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Priestly Fidelity: The Time to Take Prisoners Has Passed

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 07, 2012

The latest report on Fr. Michael Pfleger in Chicago reminds me that if the American bishops hope to rally the faithful to oppose the HHS mandate, they will have to put priestly fidelity at the top of their agenda. Right where it should have been all along.

Cultural pressures have certainly precipitated a widespread crisis of faith in the Catholic Church since the 1960s. But it is not only the laity who have been allowed to drift. The laity drifted largely because their priests drifted first. And priests drifted because their bishops drifted before them. This same order of precedence must be observed in any effective renewal. In fact, our bishops will not succeed in rallying the faithful, either to become better Catholics generally or to exert Catholic pressure in politics, without first rallying their priests.

We are nearing the end of a particularly bad period of drift, the period centered in the 1970s and 1980s when the liturgical, doctrinal and even personal rights of the laity were trampled through aberrant Masses, heretical preaching and catechesis, and of course sexual abuse—and in which priests and religious who tried hard to remain completely faithful were often severely persecuted. There are major battles still to be fought in religious orders, universities and Catholic social service organizations. Some of these battles cannot be won quickly yet even by bishops.

But battles with USCCB and diocesan bureaucracies, and battles in the parishes, can most often be won quickly by bishops with sufficient resolve. For this reason, it is very sad to see that a pattern which has largely been broken in the area of sexual abuse continues to be prevalent when it comes to liturgy, doctrine, Catholic social teaching and obedience to ecclesiastical superiors.

The hoops Cardinal George has jumped through in order to bring the bizarre Fr. Pfleger under control are instructive. Cardinal George now seems to be making an effort to pound this square peg into one particular square hole, where people will expect him to behave true to his square form, and where he will do very little damage. The current thinking seems to be that if the man will not set aside his own vision of social ethics to pursue his priestly ministry according to the mind of the Church, well then, he needs to be placed in a special office that stresses one or more of his peculiar concerns, in this case opposition to gun-based violence. Never mind that this is hardly a priestly office; it may yet get Fr. Pfleger out of the hair of both Cardinal and laity.

More hopeful was the recent—and apparently long overdue—pressure placed by Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois on Fr. William Rowe to either say Mass according to the rubrics or retire. Granted, Fr. Rowe is 72 years old, and the mandatory retirement age for priests is 70, so this was a fairly easy win. But at least it was a victory for the mind of the Church, unmistakably upholding the way faithful priests ought to—and do—act.

We still don’t hear much about priestly discipline these days. But no news is not good news. Given the propensity of the media to jump on anything that looks like Catholic “repression” on the part of a bishop, no news is most likely bad news.

This has to change. The laity depend for their renewal on priests who minister according to the mind of the Church. And the laity must be renewed if the Church is ever to be a social force for good, an engine driving the renewal of secular culture, and a bulwark against moral and religious repression. When it comes to renewing the larger social order, the Church works through well-formed laity or she does not work at all.

If, therefore, the bishops wish to roll back the HHS contraception/sterilization/abortion mandate, they need an energized laity to do the rolling back. This will be accomplished only if lay persons quickly acquire sufficient Catholic identity to adopt one of the following three positions:

  1. Position 1: The practices mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services are morally wrong and therefore damaging to both individual persons and society as a whole, whether Catholic or not. It is bad enough that they are so widespread. Therefore, I will strongly oppose any government policy which mandates that citizens promote and pay for such practices.
  2. Position 2: I’m not sure about the morality of these practices. But the Church teaches that they are gravely immoral, and neither the Church nor Catholics in general (nor anyone else who regards these practices as immoral) should have to support and pay for them.
  3. Position 3: Actually, I don’t mind these practices; I even indulge in them myself. But, you know, there is something about the Church, and it is my Church. And I’ll be damned if I’ll stand by and watch the government push my Church around.

These positions are not equally good, but they are all helpful in the present instance. Once again, the key to success is to activate all the laity who are willing to adopt any one of the three. And by far the easiest way to activate the laity is through priests who live, breathe and communicate the mind of the Church. I grant that priestly fidelity is always critical. But in an age of persecution, it becomes even more critical, or rather it becomes critical in what appears to be a more immediate way, a way which makes us (at long last) realize that time is all too short.

To rally the laity, the bishops—having to some degree rallied themselves—must now rally their priests. Priests who have the courage to insist on Catholic values against the pressures of the larger culture need to be brought back into positions of trust and authority. Priests who have abandoned the mind of the Church in favor of parroting the values of the surrounding culture need to be, at an absolute minimum, brought into obedience to Church doctrine and discipline. Those who refuse obedience should, according to the usual canons of due process, be removed from ministry. Ultimately they must be laicized and removed from the payroll.

I would never want feigned fidelity out of loyalty to a pay check. But feigned fidelity is far better than no fidelity. Moreover, how we live typically influences our beliefs and values in the end. But my main point here is that the bishops do not really have time to waste in getting this done. They have already wasted what time we once had. As things stand now, if a battle can be won without taking prisoners, then prisoners should not be taken.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 09, 2012 1:26 PM ET USA

    "Let's rally the troops as well. Let's have a Rosary Rally in DC." Ah...; I like that "idea" quite a bit! Dangerous woman, you know, the Blessed Mother... She definitely defines "militancy" in a unique manner. I like the "idea" so much that I would humbly suggest that Catholicculture would assist in the implementation. It is time to put "feet" to "words."

  • Posted by: bservaes4399 - Feb. 09, 2012 1:11 PM ET USA

    I fear that the HHS mandate might cause a big split in the Church, if the Church really stands fast and holds the line. Many so-called Catholics will not want to suffer when working for Catholic Universities or Catholic Hospitals, and there will be an internal fight about how far to go in resisting Obamacare. It could really blow up in the Church's face. The culture, I fear, has shifted too far to the left. Turning it around will hurt! But then again: maybe it is time to clean house.

  • Posted by: red131 - Feb. 08, 2012 8:27 AM ET USA

    Excellent article Dr. Mirus! I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Plick about prayer. I am on a campaign to get "The Prayer before the Rosary" brought back but revised. Instead of praying for 'the conversion of sinners and Russia', we need to be praying for the 'New Evangelization of America'. Let's rally the troops as well. Let's have a Rosary Rally in DC.

  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Feb. 07, 2012 9:57 PM ET USA

    IMHO there are very few priests who hold Position 1. They are the only possible leaders because you must have a conviction in order to lead in a battle. This fight will be led by articulate and informed laity as Pope Benedict recently told the American bishops.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 07, 2012 7:50 PM ET USA

    All points well-taken. The hour is late; things have gotten out of hand. Unfortunately the first post has hit upon an important point regarding human behavior. For those who have failed, "the time to take prisoners has passed." It is mostly going to be the work of the young, traditionally-oriented priests and faithful to effect any profound and lasting change. Pope Benedict has created the conditions favorable for reneweal. But we have reached a critical mass- a point of no return.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Feb. 07, 2012 7:23 PM ET USA

    A good priest makes a big difference to the life of a parish. I am lucky to have access to an FSSP chapel and there we get nothing but reverent Liturgy and no nonsense sermons about Catholic dogma and sound spiritual direction and there is confession before every Mass. The spiritual lives of many who pass through that parish are enriched. A good priest literally helps change peoples lives by how faithful he is to his vocation. You make some great points in this article Dr. M.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 07, 2012 6:34 PM ET USA

    "To rally the laity, the bishops—having to some degree rallied themselves—must now rally their priests." But Dr Mirus, they (the biships) just DON'T "do that..!" And they haven't been "doing that" for years. And as a man involved in psychiatric medicine, let me tell you something about human behavior, its VERY hard to change. The "psyche" DOES NOT normally turn on a dime. The only "hope" we have for this is very old-fashioned (and supernatural), prayer and penance.

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