Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Loving priests

The older I get, the less I am prepared to go in thundering against those I consider to be evil doers. I hope this is humility rather than complacency. One rarely if ever knows all the facts, even of the most public cases. The problem is all the worst in the case of priests who sometimes know things they cannot reveal. I wonder if our passion for total disclosure comes from our living in the information age. Least said, soonest mended, is a counsel honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

Neverthless, I have been scratching my head with increasing frustration in the last few days over the conduct of some of the clergy. I was dumbfounded at the nerve-shrivelling melodrama of Fr John Corapi's public self-exile. I'm not underestimating how difficult it is to sit accused of wickedness and be subject to a system in which one appears guilty until proven innocent. I'm just amazed at his lack of judgment, his appalling self promotion, and, let us say it, at his cloth-eared sense of what makes a good, heroic moniker. The Black Sheep Dog sounds a bit like 'The Black Vegetable', if you know what I mean. He is seriously in danger of looking thoroughly absurd. We can only pray he rediscovers not only his sense of obligation to the Church but his sense of proportion.

At a much more serious level, I have between tea breaks and lunch today watched the BBC's latest documentary on priest abusers: Abused: Breaking the Silence. Not for the faint hearted, this documentary lays out accusations, many of them admitted by those accused, of sexual abuse by four Rosminian priests in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of them, Fr Kit Cunningham, later became a minor celebrity, served in Saint Elthelreda's in London, and earned an MBE which he returned last year to the Palace without any explanation. He died in late 2010.

Peter Stanford is wringing his hands in palpable confusion over this news. He wonders whether he can ever trust a priest again; if he was so wrong about Fr Cunningham, how can he ever trust his judgment in the future? I sympathise with Stanford but do not agree. The preparation for celibacy which seminarians go through these days is considerably more sophisticated than it was in the 1950s. The less formal nature of social mores also, arguably, creates a more supportive context in which priests and religious can live out their celibate vocation. The standards of child care and safeguards against abuse in the Catholic Church in this country easily compare to anything available in civil society.

But why is the fall of Frs Corapi and Cunningham so devastating for so many people? Undoubtedly some suffer directly through their actions: in Corapi's case, those who have been inspired by him; in Cunningham's case, those who have been abused by him. Yet in some way, we all are touched by their actions. The Church suffers because their sins stain the icon of Christ which they are supposed to embody. The world suffers because even though it had its doubts about such an icon, to find that they have fallen means there is a little less hope in the world at large.

It all underlines the importance of support for our priests, of the need not to be too hasty in judgment, of the need not to isolate them out of a false sense of hierarchy. If you want to make people good, the first thing you have to do is to love them, i.e. to see them as God sees them.

I pray that Fr Corapi comes to his senses. I pray that the Rosminians do the right thing by the victims of their members. Other than that what can one do except wonder at the God who gave such power to men?


Tancred said...

The Senseless Blonde strikes again.

GOR said...

I’m always apprehensive when I see priests becoming ‘celebrities’ or achieving some sort of ‘fame’ in the world at large. Whether the fame comes from his preaching or from those with whom he associates (one Irish priest is known as the “chaplain to the stars” – ugh!), it can be a minefield. The adulation of the crowd is a powerful intoxicant and any time we become intoxicated we cease to see things clearly. We all like being liked and priests, being human, are not immune to praise and popularity.

There are dangers both for the priest and for his ‘fans’. For the priest, when he starts believing the ‘reviews’ and for the faithful when they become too attached to him instead of to Whom he represents. Some can carry it off successfully. One thinks of a Fr. John Hardon or a Bishop Fulton Sheen. But others cannot and inevitably it catches up with them.

The Holy Father’s repeated admonition to theologians to cultivate humility applies to all priests – and indeed to all of us. We shouldn’t try to be more than we are, or allow others to put us on a pedestal. We may not be as bad as we could be, but we’re seldom as good as people may think we are.

Ches said...

By all means make an argument, Tancred. Otherwise, go and play elsewhere.

Ches said...

Well said, GOR.

JARay said...

I fully concur with what you have written Ches. I am disappointed in Fr. Corapi. It seems to me that his priesthood comes second to his business interests. As for the dead, they are in the hands of God. What's that Latin saying..."De mortuis nihil, nisi bonum".

Ches said...

My wife tells me some people were angry after Fr Cunnigham died that his Memorial Requiem Mass in January was not an all-singing, all-dancing affair. I suppose now we know why. The problem is, however, that his victims live on, and their coming to grips with what happened necessarily involves talking about him. Ultimately, we can only pray, for them and for him.

Anonymous said...

What is even more absurd is all the handwringing over a chosen moniker, explained pretty plainly as a combination of the label, black sheep, as considered by the great number of progressive clergy, and sheep dog, as protecter of the vulnerable innocent from the latter. Good grief. When our current Pope was known as God's rotweiler - image and all even a bit scarier than a sheep dog for crying out loud - it rang a rather approving bell from those particular "fans".

If this is the best commentary on the main and most serious subject of human civil rights for our priests caught in a man made reactionary "process", itself contrary to Canon Law,then we have a very limiting and glib "American" church standing alone, divorced, and without much foundation left from the universal one.

Anagnostis said...

I don't know anything at all about Fr Corapi, apart from the emetically stupid "Fr Corapi Question", beloved of the Catholic Answers crowd: "So you think you know better than the Pope?"

Ches said...


First, I'm not aware that the Pope labelled himself as God's rottweiler. This is crucial incidentally, not only as a question of simple humility but also ecclesially speaking. If you want to talk Canon Law, you might consider that nobody appoints himself to his own mission.

As for your second argument, I am not American and have no interest in supporting a glib American church standing alone - not that it's very clear what you mean. Fr Corapi's objections to the process appear both precipitate and highly insensitive to the deep, deep trouble that the Catholic Church is currently in on this whole question. The worst he has said appears to be that the process is inquisitorial rather than by advocacy. But I agree with the view taken by varous priests who have commented on this matter: this ridiculous declaration of self-exile is a scandal. He's blown it, and the sooner he realises it and repents, the better for everyone.

Ches said...

Highly ironic? Yes, Anagnostis. Emetically stupid? Not exactly.

Anonymous said...

I think it is telling that many Priest bloggers such as Father Z are unwilling to light into Father Corapi. To me, that says there is definitively a sense of helplessness most Priests feel. However, the Priesthood has always been viciously attacked by the devil, often times at the hands of Bishops. I think that is what strikes me as so depressing: here is a chance, if one is truly innocent, to over up much reparation to the Sacred Heart, particularly to rectify what these moral monsters did to Children with the sacramental seal of Ordination on their souls. That seems to be what the Saints of the Church have always done. And we could really use some Saints right now. No hatred toward Fr. Corapi need be read into that, only that we had hoped for something inspiring and profitable, and got something human and frail instead. Many prayers to Fr. Corapi and all Priest accused, rightly or wrongly, of such vicious crimes.


Ches said...

Well said, Bo. That Fr Corapi has not taken that line is, to my mind, highly significant.