“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”

Looking through social media this morning, I saw more than a few scandalized comments about the news that a priest who had practiced some form of self bondage was being returned to ministerial duties.  Here’s the gist:

The Roman Catholic bishop of Springfield, Ill., has returned a priest to ministry after an internal investigation into what the priest’s own clinical therapist had diagnosed as “non-sexual self-bondage.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki said in a statement that the Rev. Thomas Donovan would be a chaplain to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, and would move to the nuns’ provincial house in Alton, Ill.

Last November, Donovan called 911 from the rectory of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Springfield, where he was pastor, and told dispatchers he had placed himself in handcuffs and needed police help to free himself.

I saw several comments from Catholics along the lines of:

“If this were my parish, I would write the Bishop. No, I would go to the Chancery office requesting that he be removed from active ministry. The man has psychological problems and is unfit for ministry. If he weren’t removed, I would leave the parish informing the Bishop and encouraging others to go to another parish as well.”

“Sorry, but this man needs to be sent to Vocational Technical College to learn how to perform small engine repair to support himself.”

“Put him in the archives or something, where he isn’t in contact with parishoners, IMO.”

“[W]hy is he being sent to the nuns, then? Why do they rate such a psychologically disturbed priest? Nuns always get the short-shrift.”

I doubt very much that any of the commenters belong to parishes with sinless priests.  But most of us aren’t unlucky enough to have our indiscretions make the national news.  If someone wrote CNN stories on every time I was curt or short-tempered with my neighbors, supporters and opponents of women’s ordination would finally be united in consensus that, at any rate, Leah Libresco should never be considered for that role.  And they might well conclude that I’d be giving scandal even as a lector, let alone as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.

It only takes a moment of reflection over my week at least, to feel the truth of Paul’s statement in the opening chapter of First Timothy, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”  And I can do a great deal more harm in callousness to the face of God in others than I expect the priest did in his moments in solitude before the 911 call.

In a church that is a hospital for sinners, that reveres as a saint Saul-turned-Paul, there should be nothing unexpected about seeing an admitted sinner in the pulpit.  In Catholicism, the sacraments administered by a priest work ex opere operato, that is, by the work done, not by the merits of the worker.  So, a priest who has had sharp words with the leader of the parish choir in the evening (How can anyone sing “We Are Called” at a dirge-like tempo, when it’s a martial song?!?) can validly baptize a baby and anoint the dying in the morning.

There is grounds for increased scrutiny and suspicion when someone is particularly susceptible to a sin that their ministry would exacerbate or put others in harm’s way (embezzlement just as much as sexual abuse).  But without any privileged information, I see nothing troubling in the news that this priest has returned to his duties.  And to the commenter who asked why nuns received short shrift in receiving him, I might guess that his bishop correctly guessed that the sisters would be more likely to receive their brother in the compassion we all desire for ourselves.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Paul Crowley

    Is non-sexual self-bondage a sin?

    • LeahLibresco

      Honestly, I have no idea

      • keddaw

        Pope (soon to be a saint because people lied about supernatural events happening when people prayed to him and it’s politically astute for the Catholic church to fast track him, but that’s off topic) JPII did it…

        “have our indiscretions make the national news”

        Self abuse (non-sexual) has a long tradition within Catholicism and is neither an indiscretion nor sinful – in fact it can either be penance for sin or sinful thoughts, or a reminder of the suffering of their Lord and Savior and a way not to fall into future sinful behavior or thoughts. So kind of a ‘good thing’ in Catholic circles.

        It really annoys me when so-called Catholics are so ignorant of the teachings and practices of a Church that they allow to do their moral thinking for them. For goodness sake, what do you think Lent is but a cut-down version of this?

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortification_of_the_flesh

        • Roki

          This was my first thought when I read “non-sexual self-bondage,” but the rest of the article makes it clear that this is not mortification of the flesh or penance in any traditional sense of the term.

          Rather, this priest has some kind of issues that he needs to work out with his therapist. Whether those issues are so great that they should prevent him from ministry is a question beyond my competence to answer.

          • Neko

            Ms. Libresco was gracious in her post. But If any of Rev. Donovan’s parishioners have seen Pulp Fiction, it could be a stumbling block.

          • Paul Crowley

            Why would you think this? He did some self-bondage because he enjoyed it, doing no-one else any harm and committing no sin. If he can do so with a proper eye to safety, why shouldn’t he continue?

      • http://janalynmarie.blogspot.com/ Beadgirl

        It probably depends on the motivation and intention behind it.

        Or, what Martha O’Keeffe said.

    • Tom

      The various forms of mortification aren’t, and they can get pretty out there…I’d lean no, but I don’t know

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      I was wondering about this too. I mean, it’s clearly not a smart thing to do, but I have a hard time imagining how it could be considered sinful.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Any kind of mortification or practice which gravely injures health can be sinful.

        Having a quick gander at the Catechism, it would fall under the heading of the virtue of Temperance:

        Respect for Health:

        2290 The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others’ safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.

        And heading on over to the Summa to see what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say on the subject, under the heading of temperance:

        Article 1. Whether insensibility is a vice?

        I answer that,Whatever is contrary to the natural order is vicious. Now nature has introduced pleasure into the operations that are necessary for man’s life. Wherefore the natural order requires that man should make use of these pleasures, in so far as they are necessary for man’s well-being, as regards the preservation either of the individual or of the species. Accordingly, if anyone were to reject pleasure to the extent of omitting things that are necessary for nature’s preservation, he would sin, as acting counter to the order of nature. And this pertains to the vice of insensibility.

        It must, however, be observed that it is sometimes praiseworthy, and even necessary for the sake of an end, to abstain from such
        pleasures as result from these operations. Thus, for the sake of the body’s health, certain persons refrain from pleasures of meat, drink, and sex; as also for the fulfilment of certain engagements: thus athletes and soldiers have to deny themselves many pleasures, in order to fulfil their respective duties. On like manner penitents, in order to recover health of soul, have recourse to abstinence from pleasures, as a kind of diet, and those who are desirous of giving themselves up to contemplation and Divine
        things need much to refrain from carnal things. Nor do any of these things pertain to the vice of insensibility, because they are in accord with right reason.

        …Reply to Objection 2. Since man cannot use his reason without
        his sensitive powers. which need a bodily organ. as stated in I, 84, 7,8, man needs to sustain his body in order that he may use his reason. Now the body is sustained by means of operations that afford pleasure: wherefore the good of reason cannot be in a
        man if he abstain from all pleasures. Yet this need for using pleasures of the body will be greater or less, according as
        man needs more or less the powers of his body in accomplishing the act of reason. Wherefore it is commendable for
        those who undertake the duty of giving themselves to contemplation, and of imparting to others a spiritual good, by a kind of spiritual procreation, as it were, to abstain from many pleasures, but not for those who are in duty bound to bodily occupations and carnal procreation.

        Reply to Objection 3. In order to avoid sin, pleasure must be shunned, not altogether, but so that it is not sought more than necessity requires.

        So, depending on what exactly are the practices involved, and what the psychological affects are (is this a compulsive behaviour? are there underlying reasons for it?), it may or may not be sinful. Merely being “weird” by non-typical opinion doesn’t make it sinful per se; it would need to involve harm or damage or over-indulgence for that.

  • JohnE_o

    From a link in the linked article:

    “During that meeting, the bishop learned that Donovan was “mortified” by what
    happened…”

    Well, yes, I suppose that was rather the point.

    • Randy Gritter

      Actually I don’t think this was done as a penance. It sounds more like the cutting you hear about with teens. Self-harm as an inappropriate response to stress.

  • Brittney Lind

    “…what the priest’s own clinical therapist had diagnosed as ‘non-sexual self-bondage.’”

    I just would like to point out that there is no such diagnosis. Not in the DSM-IV-TR, nor in the DSM-V, nor in the ICD-10.

    • wlinden

      It is not a diagnosis, it is a description.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I fail to see what the priest did that was illegal or sinful. Perhaps it’s odd, but so what? Am I missing something?

  • Ray

    “It only takes a moment of reflection over my week at least, to feel the truth of Paul’s statement in the opening chapter of First Timothy”

    Since no one else seems to have mentioned this. You do realize that the vast majority of Biblical scholarship says Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles ? Right? Perhaps we can add lying to the list of sins the author of this epistle should be confessing.

  • LibbyBarnes

    Everything was good, but the last sentence was stellar. :)

  • kenofken

    This man needs help! A professional dominatrix :) Priests are men too, and we sometimes need firm but loving corporal correction!

    The facts revealed to us at least don’t show they guy to be a child predator. If this is the depth of priest weirdness going forward, the Church is doing orders of magnitude better than before. Kinda troubling that predator priests and enabling bishops always seemed to have an entourage of defenders and an ethic of eternal second chances, but this guy needs immediate exile from ministry?

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

    My favourite part is when people suggest that psychological problems merit removal from the pulpit. Awesome! Great! I am so thrilled that we’ve come this far in combating the stigma of mental illness. /sarcasm

  • Donalbain

    What exactly did the guy do that was, in any sense, immoral?

  • guest

    Even Jesus was curt and short-tempered sometimes. Look at how he treated the moneychangers at the temple, the temper tantrum he threw when a fig tree wouldn’t give him fruit, the many times he rebukes his disiplines and his curt replies to his mother on several occasions. As for God the Father, he’d benefit from an anger management course.

    I can’t really take seriously the idea that you are the chief of sinners in a world that contains murderers, torturers and rapists.

    I don’t understand why, if the sacrements are ‘ex opere operato’, the operator still must always be a man. Jesus was many things- Jewish, 30-something, a resident of Palestine, allegedly without sin, probably had a beard- and yet none of those characteristics are considered essential in a priest, except his sex. It seems ridiculous that God would bless the sacrement of an unrepentant pedophile priest, yet reject the same sacrements from a woman.


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