Suppose your priest or pastor. . .
- preaches homilies or teaches in ways that reject or repudiate Church dogma or doctrine (CCC 2037*);
- approves, supports, or helps to finance organizations or causes which deny or distort Church teaching;
- lives in a manner that gives scandal (CCC 2284) to parishioners;
- tolerates parish school faculty or staff whose words or ways (CCC 2526) flout Church teaching (for we know, with Bishop Sheen, that “If you don’t behave as you believe, you will end by believing as you behave”);
- permits language (Ephesians 5:4), dress (CCC 2521), or example that dishonor Our Lord and His Church (Philippians 1:27);
- ignores or, worse, supports at the parish school instructional material or methods which conflict with Catholic morality; or agrees to admit children to the school whose parents proclaim or practice values manifestly at odds with the timeless ethical declarations of the Church.
What, then, must be done by and for the parishioners of such weak priests (CCC 2039)?
There are four main reasons that these kinds of episodes may occur. First, the priest is in open rebellion against the faith that comes to us from the Apostles (CCC 2089). Second, the priest is poorly educated or poorly formed (CCC 1783). Third, the priest is anxious about his popularity, which he prizes above all (cf. John 12:43, Galatians 1:10). Fourth, the priest is immature, inexperienced, and/or lazy (CCC 2733). These four causes of weak priests, to put it most candidly, are apostasy, ignorance, cowardice, and sloth.
When a pastor/priest permits or encourages moral turpitude (either directly or indirectly), he is knowingly and truculently sinful, poorly prepared for his duties, obsequious to the moral fads and fetishes of the day, or juvenile—or he suffers from a combination of these character defects.
So, what can you do in this situation? Here are a few steps to take.
First, get the facts straight. A priest who is properly obedient to the faith (Romans 1:5, 16:26), well formed (see John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis ,) trying always to please God before men (1 Thessalonians 2:4, Acts 5:29), and mature (cf. CCC 1806) will invariably displease some in the parish! Such displeased people may well dispute the truth they are hearing from and seeing in a good, holy priest. If there is a dispute about parish or school matters, one must, therefore, be sure to have credible and fairly obtained evidence—not just hearsay or opinion (cf. Matthew 18:17), or the grumblings of those who gainsay the truths of the faith (cf. 2 Timothy 3:8).
Next, proceed with charity and kindness. We ought to judge as we ourselves would wish to be judged (Matthew 7:12, Tobit 4:14). Be alert, though, to those calls for “charity” which may be efforts to create smokescreens to camouflage unacceptable behavior. Charity must never be placed in opposition to truth; it is never charitable to distort or to deny truth. When someone asks you, “in the name of love,” to reject truth, you are being asked to lie. That is not love. Being asked to suppress truth or to cover it up “for the good of the organization” or of the country or of the church is a sure sign of corruption. Unlike good wine, lies don’t get better with age (cf. Proverbs 12:19).
When it’s time to take action, then with two or three others, talk gently (not confrontationally) with the party in question—a teacher, a principal, or a pastor. Calm speech helps turn away wrath (cf. Proverbs 15:1). Sometimes misunderstandings are just that, and they can be remedied by amicable discussion. If you are getting to a point, however, at which you believe that recordings and memoranda for record may be required, you are fast reaching a legal level. Here, we are discussing parishioners’ options and obligations, not legal or judicial processes (cf. Zechariah 8:16-17).
In any matter, realize that there are two levels of concern: first is the informational level (the facts of the matter), but second is the formational level (by which I mean this question: Will the “resolution” of the matter at hand result in the probable enhanced Catholic character of all concerned?) If, for instance, a parish school teacher were using morally objectionable material in classes and the decision was reached to tolerate this (“Gee, it’s not THAT bad!”), can we conclude that the students’ Catholic character will be improved or enhanced by exposure to this material? If not, something is decidedly wrong and must be remedied.
Pope St. Pius X put it this way:
How many and how grave are the consequences of ignorance in matters of religion! And on the other hand, how necessary and how beneficial is religious instruction! It is indeed vain to expect a fulfillment of the duties of a Christian by one who does not even know them. We must now consider upon whom rests the obligation to dissipate this most pernicious ignorance and to impart in its stead the knowledge that is wholly indispensable. There can be no doubt, Venerable Brethren, that this most important duty rests upon all who are pastors of souls. On them, by command of Christ, rest the obligations of knowing and of feeding the flocks committed to their care; and to feed implies, first of all, to teach. (Acerbo Nimis , 6-7)
Students not taught well cannot think or do or be what they are called to (cf. Hosea 4:6). Upon the priest/pastor, then, rests grave responsibility to teach properly. In that regard, he may delegate certain teaching authority, but he cannot delegate responsibility for “necessary and…beneficial” Catholic learning. The pastor, in short, is responsible for all that is done, or not done, at the parish and its school.
Further, know the appeals process. If there is a problem with, say, the parochial vicar, and amiable discussion does not resolve the problem, then the pastor must be consulted. If the pastor is the problem and similarly amicable conversation does not end the difficulty, then the bishop must be notified.
Do not shrink from the responsibility of apprising the hierarchy (cf. Isaiah 35:3, Hebrews 12:12) about worrisome issues. It is certainly not rash judgment, calumny, or detraction (CCC 2477) to call to the bishop’s attention any serious spiritual matter in your parish if conversation about it with the pastor has proved feckless or fruitless. Bishops teach, govern, and sanctify (CCC 1558), and every good bishop needs and wants to know about the moral health of all the priests and people in his diocese.
Suppose, though, that the bishop himself is the problem. Parents may then have to judge if their children can attend another Catholic school (or consider homeschooling) or look for another (presumably more orthodox) parish or even another diocese (CCC 2204, 2223, 2688). You must take care of your family, spiritually and physically (1 Timothy 5:8).
About the four characteristics of an unsatisfactory priest:
The heterodox priest is unlikely to listen to the earnest counsel of concerned parishioners. Evidence must be fairly collected and presented to the bishop, normally after the priest in question has been notified by their parishioners of their decision to follow that course. But if you see something, say something (tactfully) to the priest.
If he is spiritually misleading people and some observe such dereliction, they must take wise corrective action. We do not have license to look the other way, apathetically (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15). In fact, like Nehemiah, we are obliged to say: “What you are doing is wrong! You ought to have reverence for God and do what is right” (5:9).
The poorly educated priest may respond to earnest entreaties by parishioners. A poorly formed priest can continue to learn (as must all of us!). He may respond well to fair, reasonable, and thoughtful prompting. At the very least, he will know from parishioners’ counsel that more is expected of him. Remember, too, that although academic excellence is fine in a priest, it is no substitute for holiness and the burning desire to bring us all to Christ—in and through the moral witness accompanying that desire. (Think of St. John Vianney [1786-1859], reportedly not a scholar, but a holy and devoted priest and, for good reason, the patron saint of parish priests.)
The fawning priest, eager to please the crowd (even at the expense of truth), might well be reminded that Barabbas won the first public opinion poll (Matthew 27:20-26). This kind of progressive priest will rarely, if ever, discuss any major issue (at least not from the treasury of orthodox Catholic teaching), and he thinks of the Church as a social club—not as our means of salvation. All of us want to be liked, but if that desire comes at the expense of betraying Our Lord, we make an evil bargain. Giving that perspective to the weak priest might help to stiffen his presbyteral spine.
The immature priest (probably young, but not necessarily) may grow up. As a former Army officer, I know that almost every colonel was once a second lieutenant. In the case of an immature priest, charity is truly necessary—and may well be effective (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:14). By the way, St. Paul warned us against being “hasty” (1 Timothy 5:22) in ordaining men too quickly, lest callow or unprepared men be called prematurely to their new and sacred duties.
If your parish has deacons, they may be able to help. Much will depend upon the character, personality, and experience of the deacon himself. If he has the ear of the priest, he is well placed to offer confidential and courteous counsel. Deacons may be important parts of the solution—or parts, too, of the problem. A deacon who will not take the time (or risk his “standing” with the priest) to exhort “his” priest isn’t worth his salt (cf. Matthew 5:13). If you will pardon another military example: a good deacon is similar to the experienced platoon sergeant carefully counseling his young lieutenant, who still remains the sergeant’s superior officer.
There is an adage associated with frontiersman Davy Crockett: “Be sure you’re right; then go ahead.” Before counseling or coaching or criticizing, let the situation develop (unless, of course, there is any question of abuse, which must be immediately and fully addressed). That is, be sure you’re correct about the “case.” Get the facts. Sift them. Obtain advice (Tobit 4:18). Plan your strategy wisely and well. Ask yourself how your choice of words or deeds will be perceived (or misperceived) by those you will counsel.
But let there be no mistake: you must not permit false, fraudulent teaching, moral corruption, or vile conduct (Matthew 7:15, Galatians 1:8-9, 2 John 1:10-11, Jude 1:4, 2 Peter 2:1, Ephesians 5:11, Colossians 2:8). We are responsible not only for what we think and say and do but also for what we permit. You may not be able to correct false shepherds, but you must not supinely surrender to them or to their iniquities and impieties. In short, do not cooperate with evil (CCC 1868).
In your counseling, use the sandwich technique: Compliment (if at all possible); criticize (gently but firmly and clearly); compliment again.
And you might, through all of your endeavors, pray this (from a 1941 prayer):
Grant, O Lord, that. . .I may think of them as you think of them and of me—
Grant that I may feel towards them, as you feel towards them and me—
Grant that I may speak to them and of them as you would, were you in my place—
Grant that I may bear with them as you bear with me.
By their words, works, and witness, our good priests help us so very much. By our words, works, and witness, we may be able to help them to help us. In justifiably complaining about sin or error in a parish or its school, be sure you’re right. Then go ahead: Compliment and commend whenever you can. Coach and criticize whenever you must. Ask our priests to pray, fervently, for you; and you pray, fervently, for them.
*I hope that readers will not see the parenthetical references as pedantry, but rather as they are intended: possible starting points for consideration as the details of a given case are considered in the context of a well-formed Catholic conscience (see CCC 1776-1789). This column was inspired by a person who called me from a distant diocese, asking what parishioners might do to “right the ship” of a morally failing parish school.
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