The Right Stuff

Over the past three years, I have taken very little interest in the Roman Catholic Church and its Jesuit Pope. I have on occasion heard that Pope Francis is a bully with priests who work in the Vatican (well, at least half of them work as John XXIII would have said). On a number of occasions, he has complained about priests who seem to be rigid and neurotic. Here is a recent article Bergoglio: Be careful of who you admit to the seminary. I have the impression that the photo is of Legionaries of Christ with their slicked 1950’s hairstyles and Latino complexions, but I might be wrong.

The problem is that the words unstable, neurotic and rigid are often euphemisms for some other issue, perhaps being too staunch or unwilling to go along with some agenda that seems wrong to them. The Soviet regime considered those who disagreed with totalitarianism as mentally deranged and in need of psychiatric treatment. The Russian mental hospital in the Stalin era and later was little more than a torture chamber!

This is the problem we are facing when we read news articles of this nature. On the other hand, I have personally known priests who behaved and reacted quite irrationally to situations or who showed signs of fanaticism. How do you weed that out? I have seen seminarians and priests who fit into the “overly pious” category and whose behaviour is affected and visibly artificial. I have been through that system myself (though Gricigliano is quite untypical) and was quite surprised by some of the men I met. My contact back in 1982 with the Society of St Pius X was quite revealing.

I throw the question open to my readers. What is instability? What is an unstable person? Does this word refer to changes in a person’s emotional life, perception of reality or his religious or political convictions. Is stability related to change or evolution? It is one of the most idiotic terms I have ever come across in questions of judging a man’s suitability for the priesthood, religious life or a job opening.

Pope Francis proceeds from the viewpoint of an irreproachable institution, and that the onus is on candidates to prove themselves to be suitable for it. Perhaps that is so, but many of us are not interested in that institution, nor do we believe in any “true church” claim it might still make. Human beings can very well be seen in a different way matched with another reference of health and goodness. Could it be that the institution itself is sick, as Jung once observed when considering twentieth-century society and culture? Another problem is the doubt being cast on the credibility of psychiatry as a science or a legitimate discipline of medicine.

We in the small and marginal churches find the problem of finding the “right stuff” presenting itself differently. In the ACC in England, we once had a priest in the north of England who had a drink problem, and then flipped quite dramatically. He joined one of those “potemkin” churches consisting entirely of bishops and has now become one of them. Some men turn out to be living a fantasy with so much conviction that they begin to believe in their illusions.

In the Roman Catholic Church, I have seen the genesis of some serious problems with some priests. There was one I knew in Rome, an American, at the Nepomucene College and the Angelicum. Oh yes, he was so pious with his rosary and his office book, and later came to join us at Gricigliano. He was ordained a priest, no problem, and was sent to America to set up an apostolate. Some years later, he was abusing children with sado-masochistic practices, and was found guilty in a court of law and imprisoned. L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. “Man is neither an angel nor a beast, and the problem is that whoever wants to act like an angel, acts like a beast”, as Blaise Pascal said in his wit and wisdom.

Whether the Church in question is a tiny diocesan structure like mine in England or the mighty Roman Catholic institution, there are always problems with human beings. We all seem to teeter between the light and the darkness, and the surprise is complete when the worst happens. How do you weed it out? More psychiatry and paperwork?

I have no infallible plan, but I would imagine that we are generally safer with people we know and trust rather than those who satisfy abstract criteria on an application form. In the ACC, the “bad eggs” are usually the one’s who want instant clerical status without allowing us to get to know them, take them through our procedures and answer the question of what use they would be to us. There are those who have plenty to hide, and others who talk too much.

What attracts the “bad eggs” to the Roman Catholic Church? Pope Francis compares the secure institution of the Church to the army or any other body that offers bed and board in exchange for work. In the Roman Catholic Church, in countries where there is a concordat with the state, priests are lodged rent free and get a decent salary, something like in the Church of England. In the ACC, we get none of that, at least in England or Europe. We either have to be retired and on a good pension, house paid for, etc. – or we have to have a job or a small business. Our financial independence allows us all the eccentricities we want, but we do have to ask ourselves why we are attached to this or that institutional Church. The bottom line is the degree to which we are committed to its life. I am not a parish priest, but a chaplain to all comers and participate in Synod and our Council of Advice meetings. That keeps me in touch and attached to the base. We all need to belong to something, to have roots somewhere in this age when people are increasingly alienated emotionally and spiritually.

What I have seen and experienced in the Roman Catholic Church is unhealthy. The assumption that everything is well with the institution, the seminary system and finally the parishes where priests are appointed but who are impeded at every turn by bureaucracy and the corporate spirit. Some of church life is teamwork, but some is individual and creative. The latter category seems to be unknown to Jesuits!

It is still my opinion that the Tridentine and Counter-Reformation seminary system is a part of the problem and not the solution. In general terms, a candidate for the priesthood should be a mature person who has studied or worked in a job. He then studies theology at university as a lay student, and then is sent to a parish where the priest has the responsibility of taking on a few junior clerics and introducing them to parish life. They would be taught all the necessary “priestcraft” and observed in their interactions with ordinary people. Such a system would be a lot cheaper financially, but above all would enable men to be seen for what they really are. We in the ACC don’t have resources for seminaries, and fortunately. We expect men to acquire a given standard of theological knowledge and be seen to be committed to the life of the Church.

As for psychiatric problems, people are often sick in one circumstance of life and healthy in another. There is a story about the bombing of Dresden during World War II. A bomb landed on a part of the lunatic asylum and some of the inmates got out. They suddenly became completely sane as they started to help people in bombed buildings. As they were rounded up, they reverted to their various ailments of psychosis, schizophrenia, etc. I don’t know whether the story is true, but it is not impossible.

I have mentioned before that I suspect that many things in my own life could be explained by what psychiatrists call Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism. I intend to take tests and get a diagnosis for the sake of my wife and others I deal with. Normally, such a condition would exclude anyone from the priesthood. If I lived my life again, I would perhaps take another direction like being a boat builder or a composer. But, I did become a priest and am appreciated by my Bishop and fellow clergy – because I found a community to which I could relate. If one is profoundly alienated from something, there is no point in insisting – best to turn the page and move on.

I have read quite a lot about narcissism and related personality disorders. A personality disorder is not an illness but who you are. This idea rejoins the possibility that some people are totally depraved. That might seem unfair, but the world is full of evil, deformity, illness and ugliness as well as the contrary. The narcissist is more likely to be a problem in the priesthood with his sense of self-importance and delusions of grandeur like the Bishop of X who prances around without being in reality Bishop of Anything.

There are often young men who are psychologically unstable without knowing it, and who look for strong structures to support them. For some it is the police or the army but for others it is the clergy.

What does Pope Francis mean by this? Perhaps I could make a suggestion: take away the structure and security and see what you get. That could be a challenge, and probably will as the structures crumble away for lack of money or popular interest like in France.

I understand what he means by fundamentalist or rigid. He could be more specific and mention the narcissistic personality and its lack of empathy. That might be more helpful than implying that the problem is one of doctrinal or moral orthodoxy. This Pope seems very pastoral in some ways, but is a big bully in others. He remains a boring Jesuit! At the same time, like Benedict XVI, he has demystified the Papacy and things are beginning to be what they look like. We can be grateful for that.

We have to be sober. In many places where the Church has declined to nothing, there is no need for priests as there is no need for Christianity among the indifferent and the materialists. The churches crumble amidst the indifference, and there is nothing for the most altruistic and devoted priests. In most of France, apart from the big cities, it’s all over.

This is another reality to which we have to adapt. If there was more creativity and originality, rather than dreary corporate bureaucracy, that might encourage priests to show better human qualities and be of interest to people considering Christianity as their spiritual philosophy of life. Christianity can no longer force people. The onus is on Christianity to convince through beauty and truth.

Finally, to get the right stuff, the proof of the pudding is in the eating – not only the candidate but also the institution considering him.

* * *

Update: my brother in the priesthood Fr Jonathan Munn has published Validly invalid. His emphasis seems to be on the question of sacramental validity of ordinations: is the ordination for real in metaphysical terms – is the resulting priest a real one or a dressed-up fake? This has been the question between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in England since the fierce polemics culminating in 1896 with the Bull of Leo XIII Apostolicae Curae. This partly led to the phenomenon of episcopi vagantes with their carefully documented lines of succession from the Dutch Old Catholic Church or various oriental Churches. They became a caricature of the Augustinian thesis: a sacrament is valid if there is matter, form and the lack of a “positive contrary intention” (I intend to go through the motions but withhold what the Church does when conferring a Sacrament). Most of us know that the Orthodox Churches refuse such a reductio ad absurdam and emphasise the communion of the Church. It is valid within the Church and invalid outside. I would call this an ecclesial context, but where are the lines drawn? People argue and counter-argue, and the “true church” polemics and apologetic cuts and thrusts go nowhere.

Fr Jonathan does well to look at this aspect, but I’m sure that he is as aware as I am of the limits. Our Church, the ACC, is beyond the limits of some, and we are looked down upon as fakes and charlatans. I have in-laws coming to my Mass on certain occasions, and they are Roman Catholics (not traditionalists but “ordinary” ones) and they receive Communion in full knowledge of what I am. I don’t think they are interested in knowing whether the priest came from the Ngo-Dinh-Thuc succession before joining the ACC! [The Vatican once issued a statement that Palmar de Troya and other men with orders from the maverick consecrations of Archbishop Ngo-Dinh-Thuc were highly illicit and that no pronouncement was made on the validity.] My in-laws just see me as belonging to a Church as a priest and doing Catholic things. Therefore to them, I am a priest.

He and I are concerned about our smallness. Indeed, perhaps we will fizzle out to the joy of the RC and Eastern Orthodox internet bullies. One thing that reassures me after my experience with the TAC as it was under Archbishop Hepworth is that the ACC is what it says on the label of the jar. We are small but don’t pretend to be big. That fact may enable us to survive in time. Then again, we may fizzle out and I would be like a fish on the beach again. That hasn’t happened, and speculation is useless and harmful.

Frankly, I am just not bothered about whether conservative Roman Catholics or others see me as a priest or as a fake. They have their lives and their clergy have their ministries and carry their crosses. I am not envious of them, constantly in diocesan and deanery meetings, long and boring meetings that give someone a sense of their own importance. I hardly ever relate to those people. I may be doing one of my organ removal jobs in the Burgundy are in the next few weeks. I’ll just go down there with my bermuda shorts and long hair – and take the wind right out of their sails. I don’t mind being clandestine and quietly reading my Office out of their sight!

Nearly all arguments between Christians are problems of language and the meanings of words. Most of our theological analogies are woefully inadequate to describe mysteries of faith, like in my discussion of the Resurrection a short while ago. Validity is a legal term, not philosophical. I have often come up against confusions between canon law and metaphysics. An analogy about validity and liceity is something like a child born out of wedlock. In the old days, a bastard could not inherit and was considered as inferior. But, no one could deny that the baby existed and had been born like any other child. Marriage does not determine the existence of the child but his rights in his family and in society. Could this analogy be applied to Sacraments and Holy Orders? I’m not sure, because we are dealing with things of realities other than our material world.

My article was about the suitability of persons in terms of human qualities to be admitted to Orders in a Church. That is another question which is situated as a pastoral and psychological level. Pope Francis is a Jesuit like Jesuits have always been since St Ignatius. They are mostly involved in education when they don’t have the clout to interfere in politics. They were part of the reforming Counter-Reformation movement to “purify” the clergy and set up systems of checks and controls to keep out the unhealthy and unscrupulous elements. That’s what seminaries were for… But the Church managed for fifteen hundred years without seminaries! In every aspect of life, the emphasis is on standardisation and theoretical criteria enforced by bureaucracy and non-human methods. Take the human judgement out of everything – and then expect priests to be human! I prefer my Church not to be Orwellian…

Perhaps, further questions could be asked. Why bother with priests in an institutional church that is crumbling away, at least in the west? Just let it all go congregational. The problem with “congregationalism” is that the leaders it appoints are even more clerical and authoritarian than the old parish priests. I would not go to such a church or advocate that it should receive any financial support.

Returning to Fr Jonathan’s article, and reading it in its own terms, we are concerned about “wannabes” from the point of view of a small Church. They are stealing our credibility, we so often complain. On the other hand, I have tried to be fair in my articles with a few independent clergy in their sincere efforts to lead a genuinely priestly life. I have been one myself and had first-hand experience of the ambiguity of someone in such a situation. I might be valid but I am no one’s priest or bishop. There are some “independent sacramental” clergy whose vocations are noble, but they have gone into complete clandestinity to bring an end to the contradictions brought about by “aping” mainstream institutional churches. Their priestly lives become those of contemplatives looking like ordinary lay people and often involved in humanitarian concerns.

Sacramental validity (ontological and metaphysical) is generally considered as something permanent and stable, at least for as long as a given person is alive. No matter what that person does, even committing such vile acts as the Church deposes him from ministry, once a priest always a priest. At the same time, what sense does it make? We can’t go through our lives with the “minimum” of Christian life to justify the theoretical construct of a priestly character (which the “Cyprianic” Orthodox deny). Some theologians like Dr Eric Vogel of the University of Strasbourg did come up with a priesthood that could be annihilated in some circumstances. That would indeed be convenient, too convenient, for an institutional Church (we can take away what we give, so watch it) at the same time as putting a stop to the shenanigans of episcopi vagantes.

We have discussed minima and the underworld, which cannot be representative of the kind of priesthood we want to live in our Churches. It is important not to have the wrong persons in the priesthood – but there is no infallible way to do that with 100% accuracy. That is the awful responsibility of bishops and their directors of ordinands.

The subject can and should continue to be discussed from a “non-corporate” point of view. How do we do a good job of selecting the right characters without stifling originality and creativity? How do we go towards a more human Church, therefore one that is more open to divine grace and sanctification? Good question…

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3 Responses to The Right Stuff

  1. Dale says:

    Those of us who work in academia are well aware of the virtuous nastiness of professional liberals. It seems that ecclesiastical organisations are not too much different. The outright persecution of the even mildly conservative in the Church of England is fairly well known.

    • This is why I mentioned the old Soviet system. Mental illness is often a euphemism for any divergence from the official “orthodoxy” whatever that might be at a given moment. Until Pope Francis clears up this issue of euphemisms and hidden meanings, what he says is just a load more claptrap as coming from all large church bureaucracies.

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