Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
I would like to make, as a parish priest in trenches, a few remarks concerning the Pope’s recent statements in Rome at a gathering of priests and seminarians. Others have admirably remarked on his troubling remarks on marriage and cohabitation. I will not add to those. But I would like to focus on two other reported remarks the Pope made about priests to the effect that some of us are cruel, are putting our noses into people’s moral life and possibly that he even called some of us animals.
And while most of these remarks, recorded and widely reported, were not included, or were “adjusted” in the Vatican transcript, they cannot simply be unsaid. And even the clarifications remain troubling.
I write these remarks simply as a parish priest. I am not a canonist and certainly not a reporter. I react simply as a priest to what has been reported all week, and write here the reaction of one man and priest—me.
First, it is reported that the Pope said pastors should not be “putting our noses into the moral life of other people.”
Permit me to state my utter bewilderment at such a notion. As a priest, and especially as a confessor and spiritual director this is my duty! It is true that I am not to unnecessarily pry into the private lives of parishioners. But surely there is a requirement that as a confessor and a pastor I have some sense of the moral life of those to whom I minister.
Consider a medical analogy. Suppose a patient comes to a doctor with breathing difficulties and chest pains. Surely the doctor will inquire as to the person’s lifestyle. Does he smoke? Did he ever smoke? What sort of food is being consumed? Does he exercise? What is his weight and what are his vital signs? Is a doctor putting his nose into the private life of the patient, or is he seeking necessary information? Of course the answer is clear, and he must have the info both to diagnose and set forth a proper medical plan of action.
It is no less the case with a priest who is exercising spiritual care. He has the duty to know and assist the faithful in their moral life. Thus if a baptism form indicates cohabitation, or single motherhood, he has a duty to teach. If, in confession, he finds evidence of sinful drives, or moral irregularities he must address them and set forth a pastoral plan for a soul in need. If a couple comes to him cohabiting, he must discuss this with them, explain why it is wrong and should stop and set forth the truth that alone sets us free. To fail to do so is not kindness, it is malpractice! This is not “putting our nose into the moral life of others;” it is engaging in a moral and pastoral conversation with souls in need. This is pastoral care, not snooping. Surely a priest should not seek for impertinent details, but no diagnosis or plan can be helpful without the basic facts at hand.
The “official transcript” of the Vatican wisely removed these remarks, but still, they were widely reported and have given fodder both to critics of priests who seek to faithfully preach the moral vison of the faith and also, at the opposite spectrum, of the Pope.
Secondly as “widely reported” by Crux and others, during a question-and-answer session towards the end of the meeting, Francis spoke of a “pastoral cruelty,” such as priests who refuse to baptize the children of young single mothers. “They’re animals,” he said.
Here too the Vatican sought to “clarify” these remarks and the “official transcript” says that the Pope actually meant to say that priests treat single parents as animals, not that priests were animals. (More on the spun remarks in a moment.) But the recorded and reported remarks have the Pope calling priests whose prudential judgments do not match his, “cruel” and “animals”.
First, let me say that I know of very few priests who deny baptism to infants born to single mothers. Most priests I know are very generous in extending baptism to infants, realizing that they are not responsible for the sins or shortcomings of their parents. Those who do, at times, delay baptism do so for other reasons, such as little evidence for a well-founded hope that the child will be raised in the faith. There are some prudential judgments to be made and pastors are required to make them (see canon 868). Again, most priests are very gracious with baptism.
But it is beyond lamentable that the Pope, as initially reported, should have called priests (or any human being for that matter) “animals.” Such a word should never have come out of his mouth, and I would hope for an apology for this offensive characterization, not merely a Vatican “clarification.” I certainly have some differences with brother priests, I would call my differences with dissenting priests significant. But this does not permit me to call them animals, and the Pope, who seems to have done so, has no business doing it either. Admittedly the recorded comments are hard to follow, but the cleansed Vatican transcript is more in the mode of “Let’s pretend this was never said as recorded” rather than a clear denial—“The Pope wants to say he not consider priest animals, even though he thinks some are too hard-lined on this matter.”
It will be admitted that Pope Gregory (in his Pastoral Rule) once said that silent priests who failed to rebuke sinners were like “dumb dogs that cannot bark.” But he was using a metaphor, and quoting Scripture. He did not univocally call them dogs, he said they were “like” or in the mode of dumb dogs that cannot warn of danger. But there is nothing in this recent Pope’s comments that suggests metaphor or simile. He just outright called priests whose prudential judgments he doubts “animals”. “They’re animals” he said.
I pray that never again will we hear reported such a rude and unnecessary remark from this pope or any pope. No human person should be called an animal by a pope or any anyone, for that matter. Metaphors and similes have their place in human discourse, but to univocally call a fellow human being and animal is out of line.
But let’s consider the post hoc assessment of the remark wherein some prefer to say he apparently intended to say that some priests treat children (or possibly their unwed mothers) as “animals.”
Well, count me as less than relieved by this explanation. Again let me note that delaying a baptism merely due to the parents being unwed is rare in my experience (and hence a strawman argument). But it remains highly disrespectful to say that priests who delay baptism (usually for a number of reasons) are treating others as animals and are cruel.
Thus even the “spun” remarks are unhelpful at best and divisive at worst.
Please, Holy Father: Enough of these ad hoc, off-the-cuff, impromptu sessions, whether at thirty thousand feet or at ground level. Much harm through confusion has been caused by these latest remarks on marriage, cohabitation, baptism, confession, and pastoral practice. Simply cleaning the record in the official transcript is not enough; this is an era of instant reportage and lots of recording devices, tweets, and Instagrams.
Just this priest’s perspective. But I can assure you, dear reader, that the impact hits priests hard, and I cannot deny a certain weariness and discouragement at this point. I realize that such remarks of the Pope are not doctrinal, but just try and tell that to gleeful dissenters and the morally confused or misled in this world.
Let us pray for our Holy Father and for the universal Church.