A Question from a Frustrated Reader

She writes:

I'm writing to you because I'm a regular reader of your blog at the National Catholic Register, and you often address readers' pertinent questions in it. I'm part of a group of Catholic bloggers, and a few of us have been to Masses recently where the celebrants have made upsetting comments, some of which have even bordered on denying the teaching authority of the church.

I cannot speak to the experiences of the others, but my own experience involved a homily in which the priest said that the Magisterium was not the only legitimate teaching authority in the Church, and that because the Church has changed her positions on matters such as slavery, the lay faithful should support theologians whose ideas will change the Church for the better. This was specifically in reference to Sr. Margaret Farley and her book, "Just Love", because of the recent assessment of it from the CDF, which he said ought not to have censured Sr. Farley because she stated she was not writing a book about the official Catholic stance on sexuality. I was upset by what he said, because saying one isn't writing on authentic Catholic teaching doesn't prevent people from being led astray by the work. Additionally, I thought he was misrepresenting Church teachings and authority, and Sr. Farley. I wanted to walk out of the Mass, but did not, and was told by a priest I trust that unless a celebrant is preaching heresy, it is probably wrong to walk out of a valid Mass. I would like to write to the Vicar of Priests for my archdiocese about the incident, but without tangible proof of what the priest said in his homily, I'm afraid it would do no good.

I have a few questions for you. In a situation like the one I mentioned, would it be proper to leave the Mass for a short while to calm down, and then come back in? In the same situation, would it even be appropriate to write to the Vicar of Priests to tell him what happened? If not, is there any way to make the situation more tolerable? Unfortunately, I don't have the option of attending Mass at another church, but I don't want to be distracted from the Mass by more homilies like this.

I would greatly appreciate any answer you could give me. Thank you for taking the time to read this email, and please be assured of my prayers for you and your readers.

There are several approaches you could take here in order to act with both truth and charity.  The first, of course, is to assume the good will of your priest till you have good reason to think otherwise.  This means taking your feelings and giving them, as far as possible, to God and asking him to help you respond with light instead of anger.  A resolution to forgive him in the event he is found *not* to be acting in good will should accompany this and you must, of course, ask for the grace of God to help you carry through on such a resolution since ill will (as distinct from merely ignorantly parroting something he thought was legitimate Catholic variety of opinion) is a deeper level of corruption.

Once you have done the attitude check on yourself--making sure that you are resolved to approach him in love and with a spirit of support and not hostile confrontation which is the most surefire way possible to short-circuit any possibility of rapprochement, then you can approach him.  The goal is speaking the truth in love.  How you approach the truth can be done a number of way.  One way, for instance, is to appeal to the better angels of his nature and say not, "You're wrong!" but "When you said X, it hurt and confused me.  I thought Y is the teaching of the Chiurch."  If you state Y is the teaching of the Church, be sure that it in fact *is* the teaaching of the Church and not merely an opinion popular with a lot of Catholics.  So, for instance, while it is true that the Magisterium is the teaching office of the Church and we are to subordinate our opinions to it, it is also the case that sometimes there are minority voices in the Church that preserve authentic Catholic teaching while the Magisterium is making up it's mind.  Classic example: Athanasius contra mundi.  While the bulk of the episcopacy was wimping out on the Arian question, Athanasius and Rome were hold the fort, till the bishops grew spines.

That said, this does not mean that a minority opinion like Sr. Farley's is therefore the Inevitable Wave of the Future.  The question in her case, as in Athanasius' is, is there serious precedent in the tradition for her views?  Answer: no.  There was precedent for opposition to slavery in the tradition ("in Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor free").  There was precedent for "Jesus is consubstantial with the Father" in the Tradition ("The Word was with God and the Word was God").  But there is not precedent in the  tradition for any sexual expression that is not "one man and one woman in holy matrimony".  Sorry but there just isn't.  So the mythos so cherished by those loyal to the Third Vatican Council needs to be addressed in such a way as to distinguish real development of doctrine from mere worship of the Future.  Doctrine can develop in real ways.  But mere mutations are not developments and the attempt to graft today's culture of sexual libertinism into the Faith is a mutation, not a development.

Now to argue all this will require both a real understanding of what the CDF said (otherwise you are flying blind) and a way of saying it that will not make your priest think, "Here is this person who hates and fears me and want to make my life hell."  It doesn't matter that you intend none of that and only want him to not preach errant nonsense.  What matter is making sure he doesn't think that.  And the way you do that, I suspect, is the "sandwich" method of persuasion: namely, you put the main thing you want to say--"Your homily hurt me and contradicted the Faith"--between two slices of tasty bread.  You open with, "I am so grateful for you and your ministry and I want to make sure you know that and offer my services however I can in order to come alongside you and help you do your work".  Then when this has been established as your relationship, you make the point you wanted to make in sorrow, not in anger.  Then you add the second slice of bread with yet anothe affirmation of all he does right and well, along with an offer to come to your house for dinner with your family.

Do all that and you have taken the first (and hopefully last) step you need to take, according to the command of Jesus to "go and show him his fault" (cf. Matthew 18:15-18).  If he gives an indication of being willing to bend (or just doesn't do a repeat performance from the pulpit) then you have won your brother over. End of story, and possibly the beginning of new relationship.

If he refuses to listen, then Jesus says to take a couple of witnesses so that everything can be attested by two or three witnesses.  This is partly for your sake, because it may be you've misunderstood him and they can straighten you out.  Often it is at this point that you might want to talk to another priest and see what they say.  If he is concerned too, you might see if he would like to talk to your priest or be present when you do.  Or it may be that other laypeople share our concerns and he will listen when more of the congregation expresses those concerns.  The trick is to keep him from feeling ganged up on and abused and to keep the matter from turning into a parish-splitting fight.  More love.  More sandwich conversations.

If that doesn't work, then you go to your bishop with your concerns.

Meanwhile, don't let this stuff drive you out of Mass.  Take your sufferings and offer them in union with Christ on the altar for your priest and for others that they way not be led astray by false teaching.if you feel you need to step out, that's fine.  You are there to hear the Word of God, not heresy and hearing Scripture, you have done that.  But at the same time, it can be a fruitful exercise to listen and try to parse just where the priest is really contradicting the Tradition and where he is simply expressing the Tradition in ways that are uncomfortable.  Not every offensive thing to come out of a pulpit is offensive due to heresy.  Sometimes it's offensive due to orthodoxy.  Though he is (from what you say) dead wrong about the CDF's condemnation of Sr. Farley's teaching, he might (for all I know) be dead right (and therefore completely orthodox) about something else.  People are like that.

That, at any rate, is how I would approach it.  I've had to endure heretical priests giving dreadful homilies so I empathize.  But have hope, people's minds can be changed.  Speak the truth in love and follow the pattern Jesus lays out in Matthew 18:15-18 and see what happens.

And, of course, marinate the whole thing in persistent prayer, early and often.  See what God does.