let somebody else do their thing. When it has been done, we move on, we keep going. But I also find that if an issue hasn’t been resolved properly, it’s going to come back again until it gets resolved properly.”

A number of the priests raised the issue of dealing with controversial teachings. For Fred, a Western priest, it’s a matter of understanding that the Church’s teaching is not a judgment, even though many people interpret it that way. He said it is liberating for him to be able to tell people the teaching is not a judgment. He sees himself as “a docent for life. To be able to give people the skills to interpret what is going on so that they can deal with it in their consciences and not be bothered by it.”

Rick, a Western tribunal official, said that working with people who are mature in their faith helps him deal with controversies: “They have a sense of conscience and are not always battling the Church because the Church did not give them permission to do this or that. For those who are not mature in their faith, I want to say, ‘Stop blaming the Church and stop being a child and just grow up.”

For Rick, the important thing is connecting people’s lives and the Gospels. “I find that I am not in an easy position of saying I’m really comfortable with everything that we do in the Church or teach, but yet I find myself more alive. I don’t want to leave. There is tension. There is conflict. There is vitality. There is joy. There is resolution.”

George from the East said he is hurt by the priestbashing that he occasionally experiences. Moreover, he does not like being a target of wider Church issues. For example, if he happens to use some non-inclusive language, “somebody is usually waiting out there for me, ready to jump all over me, as if I am a chauvinistic pig or whatever. That hurts. I would be comfortable with ordained women and having married clergy. But the Church is very clear on its position on that and there is nothing that I can do about it. So, don’t hit me. Allow me to function as who I am and don’t be out to jump me or put me down or put me off to the side somewhere.” . . . .

These men love the Church. But they are critical lovers because they want the Church to be all that it can be. And they are loving critics because they are men of the Church. But for them, Church means more than institution. “I love the Church,” said one pastor. “It’s not perfect and once I realized that, I was comfortable.”

Bob, from the Midwest said, “I remember reading an essay by Chesterton about commitment and love. Chesterton said, ‘If you love the Church or anything for a reason, and that reason is no longer there, your love is no longer going to be there. But if you just decide I am going to love it, that is it. It’s kind of a risky bet. I will love the Church. There is kind of real freedom in that. Whatever happens in the Church, I can choose the way to respond.” . . . .

Gary, a Midwestern priest, said, “The future of the Church may look very unsettled and dark at this point in history for some people. But I think that if we wrap our sense of peace and happiness into an institution, then we take on that darkness and cloudiness or unsettledness into ourselves. Our sense of happiness and peace has to come from within.”