Saturday, January 22, 2011

Guarding one's integrity (From Donald Cozzens' "The Changing Face of the Priesthood")

The vast majority of priests prize their loyalty to the Gospel and to the Church. They strive to be obedient to the Church and to the word of God. Their loyalty and obedience to the Church, however, are not without complexity. Some sense it is possible to sell their souls in service to the Church if their obedience is not mature and undergirded by their own integrity. Theoretically at least, priests understand that their obedience to the Church is not a blind and unthinking obedience.

Their challenge is to be true men of the church and at the same time their own person. This fidelity to Church and conscience implies a certain tension in the life of a priest. Sooner or later, every priest struggling for personal integrity feels it. Because he believes the Church enjoys the abiding presence and guidance of the Spirit, he is rightly disposed to trust the integrity of its teachings.

In the pre-conciliar years, there were relatively few tensions with the institutional, teaching Church. While he knows well the central role played by an informed and faithful conscience in the life of the Christian, sometimes his own experience of ministry places him in conflict with church teaching or discipline. The tension that follows is painful. So painful, in fact, that some priests adapt an attitude of unthinking obedience and loyalty simply to escape the discomfort of being in tension with the Church they love.

The late Bernard Häring, a theologian distinguished for his own integrity and fidelity, observes: “Religious obedience has quite an exceptional dignity. In its absolute form, we owe religious obedience to God alone. but just as God’s revelation comes to us only when mediated, so too, the truths of faith reach us only when mediated. The meaning of faith and the authenticity of religious obedience confront a crisis when religious authorities…demand all too much submission to an obscure package of doctrines”. A less than adult obedience, then, may compromise a priest’s integrity. Quite unwittingly he may become a “kept man”, expecting to be taken care of because of his supposed loyalty and obedience to the Church.

The antidote to this compromise in integrity is the courage to think. But thinking, the priest discovered in seminary or even earlier, can be dangerous. It may easily lead to uncertainty, and uncertainty in turn to anxiety. Sometimes priests try to escape the discomfort of anxiety by embracing in a non-thinking and non-reflective manner the doctrines, traditions, and customs of the Church. The relief is short-lived. At these moments most priests stand in the fire of the Spirit and sense the need for honest thought and hard study. They begin to read in the areas of theology, Scripture, and the human sciences. They begin to think and reflect upon their lived experience as human beings, Christians, and priests. Turning from study and thought blocks their ability to minister as mature persons of integrity. They may preach the Gospel, but the assembly senses that they have yet to live it.

The priest who has suffered loss of soul through the compromise of his integrity finds his spiritual life equally compromised. Spiritual exercises become sentimental distractions that serve to quiet the disturbing eruptions of his bad conscience. The guild of his bad conscience often goes unrecognized for, in his own eyes, he is a good priest, clearly obedient to the Church. Priests whose compromised integrity sustains an immature pseudo-obedience tend to ask: “What can the priesthood do for me?”, the banner cry of clericalism.

The subservient, always docile priest, not infrequently, turns out to be demanding and authoritarian. As one priest put it: “The priest is very often dominated for a long period of time so that he is led to believe that whatever authority says is the voice of God. Consequently, when he finally reaches authority, he becomes very domineering and uncompromising himself. His life has been filled with so many frustrations for so many years that he better get his way because this is his last chance”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)