Monday, August 05, 2002

The Priesthood: Fraternity or Club?

At the ordination of Fr. Fleckenstein Saturday I saw in a new way what the fraternity of the priesthood is really supposed to be about, and, at its best moments, truly is. For those of you who have never attended and ordination, you should know that after the bishop lays hands on the ordinand to impart the gift of the Holy Spirit, all of the other priests present lay hands on him to express the unity of the priesthood and our sharing in the one high priesthood of Christ. As I laid hands on John in turn with the other priests, I realized that I gained a new brother. For all of us who share in the high priesthood of Christ are brothers.

I have seen this brotherhood at work in different ways since my ordination. A few months ago I was having a difficult time with a situation in my parish and I was really discouraged by it. I called one of my priest friends to talk about it, and he dropped everything the next afternoon to drive almost 2 hours to have lunch with me and spend most of the afternoon talking with me and giving me encouragement. That is brotherhood. And conversely, if I or another priest says or does something out of line, or is headed down the wrong path, we are usually the first to call one another to account.

Some bloggers and readers have voiced their concerns that I, by trying to set the record straight about Fr. DeVita, have given the impression that the priesthood is a sort of club whose members rally around one another no matter what. I imagine that the priesthood, like any other human organization, can devolve into a sort of "in-group" interested primarily in its own prerogatives. I have seen parishes that function that way, and it is very disordered. A presbyterate that decayed into an "in-group" or club would be very disordered indeed. And perhaps that is what happened in places where priest-abusers got shuffled around and no one seemed to pay attention or care.

I have not experienced the priesthood as a club, but as a brotherhood. And when I speak of the priesthood as a brotherhood, I am not thinking of some sort of metaphorical or symbolic brotherhood. If anything, the spritual brotherhood of the priesthood may be more real than natural brotherhood, because it is a participation in the Person of Christ. When my brother priests are honored or advanced (such as my friend Bishop-elect Earl Boyea), I rejoice with them. And when one of them experiences sorrow or grief, I grieve with him. When one of them is discouraged, I try to encourage him. And if one of my brother priests should fall, I am filled with sorrow and pity for him. And, as we now know has happened far too often, if one of them should go so far as to abuse his office in order to vicitmize those under his care, I am moved to anger and a sense of personal betrayal, because the priesthood he has betrayed is my priesthood as well.

If anyone has been led to believe by my remarks concerning Fr. DeVita that I am somehow defending abuse or abusers, then I am truly sorry, for that is the last thing I intended to convey. I would never defend anyone's wrongdoing, be he priest or layman. Anyone who has read my previous ruminations (for example, here or here) regarding The Situation knows that I am no defender of abusers or those who protected or enabled them. But just as I would never defend wrongdoing perpetrated by anyone, so too will I always demand that wrongdoers, be they priests or anyone else, be treated with justice: no more, and no less than justice. And I will always plead that any wrongdoer, be he a priest or anyone else, be shown mercy.

If anyone of you had a brother who committed a grievous crime, would you cease to love him? Would you cease to desire his redemption and restoration? I would hope not. I feel precisely this way about a brother priest, such as Fr. DeVita, who has sinned and sullied the sacred trust he was given. In his particular case I (and my bishop) believed him to be redeemed and reclaimed. So I ask "what does 'restorative' mercy look like for someone like Fr. DeVita?" It is my concern for living out this value of "restorative" mercy that prompts me to think that some form of active priestly ministry may still be possible for him.

It may be the case that restorative mercy for priests like Fr. DeVita doesn't include continuing in some form of active ministry. The bonds of trust may be too badly shatttered by his crime. But what does restorative mercy look like, then? Is restorative mercy something we should expect to see in this life, in this world? I would hope so, especially within the Church. Is a restorative mercy that includes the possibility of continued active ministry is a false mercy?

I am aware of the danger, as Fr. Greeley warned, of priests showing false compassion towards their offending brothers. But it does not demean the victims or make light of their pain, as some have implied, to demand justice and plead for mercy for offenders. Justice and mercy are not some kind of zero-sum game where to give them to the offenders is to take them away from victims. Ultimately it is for the victims' good that offenders are given no more and no less than justice. And restorative mercy, which brings healing and restoration, is all of a piece. Why? because it is a quality of God, who is one. There isn't one sort of divine mercy for victims and another sort for offenders. There is one divine mercy which is generously given to all. So the question for us is "How do we show restorative mercy that is in some way unitary for victims and offenders? How do we show mercy that restores communion?" When we find the answer to that question, we will be doing the greatest good for victims, offenders, and the whole Church.