Leaving the Priesthood Page Two
Contents Page Two:
To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures.
To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none.
To share all suffering. To penetrate all secrets. To heal all wounds.
To go from men to God and offer Him their prayers.
To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope.
To have a heart of fire for Charity, and a heart of bronze for Chastity.
To teach and to pardon, console and bless always.
My God, what a life! And it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.
This statement was written by Father Jean Baptiste Lacordaire (1802-1861). I first ran across it at the seminary while preparing for ordination to the priesthood and was quite taken by the lofty status it granted to priests, but questioned whether I could measure up to its expectations. If there was hyperbole in the statement, no one pointed it out at the seminary and we were left to believe it literally. Lacordaire’s acclamations were intoxicating to us embryonic priests: “To share all suffering … penetrate all secrets ... heal all wounds … To go from men to God to offer him their prayers and return from God to men to bring pardon and hope.”
Dioceses attracting the greatest number of vocations to the priesthood are those who most clearly emphasize this propaganda. Their Vocation Directors carefully masked it in piety and their nascent seminarians find themselves captivated that God would choose them for this divine position. But, little do they know that they are being ushered into the world of Catholic fundamentalism, where God is perceived as subservient to the ecclesiastical institution.
The object of faith within Catholicism is not God as much as it is faith in a quasi divinized hierarchy. Once a man enters the seminary, he learns that his faith in God has to be supplemented with faith in the Church, and when push comes to shove, faith in the Church as interpreted by the hierarchy trumps. For a priest, this is not unlike a mind-controlling cult. This may sound harsh but when a priest finds himself in conflict with hierarchical teaching such as the ban on artificial contraception, admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments, ordaining women, or wishing to marry, he finds his conscience means nothing and he must bend to the will of an unyielding irrational hierarchy. This has become a more serious problem now that the hierarchy is firmly ensconced in fundamentalism.
We will see if Pope Francis can bring any systemic change. Because John Paul II derailed the reforms of Vatican II and his successor Benedict XVI continued in his tradition, I am not hopeful. If a church Council can be derailed by a pope, whatever changes Francis is able to make can be easily overturned by his successor. Conservative Catholics are quick to point out that the Catholic Church is not a democracy, but they fail to continue and admit it is a dictatorship. In any other organization, a constitution and by-laws are followed. Not so within Catholicism. If the documents of the Second Vatican Council can be ignored by a pope, they have little authority and the Church is governed by the whim of whoever happens to occupy the papacy. Although the papacy sometimes has harsh words for oppressive political dictatorships, it is unwilling to critique its own dictatorial polity.
One of the reasons why people are attracted to Catholicism is because faith has been concretized in the external ecclesiastical institution. It assures them that God’s grace can be seen and experienced directly through a priest. He goes to and from God to mediate grace. It is clear cut and tangible. Such a black and white system creates a sense of security for the laity. However, after fifteen years in the priesthood, I came to believe that that security was misplaced. This highly mediated religion makes the laity subservient and dependent upon the hierarchy. Their job is clearly to “pray, pay and obey” while the hierarchs make all the important decisions. But, what more can one expect from a monarchy who understands its main job as the preservation of itself?
Following ordination, this new generation of priests is more than willing to wield their authority. They robe themselves in the garb of their medieval theology with cassock, surplice and biretta. Humble pottery chalices that were popular following the Second Vatican Council are replaced with the majesty of silver and gold. As they process down the main aisle with candles, incense and ornate vestments eager to proclaim their edicts from Rome; legions of Catholics are escaping out the back door, their hope for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council thwarted. In the United States, over one third of Catholics have left the Church making them the fastest growing religious group in America.
Many of these young priests are entering ministry with an agenda – to undo what they consider to be the harm caused by the Second Vatican Council. They wish to restore the Church to some pre-Vatican era. Bishops, who know better but are desperate for priests, look the other way and ordain them anyway.
Over the past thirty years, the hierarchy has intentionally marginalized moderate and progressive minded Catholics, and now the Church is imploding under the weight of this neoconservative movement. It has forfeited its universality in order to become a sect of like minded people. Rather than “The Church in the Modern World”, it has become “A Church in Its Own Little World”.
Shortly after ordination, I remember an elderly priest asking me, “How many masses do you say on a Sunday?” “I don’t say any”, I replied, “but I celebrate three.” His question reflected the idea that all priests need to do is show up and “say” mass. That’s the problem when faith has been concretized in the external ecclesiastical institution and is understood to be mediated only through priests. All that is necessary is to “say” the prayers and the blessings come.
In the town where I served during those early years of ministry, some members of my congregation chose to go to a neighboring church for Sunday services. I asked one of them why and he said, “Father Tom says a quick mass, I can be out in twenty minutes. We don’t have any singing, his sermon is short, and he doesn’t have the sign of peace. I don’t know why people think they need to shake hands in church.” He was there for one reason, to get what Father had to give with as little effort as necessary. His involvement was solely as a spectator.
For me, simply “saying” mass was nothing but hocus-pocus. The word “hocus-pocus” has its origin within the Latin mass. During the consecration, the priest would say, “hoc est corpus meum”, which is translated “this is my body”. To those in the pew it sounded like “hocus-pocus” and came to be associated with magic.
A theological term used to emphasize this was “Ex Opere Operato”, which is translated “from the work done”. During the sixteenth century Reformation, some theologians argued that people needed to be enlivened by an internal faith in order for the sacraments to confer grace. But the hierarchy argued, “No, the sacraments work ex opere operato”, i.e., regardless of the faith of the priest or people, the sacraments confer grace by the very act of being performed.
In other words, the hierarchy was saying “we have all the power!” What more can one expect from a monarchy who understands its main job as the empowerment and preservation of itself?
“Ex opere operato” can degenerate into “hocus-pocus”. It also led to the multiplication of private masses often said for souls believed to be in purgatory. This was a practice many objected to because they vehemently denied the church had any power over the dead. They also objected to having a mass with no congregation present. Some priests were saying multiple private masses a day, which was made even more odious when they collected a stipend for each one, a practice that was later forbidden.
It is interesting to watch young priests promote the Latin Mass. Here is "Ex opere operato" taken to an extreme where those attending are spectators more than anything else. Priests pushing for this are basically saying, "Come to the Latin Mass and watch me perform". At its core it is very narcissistic.
Most Catholics understand something is amiss within Catholicism. The more educated they become, the less toleration they have toward violating their consciences and embracing irrational Catholic fundamentalism, which is proclaimed to be true only because the hierarchy says so. In any other setting it would be dismissed. On the other hand, others prefer this belief structure. The faith they cultivate is not so much in God as it is in the Church, which they have equated with God. They rest more peacefully at night knowing they have fulfilled the Church’s requirements and are therefore acceptable to God. This is why Catholicism is attractive for those who prefer a black and white religion.
There are multitudes of Catholics who long to take their rightful place at the altar of God as equals, rather than subservient and obedient laity. As mature Christians, these Catholics will take seriously the hierarchy’s opinion, but the claim to Infallibility is an insult to their intelligence. Infallibility is seen for what it is: The usurping of the power of God herself who alone is infallible.
Many priests who leave the priesthood stay deeply connected with Catholicism, become laicized and marry within the Church. Although this website has been critical of Catholicism, it may not represent the majority of those who leave. Hopefully someday our efforts and the work of others will contribute toward reform within the Catholic Church. In some ways, we miss Catholicism and probably always will. Most people who leave the church of their childhood miss some part of it. And, you cannot leave the priesthood without leaving some very fond memories and experiences behind. There are priests, bishops and other friends that will always be an important part of our lives and, for them, we are grateful. But, there is a sickness within Catholicism that many can no longer tolerate and it seems to be getting worse.
Transitioned priests often choose to stay involved in the Church and work for reform from within. There too, they are a blessing just as they were in active priestly ministry. If you are a priest and your heart is leading you elsewhere and you are torn, remember, the Spirit will walk with you wherever you choose to go. There are many opportunities awaiting priests who wish to use their gifts elsewhere.
A great challenge for us who have left was our dependency upon the institution in which we lived. The basic impression given in formation and ordained ministry is “The Church will take care of you”. This dependency upon the institution is structured into the system with the monastic communal lifestyle of formation, the “fraternity” of ordained priests, and provided housing. Furthermore, the minimal salary received necessitates the hope for Christmas gifts, “clergy handshakes”, etc. which also promotes dependency. And, finally, dependency on the system culminates in retirement within a priests’ retirement home. All of this is wrapped in the spiritual facade of living in “Mother Church”, which threatens excommunication and claims to hold the keys to eternal salvation. And, if you come from a deeply Catholic ancestry, this thinking becomes carved into your genes.
From our communication with priests and others through this website, we have found that it is difficult for all priests and in particular, Religious Order priests to perceive themselves having the interior resources necessary to survive outside of the priesthood. Priests may desire to leave because they are miserable living within the lifestyle prescribed for them, or are deeply in love with someone, or may even have secretively fathered a child with the woman they love, yet, even under these circumstances are unable to extract themselves from the priesthood. Many have become addicted to the elevated status the priesthood provides for them and the esteem they enjoy from the faithful. It is as if they have been brainwashed into believing they cannot create another life elsewhere for themselves.
The Church has been the recipient of huge lawsuits because bishops refused to remove abusive priests from ministry. However, the Church is also responsible for creating an ecclesiology that has formed within the priesthood such strong dependency upon the institution that priests find it nearly impossible to leave. The Church has systematically fostered the belief within priests that they are wedded to the Church and dependent upon it for their survival both physically and spiritually. This is why some leave only when they are force to leave by ecclesiastical authority after sexual misconduct has occurred. The responsibility for creating this milieu within the priesthood reaches to the very top of the Church's hierarchy.
Yes, by design its damn hard to leave this system, but if a priest discerns that this is the journey he should make and finds the courage to do so, the freedom on the outside will be euphoric. The question “Can I make it on the outside?” understandably crosses the mind of all transitioning priests. As mentioned earlier, having a theology that allows a priest to leave is essential and enables him to see through the confusing landscape of celibate Catholic culture. In time, priests in the midst of transition find the answer to this question to be “Yes, not only can I make it, I can thrive!” Their salary will probably double, if not triple, in most any other professional area of employment they find. And, more importantly, they will be free to live out the God-given dreams of their personal lives. Their educational, pastoral, administrative, and teaching experience will be welcomed in any number of organizations. The key is networking and for them to have the courage to walk through open doors. Those considering leaving will find helpful information at www.corpus.org. Also, the Internet opens up all kinds of avenues of information. Priests interested in pursuing ordained ministry in another Christian denomination can easily find them on the Internet. You can also find more information below in the section "Next Steps for Transitioning Priests". During this process, priests need to remember that they walk with Christ, regardless of what the institution, or those who have divinized it, may say.
The most crucial times in making this transition are the months before and after leaving. Priests need to have a plan, some money saved, a place to live, the love and support of understanding people, and, perhaps, a good counselor. Making this transition can “rattle your cage” and competent, understanding counselors are a tremendous gift. As with any major transition in life, experiencing situational depression or anxiety is normal.
The months prior to and immediately after leaving are the most stressful, but part of this stress was caused by our desire to please others and concern about being judged negatively for leaving. This affliction is called “codependency”. Normally, codependent people find themselves compelled to sacrifice themselves in order to protect a loved one whose life is in chaos, because of addiction to a mind-alternating substance, such as alcohol or drugs. Within the priesthood, codependent priests feel compelled to sacrifice themselves, not to protect a loved one addicted to alcohol or drugs, but to maintain the hierarchy’s irrational addiction to male celibate control of the priesthood. This addiction is nothing less than a serious disease that is causing enormous harm to the family of Catholicism. Priests are not obliged to enable this disease and may more effectively contribute to its cure by leaving.
Codependent behavior is especially seen between priests and bishops when priests find themselves compelled to gain their bishop’s approval. I remember one occasion several years ago as Director of Missions for the Diocese, when I had presented a proposal to the Bishop, Mission Committee and potential missionary candidates and it was abruptly dismissed by the Bishop. I felt hurt that my proposal was rejected by my bishop, especially in such a public setting. It took most of the two hour drive home to regain my inner confidence and work through this experience. The following day, my dog was doing what he always did, wagging his tail, hoping I would pet him and give him some attention. As I looked at him, I felt the Spirit say in my heart, “You’re like your dog in the presence of the Bishop! You long for his approval and relish his affirmation. You look for him to pat you on the head and say ‘Good boy!’ You need to find your acceptance from within.” That was an eye-opener. Perhaps my thirst for the Bishop’s approval had to do with a father wound, where, subconsciously, I had heaped upon him the expectation of approval never given me by my father, or was given and not recognized. Whatever it was, the fact remained that I had given way too much power to my bishop to define my happiness and sense of success.
The archconservative movement in the Church today is being manned by priests sitting at their bishops’ feet looking for a pat on the head, and willing to do anything to get it. As the emotional health and self-worth of these priests increases, it will become a detriment to this movement. Given the increase of families with absent fathers during the past fifty years, this theory may have validity.
To complicate this issue, priests have to sort out their promise of obedience to their bishop from their own codependent behavior. Making this separation is difficult and explains why leaving is sometimes necessary as one seeks to develop healthier personal boundaries. The whole infrastructure of the priesthood demands that upon ordination, a priest is required to enter into an enmeshment with the church that makes the maintenance of healthy personal boundaries nearly impossible.
The archconservative shift during the past four decades is certainly more complex than the emotional health of priests. It also involves “post modernity”, a term that has been coined fairly recently. While the modern era hailed many positive developments for humanity, it also produced the horrors of the holocaust and nuclear warfare. The promises of the modern era have fallen short of expectations and society is struggling in this post-modern era to find a place in which to place hope.
Rapid social and technological change is also a characteristic of this era and is causing the ground on which we stand to shake. In their anxiety, people often fall prey to the easy black and white answers of fundamentalism to quench their existential angst. In Catholicism, it is found in papal/doctrinal fundamentalism, and in Protestantism, biblical/doctrinal fundamentalism. All are fear-based and promise security. Finding refuge in something more concrete, such as the Pope, doctrines or Biblical fundamentalism is easier than trusting the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us into the future. Creating idols are a perennial problem, especially during times of anxiety.
Pope Francis is certainly a breath of fresh air in a Church long stagnated by stuffy hierarchs who systematically closed windows Pope John XXIII and a generation of clergy tried to open during and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The progressive road on which the Council set the Church was found to be a threat to Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) and his theological watch dog Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to be known as Pope Benedict XVI.
The Council’s documents that empowered laity and opened the Church to the modern world would have, if implemented, accomplished much of what Francis is now talking about. However exciting it may be to hear his words, we know they are tempered by clerics who enjoy their dictatorial control and who are embedded in the Church’s archaic structures. These hierarchs are more than willing to wait until this holy Pope dies and they can more carefully elect one of their own kind.
Pope Francis understands that during the pontificate of his two predecessors, Catholicism drifted from religion into ideology and is now slowly imploding under its own weight. This ideology forfeited the Church’s universality in order to become a sect of like-minded conservatives. He said the Catholic Church is obsessed with abortion, gay people and contraception and its moral authority risks “falling like a house of cards” if it continues. Francis knows that hierarchs obsessed with pelvic area morality have used it to both divert attention from social sin and absolve themselves of social responsibility.
Keeping the spotlight on the pelvic region distracts attention from the fact that these bishops have wedded themselves to the American Empire of militarism and corporate greed. They stood idly by during one of the largest shifts of wealth in American history from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest ten percent. Their voice was largely silent as American soldiers were sent off to fight a war in Iraq that was clearly unjust. Why were they silent? Because of their Republican ideology.
With 40 to 50 million Americans uninsured and many more underinsured and struggling with bankruptcy as a result of rising healthcare costs, these bishops, acting as the right arm of the Republican Tea Party, went on an ideological binge with their “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign in an attempt to derail the Affordable Healthcare Act under the pretext of contraception. Catholics not part of their ideology felt ashamed as their bishops totally missed the boat of Christ’s compassion for the poor and those in need of healing. Only their mishandling of the clergy sex abuse crisis is more egregious. Blinded by their ideology, the rich history of Catholic healthcare ministry in America was discarded, and rather than being part of the hard work of implementing needed healthcare reform, they were part of the opposition. Thankfully, “Nuns on a Bus” heard the cry of Christ and stepped in the gap. But now they find themselves being investigated by these ideologues for not following Church teaching, which is to say, their ideology. If anything, these nuns should be investigating the bishops.
It is going to take far more than words to pull these bishops out of their ideological stupor. It’s no accident that the Republican Party and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops both lost their moderate voice. Similar voices that formed the Tea Party now dominate the USCCB. These voices will not be silent because they consider their ideology to be infallible. For them, the drift from faith to ideology is complete, regardless of what Pope Francis or the Gospels say. (See "Twenty Quotes from Pope Francis".)
These are the kind of bishops Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI systematically cultivated. Candidates had to pass a litmus test of pelvic centered morality and conservativism prior to being appointed. What these Popes wanted were ideologues, not pastors, and now Pope Francis is left with the mess.
The implementation of Vatican II will take leaders who are adhering to Christ, not ideology, which is difficult to find in the USCCB. Francis recently announced that pastors, not ideologues are to be appointed bishops. But after 35 years of the opposite, he has his work cut out for him.
Some have said that abandoning the reforms of the Council put the Church in schism and the conservatives are those on the outside. Perhaps this is why it seems that even Jesus has abandoned it and Pope Francis is so refreshing to see and hear. Only time will tell. Our prayers for Francis will continue.
“Reformation” entails reforming the faith, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as we walk into an unknown future. “Restoration” entails returning to a former golden era and restoring the past. Vatican II was about “reformation”, but what went on in Catholicism prior to Pope Frances was about "restoration”. Priests who understood this found themselves frustrated, disappointed and even ashamed of papal and episcopal leadership as they sought to restore a bygone era. Those who stayed often did so reluctantly and find contentment in their local ministry. Others, understandably, chose to leave. We will see if systemic reform is possible, but are not optimistic.
Our post-modern society requires a reformation movement within churches equal to, if not greater than, the reformation of the sixteenth century. It calls us to “walk on the water” of fear and anxiety with eyes of faith. Looking back and finding refuge in the past may bring a feeling of security, but will not withstand the tectonics of change or stop societal evolution. Catholicism and other ecclesiastical institutions unwilling to accompany this change are being left behind in a fundamentalist ghetto where their influence is reduced to occasionally proclaiming anathemas.
I remember a sermon given by a bishop during his installation in a diocese many years ago. He said that a bishop must not walk too far in front of or behind the people of God. Rather, he needs to walk in the middle of them. Unfortunately, papal decisions to choose far right archconservative bishops have them walking far behind the people of God and soon they will need binoculars to see them. Papal leadership these past thirty or so years has attempted to create a new center in the church. Archconservative is now conservative, conservative is now moderate and moderate is now liberal and liberal is, in effect, shut out of Catholicism. This is a strange development for a church that defines itself as “universal”. But, it has made it easier for progressive or liberal minded priests to leave, because they have a shorter distance to go and this, too, is by design.
Although the majority of priests ordained during the past twenty five or so years appear more conservative, I expect many from this group will also leave the priesthood as they become more inwardly referented and see the fallacy of Catholic fundamentalism. When ordained, I, too, was very conservative and never thought I would leave. But, as time progressed, I found myself more and more at odds with Church teachings, such as the ban on artificial birth control, which the laity had dismissed as irrelevant years earlier. But, I had to find this out for myself.
A few months after ordination, I remember organizing Natural Family Planning classes to be held Sunday evenings in the church basement with a certified NFP couple to teach. I preached about NFP at all three morning masses and included statements indicating that the Church considered the use of artificial methods of birth control to be sinful. That evening, two couples, out of about two hundred, attended. As the classes progressed, one of the couples quit and the other continued, not because of church law, but because of the health benefits of NFP. It became evident to me that the vast majority of couples had dealt with Church law and the birth control issue in their own consciences long before I arrived. I now look back with sadness that I had imposed such guilt upon people.
I lived in the conservative camp for the first few years of my priesthood, but slowly evolved out, because it seemed to be more about control than the message of Jesus. Jesus was very progressive in his day and violated all kinds of religious laws in order to show love and compassion. For Jesus, compassion always trumped legalism. Perhaps my spiritual director in the seminary saw my rigidity when he told me so many years ago: “Henry, when you die and appear before God, I hope he accuses you of being too compassionate. I would rather be accused of being too compassionate than too harsh and judgmental.” Amen. My only regret is not moving out of the conservative camp sooner and I now regret much of my earlier preaching.
Theology is not about “truth”. Rather, theology is developed by the Pope, bishops and pastors in order to support their emotional states, agendas and positions in ministry. I see this in myself. I have developed a theology that supports my leaving the priesthood, and believe it is “true”, just as I believed my conservative positions during my early years of ministry were also “true”. A classmate of mine did something similar, but went the other direction. He was very progressive in his thinking during our years together in the seminary and advocated the ordination of women and other such causes. I remember him overhearing a conversation I was having with a few other guys after class about the necessity of taking a tough stand in ministry and teaching what the Pope and Church taught. He walked up to us sarcastically singing this little ditty over and over: “The Pope, the Pope, our only hope. Without the Pope we have no hope.” It was very funny at the time. At any rate, now he’s involved in seminary formation and is on the other side of the theological spectrum. Why the change? He found it necessary to tow the Church’s line in order to support his present position in ministry. And there are bishops and pastors out there in all denominations doing the same. We just need to be more honest about it.
More conservative sisters and brothers among us will say that we are “relativists” and don’t believe there is absolute truth. We disagree. There is absolute truth, but it cannot be defined by any one person or institution. Rather than “relativism”, a better term is “pluralism”, which states that absolute truth is best discerned, understood and defined by a plurality of sectors. If a truth is indeed “absolute” or "universal", it should be recognizable within a plurality of perspectives.
My moral theology instructor in the seminary use to hammer away about how the Catholic Church alone possesses “objective truth”. But, if this truth is not perceived from a plurality of perspectives, it certainly is not objective; and because it is chosen primarily to support the Church’s agenda, its truthfulness is questionable. “Pluralism” insures an unbiased view that does not allow truth to be manipulated by any one institution to empower itself.
This is anathema within Catholicism and other religions or ideologies that claim to uniquely possess God’s truth, but “pluralism” is the future in our global society. Anything else, over the long haul, is tribalism and destined for division and conflict. This is clearly seen in Christianity’s bloody history and continues in our post 9/11 world. The long, dark and dangerous shadow of religion is cast most clearly by those with absolutist claims. Absolutism provides the illusion of control with its feeling of security for that particular “tribe”, but that’s all, and for many, that’s enough. However, no one tribe can lead our global society into the future and we are in desperate need of new and creative leadership.
Where the definition of truth really gets interesting for a priest is when you honestly ask yourself what church teachings you personally believe to be true and which ones you feel obliged or coerced into believing are true. When there are aspects of Catholicism you no longer find credible, you’re confronted with choices, which can either lead to freedom or the beginning of the loss of your integrity. This became evident for many of us with the ban on artificial birth control. It didn’t take long after ordination when we began to be more honest with ourselves and realized we no longer believed in it. As a presiding judge on the Matrimonial Tribunal, after reading case after case and rendering judgments, I began to see how unnecessary the whole process was and found it more and more difficult to explain to people why they had to endure it. As with the ban on artificial birth control, I found the necessity of an annulment to also be about the Church’s need to control and little else. After declaring their marriage null and void from the beginning, try explaining to a couple why their children born of that union are not illegitimate. After splitting theological hairs, you realize the absurdity of the whole process and the pain, rather than the healing, you’re causing.
After awhile, you begin to find other teachings, which no longer seem credible, such as mandated celibacy and Papal Infallibility. Also, the Church’s argument against women’s ordination becomes irrational when viewed objectively outside celibate male prejudice. Women have all the gifts necessary for priestly ministry, just not the right genitalia, which again shows an odd preoccupation with sexual function. Sadly, the Church teaches that it's not enough for women to be like Jesus, what they need to do for ordination is pee like Jesus.
If you are a priest, perhaps you can add other teachings to this list that you feel are losing their credibility. In this process, some would say you’re losing your faith, but, on the contrary, you’re not losing your faith, you’re finding it! Your faith is maturing and becoming your own, rather than being imposed by the Church and its agenda of control. This conflict of faith becomes inevitable when an institution expects assent to teachings that are irrational and unable to withstand the scrutiny of enlightened faith and logic. As your faith grows and matures, you join the majority of U.S. Catholics who are finding themselves increasingly outside what the Vatican has attempted to redefine as mainstream Catholicism.
Whenever a priest is expected to preach and teach what he no longer believes, or is beginning to seriously question, he’s on a collision course, not only with his conscience, but with his bishop, if his bishop is seeking papal affirmation. To make matters worse, he will find his faith becoming even less represented in the archconservative church in which he finds himself. Eventually, he will have to choose between freedom or further loss of his integrity.
We will see if Pope Francis is able to change this. But even if he does it is likely to be reinstated by is successor. If the constitution and by-laws of the Second Vatican Council can be ignored, his pontificate has little meaning.
When the Pope and bishops choose the irrationality of archconservative Catholic fundamentalism, in which most priests were not formed during their seminary preparation, moderate and progressive priests are faced with serious and difficult choices. They are expected to embrace a world view that is flawed and an affront to their conscience. It is primarily for this reason they are justified and guided by the Holy Spirit to leave the priesthood and do so as a prophetic act. If they stay, it’s an act of charity and sacrifice for an institution that takes more than it gives and has lost its way. For them, too, we pray and offer our support.
Our conservative friends would argue that Catholicism is “the true Church” precisely for its willingness to take unpopular stands, even if it means the loss of priests and other members. However, their primary allegiance is to what can only be described as Catholic fundamentalism. When priests begin to recognize this, they find they are expected to sacrifice their integrity for Church teaching that is considered “true” only because Church authority says it is. In any other setting it would be dismissed. While still in Catholic ministry, I remember thinking that I don’t mind sacrificing myself for the cause of Christ, but I’m no longer willing to do so for a church institution.
Perhaps Catholicism is reaching a time in history when schism is again necessary. It worked for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988, as people are now advocating for the Latin Tridentine mass to become normative. There are worse things than schism.
Within Catholicism, there is a growing rift between its leaders and membership. There is also a growing polarization, largely because of rising fundamentalism and the refusal of more progressive minded people to embrace it's world view. This has resulted in a “cold war”. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI decided that a smaller “universal” church is preferable to dialogue and reform. Therefore, the blame for this “war” rests primarily upon them. They have demonized and written off the “left”, which has emboldened and empowered the “far right”, causing a lot of damage in the Church.
Hopefully Pope Francis will see things differently and initiate substantial and systemic reform. But then his successor will probably retreat in fear at the prospect of really engaging the modern world with something other than anathemas.
Within Protestantism, its mainstream is also struggling in this “post-modern” era, but is finding its way. The hot topic issues of today are being openly discussed. Dialogue has not been silenced, as it has in the Catholic Church, resulting in a more honest church. Despite efforts for dialogue and understanding, sometimes divisions occur, which in the long run will probably prove to be healthy. The life of Christ indicates that not everything should be sacrificed for unity. Boundaries are being expanded within some denominations to receive gay and lesbian “Gentiles”, along with other outcasts of society, and, in this, I see Christ.
We do not enjoy pointing out errors within Catholicism and certainly do not consider our positions infallible. We are far from perfect. We are sharing these concerns because we care about Catholicism and its many good and faithful priests. Leaving the priesthood is not easy and we hope this website will be a resource for priests who feel trapped to find a way out with their heads held high, continuing to use their many gifts and experiences in whatever new life and ministry they find.
We are under no illusions that our writing reflects the views of all priests, but believe the majority of what has been written here represents the feelings of many who have left or remain in active ministry.
Transcending all this is God, in whom we have our hope and who is doing something different these days. Catholicism and Protestantism will look different fifty years from now. Much of what we are presently doing is not helpful to harmony and human progression. Furthermore, harmony will not be restored by absolutist religions that expect people to submit to their agendas. Those days have come to an end regardless of how loud they shout. People and the evolution of world societies are demanding something different, and the Holy Spirit is breaking forth in new ways.
Today, there is an emerging Christianity/Spirituality that cannot be stopped. It is more universal in scope and pluralistic in its quest for truth. Never before in the history of Christianity has there been such an interest in spirituality from outside organized religion, and this gives us hope.
"If God held all truth in his right hand and in his left the everlasting
striving after truth, so that I could always and everlastingly be mistaken,
and said to me, 'choose,' with humility I would pick the left hand and say,
'Father, grant me that, Absolute truth is for thee alone."
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
"Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth."
If by chance this website should somehow penetrate the walls of Cathedrals or even the Vatican, we hope it is read prayerfully and with an open mind.
Within the Church during the last several centuries, there has been a kind of divine status given to the Pope with an accompanying Infallibility creep into most everything the Pope says. Prior to the 8th century, the papacy used the title "Vicar of Saint Peter" or "Vicar of the Chief of the Apostles" to describe itself. Following the 8th century, the title "Vicarius Christi", meaning, the "Vicar of Jesus Christ" was taken. A "vicar" is a representative, deputy or substitute; anyone acting "in the person of" or agent for a superior. (Wikipedia)
It is time for the papacy to acknowledge that ascribing "Vicar of Jesus Christ" unto itself was a grasp for power that has led to a kind of papal idolatry. This blurring of the distinction between Peter and Jesus Christ needs to be corrected. Try as you may to explain Papal Infallibility, in the end it is nothing but a form of idolatry. How does one call Jesus Christ to accountability? The Church would gain more respect by dropping this foolish claim, especially since it has been proven to be in error on so many occasions.
The claim to Infallibility is not necessary unless the agenda is power and control.
In the scriptures, Jesus not only affirmed Peter, he also rebuked and corrected him. Where is Christ's voice of correction to "Peter" in the Church today?
Has the ecclesiastical dogma of Infallibility silenced Christ?
Cardinals, archbishops and bishops, where are your voices? Your silence has forced thousands of good priests out of ministry, because of laws that many of you know desperately need changing. Your silence is also putting many other priests, sisters and laity on a collision course with their consciences as the Church drifts further into archconservative Catholic fundamentalism. Many priests have found it necessary to leave and many who stay find it necessary to distance themselves from this authoritarian and wayward Church in order to find emotional health and peace.
Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:12-18
Much of what has been written on this Website may seem harsh to some people. We all want to live in love and unity as the scripture passage above encourages. But, it also calls us to teach and admonish one another. When faced with unyielding oppressive ecclesiastical leadership, which has elements of idolatry, words of challenge are necessary. The famous words of Pope Paul VI ring true today for those who pull the levers of power in the Church:
"If you want peace, work for justice."
Pope Francis is a refreshing fragrance in a stale Church, a warm breeze on a cold winter's day. But then, so was the Second Vatican Council, which supposedly had more authority than a pope, and most of its reforms were abandoned. The shift in the locus of power for systemic change necessary for its implementation to occur was too great a threat for subsequent popes and their advisors.
Abandoning the reforms of the Second Vatican Council put the Church in schism and the conservatives are those on the outside. Perhaps this is why it seems that even Jesus has abandoned it and Pope Francis is so refreshing to see and hear. Only time will tell. Our prayers for Francis will continue.
To the Bishops and Cardinals in opposition to reform, you have abandoned the Crucified who engaged the world and brought about redemption. He was crucified because of his universal love, not your fundamentalist little world. You have nothing to say to the modern world other than anathemas, which is to say, you are irrelevant. You are afraid of the modern world and long for your own fundamntalist ghetto. You will certainly find it, but will lose your claim to Universality, as well as One and Holy. Christ has moved on.
The Vatican recently created extraordinary procedures for Anglican priests to convert to Catholicism and serve as married priests. These procedures to proselytize Anglicans amplify the hierarchy’s oppression of other Catholic priests who would welcome the freedom to marry. Perhaps no other policy in the Church is as irrational and insulting to priests than this one. This, along with the Church's regression into Catholic fundamentalism, are creating a “Crisis of Conscience” among priests. In this environment, some find themselves having to separate the will of God from the ecclesiastical institution, an easy job for laity, but not so easy for priests in a Church that demands their enmeshment.
The governance of the Church since the Second Vatican Council has contributed to this crisis. Under the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, “The Church in the Modern World" has been reduced to a ghetto of like-minded conservatives. This is particularly true within the hierarchy where “conservative group-think" has replaced the richness of “Universality”.
Why has the Church turned in on itself? In one word, "Fear". The fear of change, fear of modernity, fear of progressives, fear of liberals, fear of women, fear of losing control, and the fear of the future are destroying the Church.
On the other hand, this has created an opportunity for priests. It is easier for a priest to leave the priesthood when he realizes the Church has gone astray.
The hierarchy has so institutionalized fear that they consider it virtue. They consider themselves God’s faithful remnant and are doing everything possible to ensconce the institution within this mentality. Any priest who is aware of the problem and thinks he can stay and fix it is mistaken. At best, he can work at making his local congregation one of openness and inclusivity, but he knows a younger priest will one day replace him and probably undo his work.
Faith is a remedy to fear but it is difficult to express fully within the Church. Why? Because what the hierarchy considers to be authentic faith is so limited. Many priests are living under a kind of house arrest. Like Galileo, they are looking through their metaphorical telescope and seeing much farther than they know is acceptable. The voice of Christ rings in their hearts that it is true and they are not mistaken. Silence is difficult, and so for many, it’s time to leave.
For priests looking for someone to communicate about transitioning, here are some helpful links:
To communicate with authors of this Website, email Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you know of others who may be interested, please forward this website to them. Check out the "Posts" link located on the top left side of the home page for the interesting and inspiring transitions of other priests. More of their journeys will be added as they are submitted.
If you would like to submit a post, please email it to the address above.
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