At times, priests reveal intimate secrets about themselves from the pulpit. I’ve always hesitated to do so mostly because a sermon should be about Jesus, and innermost secrets and feelings are none of your business. But there are certain advantages that a priest has in the twilight of his priesthood. The expanding mosaic of his experiences – good and bad – can provide others with useful insights.
Parishioners notice many uncomfortable details about priests, ranging from personal hygiene to personality quirks. Depending upon circumstances, a pastor may have a duty to affirm or deny rumors for the sake of tranquility, and transparency. These acknowledgments can be painful but necessary. So here is one of my many secrets: I am a conservative.
I prefer the term “Catholic.” But since I have an obligation before God to conserve and preach what I have received, after careful consideration, I have come to accept the conservative characterization.
But I wasn’t “born that way.” My Baltimore Catechism upbringing, my undergraduate training in philosophy and logic, and even my professional grasp of accounting – that debits must always equal credits – contributed to a conservative understanding of words and reality. Honesty and realism are the stuff of a traditionalist spirit. Nonetheless, the life of a conservative is not without real conflict.
Years ago, over lunch, a retired priest dismissed me as an “arch-conservative.” Puzzled, I questioned the venerable old man. Did he consider me a heretic? No. Did he disagree with me on any doctrinal matter? No. Was he referring to my political positions, if he knew them? No. Did he object to my preference for traditional Catholic practices? No. What, then, is an arch-conservative? No answer.
I concluded that a “conservative” dares to vocalize the hard truths of Church teaching, and an “arch-conservative” – like the priests who deny pro-abortion politicians Communion – acts on his beliefs. Of course, conservative testimony may be more imprudent or contrarian than courageous. But even if the delivery isn’t picture-perfect, bold witness comes with a priest’s job description. “Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we too believe, and so we speak.” (2 Cor. 4:13)
Many Gospel passages boldly challenge and deeply disturb souls. Years ago, a permanent deacon read the Gospel and preached the homily during a Mass I celebrated. The Gospel included this phrase: “every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt. 5:31-32)
To avoid controversy, the deacon ignored the passage in his homily and preached his customary platitudes. After Mass, an irate parishioner – failing to distinguish between the sermon and the Gospel text – lambasted him for suggesting certain behavior was adulterous. The Gospel not only provokes consciences but can even implicate hesitant and timid messenger boys.
The new secular moral world order is far more demanding and unforgiving than the Ten Commandments. Violations of political correctness provoke mean-spiritedness, hate, and intolerance. The politically incorrect is an unforgivable infraction of the politics of inclusion, and respectable society must banish all offenders.
Even children are not immune. Recently, prominent banks withheld scholarship money from Christian schools because of their religious opposition to gender ideology.
Perhaps, for the sake of peace, priests should insist that the Ten Commandments are not their personal opinions. They are merely delivery boys, reporting to parishioners what God teaches us through His Church.
After all, priests and people alike fail to live up the demands of the Ten Commandments. We all hope for a patient, kindly, and an understanding priest for Confession. Not to put too fine a point on it, we might argue that if you disagree with the Ten Commandments, do not crucify the messengers. You actually want to crucify the Divine Author.
Alas, Jesus even has an uncomfortable answer to that scheme: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (John 15:20)
Contrary to the dogmas of political correctness and heterodoxy within the Church, intolerance is not exclusively a conservative vice. The breakdown in the seminary system over the last fifty years is old news, though there seem to be recent improvements. (Most senior priests like me are too far out of the loop to know for sure.) But some of us recall past intolerance of Catholic orthodoxy and still have our seminary PTSD flashbacks.
In 1984, as a new seminary recruit, I attended a day of recollection at a retreat house in the Midwest. Over beverages and snacks that evening, the conversation turned to the hot theological topics of the day. I boldly weighed in on the questions of celibacy and the ordination of women, supporting Church teaching. But I unwittingly violated a taboo and paid the price.
The vocations secretary breezily dismissed me with, “Jerry, you’re so conservative.” I responded with good cheer. “You flatter me.” But the rest of the evening, I found myself excluded from the conversation by seminarians who likely feared guilt by association. It was an early encounter with the soft tyranny of institutional theological dissent. In those days, many counted on the “spirit of Vatican II” (not the texts) to change the Church. Dismayed and isolated, I returned to the dormitory room and retired.
By and by, there was a gentle knock on the door; it was a young seminarian. He introduced himself and asked: “Doesn’t it bother you that they think of you as conservative? So am I, but I haven’t told them!”
In time, I moved on to happier ecclesial hunting grounds and lost track of the young Nicodemus, who always kept his distance, publicly at any rate. In recent years, he was consecrated a bishop. Maybe he has come out of the closet.
The “conservative” label may be distracting and an invitation for controversy. But preaching the truth and acting on it is a Catholic thing – and the cause for hope.
*Image: Priest (from the Ordination Series) by Neilson Carlin, 2010 [Commissioned for Saint Paul Seminary, Saint Paul, MN. Visit https://www.neilsoncarlin.com]