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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  • Posted by: - Mar. 26, 2007 7:15 PM ET USA

    The most lovingly presented Truth is taken as cruelty by those who reject the Truth. When you are living happily in the dark, you don't want the light turned on because it hurts your eyes. I am certain that God's will has been done on the occasion when I have spoken the truth with love precisely because of the squeals and cries that rise up from those who reject it... Sometimes planting seeds requires the soil to be cut deeply. But God's seeds bear fruit--eventually.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 25, 2007 2:46 PM ET USA

    "Renunciation of any power in this world acts to arm oneself against one's own weariness": Rule for a hermit, article 27. I have found this advice useful. The "power of this world" referred to is the attempt to force or convince people of the truth, or to argue the truth with them, outside of the power that the truth itself possesses, and out of one's own intellectual strength.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 10:46 PM ET USA

    Diogenes - a blog that I pray every priest in the world will read... as well as bishops & cardinals... Amen, "30 year priest," "sagart," & "frjimc" -- nearly 10 years a priest, I have also found the most wearing challenge to be traitorous laypersons & traitorous priests (among them cardinals, archbishops & bishops). Yes, there are orthodox ones, but the traitors remain and cause so much damage that takes painfully long to correct. I keep praying for more vocations that exhibit holy boldness.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 9:20 PM ET USA

    Truth cannot be separated from love. While the truth must be proclaimed with charity, it must also be proclaimed directly and without apology. The best example I can think of is the Living Bread come down from Heaven discourse in John.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 7:28 PM ET USA

    Dear Ephod, It may be only semantics, but my comments do not reflect my frustration, nor are they exacerbated by my temperment. I was neither baptized nor ordained to "tell the truth," rather to witness to The Truth Who is Christ, Whose Body is the Church. There lie the boundaries, not the "feelings" of dissenting clergy. Our Lord said not a word about kindness or hurt feelings. He did speak about whitened sepulchres, millstones tied to necks - the narrow way versus the road to perdition.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 3:57 PM ET USA

    I see my comment has touched I nerve! Certainly there is tremendous frustration out there, which I feel too (maybe not as much as others due to my temperament.) Still what choice do we have? The command of the Lord is clear and repeated throughout Scripture and tradition. We must tell the truth courageously, but if possible, not in a way that is unkind. It may still offend, but then our consciences will be clear. I fear many will be "turned off" the Truth, if we don't bear our cross well.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 3:29 PM ET USA

    30 year priest, as Bill Clinton would say (but with more sincerity, I say it), I feel your pain. 10 years after ordination and I hardly know myself. I was prepared for the struggle with dishonest clergy who take a Catholic Church stipend and preach a different faith, but nothing prepared me for the shock of confronting droves of laypersons who do not want to hear the True Faith again. They remind me of the Jews who would not go back to Jerusalem after the exile. Their fates may turn out similar.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 12:55 PM ET USA

    Ephod: Diogenes smacks another nail precisely on its head. As one who has become "cantankerous" over years of priesthood, I attest this comes not from mean-spiritedness but exasperation (and sometimes even exhaustion) from battles in which one engages fellow "Catholic witnesses": the "pastoral associate" who proclaims that there are "seven sacraments for men and six for women"; especially the (cardinal arch)bishops whose weaknesses allow the battles. One sometimes grows weary from the fight.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 12:32 PM ET USA

    The arrow sinks to its fletchings in the center circle. Gentle words are feckless.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 11:30 AM ET USA

    Ephod - because by smiling nicely and sharing pleasantries, the orthodox give rise, in the eyes of the people of God, to the idea that all ideas are equally correct. The cantankerousness that Uncle Di speaks of, born of frustration, serves a cause. That cause is Truth. It's easy to proof-text and find a Scripture passage to support nearly every position. Don't forget Christ's proscription against giving scandal, or His promise to set brother against brother in pursuit of the Truth.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 11:16 AM ET USA

    It's easier to be charitable when someone has not jabbed you in the eye 7 x 70 times. At some point, even a charitable person realizes that a person they are trying to correct is not operating in good faith and it's time to say, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!"

  • Posted by: - Mar. 24, 2007 10:37 AM ET USA

    Uncle Di is right on substance, but by what logic is it necessary to be "cantankerous"? This implies ill-temper and perverse contentiousness. One may be persistent in reiterating the truth without being uncharitable. O.K., there is such a thing as just anger--but must it not genuinely serve charity at all times? As St. Paul advises on his own example: "I avoid giving anyone offense, so that the Gospel might not be blamed."