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The Pfleger Case: Do you realize how different this is?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 24, 2011

I am not at all sure the reaction of our users to the news of Fr. Michael Pfleger’s reinstatement is justified. Their Sound Off remarks range from incredulity to the assertion that Fr. Pfleger has “won”, to sharp criticism of Cardinal Francis George for reinstating a priest characterized by so many obvious deficiencies. It is very possible that these reactions are unfair, though I suppose only time will tell.

The cause of Fr. Pfleger’s suspension was his assertion, on National Public Radio, that he would rather leave the Church than accept an assignment other than his current pastorate. To Cardinal George, this was quite rightly a sign that Fr. Pfleger lacked the basic ecclesial commitment to serve as a Catholic priest. Therefore, Cardinal George suspended Fr. Pfleger.

Some time later, after additional discussion, Fr. Pfleger said that he was sorry to have given the impression he was ready to leave the Church, that he was deeply committed to the Catholic priesthood, and that he would work with Cardinal George on a transition plan by which he would leave his current pastorate at St. Sabina in Chicago. Accordingly, Cardinal George reinstated Fr. Pfleger and permitted him to resume his duties.

There can be no question that Fr. Pfleger is a polarizing figure. He spends much of his ministry on social justice issues, frequently adopting policy positions about which good Catholics can disagree. Neither discretion nor respect for the legitimate range of opinion possible on social problems, nor a keen sense of the spiritual dimensions of his sacramental ministry, appear to be among Fr. Pfleger’s strong points as a pastor. Worse still, he has frequently praised and even given speaking engagements to politicians who strongly favor abortion, gay marriage, and other absolute evils a Catholic is obliged to morally oppose. Moreover, his clashes with Cardinal George in the past suggest that we may see more such clashes in the future. All of this, I suppose, leads to surprise that Fr. Pfleger has been so quickly reinstated. After all, many believe, and not without reason, that he should have been disciplined long ago for offenses far worse than a refusal to leave his parish.

But we should not overlook how different the outcome of this particular case is from what we have experienced in similar cases over the past forty years or so. Typically, when a wayward priest, nun or theologian either is suspended or has his ideas condemned by ecclesiastical authority, the response is to refuse to change, to challenge both the good will and the intelligence of the authority in question, and if necessary to leave the Church in favor of the notoriety or secular prominence which comes to those who are seen as “victims” of authority. Indeed, Fr. Pfleger himself seemed at first determined to follow this well-worn path, threatening to preach elsewhere if his suspension were not lifted.

But in this case a funny thing happened on the way to the secular forum. Fr. Pfleger seems to have ultimately responded to Cardinal George’s disciplinary measures exactly as he should have done initially, apologizing for his error and accepting his bishop’s authority. Did he find there is no longer a significant network of support and favorable publicity for disobedient Catholics? Did he realize with horror that he had been blinded to the great treasure of his priesthood by his own passion and pride?

Each of us is free to believe or disbelieve that Fr. Pfleger’s change of heart is sincere; and we are all free to predict that the future will prove us right. Nonetheless, the shift in Fr. Pfleger’s public position is quite remarkable. Moreover, in highly-publicized cases in the recent past, such a shift is virtually unprecedented. I repeat: It has been at best extremely rare for ecclesiastical discipline to be met with an apology for past conduct along with obedience on the main point of contention.

It seems to me that it is wiser to withhold judgment in this case, affording Cardinal George room to do his job, granting Fr. Pfleger an opportunity to grow from his repentance, and also avoiding any hint of being mean-spirited over any priest’s opportunity to save face by moving on, as we should hope, gracefully.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: wrhausner6624 - May. 25, 2011 11:10 PM ET USA

    Do we have a conversion or manipulation? Only time will tell.

  • Posted by: bnewman - May. 25, 2011 10:39 PM ET USA

    I understand that people may be suspicious of Fr. Pflegger based on the controversial positions he has taken.This was apparently not the issue here. He was disciplined by the Bishop for a specific statement he made: after reflection he said he was sorry and agreed to work together with the Bishop. He was obedient to the authority of the Bishop. Justice and charity required his reinstatement in my view. As for the future: well it depends upon Fr. Pflegger.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - May. 25, 2011 3:14 PM ET USA

    This is a disturbing. Look at what it implies. As you say Pflegger supported politicians and gave platforms to defenders of the evils you cite. Focusing on abortion, recall that Vatican II called it an "unspeakable crime". So is it ok for Pflegger to provide platforms for or to endorse those who advocate legal protection,and funding for "unspeakable crime"? That George was going to promote him to school president, says George does not see abortion this way. Would he promote a racist priest?

  • Posted by: Cornelius - May. 25, 2011 1:39 PM ET USA

    Yes, this is different. Remember also the woman "priestess" who recently publicly repented her "ordination" to the Diaconate and was re-joined to the Church. I never thought I'd see that day.

  • Posted by: 30 year priest - May. 25, 2011 11:57 AM ET USA

    I would give Cardinal George the benefit of the doubt were he to have treated all priests this way. But there are too many unpublicized examples of good faithful priests whose concern was building up a following of Jesus rather tham themselves, whom Cardinal George threw under the bus when some vocal minority has his ear. When priests bring evidence of the worst kind of liturgical abuse, they are ignored with no correction. It will take a long time for Chicago to recover from Cardinal George.

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