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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Men under Authority & Heralds of the Truth

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The Priest as a Man between Two Kingdoms

Priests are citizens with the rights that all citizens enjoy, including the freedom of speech. However, priests are also the shepherds or sentinels of another kingdom, one that has its own laws and superiors. While the priest is consecrated to the truth by his ordination, he also functions as an extension of his bishop. He is given faculties to preach, to celebrate Mass, to absolve sins in confession and to offer the other sacraments. At ordination he makes a promise or vows to be obedient to the bishop and to his successors. While the Church can enact sanctions when missteps are made, she appreciates that her priests must be free to engage the world and to proclaim the Gospel in all the forums available to them in contemporary society.  That does not mean that certain voices cannot be censured, only that we as a Church should err on the side of orthodoxy and freedom.

The State of Affairs

Individuals (like priests) and organizations can come under scrutiny for their public stances.  This may or may not result in just assessments and responses.

I recall years ago McCarrick (then Cardinal) telling me prior to a funeral that EWTN and her commentators (including priests) were not our friends.  (I hesitated to tell him that I had met and supported Mother Angelica back in the 1980’s.)  She succeeded on a shoestring budget to maintain a Catholic television network when the USCCB effort floundered despite the millions of dollars earmarked.  Mother Angelica cold be quite vocal and combative about her faith and values.  Notably I recall her rant about a girl in the role of Jesus during the Stations of the Cross at World Youth Day as well as her public fight with Cardinal Mahoney over a pastoral letter judged weak on the real presence of the Eucharist.  She was compelled to apologize to the archbishop and when she attempted to do so the cable feed to Los Angeles went out for a few moments . . . a mystery to this day.

A high ranking clergyman held council with peers where he asked, “What are we to do with these young priests and conservative bloggers?” He was a hard working priest but also an aging progressive concerned about what he saw as growing numbers of men attached to the old Latin Mass and lacking enthusiasm for Vatican II.  He has since passed away.  Soon thereafter the tabernacle in his church returned to the center.

Similarly, I have encountered angry critics on the right who demanded that The Catholic Reporter newspaper be told to stop calling itself “Catholic,” given its dissent on women priests, contraception and so much else. Nothing happened because the left often ignores churchmen who speak from tradition.  Their experience is that threats can be ignored as they often prove to be mere empty bluffs.

However, by contrast the much maligned RealCatholicTV (regarded as somewhat unapologetic or even caustic in its defense of orthodoxy and tradition) became Church Militant in the face of canonical pressure from the Detroit Archdiocese.  Those on the right might take strong exception to the excesses of liberalism and upset certain higher ups; but when all is said and done (unlike the left) they are frequently the ones who embrace obedience as a measure of fidelity.

I daily read online voices (to which I am honestly sympathetic) demanding censure for figures like the Jesuit Fr. James Martin who is widely viewed as an advocate for homosexual acceptance and other progressive issues.  Instead, he is frequently hailed as the darling of the liberal establishment.  Given my personal proclivity toward tradition and to embrace eternal truths over fad, I am at a loss to understand weak responses to those voices that dissent against our traditional doctrines, values and ceremonial practices.

Confusion & the Many Voices

Why does correction so often come first from the laity or lower clergy when the bishops are the chief shepherds of the faith?  Why does it sometimes seem that the wrong voices are dismissed or silenced?  Further, the confusion of our age, so often realized in the media, has various bishops and cardinals at odds with each other.  I am reminded of St. Paul’s counsel when he wrote,

I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you.  I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Preaching & Teaching the TRUTH in the Modern Media

Unless there is a willingness to remonstrate dissenters, then any upcoming policies or stratagems for the involvement of clergy on radio, television, internet social media, etc. would become capricious and likely unjust.  More than rules, there must be a clear articulation of rights and responsibilities that will insure the continued preaching and teaching in these forums of priests who love the Lord, care about God’s people and have the mind of the living Church.

As a long-time priest blogger (going back to 1995) any constructive criticism I would personally render the universal Church would always be accompanied with a great deal of trepidation and reserve. Too often I have witnessed media priests on television and online parade as if they are the all-knowing judges of bishops and popes. Current forums for communication and of social media give them a standing far more extensive than their actual status would merit. Many have displaced their bishops in the expansive reach that they have in speaking to the masses of the faithful and those outside the Church.

A priest might have a disagreement with his bishop but ultimately the priest is to discern the voice of Christ and the movement of providence in this profound relationship of a father to his son.  Both men need to exert proper discretion and demonstrate a respect for persons.  The priest must earnestly seek to be of one mind with his bishop and honest with him if that should be difficult or impossible.  Unity with the living Christ is what makes this possible.  The priest has embraced a servitude not shared with the layman. Values and the demands of conscience are strained if the bishop is unjust or if his hypocrisy ranks with that of McCarrick in living a duplicitous and hypocritical life.  No one can compel another to commit evil but there are all sorts of practical decisions that might not cross this threshold.  A priest may have to follow the practical decisions of his bishop (made in good faith) even when he personally takes exception to them.  Taking up the cross and following Jesus places the priest in the role of the slave to the centurion.

“For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matthew 8:9-10)

A Shared Message & Acting with Prudence or Tact

Again, while no authority can compel a man to sin or to commit an unethical act; the priest must generally do as he is told by his bishop.  He accepts the work given to him, goes where he is sent and communicates a message that is in solidarity with his bishop and the universal Church.  Such is for the good and furtherance of the kingdom.  If both men have the heart and mind of the Christ and his Church then there should be little problem.  The priest should not ordinarily discuss personal disagreements with his superiors in homilies or on public blogs. Criticism is often picked up by those who are angry with the hierarchical Church.  Renegade priests, with their egos wildly inflated, might quickly be hailed as heroes in opposition to the bishops and the Holy See (maligned as anachronistic or as villains). This can also lead to a feigned fidelity or hollow obedience to lawful authority where privileged information and private communications are recklessly published for the entire world to see. It is unseemly for priests to solicit public opinion and controversy so as to sustain their efforts against their ordinary’s will and to increase their popularity in the press and blogosphere.

Canon law is not silent about this:

Can. 273Clerics are bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and their own ordinary.

Can. 287Most especially, clerics are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people.

Can. 1369A person who in a public show or speech, in published writing, or in other uses of the instruments of social communication utters blasphemy, gravely injures good morals, expresses insults, or excites hatred or contempt against religion or the Church is to be punished with a just penalty.

Can. 1373A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.

Can. 1390A person who offers an ecclesiastical superior any other calumnious denunciation of a delict or who otherwise injures the good reputation of another can be punished with a just penalty, not excluding a censure.

Our Unity with the Pope

Like a number of priests, I have sometimes felt hurt by the harsh words of Pope Francis toward faithful priests labeled as “rigid.” (However, no matter how reluctantly, I also try to take his words to heart for self-reflection.)  I have confessed to confusion as to how we might invite those under the sin of adultery to receive the Eucharist and sacramental absolution as the Holy Father seems to suggest. But is this what he really teaches?  The lack of clarity can be frustrating.  Is he hoping that we might come up with some of the practical answers and is merely stirring the pot?  I have been troubled in conscience by sentiments on behalf of and allowances for false religion. I would very much like a more proactive and tough stance toward the issue of wayward clergy, especially the active homosexuals and the pederasts. But I am not the Pope. Maybe he is closer to the Divine Mercy than many of us?  Voices from the left and right might attempt to usurp papal prerogatives but it is to him alone that Jesus has made the ROCK of the Church. Other bishops have a special role to assist him as members of the Magisterium. Priests and laity have the obligation to support the hierarchy and to remain faithful to the mission given us by the Lord.

Civil Discourse & the Danger of Scandal

While there is a moral requirement that all should avoid damaging scandal, this must be measured with the weight that belongs to the necessary value of revealed truth. Not in direct possession of all the facts, individual priests need to be extremely careful as to what they write and say, no matter how deeply troubled in their souls. Fr. Barron (now Bishop Barron) would model for us a clergyman who thinks with the Church and respects lawful authority. Online he is quicker to celebrate Catholicism then to condemn particular believers or leaders. I might agree with certain opinions he holds or not (as about the peril of hell and judgment) but we are still on the same side.  However, there are plenty of others who lack charity and good judgment. They have introduced the polarity we see from civil politics into Church discourse where if one does not absolutely agree with them then he or she is portrayed as the enemy. They would quickly label others as heretics, even the Pope. They utterly dismiss any checks-and-balances that would be placed on their actions. They seem to forget that the only one of us assured of any singular protection regarding the teachings and morals of faith is the Holy Father who enjoys a special relationship with the Holy Spirit. Yes, he can make personal mistakes about praxis and in private opinions. That is why he (most of all) needs to be careful when he speaks or writes. But his office always requires respect and there must be a certain degree of religious assent even regarding things that we would judge as needing fraternal correction. Progressive or liberal dissenters have often shown little concern about teaching things at variance with the Holy See. That cannot be the way for those who feel a commitment to tradition even if there is an apparent variance with the Pope on certain matters. Ultimately, what does Pope Francis desire? What answer is he struggling to find? How can we co-exist in the modern world? Is there a way to bring those in irregular unions back home to the faith? How do we restore the importance of marriage and family? How might we call people to holiness, even those who define themselves as homosexuals? Is there a way to love them and not compromise upon what we believe to be true? How do we wake up those in a culture of death to the Gospel of Life? So-called conservatives, I prefer the word “orthodox” believers, should never perceive themselves as adversaries to the Holy See. Reflecting upon the Council of Jerusalem, St. Paul would argue with St. Peter but St. Peter was still the ROCK instituted by Christ. When St. Peter concurred with St. Paul on the manner of receiving the Gentiles into the faith then the debate was closed and the issue resolved— St. Peter had spoken.

Need for Good Bishops & Priests Dedicated to the Truth

Bishops— good, bad and mediocre— are still the full successors of the apostles and high priests of the Church. The tragedy is that criminal priests and bishops walk in the dark shadows of Judas, the one apostle who betrayed his Lord. It is this pain that we feel about the abusers among the priests and bishops. Like Judas, they must be removed and replaced.  Some bishops did not abuse anyone but they were more fearful of scandal than the need to protect the “little ones.” These are like the other apostles who went into hiding. They failed to profess the complete truth, as with St. Peter in the courtyard. When identified as one of Jesus’ followers, he cries out again and again, “I tell you, I do not know the man.” There is a lot of anger about dangerous men reassigned or hidden away. Some listened to the wrong voices.  How do we protect the children but also prevent wronging innocent men?  We are quick to condemn but Jesus forgives St. Peter and his other followers. He tells them, “Be not afraid.” Today, more than ever before, we need bishops, priests and laity who can live out a “courageous” faith dedicated to compassion and the “truth.”

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One Response

  1. A good honest post.

    Obviously, Rigid is a pejorative. Anymore when I hear it used by churchmen, I substitute in my head: Rigidity—Clarity: Rigid—clear. Or some variation.

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