Holier Than None–UPDATED

Why are we so shocked when priests go rogue? After all, holiness isn’t applied with chrism.

In the same week that a good part of the Catholic blogosphere was convening in Texas for the Catholic New Media Conference, and the Republicans were convening in Tampa for whatever it is they were convening for, and Hurricane-then-Tropical-Storm Isaac was convening to make the folks of the Gulf even more miserable, my external and internal news feeds filled up with reaction to two stories of priests, well, losing it. Pleading vacation time with the Awesome Grandson and attendance at the Dodger game honoring the Awesome Vin Scully, I was going to skip posting on these stories. But I got to wondering, and I need to share my wonder.

When Priests Go Bad, Case #1

You’ve probably heard more than you want to about the story that broke a couple of days ago concerning author, psychologist, and EWTN TV personality Fr Benedict Groeschel. Interviewed by the EWTN-owned National Catholic Register on his life’s work, the 78-year-old former Capuchin and founder of the diocesan community called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal dropped something of a public-relations bomb in mid-column. In response to a question about the clergy abuse scandals, Fr Groeschel—who has worked in treating those removed from ministry due to charges of abuse—made comments that seemed quite clearly to express sympathy for those accused of abuse and, just as clearly and even more problematically, to blame the victims for being “in many cases” the seducers. Deacon Greg Kandra, whose post at The Deacon’s Bench was the first I heard of the Register interview, quite rightly yelled “INCOMING!” The predictable pickups of the story by the National Catholic Reporter, the HuffPost, the NY Times, et al. triggered the usual sh*tstorm from the usual combox denizens, who can be (to my mind) forgiven for behaving as trolls will behave when we chum the waters this thoroughly for their feeding-frenzy pleasure.

The story took some twisty turns when the staff at the Register (possibly reacting in a panic in the absence of their editor, though of course there were the dire hints that the paper was reverting to the kind of we-protect-our-own-at-any-cost tactics practiced under its former owners, the Legionaries of Christ) simply pulled the interview. Damage done, of course, because cached copies of Internet articles have a longer shelf life than Twinkies, but still. Then we got disclaimers from Fr. Groeschel’s community, from the Archdiocese of New York (as a society of diocesan right headquartered in New York, Fr. Groeschel’s community reports to Cardinal Dolan as its superior), from (belatedly) the National Catholic Register’s editor, and finally from Fr. Groeschel himself. All pleaded age and infirmity—Fr. Groeschel has suffered a stroke in the past and was said to be recovering from a recent fall—for the lack of clarity that led the remarks to give such an uncharitable, incorrect, and scandalous impression.

When Priests Go Bad, Case #2

Unless you hang out in certain corners of the Catholic blogosphere that intersect with this one only once in a blue moon (which this is, btw), you’ll probably not have heard about the ongoing War of the Wizards launched this week by Fr Peter West of Human Life International against my Patheos blogbrother Mark Shea. In the Catholic New Media equivalent of slapping Mark’s face with a mailed gauntlet and issuing a challenge for pistols at 20 paces, Fr West took to his personal Facebook page to issue a warning that there was “something deeply wrong with Mark Shea,” and Catholics who cared about their immortal souls had better steer clear of him. Fr West’s fatwa was ostensibly issued in response to a blog post of Mark’s, now several months old, in which he praised the virtues of a recently deceased Seattle Catholic—the virtues being particularly noticeable and worth remarking upon by Mark because the man in question lived with another man. (For Mark, who has only recently been coaxed off the ledge of calling homosexual activists Gay Brownshirts, this was grace worth remarking upon indeed.) Fr West has now decided that Mark is leading the faithful into hell by not being sufficiently nosy about the state of the dead man’s chastity. Or so it began, anyway. By the end of two days, Fr West had fueled and refueled the accusations, accusing Mark Shea of being not only (1) insufficiently judgmental of people with same-sex attraction, but also (2) insufficiently pro-life and (3) insufficiently supportive of Romney-Ryan. (Who knows, there may be other counts on which Mark is insufficient by now—I haven’t checked in at least 15 minutes—but those will do for starters.)

In the tradition of Fr Z, but with a whole lot less stinging elegance, Fr West is not content to make allegations about Mark Shea’s insufficiencies. He’s waded knee deep into his own comment threads (peopled as they are by names long familiar from the days of the Corapites) to whip up the hounds, cheering on personal invective and tossing out a few more crumbs of chum when the waters threaten to still themselves. He’s taken on Mark directly in Mark’s own combox. This guy is the Black Sheep Dog with all his own teeth.

I’m Shocked, I Tell You, Shocked. Not.

My first reaction to both of these examples of priests going rogue was shock. Not shock at the rogueness, mind you, but shock at the shock these antics elicited. Among my colleagues at the Patheos Catholic Channel, there was profound disbelief and hurt over “so holy a man” as Fr Groeschel saying such terrible things. Newly ordained Fr Michael Duffy posted a moving “How long, O Lord?” reflection about why the Church isn’t further along on this. Others, especially converts who had been consoled or inspired by Fr Groeschel over the years, were simply confused, finding their own faith challenged if even the shepherds could be so wrong. Or there was the other side of shock—anger at what was perceived as lifelong hypocrisy, a kind of Yeah, I knew it flung in the face of the holier-than-thou, as Max Lindenman does in this post.

The vitriol in Fr West’s charges, as well as in the remarks of his followers, has been an unpleasant surprise to many, though of course not to Mark Shea. He’s a veteran of the celebrity-priest vendettas, having taken on the supporters of former Human Life International director Fr Tom Eutenauer, Legionaries of Christ founder Fr Marcial Maciel, lone ranger (but never Army Ranger) Fr John Corapi, bishop-battler and Republican party-liner Fr Frank Pavone, etc, etc, etc.

Me, I’m neither shocked nor surprised. And not because I’m so old and cynical that I suspect all religious leaders of Tartuffery. It’s true that I was never personally a fan of Fr Groeschel’s (or of any celebrity priest, and that includes a whole range of otherwise unobjectionable and even gifted folks like Fr Robert Barron and Fr James Martin and chef/karate champ/breakdancer Fr Leo Patalinghug), but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I think he was sincere, if unnuanced and disingenuous, in his comments, which are hardly shocking to anyone who’s (a) lived through the scandals and recognizes that Fr Groeschel’s take was the Church’s take, in all ignorant sincerity, for decades, and still is the take of a lot of people who can’t get their heads around the complexities of human sexuality and power dynamics or (b) anyone who’s willing to read beyond the sound bite and admit that it’s just possible that not every priest involved with a teenager was a predatory devil incarnate; one or two or 10 of them might even have been poor sexually immature sons of bitches who only knew how to look for intimacy among their (psychological) peers, and (c) anyone who suspects that not every person who ever accused a priest of abuse was a victim; one or two or 10 of them might have been poor lonely 18-to-25-year-old sons of bitches looking for affection, who later recoiled in shame from admitting complicity, or (sound the alarm, she’s blaming the victim) even predators themselves.

This, of course, as Mark Shea said yesterday, is That Which Cannot Be Spoken—very much like another recent That Which Cannot Be Spoken, which is that possibly one or two or 10 women seeking abortion because of rape were never raped, legitimately or illegitimately, at all. But we can’t say this stuff, because we risk being tarred as tools of the oppressor, demonspawn, morally blind, co-dependent enablers, whatever. Republicans. Racists. Homophobes. Conceding that not all abuse cases are alike does not mean there are not predators and victims. It does not mean there is a Hideous Homosexual Conspiracy to overthrow the Church, as Rod Dreher had to go and throw in when he was doing pretty well reflecting on the Groeschel Incident. It does not mean excusing the poor sons of bitches or failing to hold them accountable. But if you can’t get your head around that, I will plead the Groeschel defense. I’m not 78, but I took a bad fall on a concrete pool deck this week so maybe I’m just rambling.

I’m not as willing to give Fr West the benefit of the doubt, though God knows I’ve had my own go-rounds with Mark Shea, who has decided I am funny enough that he will kill me last. I surely don’t think Mark needs any help defending himself. I think the public face of Human Life International ought to behave better, but then that’s not something HLI seems to worry about putting in the job description for its public faces.

No Higher Standard

Benefit of the doubt or not, though, I have a problem with our holding priests to some kind of higher and holier standard of behavior beyond those things peculiar to their vocation. How could a priest do that? has always been the cry of the naive. I know so many Catholics—and know of so many more, according to studies—who left the Church because an individual priest, or the priesthood in general, failed to maintain balance on a pedestal.  (Nuns and religious brothers, and more recently permanent deacons, get this too, but in smaller doses.)  And I just don’t get it. I’m no more shocked when a priest goes rogue than I am when any other Catholic betrays the faith with a public fall from grace or a long slow private slide into apostasy. I try not to judge priests who fall, as I try not to judge any other sinner but myself—I am not successful in this by any means, but that’s my problem. And I pray for them all. I prayed for John Corapi daily during the time when I was helping to expose his falsehoods; I still do. Not because I was a groupie or even a subscriber to his odd mixture of traditionalism and cowboy moral hucksterism, but because he’s just one more poor son of a bitch before God.

The thing is, we sin when we put priests on pedestals and idolize them. I think that’s what Jesus cautioned against when he told us to call no man father. Yes, priests are due the respect of their office—as is every person made in God’s image. But holiness is not applied with chrism and the laying on of hands. Holiness is something each one of us is called to through the priesthood of Baptism, and asked to live out and grow into according to our state in life. Priests are holier than none by virtue of being priests. If they achieve holiness, it is by the same virtues available to each of us. Priests are no less vulnerable to temptation, to sin, to ignorance, to uncharity, to pride, to concupiscence than any of us, and when they reveal that vulnerability it shouldn’t shake our faith. The Apostles themselves, handpicked by Christ, were the frailest of vessels, proud and angry and violent and doubtful and betraying and just plain falling asleep on the job. If we see these things in the green wood, what will happen in the dry?

I regret, deeply, the potential for scandal when a priest goes rogue. But I think that potential would be lessened if we allowed ourselves to see priests as human, with all the complexity and inbuilt brokenness that entails. No excuses, but no attacks of the vapors either. Accountability. Prayer. Forgiveness. What we ask of any sinner, holier than none, is all we are entitled to ask of priests. And of ourselves.

UPDATE (9/6/12): EWTN has announced the retirement of Fr Groeschel as host of its Sunday Night Live program. (I read it first as Saturday Night Live, which gave me pause.) And at the suggestion of Bishop Loverde of Arlington, and through the kindness of Steven D. Greydanus, who acted as an intermediary, a rapprochement of sorts has been achieved between Mark Shea and Fr Peter West. As for your never-humble-enough servant, I’m recovering from being called many terrible things that I freely admit I am (fat, old, disgusting, etc), giggling a little at being called things I’m not any more (a liberal shill), still unrepentant for my part in fact-checking the Corapi legend (for which sin, apparently [as I never commented there], I have been blocked from Fr West’s Facebook page), and extremely repentant for the harm done to your sensibilities by my casual use of mild profanity. Mea culpa.

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