Every now and then I am asked if I would return to the active ministry of the priesthood if the Western Roman Church changed its position and permitted a married clergy. The assumption of the questioner is that, like Tim Tebow, I am jumping up and down on the sidelines waiting to get back into the football huddle [although Tim, I understand, is now attempting to play major league baseball.] In fact, I emphatically state here and now that I would not. The mental and spiritual tranquility of the past two decades seems to verify a belief I arrived at some years ago, that I am better suited as a mediocre layman than a depressed priest.
However, I love the priesthood and the religious life very much. The struggles of my Franciscan Order to maintain its fruitful ministries in the face of aging, declining numbers, and rising costs are also my pain. The friendships, the education, and the idealism of the friars in my early years in particular were a gift that no man deserves, and this appreciation only grows with the passing years. I wish I could help the friars more [and truthfully, I wish they would ask more.]
I worked here in Orlando for most of my priestly years, so most of the priests I knew and still know are associated with this Diocese. While many are retired, a good number are active pastors and administrators, and as an active member of my parish and diocese, I can observe the pastoral battles in the trenches up close. The terrain of the battle ground is certainly different from 1993, my last year, and there is no doubt in my mind that the work of a pastor is harder today than it was back then, one reason being the explosion of instant social media. Today’s pastor catches hell from above and below—an environment in which I could never work with any measure of spiritual tranquility.
I follow the political news like most of you, and while the Café does not offer political commentary—God knows you can find that anywhere—it is impossible to deny that priests and catechists, for the next three months at least, will have to do their work among parishioners of many and varied political stripes. To deny that election year politics will creep—or bulldoze—into parochial life seems to me overly optimistic. It is well known by now that non-profits like parishes cannot endorse candidates without risk of losing tax exempt status, but churches are permitted to publish candidates’ positions on issues of social justice derived from Catholic teaching.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in fact, provides at its website an educational service for Catholic voters, and I copied the bishops’ present-day list of social priorities here:
The ongoing destruction of a million innocent human lives each year by abortion • Physician-assisted suicide • The redefinition of marriage • The excessive consumption of material goods and the destruction of natural resources, harming the environment as well as the poor • Deadly attacks on Christians and other religious minorities throughout the world • Efforts to narrow the definition and exercise of religious freedom • Economic policies that fail to prioritize the needs of poor people, at home and abroad • A broken immigration system and a worldwide refugee crisis • Wars, terror, and violence that threaten every aspect of human life and dignity.
The reader is left to decipher whether this list is arranged in order of (1) moral gravity; (2) issues most likely to be affected by the outcome of a federal election; (3) priorities of the USCCB; (4) episcopal orders of priority for parishes and their educator/catechists at the local level. In my experience, any parishioner or organization in my parish can (or in my case, could) attack me for my “indifference” as a pastoral leader to any issue on this list, and such criticisms come from all sides of the political spectrum, left, right, and green. With the internet tools available today, it is possible to vilify parishes, priests, and parish ministers as well as divide a parish community electronically over clashes in political/pastoral priorities. “Back in my day” all I had to worry about were the occasional irate parishioner, anonymous hate mail, and typical over-the-fence gossip.
Going back to the bishops’ list, it is noteworthy that everything mentioned is complex. Moreover, there is continuing debate among Catholic bishops and professional theologians about the actual meaning and moral status of issues cited here (“ordinary” versus “extraordinary” means of preserving life, for example.) Were I a pastor today—heaven help that congregation—I would promulgate the USCCB letter with the following advice from the pulpit:
[Clearing my throat.]
“The election guide for Catholic voters provided by our American bishops highlights many of the important moral issues facing our nation, and we as a community of faith with a tradition of moral discernment have significant contributions to make to the welfare of our nation. All of them listed here are matters of serious discussion and reflection. Even where the way is clear, as in elective abortion, we do not fully understand the motivations of those who seek or those who defend the practice, and this is a critical first step before making public arguments for our tradition here.
In many of the other moral issues cited here, such as the evils of warfare, the terrain is so vast that faithful Catholics themselves may disagree over the means to achieve peace, human rights, health care, and worthy employment. The Church’s teaching on the rights of all peoples to dignified living and freedom of conscience is what we are bound to believe; with unity in our hearts on this basic principle, we are better able to address strategies, mindful that the struggle with sin and evil is a cross we bear until the coming of the New Jerusalem.
With our enormous task ahead of us, it is important to recognize that the embodiment of the New Jerusalem will never be contained in the platforms and policies of the handful of candidates for the presidency and other major federal offices. The very freedom of conscience we advocate for others most certainly applies to the Catholic in the voting booth; the moral imperative to vote is serious, and thoughtful reflection upon one’s choices is necessary, allowing for the imperfections of any office seeker.
The history of American politics teaches that our election cycles often generate more heat than light. Matters such as those put forth by our bishops are too serious for the quick and frenetic debate of modern presidential elections, and in truth few issues even reach public recognition. Thus it is important that during the remainder of 2016 we begin to educate ourselves on our rich Catholic moral traditions for the elections of 2018, 2020, and beyond. I pledge a new intensity of our faith formation programs here in the parish on the social justice teachings of our Church, specifically for adults, as we are the ones who vote. I encourage personal study and reflection; Catholics are the best educated segment of the American population, and our reading shelves, Kindles and discussion groups should reflect the best of Catholic academia as well as the wise secular observers and analysts of the world condition. For it is the latter group we must engage.
Finally, I am mindful of the late Congressman Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, who famously observed that “all politics is local.” It is true that charity begins at home. It is also true that social justice begins in the thousands of city and county elections, not to mention school boards, retention of judges, state and local amendments, and local budgets. These referendums demand our attention as moral and civic duties.”
One thing is still true. I still can’t give a short sermon.