Can a Priest lose his Faith?
It was at one of those unplanned casual meetings of priests that I was profoundly shocked at my own naiveté and ruffled by the ruthless nature of reality "up close". There were six or seven clerics in the group with varying backgrounds, disparate talents and psyches. One of them, not young but somewhat "long in the tooth", startled me by his nonchalant observation that the world will never come to an end.
Innocently, I asked how his statement squared with the Second Coming of Christ, the Final Judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead. Giving me that look of the Illuminati and tinged with a touch of pity for my Ignorance, he suggested that I get into the 21st century. Although I am simple of heart, 92 and peacefully set into a belief in a loving God made man in Jesus Who left a teaching Church to guide us to eternal life, I pushed him (perhaps goaded is a more precise word) into further reflections on Catholicism.
His eyes, rheumy with an alarming blankness, fixed on me as he responded to my probing. All religions are the same, he said. There is no need for evangelization. The Church is incorrect. It must modernize and get into the present time. All people go to heaven. Sin is a myth. Masturbation is perfectly normal.
My shock today is that I was shocked at all. I had been taught very early in my life all about the human tendency to sin, the weakness of the will and the darkening of the intellect through the great aboriginal calamity called Original sin.
With apologies to the holy Biblical Pharisees like St. Paul, only a modern Pharisee and phony would be startled by human perversity. Yet here I am with extensive years of experience as a priest plus over 50 years of professional experience as a licensed psychologist, shaken to my core about a priest who sounds like he lost his Faith!
Is there something special or very different about loss of Faith in the case of a priest? What could be basically different? How could he continue honestly to remain a priest tacitly appearing, by staying a priest, to give full belief and support to the Church in which he does not fully believe? Does he experience the dis-stress of Cognitive dissonance so clearly demonstrated years ago by Festinger? Does he have a turbulent interior?
Has he really lost his Faith? Perhaps. But there may be something else operative here. I am reminded about Freud's famous caveat. "Things are rarely, if ever, only what they seem." Many years ago, as a young priest I was asked to give a Priests' retreat "somewhere" during which I received a similar jolt. A priest retreat-ant told me that he did not believe in God anymore. And, of course, I reacted with alarm and asked how he could celebrate Mass and preach with such a mind set. He airily replied that the Mass was a great platform for "community building" which was now his vocation. After a bit of primitive probing, I discovered that he was deep into sexual practices which apparently had conflicted with "old fashioned" views of priesthood. Dropping the God dimension allowed him to continue, as if on a purely secular basis, his real interest and concern for others. Dissonance personified. Yet he did enjoy the public life of the priesthood and basked in the popularity of those who cheered his "progressive" policies. No prayer. No Eucharistic visits. No spiritual reading, only the latest in Social Work techniques and possibly the New York Times.
The rheumy eyed cleric mentioned earlier turned out to be a priest with serious sexual difficulties as result of which he no longer is permitted to "perform" as a priest in public. The obvious question is whether or not there is a link between his sexual (and punished) lapses and his patently heretical utterances spoken through a clearly observable "repressed" anger.
When I was a graduate student at NYU and proudly wearing my clerical collar, I was approached by a middle aged classmate who whispered to me that he used to be a priest. With my curiosity aroused tinged with a probable salacious interest, I eagerly sought the details of his narrative, especially since my dissertation was on former Catholic priests.
He presented a noble story highlighted by a profound rebellion against unfeeling out of touch American Bishops who had no concern for the poor but who loudly screamed about the evils of contraception. So, like a clerical Robin Hood, he left the priesthood to work for the poor. However, sometime later he invited me to dinner at his home in suburbia. An elegant, classy, upper case home, presided over by— you guessed it--- a good looking, charming gal. He talked incessantly about the public school system and his hopes of being appointed soon to the post of Principal or top dog. When I, in my astonishment, asked what happened to the "poor thing", he, well oiled with several glasses of very good wine, replied: "Oh, I needed that to get angry enough to leave."
It sounds strangely like Freud's "displaced allegation" or as the toughs in Hells's Kitchen used to say: " It ain't a question of the Trinity. It's a question below the belt buckle." Of course, there may be all kinds of turbulence other than sexual in the troubled priest's soul. Avarice and ambition have always been great energizers. Who really knows? We do know that such dissonance, whatever its source, makes not for inner peace, love and the spread of Catholic life but rather unhappiness, bitterness and destruction. But why should it happen at all, this so called "loss of Faith"? What happened that he should be so vulnerable? Further, what might the average priest do to safeguard his personal "Pearl of Great Price"?
Psychological research has often been, thank the Lord, most helpful in aiding us to appreciate the influence of environment, familial matrix, peer pressures and experience, temperament, cultural mores, and genetic/DNA input on how we act and even who we are. But religion teaches us something even more telling—the amazing and powerful Grace of the Lord which can do utterly fantastic things. And yet it does appear that Grace of Faith which is a gift can be spurned, misused and lost.
I recall one of my fellow students in the major seminary who was the envy of us slower, more plebian types, for his talents, his personality, his apparent holiness, his overwhelming superiority. As a priest, he was spectacular, particularly in his powerful preaching. Another Sheen, they said. Yet after some years of glamorous success, he "fell in love." With another man. After leaving the priesthood, he made his living as a Maitre D'. a greeter, in a restaurant. Before he died, he insisted that there be no religious factor in his funeral. None. He had long since given up even ambiguous prayer. He became a complete unbeliever. How could such sadness and "tergiversation" happen?
From what I can see there are two things to forestall the sadness of the loss of Faith, especially for a priest. The Eucharist and the Blessed Mother. So many others feel the same way. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, for example, writes about both in his autobiography, "Treasure in Clay."
"It is impossible for me to explain how helpful the Holy Hour has been in preserving my vocation…………the Holy Hour apart from all its positive spiritual benefits, kept my feet from wandering too far. Being tethered to the tabernacle, one's rope for finding other pastures is not so long. That dim tabernacle lamp, however pale and faint, had some mysterious luminosity to darken the brightness of " bright lights."
"despite the unglutted beast that strains in the body of every priest, she (Blessed Mother) held onto the leash to tame its madness…..she changes eros to agape..she really loves me – and if she can love me then Christ is with me…"
The priest so busy going to theatres and watching Television junk, who doesn't pray before the Tabernacle or to say the Rosary is more vulnerable than clay. He is a setup, hyperbolically predictable for "trouble." In spite of my age and experience, I am still amazed when priests and religious tell me that it has been years since they "fingered" a Rosary asking Our Lady for help and love. The super busy priest whom I know, says he has no time but we all know "way down deep" that there is time if we really want to make it. In fact, the priest has been seduced into a state of darkened awareness. But why? And how?
It was the great Apostle Paul who warned himself to be careful lest he who had preached to others might also become a castaway. It looks like anyone can be severely tested in matters of Faith----clergy and laity alike. In fact, even Cardinals. Tests and temptations are one thing but outcome is another. John Cardinal O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, Admiral of the United States Navy, Author, Ph.D, confessed publicly of his own war time trial of Faith in the South Pacific. Wracked by loneliness and frequent periods of profound silences, he clung to the Eucharist for resolution. He spent many long hours in a corrugated roofed chapel in physical darkness lighted only by the small red tabernacle lamp. He wrestled with his God and heard many times the Biblical Voice: "My grace is enough for you." As we know he went on to fabulous Church leadership and high national impact in a future which was then unknown to him. Probably his Faith issues made him even more fit for the role the Lord had chosen for him.
Yes, priests can and have lost their Faith. But it is not the temptation that matters. It's what we do with it that matters. It is the grappling and the wrestling and the trust in God that matters, even and especially in periods of utter darkness and spiritual pain.
I wonder how many fallen priests would have been "saved" if they sat before their Eucharistic Lord every day and faced Him with their difficulties. I wonder how many could have been consoled if they had knelt at the Blessed Mother's knee and asked for her help!
The title of this essay asks a question which rhetorical. The implication however is real. Priests can and do lose their Faith. Priests who lose the Faith could have been helped. When a gift such as Faith, to say nothing of the glory of the priesthood, is no longer seen as valuable and precious, it will soon end up on the dung heap. The priest who doesn't pray is not only a misnomer, but someone who has lost his "vision" as well as his way. To my wavering priest brother, I paraphrase, a little, the urging of Mel Brooks:
"Don't be stupid
Be a smarty
Come and join the praying party"
Join up! Or re-enlist! The rewards are stupendous!