c.s. lewis: hard words for dissenting priests
By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 24, 2007
Excerpt of an address to clergy given at Carmarthen, Wales, Easter, 1945 (from God in the Dock).
It is your duty to fix the lines [of doctrine] clearly in your minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing in your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of the other.
Lewis was aiming his remarks at Anglican clergymen in this address, but the jaws of his vise squeeze Catholic priests as well -- and indeed anyone employed by the Church in a position supposed to advance her mission.
When more cantankerously orthodox Catholics protest the heterodoxy or the continued employment of Church-salaried apostates (who, in moments of candor, have been known to call themselves "defectors in place"), we sometimes find the tables are turned, and we are put on the defensive by those who claim that it's un-Christian to place people outside the Church, and even worse to treat them with derision. But these criticisms evade the real point at issue. There's nothing inherently shameful about a Methodist minister who believes the Catholic Church is wrong; the shame attaches to the Catholic minister who believes the Catholic Church is wrong.
"But many people, over time, change their opinions." True. No argument. And so, if you're a clergyman who comes to believe as false what you were commissioned to teach as true, you find another line of work. There's no special vindictiveness behind the demand: as Lewis says, it's your duty as an honest man. We can admire -- albeit grudgingly, and however much we deplore his apostasy -- a heterodox priest who abandons collar, rectory, and paycheck and ends up supporting himself bagging groceries. The same is not true of the cleric who sits tight and says, "I'm waiting for the Church to change."
No small number of dissenting clergy (and ecclesiastical apparatchiks) cry foul when orthodox Catholics treat them with contempt. I admit the contempt. I wish I were in a position to ask them: what human response do you think you deserve?
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