Monday 1 June 2015

Priests and Free Speech

I once knew a charming priest--a very gifted priest--who made our bishop the butt of several jokes. The impression he gave was that his bishop was authoritarian, out of touch and not always thrilled with him. As much as I liked this priest--and, my goodness, he was the right priest for me at that time--I was uncomfortable with the way he spoke about our bishop. I didn't have the slightest clue that our parish was considered THE most liberal in the diocese, or that the bishop was considered "conservative". That sort of thing didn't interest me at all.

I was surprised by the reaction of a visitor to our parish, a young man I knew vaguely from undergrad days, to our priest. This young man had spent a few years in religious formation before dropping out, and so I assumed he knew his stuff. What upset him was the baptism he had come to our church especially to see. My pastor cheerfully mocked the idea that such a beautiful innocent baby could possibly be possessed, and so left out the prayer of exorcism. My acquaintance was shocked. "I wonder if the baptism is actually valid," he muttered afterwards, as much to himself as to me.

In those days, I was not really all that interested in theological slicing and dicing, and what you could leave out, and what you could put in. I was all for inclusive language; I was quite progressive and might have continued that way had the Reality of Where Such Things Lead not smacked me in the face really hard before I went to theology school. However, I was disturbed that my priest might have carelessly rendered the poor wee baby's baptism invalid. He was cheerful and fun and beamed with love for his people and gave amazing homilies, but I had to admit he was sometimes a little ... careless.

When later I was in the first year of my M.Div. program, I had to take a course called "Introduction to Ministry", and it made a big impression on me. I enjoyed all my classes, but Intro to Min really stuck in my head. It was meant to: the whole point of Intro to Min was to shape us for ministry, to train us up to be good and effective ministers, highly aware of our limitations and the limitations of others. The spiritual power we would wield over others, even if "lay ministers", was stressed. No matter how powerless church ladies made a priest feel, he still wielded a megaton of power--not because he was Bob or Charlie, mind you, but because he was A PRIEST. And he had to be aware of that, and never, ever abuse it.

The general ignorance of the average Catholic about the details of the Catholic faith never really surprises me, firstly because, despite being an educated person who went to Mass every week, I knew precious little about Catholic theology until I went to theology school. Second, as a chaplaincy intern, I was gobsmacked at the confusion of ordinary Catholics about what I could and could not do for them. I had to explain at least once that I could not give absolution. And I was once driven from a (I thought) dying man's bedside with loud shouts because he was convince a woman could not administer communion to him. (To my great relief, he made a full recovery.)  "I don't believe in lady priests," he yowled. "I don't believe in lady priests either," protested poor Seraphic. Thirdly, my own ignorance of what I was and was not supposed to be doing liturgically--was it really okay for me to be leading Sunday liturgies of the word with reserved communion at the hospital?--haunted me, and it  haunts me still. (Still, I don't think I ever prayed so often as fervently or with as much humility as I did during that time. Fifteen possible communicants, five unbroken consecrated Hosts, two unconsecrated hands; what do I do?)  As much as I didn't believe in lady priests, I was sure doing priest-like stuff.

The power I might be wielding came home to me when one or two of the people I was ministering to quoted one of my post-Gospel "reflections" back to me. Although I worked very hard on my "reflections," they were usually received with the glassy-eyed stare priests must know so well. So I was surprised and pleased that they remembered but also a little scared and most definitely humbled. These people trusted me, quoted me, and expected me to know what was what. This was not because I was me, but because I was the person in front, leading the prayers, reading the Gospel, giving the homi "reflection." Possibly the good job I was doing helped soften them up towards the idea of "lady priests" although that was not at all my intention, believe me.

But as usual this is too much about me. What I am trying to say is that, bizarrely as it sounds, I have shared in the power priests have over Joe and Mary Catholic, and so I know how powerful it really is. Whether they know it or not, priests have an enormous hold on the Catholic imagination, and that is why it is really a bad idea for priests, young or old, to randomly insult their bishops, joke about sins, tell their flock certain sins aren't "really" sins, make stuff up, tweet insults about the Queen, curse like a sailor, or share their love of outrageously sex-drenched or violent TV shows over social media.

I daresay priests have a hold not only over the Catholic imagination but over the public imagination, too. To a devout Catholic, a priest is God's anointed, either a wonderful ally or an outrageous traitor, and too rarely (alas), just a man who happens to be a priest. To an ex-Catholic or a non-Catholic, a priest is either surprisingly sympathetic or a potential monster.

In traditionalist circles there is a tendency to moan about the laity taking on priestly roles. I dislike how this is usually about laywomen taking on priestly roles, so it is with difficulty that I refrain from observing that altar service might be more fruitfully done by young men who are not quite so determined never to become priests (cough, cough). However, there is a corresponding dislike of priests exercising habits that more properly belong to laypeople, like making crashingly stupid public remarks about the prayer of exorcism or the Imperial State Crown.

Give the power of priests, whether they know it or not, over their people, if someone must be heretical,  disobedient, bad-tempered, litigious or dead stupid in public, please let it be the laity, not the clergy.

Update: I am delighted to report that the Jesuit novitiate in Canada does include a lecture about responsible use of social media. Does Oscott College? If not, I hope it organizes one pronto. If stuck for personnel, I know a charming lady in Edinburgh with an M.Div. and time on her hands...


  1. I imagine that behind every good priest is a cloistered contemplative Carmelite nun, praying night and day.

  2. That could very well be, although the image of cloistered contemplative Benedictine nuns come to my mind. To tell you the truth, the vast majority of priests I have met over the years have been good priests. And some of them are my pals.


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