It’s all right for the groundhog to become enamored of his own shadow, but it’s unbecoming in Catholic clergy. Narcissism, I fear, is weakening the Church. We did not need a papal pronouncement to recognize that every cultural thermometer today reads a cooling towards organized religion and a rising social temperature for consumerism, sexual exploitation, and immediate gratification. I understand why there would be a tendency to “write off” a sinful world to focus on an inner-directed faith primarily concerned with one’s own salvation. I just believe that narcissism – even if it is clerical and spiritual – can go awry.
I was prompted to sound this alarm when reading about the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. The group describes itself as “an association of 600 Roman Catholic Priests and Deacons pledged to the pursuit of personal holiness, loyalty to the Roman Pontiff, commitment to theological study and strict adherence to the authentic teachings of the Magisterium.”
Absent from their list of priorities is the Gospel, pastoral concern for lay Catholics, or commitment to social justice teachings. I have no reason to doubt that these priests would outshine me in personal holiness and outdo me in virtue. Perhaps they would say that Gospel values are already included when pledging loyalty to the Roman Pontiff or that they do not view the pursuit of personal holiness as opposed to ministry. But the Confraternity must assume responsibility not only for what it says, but also for how it is understood.
I am concerned about those who pretend that clerical narcissism is sanctity. Spiritualities often emerge in response to the particular problem of a certain age, as for instance the Franciscan Movement that was an antidote to the medieval Church’s opulence. But not every spirituality has benefited the Church: Even being a conservative Catholic is no guarantee against heretical errors, as happened with Fr. Feeney and Archbishop Lefebvre.
I see clerical narcissism developing today, especially among some younger clergy and seminarians. I remember one pastor telling me that thirty years ago, a new curate would be so eager to engage in parish duties that suitcases and boxes would remain unpacked for months. Today, he said, a newly assigned priest might spend weeks decorating his quarters with creature comforts before engaging in ministry to the people.
In one parish, the 73 year-old pastor scheduled a turn of duty at the weekly Bingo and the Cub Scout bake sale, only to be told by the newly assigned priest: “I am ordained for ministry, not for social work.” The young, under-thirty cleric remained in his room, apparently “saving the world,” while the elderly pastor worked double shifts to pay the parish’s bills.
I was in a pizza restaurant when a *priest dressed in cassock walked in to eat lunch. Note: It was not the Roman collar and black clergy shirt: it was the full cassock. I have heard defenses of always wearing clerical garb as “witness to the world” and a sign of respect for the transcendent effect of Holy Orders. But in psychological terms, this was just an excuse to say “Look at ME!” When such narcissism is matched by behavior, it reduces the effectiveness of ministry.
Participating in a Church-sponsored ecumenical committee years ago, there were 10 of us trying to fashion a document of Christian solidarity. At the end of the first day, the priest in charge suggested a mass for just the team. But when the Methodist went to receive communion, Father admonished him saying things like “You know, I must uphold the teachings of the Church…..” Theology aside, the priest should never have allowed that moment to develop. It may have made Father feel that he was in control of the team, but, as the next day proved, it alienated all the lay people – immensely. Sermons that project Catholic life as nothing more than blind obedience to laws run the same risk.
From the Catholic America perspective of the pews, doubts are rising about the quality of some priests. To be clear, I don’t accuse the Confraternity and groups like it for causing clerical narcissism. But I fear that self-centered definitions of the priestly vocation are problematic.
*p.s. The pizza cassock guy and his companions were kicked out of the diocese.