On Clerical Roadkill


January 2, 2014 by lucieromarin

I’ve just realised that I know (or know of) five priests who have left active ministry – of whom two later Died Suddenly, one apostasised, and one disappeared – two priests who, while retaining both faith and vocation, still needed leave for the sake of healing, and four who, while also retaining faith and vocation, left their orders to become diocesan priests, not so much because the diocese called them, but because of the burnout and ill-use they experienced in ordered life.

None of the men were modernists. None of them left their orders or their vocations because they doubted the truths of the faith. At least three of them had supportive bishops (in one case, the bishop was pretty much all that keeps this tally from including a third Sudden Death), and, even in the one case in which a woman contributed to the loss of vocation, the situation was not primarily about either love or lust.

Burnout did it. I know eleven men whose vocations have been compromised or destroyed, not by heresy or capital sin, but by a) exhaustion, and b) the assumption that an orthodox priest can go on forever, working eighteen hour days, seven days a week, for decades on end, without any ill-effects.

Their exhaustion wasn’t just physical (though I knew one priest who sat down in the driving seat of his car, blinked, shook his head, and then realised he’d slept for an hour). The cassocked priest leaves his house and gets punched in the face by a complete stranger (true story), verbally abused from the windows of passing cars (four priests have recounted to me several different such experiences), pushed in front of oncoming trains (true story), spat on (several experiences), and the Evil Eye from passing Goths (true story.) Then he goes to some diocesan function and has a bevy of modernist priests try to block his way into the Cathedral, with the words, “Priests like you aren’t welcome here,” (true story) or to an obligatory diocesan meeting at which he finds himself one of only three priests present who actually think that Our Lord was God (and the other two are neo-conservatives who want him shut down for his liturgy, rather than for his theology, so that he is actually the only person in the room who is on his side.) Then he returns to his community, to find that a crazy man has been describing his visions and locutions to visitors, that his least-favourite neo-con is sitting in the congregation to catch him out in a heresy, that someone has written a letter of complaint to the bishop, that the servers aren’t speaking to the choristers because the choristers stole a sanctuary bell to ring during a medieval motet, and that there are three people lying in wait outside the sacristy – one to get her car blessed, another one to tell him where petrol is going to be cheapest this week, and another to tell him about a terrible thing she heard was happening in America. Then he looks at his calendar and realises that he’s booked to counsel two afflicted people, visit the hospital to minister to the dying (all by himself, because the other priests are still in the diocesan meeting talking about how Jesus wasn’t God), visit the mental home to pray with and counsel the afflicted, find a safe-house for the battered wife, see those persons to whom he gives spiritual direction, and listen to the guy who wants to ask him about vocation… and this is after he hears confessions, says Mass, prays the entire Divine Office, offers up mental prayer and Rosary, and writes and prepare Sunday’s sermon.

My point is not just that his day is crowded with incident, but that the pyschological strain native to his work (e.g preparing people for death, getting yelled at by strangers) is compounded, these days, by the strain of additional antagonism from within the community that once would have supported him. Where does his mind find rest? It’s all very well to say, ‘in prayer,’ but if we’re not practising that degree of holiness ourselves, it’s a bit rich to expect others to find it easy.

I know there’s nothing much that we ourselves can do about this, other than pray for our burnt-out priests and try to avoid being part of the reason they get burnt in the first place. I wish that every priest could be the Hero Who Did Not Crash, and I know that God supplies an abundance of graces and so on…but, you know, the rest of us aren’t saints, either. And, I suppose, whenever pious folk are disappointed by Father’s humanity (as one person said to me, “Why should a priest be traumatised by a natural disaster? You’d think a priest would have more faith than that,”) we can spare a thought and a prayer for the one category of persons who will never be forgiven for their weaknesses. Similarly, when secular folk talk about priestly power, we can spare a thought (and another prayer) for those for whom power was entirely expended in the service of others, who were held in contempt both within and without the Church, and who bore it for as long as they could.

23 thoughts on “On Clerical Roadkill

  1. Amanda says:

    Interesting – and affecting – post. Why it is like this for those priests? Was it always that way, or did there used to be more back-up? You imply that it’s partly to do with post-Vatican II issues (I think?) – can you say a bit more about why? – just wondering if it’s to do with very few priests with the particular convictions to serve traditionalist communities?

    In general – what do you see as patterns for who gets turned into roadkill and who doesn’t? Is it personality chiefly, or particular roles or identities within the church? Does it have anything to do with ideas about sanctification through suffering? – I’ve been reading some things lately about Gregory I, Cassian and others connecting the book of Job with the idea of purification or proving (like gold) through the fire of various kinds of persecution or imposed suffering. Does this idea of holiness make people more willing or determined to suffer through things until – well, in the modern world, anyway – they become roadkill? (rather than canonised)

    I realise that’s rather a lot of questions to ask all at once – hope you don’t mind!

    • Cojuanco says:

      Perhaps it’s because in “the (not-so) good old days” there seemed to be a lot more community support, both in the religious community and the Church at large. Now there is internecine fighting on a public scale, and at least in the West, the credibility of the clergy among the laity until relatively recently was worth a Confederate dollar after the abuse scandals. Then there is the fact that until recebtly, in the West there was internecine fighting among religious communities as well (there is still some of that, like that intra-Franciscan dispute recently that required the Holy Father to intervene) often instigated or exacerbated by the laity, who seem to see priests and religious more as political pawns than as men with a particular calling and charism. From what Lucie describes, it’s the psychological equivalent of prolonged police duty in a gang-torn neighborhood with IAB on your case – it’s bad enough that the locals don’t appreciate the necessary things you provide, but you can’t even rely on your colleagues to have your back. It’s not a trad thing (I know a semi-roadkill priest who is not into the EF, and yet he was driven to drink), it’s a priest-in-the-Global-North thing, caused in part by undue politicization of the clergy and religious by the laity, and a confusion about the duty of reasonable obedience the laity owe to their priests as much as the civil authorities.

      • lucieromarin says:

        Yes – I like your police-duty analogy. And you’re right – it’s not just a trad thing; four of the priests I knew already were battered and exhausted by the time they became trad, which just finished off the job.

      • Amanda says:

        Cojuanco – I’m interested by what you say about the *laity* politicising the clergy and religious, rather than the other way around. I hadn’t picked that up – probably don’t read the right things. Would you mind telling me more about what sort of laity – do you mean on the smaller scale level of parish/diocesan internal politics or beyond? (I’m assuming you mean Catholic laity rather than the general public) And are you talking about the fallout from abuse scandals or other things? And what are the motives and objectives for those of the Catholic laity who are doing this?

        It’s just a surprising thing to hear, because of course the general impression that I’ve had from European Catholics (none of whom are traditionalists as far as I know, mind you) is that the problem has lain with Ratzinger/Benedict, the conservative stacking of the college of cardinals and the corrupt authoritarianism of the Vatican, rather than with anything the laity has done. I was aware that the Franciscans seemed to be having problems (I heard that the one I know best left the order recently, but don’t like to ask him as he hasn’t mentioned it and it seems a bit intrusive) but didn’t know there was internal fighting dealt with officially – can you link me to anything on this?

        Again, really sorry about all the questions – don’t feel like you have to answer them all!

      • Cojuanco says:

        Amanda, I can only speak for America, but remember how recently there was a brouhaha about Francis saying we should not obsess about abortion or homosexuality? People got pissed off, but thing is, people, usually laypeople, seem to expect that if they see a politico or anyone, really, that is ignorant of Church teaching on, say, SSM, the priest should excoriate them in public, especially if it’s someone on the left (somehow they don’t maintain the outrage hwen a right winger says the same things, even though it’s just as bad). Then there’s the hissyfits and the condescension every time a priest, bishop or religious says something that is in fact Catholic doctrine, but doesn’t exactly fit into Republican Party orthodoxy (replace with other centre right party as locally appropriate), like, say, on migrants, or labour unions. Basically much of the ultra-right-wing outrage at the Holy Father has been happening for a long time to priests here, even trad priests.

        As for the Franciscan thing, look up FFI and Pope Francis on Google for a rough outline.

    • lucieromarin says:

      I think it’s the combination of overwork (some priests now find themselves doing the work of several men), isolation in that work (one priest told me, “I’ve discovered you’ve got to make sure you’ve made all your friends before your ordination, because it’s really hard to make new friends afterwards), post-Vatican II issues (the systematic persecution orthodox priests), the daily stress of being counter-cultural, and not getting enough recreation or rest (I know that sounds odd, but I knew one priest who got three days off in six years, and he’s a mess now). Cojuanco’s points are also part of it.

      Patterns…I’m not sure, but I do think that the idea of holiness can make someone willing or determined to suffer until they crash. (I don’t mean that holiness actually requires this, but it can feel like it does, if that makes sense). This is particularly true if you’re a choleric prone to reading the lives of super-hard-working and high-achieving saints. Same as lay-people; you can end up depriving yourself of food or sleep or recreation because The Work Must be Done.)

      Sorry this is brief; I’m tired!

      • Amanda says:

        I have to admit I’ve lost track of what the differences are between the traditionalists and everyone else, apart from the liturgy. What sort of persecution are you referring to, and what is the intention in the long run? – I mean, is it just people being petty, or is it is more? I’m also a bit confused about why an interpretation of the faith would be persecuted but not simply banned and its adherents excommunicated if it was thought to be problematic.

      • lucieromarin says:

        It’ll sound like a bit of a fob-off to say ‘it varies from place to place,’ but it does, (or, I should say, ‘it has done’, as I really think the landscape has changed). The second half of this 2004 opinion-piece refers to a little of it: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/08/25/1093246615896.html

        (One of my own very laid-back, live-and-let-live relatives was once actually moved to write to the priests of at a church which made an announcement asking people not to kneel for Communion. He himself is happy to stand, but noticed a) that there was only one person in the congregation who did this, so it really didn’t require a public announcement, b) people have been doing this for thousands of years and no one has actually said that we must stop and c) if they really cared about Other People Being Disturbed, where was the announcement asking people to stop using their mobile phones during Mass, which was a regular occurrence in that parish?)

        The intention, 20 or 30 years ago, was simply to stamp out orthodoxy. I don’t think it’s always that simple these days, because the landscape is so much more varied. I worked for one Catholic agency in which the ‘warfare’ wasn’t really between the liberals and conservatives at all, but between older people and young people, who had completely different approaches to work. As the only trad in the office, I was basically theologically opposed to everyone there and they to me, but the liberals and I got on fine, simply because we all believed the same thing about punctuality and emptying the dishwasher!

        A liberal bishop would never excommunicate anyone, because then he’d look like the kind of authority he’s trying to claim he isn’t (if that makes sense.) Besides, he knows full well you can’t excommunicate someone for holding what the church has always taught.

  2. Cojuanco says:

    Read the article, and… Crikes, the difference a decade can make. I only know of one parish in which they would prohibit kneeling to receive Communion (technically my territorial parish, but I always go to Mass at the nearby Newman Centre run by the Jesuits, partly for that reason).

    At least in the 90s though, the vast majority of this would be pettiness 90% of the time, though, plus an association of ‘that sort of thing’ with Marcel Lefebvre and all that schismatic lot, which is unwarranted in my opinion.

  3. Amanda says:

    Cojuanco – response to response above (this format doesn’t seem to like excessive nesting). Thank you for the reply. What you say makes a lot of sense when I think about it in relation to US politics and ‘culture wars’ generally. Some of that is being imported to the UK, but as yet, religion hardly features in the extreme political polarisation between those who think denying people jobs and/or a living wage, then demonising them for needing state assistance is all good fun, and those who have some doubts about how much fun that really is. I am very glad religion isn’t being used here in wider political discourses, because as far as I can see, it’s roughly the same debate in the US, but made infinitely more sickening because so many of the right-wingers pretend to be devout Christians while putting the boot in. Anyway – sorry, heading towards off-topic rant! Is it the case that Catholic priests and doctrine suffer more from Republican party coercion than do the fundamentalist evangelicals, who as far as I can see, have identified themselves with the Republican party far more than with Christ, and have no international or historical traditions to keep this in check?

    • Cojuanco says:

      I certainly think so (full disclosure, I’m a Republican, if a California one, so maybe it doesn’t really count?). We have our share of insanely politicized priests (I have one in mind who seems to not even have a ministry to tend to), but the thing is, the presence of a hirearchy – right up to the Pope – means that you don’t get the loose cannons you see with some Protestants.

  4. Amanda says:

    Lucy – again, reply to reply above, if you haven’t run out of patience with questions! I suppose this is how human society tends to work – identity performed through gestures and policing of other people’s gestures. Was the desire to stamp out older practices purely about ‘modernisation’ of the church or was there a sense in modernising circles that older practices were actually not properly Catholic? What was the perceived danger and why were/are people so upset about it if they haven’t actually decided it’s heretical – if you see what I mean?

    • lucieromarin says:

      Yes, I see what you mean. I think the danger was perceived differently according to the identity of the ‘stamper’, if that makes sense, and what they understood the ‘modernisation’ to mean. For those with a specific agenda against the faith (i.e with an actual commitment to the destruction of the Church from within) the suppression of the older practices was necessary precisely because they were understood to be properly Catholic. But it should be acknowledged that for others it wasn’t this simple. For some, it was simply a bandwagon action – i.e This Is What We Do Now So Why Is That Annoying Person Still Doing the Other Thing? In between these two extremes you’d find those who’d accepted without question what they’d been taught about Vatican II etc, and who really thought that orthodoxy was a kind of disobedience at worst, or a set of hang-ups at best. You’d also find those for whom ‘stamping’ was primarily about power at different levels: Sister Peace-and-Justice doesn’t want to see me turn up to Mass in a mantilla, not only because that reminds her of a time when she wore a habit and didn’t get to write the Eucharistic prayers, but because, by doing so, I’m making a loud statement about how deeply I differ from her about what the Mass actually is. So of course she’ll do what she can to prevent it.

      They’re not going to think in terms of heresy, because that implies a belief in objective and unchanging truth and a duty to persist in that truth, so they don’t condemn older practices as ‘heretical’, but as ‘outdated’ or ‘old-fashioned’, which sidesteps the question of revelation altogether.

      • Amanda says:

        I see. The only bit that I don’t understand is the people you describe as wanting to destroy the church from within. I’m assuming that’s your reading of their objectives, rather than that there is actually a group trying, literally and consciously, to do what you describe?

        The other thing that puzzles me is that if you consider Catholicism up to 1962 to have been guided by God, and that all the innovations of the high middle ages, for example, such as clerical celibacy, forbidding women from being ordained, mandated confession and communion, papal infallibility, inquisition into heresy, the use of crusade against Christian opponents of the papacy, and the rest, not to be part of an impressive programme of social control, but a revelation of the way that the church had always been meant to be, how is it possible to decide that now, in the C20th, God suddenly stepped back – rather than thinking that God wanted the church to modernise, or it wouldn’t have happened? I’m sorry, I’m sure that this is an argument you’ve heard often enough, I just don’t happen to have heard what the traditionalists would say about it.

  5. Amanda says:

    Sorry – just realised that the last post was heading a fair way off the topic of roadkill and priests. No intentional derailing, I promise: just following line of thought (and I admit, I’m writing a paper touching on some of this stuff just now, so am thinking about interpretations a bit obsessively). But happy to leave it to some other time if you’d rather.

    Something I would like to hear more about, if you ever fancy writing a post on it, is the psychological connection between the glorification/idealisation of penitential suffering and martyrdom and the modern (if it is modern?) roadkill phenomenon.

    • lucieromarin says:

      That would make a good post, but I’d have to think a lot more about it first. I’m still working out how much of what I see is ideas and how much is personality and circumstance. Briefly, re your other questions, (though they probably deserve their own post as well!) the trad view here is not so much that God stepped back from the Church but that people in the Church stepped back from God, if that makes sense. So, for example, introducing a limited use of the vernacular into the liturgy is not spectacularly destructive and can be seen both as consistent with the past and appropriate to the pastoral needs of the present; however, the wholesale abandonment of Latin in the West and of the Church’s musical heritage was never mandated by the Council and is the fruit of a different agenda. People who see the Council in and of itself as evil tend to become sedevacantists or align themselves with the SSPX. A traditionalist is more likely to say that the documents were poorly written and opened the door to modernist activity; the heresy itself well-and-truly predated the Council, and just needed an opportunity.

      • Amanda says:

        That’s interesting. Just wondering, tho’, how is ‘modernism’ a heresy? I thought heresy was error in central doctrines, rather than in practice; and that modernism was about ‘updating’ practice?

      • lucieromarin says:

        AHA! So we’ve been using the word differently all this time. No, when we say ‘modernism’ we’re referring to a particular set of propositions condemned in the past but repackaged and marketed as ‘the spirit of Vatican II.’ Updating practices might be called ‘modernism’ if the update seems motivated by one of these propositions. Have a look at ‘Lamentabili Sane: Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists’ published by Pope Pius X in 1907. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius10/p10lamen.htm

        (Funny story; a friend of mine picked it up and went straight to the list of errors without reading the initial paragraphs about how they were condemned. He nearly had a heart attack, thinking that the Holy Father was promoting them!).

  6. Amanda says:

    Wow: that was quite a read. I know that the papacy got freaked out when people started thinking (openly) for themselves about dogma and tradition, but this has to be the craziest list of condemned doctrines I’ve ever seen. Pretty much every single thing he condemns is either objectively true (where they relate to verifiable historical texts or events), or the only reasonable interpretation (where they relate to existential hypotheses), or not something that he or anyone else could possibly know. My dear girl, how can you take this childish, frightened, anti-intellectual, cheaply authoritarian nonsense seriously? You can just hear him stomping his feet in a tantrum and putting his hands over his ears because he’s realised how silly his dogmas sound when people actually subject them to scholarly analysis and he DOESN’T-WANT-TO-KNOW-AND-WHY-CAN’T-THEY-GO-AWAY-AND-*I’M*-THE-ONE-WHO-GETS-TO-SAY-WHAT’S-TRUE-NOT-THEM! I am actually genuinely appalled by it – and it’s not as though I started with high expectations. Whatever the failings of the medieval church, the popes then would *never* have shut down all discussion of intellectual developments, new discoveries and methods, in this way. It was this sort of impulse that prompted the occasional bans on reading Aristotle, and the condemnation of Aquinas, and a better impulse that lifted the condemnation and allowed his robust engagement with diverse traditions to strengthen the Christian theological tradition. Medieval theologians sought out and drew on all the most advanced material that they could get their hands on, whether it was pagan or Muslim or Jewish in provenance, whether it contained troubling ideas or not, and just jolly well worked at it for decades until they had figured out how to make Christianity work in the new context of advanced science and philosophy and vice versa. The most prolific translator of these challenging texts (William of Moerbeke) was actually based at the papal curia for a lot of his later life! This willingness to engage was an important reason why Europe prospered for so many centuries – and why Christianity was successfully spread to millions of people in the Americas and Africa, even China, who would otherwise have known little of it. Reactions like Pius X’s were precisely why the Muslim world fell so badly behind.

    Now that I’ve read this, I really, really don’t understand your opposition to modernism! When I thought it was about the liturgy, it make a lot more sense.

    • Amanda says:

      So… I’m sorry if that was too vigorous. Honestly, my brain is still quivering a bit over Pius eight hours later, but my desire not to be too forceful in an interesting space that I’ve kindly been allowed into has reasserted itself. I don’t really understand the anti-modernism thing, but I hope you’ll explain it to me in a friendly way at some point.


      • lucieromarin says:

        I’ll do my best! Maybe I should get into the habit of providing lots and lots of context to things instead of just dropping people straight into them unawares!

  7. Cojuanco says:

    Yeah, anyone on theological modernism must be taken in its context. The statements on their own can sound harsher than they are meant to be.

  8. Reblogged this on A Justified Sinner…. and commented:
    Because its written by a catholic, the titles are a bit different…. yet the pain and anguish are so much the same among those I know.

    Keep your pastors and priests in your prayers, encourage them when and where you can!

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