Spirit Daily


Disrespect For Clergy Is Result Of Both A Secular Society And Lack Of Devotion

There it was, on a front page, in cold print.

"There was a time when Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, leader of the largest Roman Catholic diocese in the United States, was a formidably influential political figure," reported The Los Angeles Times last week -- in what should be seen as a sign of our times. "A decade ago, he was a member of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's inner circle and the spiritual leader of a growing community with exponentially expanding power.

"Today, Mahony remains one of the region's most recognized leaders and a sought-after voice on certain issues. But time, scandal, and the shifting demographics of Los Angeles politics have diminished Mahony's might to the point that his recent remonstrations — in which he took to task Fabian Nuñez, the speaker of the California Assembly, for endorsing an assisted suicide bill — have served more to emphasize Mahony's weakness than to deter Nuñez."

Inside and outside the Church, a crisis has risen. It is a crisis of respect.

There are the Catholic websites that openly chastise bishops. There is the Fox News host -- a Catholic -- who called a priest a "nut." There are the politicians who openly defy Church teaching.

There are the newspapers that refer to the cardinal or bishop by last name only in the body of an article, not just a headline, where there may not be room (see the Times report above) -- instead of with "Cardinal" (or "Bishop") in front of it.

Back in the old days, they treated clergy differently.

"Stand when he enters the room and remain standing until he invites you to sit," stated one protocol for the treatment of bishops. "Men must remove their hats in his presence. When it is your own Bishop, kneel on your left knee and kiss ring as sign of respect for his office. If kneeling would be awkward or impossible, or if he is not your own Bishop, bow at the waist and kiss his ring (do not do either if the Pope is present). Repeat reverential gestures when leaving his presence."

For priests?

"Stand when he enters the room and remain standing until he invites you to sit. Men must remove their hats in his presence. If a priest visits your home, it is customary to ask for his blessing; the simple words, 'Father, bless' are fine. When blessed by a priest, kneel on both knees until he is finished. It is also customary for many people, especially those in Latin cultures, to kiss the priest's hand to honor the Eucharist, as they alone are able to consecrate (unless the Pope is present)."

Today we see a different situation. Bishops are confronted, or publicly attacked -- including by those who call themselves faithful. Priests are humiliated. There are cartoons that lampoon the Pope. There are complaints from the faithful.

Some of it the clergy have brought on themselves.

There is too much distance. There are homilies that don't seem to connect. There is an aloofness that goes beyond the necessary distance a priest must keep.

There is the element of pride: arrogance swept into the clergy, manifesting most blatantly in the abuse of youngsters, which then led, as the newspaper pointed out, to the lack of respect.

But there is also the evil rampant in our culture: no one is more powerful against the devil than a Catholic clergyman -- not evangelists, not televised preachers, not famous Protestant healers -- and so they are targets of the devil, who in the current battle has aimed his first darts against them, isolating clergy anyway he could isolate them.

It is a culture that has sought to make priests feel ridiculous -- and to make anyone thinking about the seminary feel like they are left out or missing out, like priests believe in something that is antiquated.

That caused many seminaries to adopt a more worldly approach -- to train priests to be more intellectual than prayerful, and here we come to a key root of the current crisis.

A book issued by an institute founded by the Catholic Medical Association argues forcefully that it has been a straying from devotion that in fact is most to blame for the crisis.

"A spiritual malaise and the concurrent collapse in ascetical discipline in the middle of the twentieth century created psychologically untenable conditions for many priests and bishops," says the group, known as the Linacre Institute.

"This malaise, which remains with us, was the prime effect of the failure of religious purpose and discipline and its most visible signs were a defiance of religious authority, the precipitous decline in seminary enrollments, and the uniquely sexual features of the scandal.

"Ascetical discipline was practiced better in the first half of the twentieth century when the purpose of religion was embraced and misconduct by priests was rare. What changed between the first and second halves of the twentieth century were not the management policies on sex abuse and secrecy at all costs -- these remained a constant throughout -- nor do we have evidence to show that the personality features of seminarians or priests changed in any fundamental way that would account for the nature and the magnitude of the crisis -- in its early stages at least.

"Rather, the core change over the course of the twentieth century was one of purpose or allegiance -- leaving behind ascetical discipline, having disdain for religious tradition, and adopting the therapeutic mentality, a popular belief that fulfillment of the human person springs from emotional desire in a quest for self-definition, or self-actualization, without regard to an objective philosophical, religious or moral truth. Further, the therapeutic mentality views sin as a social concern and discourages loyalty to religious authority; it is profoundly anti-ascetical."

Our priests must be taught to pray. They must be devotional. They must  appreciate Adoration.

Many of them do; too many do not.

Nonetheless, disrespecting a priest or bishop or cardinal (it is "His Eminence") is a disgrace.

Priests are in large part exceptional men -- exceptionally holy, self-sacrificing men -- but a crisis lingers.

The intellectual replaced the spiritual and there is the effort to be "cool" in a secular society.

Let us end with this example from a letter posted by a woman named Camille Giglio in the California Catholic Daily:

"My husband and I own a second home in Pacific Grove next door to Monterey in the Monterey diocese. The Catholic church in Pacific Grove is called St. Angela Merici’s. We arrived in Pacific Grove in 1999, just as a church remodeling was being completed. It was right after Easter. The person who gave the homily was a youngish man, newly baptized, whose talk focused on what should be corrected in the Catholic Church of which he was now a part.

"Our next venture into the church was on a Sunday during football season. At the end of Mass, the pastor’s dog accompanied him down the aisle with a doggie blanket on his back that said 'Go ’Niners.' Parishioners petted him as he padded down the aisle.  [Photo at left is from parish website].

"This Easter Sunday we made the mistake of returning to St. Angela’s to find the situation even more bizarre, if that’s possible. In the intervening years, the old dog died (we were treated to a sermon on the pet’s death one Sunday by a visiting priest). There is now a new dog -- a fully-grown Rhodesian Ridgeback. It is well trained, and sits in the aisle attached to a leash for Mass.

"During [the pastor's homily], the Resurrection was likened to bunnies hopping, butterflies leaving their cocoon and baby chicks breaking out of their eggshells.

"The best chuckle from the audience came when father pulled something out of his vestment pocket, simulating a baby chick, which then peeped. This presentation was received with a loud round of applause.

"During the kiss of peace, Father went up to his dog and scratched him on the head before circulating all around the church shaking hands with parishioners...  There was so much talking and walking around that it seemed that no one was paying attention to the consecration anyway.

"Also, during the consecration the choir was singing a lovely church song. At one point father stopped what he was doing, pulled his vestments away from his chest and whistled into his mike, imitating a baby chick peeping.

"As [the priest] and his entourage left the altar, he took the dog’s leash in hand and they walked side by side down the aisle and out the door, with people greeting and petting the dog."

We love dogs also. And often we all should lighten up. Sometimes, however, it goes too far. We say this with all respect.


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