Slim pickings at the moment when it comes to the blog. I have been engaged in a writing project which has been on the back burner for some time, so that took me away from my regular interventions here. There are more projects waiting to be finished also, so it may be slim pickings for a while yet. That and parish work keeps me busy.
I have been keeping up with developments in recent weeks and a lot has happened. In recent days one piece in particular interested me and I would like to share a few reflections with you. It was an article Edward Peters, the canon lawyer, wrote on his blog concerning priests and conscience. In the piece he reminded us all that priests have consciences too, and these consciences must be respected. As I read the piece I was thrilled to see that someone is looking at things from a priest's perspective and defending us.
To be honest, as a priest I have to say the last number of years have been difficult. We have been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse, mired in controversy, dragged through the media. Pope Benedict tried to ease the stress by the Year of the Priest, a year dedicated to help us renew, but the scandals destroyed that. Pope Francis's tirades against us haven't helped either. Talking with brother priests I see the morale is very very low, in fact I have never seen it as low as it is, and this has me worried. Most priests are hard working men who do their best, but get little support. Some laity and bishops are very good, but there is an attitude in the Church which regards priests as functionaries and we are expected to just get on with it. Dr Peters's article is welcome because it does not treat us as functionaries, but as members of the Church. You can read his piece here, if you haven't already read it.
This is the crucial bit: "Many clerics, Deo gratias, and other ministers of the Eucharist, recognize the significance of their sacramental office and know—as all Catholics should know—that their actions, too, are carried out before a God who sees all". In conscience a priest cannot do what is wrong, regardless of who asks him be it divorced and remarried Catholics, bishops, brides looking for the perfect wedding, grieving families organising a funeral. A priest has to be faithful to God, Church teaching and the laws of the liturgy; if he is not, then he sins.
Too often as a priest I have been asked to break the rules of the Church for people; they ask it as a favour, or to keep the bride happy on her big day, or as a gesture of compassion towards a grieving family. What does a priest do? Do I do what I know in my conscience to be wrong to keep people happy? I have been told other priests do it, but should that be the measure of my moral observance - if others are doing it, then it is okay? Speaking with those who make such demands I gently remind them that such things are not possible: I cannot do it because I know it to be wrong. But they have no concern for the state of my soul; they want it, demand it and I must conform if I am a "Christian". When I tell them I would be committing a sin if I did it, they make little of it; it is not important. My right to follow my conscience must fall to their desires.
I remember in a few cases, for example, explaining to bereaved families why eulogies are not permitted in our diocese - our bishop does not allow them. In each case I have been asked to make an exception for them - so I put it in context for them: "Are you asking me to be disobedient to my bishop?" The answer is usually "Yes" but expressed in that round-about way only the Irish have mastered. Refusal on my part is usually interpreted on their part as a lack of compassion, a betrayal of Christ's values of being nice and conciliatory.
Priests have consciences too. If a priest does something that he knows is wrong or not permitted by the Church then he sins. Am I as priest expected to bear the burden of such sinning when I, like every other Christian, have enough sin to deal with in my personal life? Am I just a functionary? Some say that if the bishop permits it then it is okay. That is true if the bishop has the competence to dispense. However in some areas, like communion for the divorced and remarried (since it is being discussed now), a bishop cannot dispense from the moral law of God; then no, not even the orders of a bishop can compel a priest to "give in". I know of one case, for example, where a bishop ordered a priest to give communion to a married woman living very publicly in a second relationship. The priest rightly resisted and suffered for it. The bishop thought that the priest's conscience could be set aside with an episcopal decree.
Not so. If I, in conscience, know something is wrong or not permitted, then I must remain true to my conscience regardless of what others think or do. As a Christian I must be permitted to follow my conscience, just because I am priest does not mean that I can put it in a box and forget about it when performing my priestly duties or celebrating the liturgy. Some may say that some of these issues are small things, they do not really register on the radar; however, Christ himself said that he who is faithful in small things can be trusted with great. The small things do matter, even more so than the great because, for most of us, our lives are usually measured in small things. Few of us rarely have to face major moral problems, but we do face the small ones every day, and our conscience is not a faculty given to be taken out for the big events of one's life, it is a constant companion that is meant to keep us on the right road, and on the right side of the road.
So thanks to Dr Peters for his piece; it is most welcome.