Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Anguish of Some Middle-Aged Catholic Priests

Catholic priests who have lived through the pre-Vatican II era and the years immediately thereafter, seem, on the whole, able to live their priestly lives with a reasonable level of satisfaction and peace of mind. One might characterize them, as a group, “happy” with their life choice, able to criticize but generally comfortable with their own Church. They are enormously loyal to this Church which they consider to be, in fact, protected from serious error by the very Spirit of God, Himself. With such an attitude toward the Church, they are somewhat docile and accepting in whatever the Church asks of them. They find it easy to live as priests with a kind of generous humility and unquestioning Faith.

The very young and “new” Catholic priests (along with the seminarians in formation) are often in “sync” with the battered and tried Dinosaur priests mentioned above. They are Pope John Paul II (and Pope Benedict VXI) priests, deeply influenced by the rich Catholic traditions of the past. It seems relatively obvious that these men, insulated from the heady and sometimes precipitous enthusiasms of the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, are prototypic Catholic clergy of the future. These are the Bishops and Cardinals and Popes of the next generation. This type of priest will predictably be replicated in the Catholic Church.

The third group of Catholic priests functioning in the Church are those from the “middle aged” category who often suffer from an anguish which could move the hardest hearted among us. I was recently in a seminar of priests studying “Organization” in Church structures which, at one point, moved into a discussion category called “Morale.” “Morale” was defined basically as contentment with their life choice and their priesthood. An interesting distinction was made whereby some middle aged priests can enjoy the practice of priesthood with its immediate rewards of adulation, almost assured success, acceptance by a believing laity, gratifying interpersonal relationships, and great joy in presiding at beautiful liturgies while, at the same time, they can reject certain positions of Church leadership. Such rejection means that they can sometimes dissent even from Catholic essentials. This rejection presents an “outside” and an “inside” of his priesthood which basically are in conflict with each other.

This puts him emotionally in an acutely stressful situation. In order to continue to function in the priest role which gives him such great personal satisfaction, he must adopt a stance which projects an image or persona to his “outside” world which will be at variance with his inner feelings and convictions. Should he reveal his true inner self in an open manner, he feels (with some validity) that he will jeopardize his source of personal satisfaction, since the Catholic laity, in large part, share the Faith and contentment of the other two priest categories. Many Catholic lay persons will find some of the views of these priests as unacceptable and inimical to the Faith. Of course, other Catholics including malcontents, radical feminists and the John Kerry types whose consciences were formed by “Pope Pius 23”, might be drawn to him by a kind of fellow traveler radar.

Still, the anguished (he calls it “angst”) middle aged priest gives, at best, half consent to some positions his Church officially maintains. Such a balancing act becomes overwhelming for some of these men leaving them theologically and psychologically “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” This sad conflict, apparently, has been intensified and focused by the recent (Nov. ’05) Vatican statement on the rejection of homosexual men from Catholic seminaries. Linking much of the tragic priest scandals of recent years involving homosexual priests, the Vatican has taken a strong stand listing three criteria for rejection. 1) an active homosexual lifestyle (akin to an active sexual life for a heterosexual candidate), 2) a profound homosexual orientation and 3) a toleration of the “gay” agenda, even if such toleration were only passive, the “gay lens” perspective. The Vatican’s position seems reasonable since it does appear that the scandals were not really pedophilic (common to both heterosexual and homosexual persons), i.e. molesting children under twelve but more accurately were ephebophilic, i.e. same sex behavior with post pubertal adolescents.

The middle aged Catholic priests who have the homosexual orientation are particularly distressed by the Vatican statement which (in their minds) undercuts their sincere self donation to the priesthood so many years before. This priest says, in effect and with a trace of bitterness: “I was OK to be ordained twenty years ago even though I was homosexually oriented but today they tell me I would be ineligible to enter the priesthood because I am homosexual. Does this mean that I am an inadequate priest? Has my priesthood over these years been a sham, a fake?”

Such a realization could lead these priests into a definite confusion, discouragement and possible bitterness. What does this conflicted priest do to untangle his inner turmoil? Does he construct support groups of similar minded brother priests? Does he engage in a kind of sacerdotal “apartheid” wherein he avoids the company and dialogue with priests who hold different views? Must he live in an ecclesial bubble in his kind of sanitized environment? How does he continue in the priesthood with any kind of peace of mind when, at times, he basically disagrees with what his own Church teaches? When he allegedly witnesses by his role/presence to the truth of his Church’s positions and simultaneously interiorly rejects them, his very soul becomes a ferocious battleground of conflict.

One of the priests attending that seminar recalled the observation of the young Father Martin Luther who said: “One cannot say yes to Jesus and No to the Church.” This is the stuff of interior turbulence.

Some such priests, with admirable (to my mind) integrity, have resigned from the priesthood because they simply could not continue to live a life which for them became hypocrisy. It is difficult to imagine what kind of psychic energy is needed for them to keep from falling apart as active priests. Are they prone to depression? How do these priests keep from showing anger and bitterness and sarcasm? Does this impact on their unconscious lives and their pastoral practice? How will they “lean” in matters such as same sex behavior (in the confessional), women’s ordination, same sex marriage, porno, divorce and remarriage, pre-marital behavior, abortion? Will they support political candidates who clearly oppose Church teaching? Will they tend to believe that Catholicism is just another sect among many? Will they support Deconstructionist thinking? What is their view on Church infallibility? On the priesthood itself? On the Real Presence? If he can’t put this all together, will he be vulnerable to clinical depression and heavy drinking? Or acting out?

More profoundly, what is the relationship between their sense of rebellion, their difficulty with submission to Christ’s Church and their natural family lives, especially their father relationships?

It became clear to me in the meeting that these poor priests are in a terrible place. Their problems are beyond the usual base line struggle of the average priest. I wish I could help them! But how to help? I recall with a kind of sad validation that in 1978, I addressed an assembly of priests cautioning about the ordination of men to the priesthood who had serious same sex problems. The caution was based only on clinical and professional experience with priests under my care. I knew their torment and their inner conflict and wished to spare other men that pain. Alas, I was called an alarmist among other more demeaning names.

It is certainly beyond me what to do but it does seem that they are a dying breed. They will not replicate. They are at variance with the contemporary youth mood. The dominant view among the young priest and aspiring seminarians is integrity, putting it all into a single whole. May the merciful Lord grant the anguished ones some kind of peace. May He deliver them from any kind of schism, either within their souls or de facto split from their true home, the Catholic Church.

No comments: