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hold the applause

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 17, 2009

It's happened again. A priest has strayed from the path of celibacy, discovered love, decided to abandon his vocation, and announced that decision to a stunned congregation. 

This time it happened in Ireland, but the response was very similar to what we've often seen in the US:

Following his announcement, he received a standing ovation from an applauding congregation, many of them in tears.

The Irish Independent plays this story as an argument against clerical celibacy: nothing more, nothing less. But the woman romantically linked to Father Sean McKenna is married and has two children; she can't blame celibacy for her own failure to honor her marital vows.

It's a sad, familiar story. People take oaths and break them. We regret the facts but acknowledge the reality.

Or do we regret the facts? Why does the congregation applaud for a priest who is deserting the priesthood-- and, not just coincidentally, deserting the congregation as well? 

Jeff Mirus has argued persuasively that the phenomenon can be explained at least in part by "the extreme reluctance of their people to turn on their priests." Catholics think of their pastor as part of their family, and when he is in trouble-- even trouble of his own making-- they rally to his side.

Our natural reaction is to be saddened by the situation, and even saddened by the sin, but then to immediately embrace and affirm the sinner.

In a church setting there is no handy way to convey that affirmation, other than by applause. So the outgoing priest receives an ovation. 

But there is more to it than that, I fear. (And Jeff Mirus acknowledges this problem, too.) Applause suggests approval. And the quotations that accompany newspaper stories about such priests' departures generally indicate that he has tapped into a deep lode of sympathy among the people in the pews. They are happy for him: happy that he found his true love, happy that he didn't allow his religious commitment to interfere with his earthly happiness. It's not unreasonable to suspect that the people who applaud a priest for leaving his vocation would make the same choices themselves. 

I wonder how many married couples joined in the ovation for Father McKenna. Did they glance nervously sideways at their spouses, realizing that the applause was for someone who had violated his vows? No; they were just clapping, not really thinking about the implications. 

But a Catholic church is a place where people should always be encouraged to think about the moral implications of their thoughts and their actions. It should be a place where vows and made and honored, whatever the cost. A parish is a community united not by camaraderie but by prayer. And it is prayer-- not just affirmation, certainly not approval, in short not applause-- that these wayward priests need.


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  • Posted by: alencon - Nov. 18, 2009 10:32 AM ET USA

    I partially disagree with "the answer is simple". We overlook the faults of people we know who aren't a part of our hour to hour life. But those truly closest to us we tend to dissect their faults under a microscope and the problems are irreparable if Christ is not in us. I have been separated/divorced for over 8 years and continue to uphold the vows I made at my marriage. For that I am ostracized, mainly by members of the Church. The vows we make define us - breaking them leads to darkness.

  • Posted by: wvcatholic - Nov. 17, 2009 1:48 PM ET USA

    The answer is simple - it is part of human nature to overlook the faults of people we know. Everyone hates Congress - but loves their congressman. Everyone hates lawyers - but loves their next door neighbor who handled their case the time the auto dealership tried to rip them off. A large number of John Geoghan's ex-parishioners love him and feel he was a saint - they say " who cares about the evidence, I KNEW HIM." We are all willing to overlook the evidence when it is someone we know.

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