Catholic clerical narcissism

It’s all right for the groundhog to become enamored of his own shadow, but it’s unbecoming in Catholic clergy. Narcissism, … Continued

It’s all right for the groundhog to become enamored of his own shadow, but it’s unbecoming in Catholic clergy. Narcissism, I fear, is weakening the Church. We did not need a papal pronouncement to recognize that every cultural thermometer today reads a cooling towards organized religion and a rising social temperature for consumerism, sexual exploitation, and immediate gratification. I understand why there would be a tendency to “write off” a sinful world to focus on an inner-directed faith primarily concerned with one’s own salvation. I just believe that narcissism – even if it is clerical and spiritual – can go awry.

I was prompted to sound this alarm when reading about the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. The group describes itself as “an association of 600 Roman Catholic Priests and Deacons pledged to the pursuit of personal holiness, loyalty to the Roman Pontiff, commitment to theological study and strict adherence to the authentic teachings of the Magisterium.”

Absent from their list of priorities is the Gospel, pastoral concern for lay Catholics, or commitment to social justice teachings. I have no reason to doubt that these priests would outshine me in personal holiness and outdo me in virtue. Perhaps they would say that Gospel values are already included when pledging loyalty to the Roman Pontiff or that they do not view the pursuit of personal holiness as opposed to ministry. But the Confraternity must assume responsibility not only for what it says, but also for how it is understood.

I am concerned about those who pretend that clerical narcissism is sanctity. Spiritualities often emerge in response to the particular problem of a certain age, as for instance the Franciscan Movement that was an antidote to the medieval Church’s opulence. But not every spirituality has benefited the Church: Even being a conservative Catholic is no guarantee against heretical errors, as happened with Fr. Feeney and Archbishop Lefebvre.

I see clerical narcissism developing today, especially among some younger clergy and seminarians. I remember one pastor telling me that thirty years ago, a new curate would be so eager to engage in parish duties that suitcases and boxes would remain unpacked for months. Today, he said, a newly assigned priest might spend weeks decorating his quarters with creature comforts before engaging in ministry to the people.

In one parish, the 73 year-old pastor scheduled a turn of duty at the weekly Bingo and the Cub Scout bake sale, only to be told by the newly assigned priest: “I am ordained for ministry, not for social work.” The young, under-thirty cleric remained in his room, apparently “saving the world,” while the elderly pastor worked double shifts to pay the parish’s bills.

I was in a pizza restaurant when a *priest dressed in cassock walked in to eat lunch. Note: It was not the Roman collar and black clergy shirt: it was the full cassock. I have heard defenses of always wearing clerical garb as “witness to the world” and a sign of respect for the transcendent effect of Holy Orders. But in psychological terms, this was just an excuse to say “Look at ME!” When such narcissism is matched by behavior, it reduces the effectiveness of ministry.

Participating in a Church-sponsored ecumenical committee years ago, there were 10 of us trying to fashion a document of Christian solidarity. At the end of the first day, the priest in charge suggested a mass for just the team. But when the Methodist went to receive communion, Father admonished him saying things like “You know, I must uphold the teachings of the Church…..” Theology aside, the priest should never have allowed that moment to develop. It may have made Father feel that he was in control of the team, but, as the next day proved, it alienated all the lay people – immensely. Sermons that project Catholic life as nothing more than blind obedience to laws run the same risk.

From the Catholic America perspective of the pews, doubts are rising about the quality of some priests. To be clear, I don’t accuse the Confraternity and groups like it for causing clerical narcissism. But I fear that self-centered definitions of the priestly vocation are problematic.

*p.s. The pizza cassock guy and his companions were kicked out of the diocese.

  • email2

    I wouldn’t be too harsh on these guys, especially young ones. We all have to grow and mature.That said, however, your points are very well taken. None of us should be so taken with ourselves when it’s really not about us. It’s about the worship due God by service to God’s people.

  • gabe3

    Very well said. I had a friend from high school who entered the convent and we carried on our friendship for many years. A few years ago, she told me that she could no longer receive my emails because she was going to be part of her congregation’s chapter in Rome and she needed to concentrate on that. Since then she has demonstrated to other friends that her life is all that is important. I asked her when the “work of God” became more important than the “people of God.” The main discussion at that chapter was the wording of their prayers. Wow!! That said a lot. Not only did that cassock-priest want to be noticed, but he also wanted a free lunch!Gabe

  • garoth

    I think some of it goes to the top – RC theology had, for centuries, talked of “one ship” which takes us to the shores of the kingdom. John Paul spoke of “many ships,” including Protestants. Now we’re back to the “one ship” theology. The present pope has angered many other people of faith with his pronouncements, which seem rather self-serving and sanctimonius. The RC church is not the only one with this problem, of course – our own church has emphasized “professionalism” that distances the pastor from his congregation. We are not to develop close relationships with parishioners; our wives are advised to attend other churches; the list goes on. My thought is that every pastor/priest should spendsome time changing diapers or scrubbing toilets – that is our fitting service, and an apt way for us to begin unerstanding our calling. One of my heroes was Henri Nouwen, who would periodically leave his position to work at a nursing home or to care for a young man wo could not even change himself. That is where we begin to learn ministry.

  • ohare747

    There is clearly a problem when the focus of a priest is to be served rather than to serve. Clericalism presumably was “going away” about 30 years ago, but it has returned with a vengeance. When it gets to the point that priests are more concerned about themselves rather than the people, and when it is virtually impossible to get in touch with a priest without finding one’s way through endless voicemail directions, it is time for the clergy to stop worrying about taking their cassocks to the dry cleaners and get busy about ministering to the flock.

  • Diakonia

    Wow did you ever miss the boat on this one Mr. Stevens-Arroyo! You make it appear as though involvement with the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy is all that the priest-members do with their time. I know many of the members personally and can attest to their dedication to the congregations for which they are responsible. Some are teachers/professors like yourself Mr. Stevens-Arroyo so I trust you recognize the value of their service to young people who are trying to find their way about in this world. Instead of maligning a group of some of the very best priests the Catholic Church has to offer, your time would have been better spent contacting some of them to find out what they do day-in and day-out in complete service to the people of God for a mere fraction of the salary that you no doubt pulled down as a Professor at Brooklyn College and as a Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York, or what you make with the Washington Post. Aside from reading a mission statement, did you take a moment to realize that the Confraternity provides these good and holy, hard-working men with an outlet for a fraternal exchange of ideas and friendship? Of course not! Being at home with your wife-professor and having had your son’s companionship at home as he grew older apparently caused you to take for granted the need we all have as humans for sharing and companionship. I trust you are no doubt aware that we are relational beings, and the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy helps to fill the void that is often caused by the reality of one-priest parishes, if that. Gone are the days where 3, 4 or more priests lived in rectories together and had ample opportunities for sharing of thoughts, opinions, ideas, concerns, and for basic friendship. The Confraternity was formed in part to bring priests together, even if only for one conference a year and a quarterly newsletter! One would have thought that a person with your experience and with a long background in education wold have done his homework first. This is extremely disappointing coming from you. You sir owe the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy and its members a big apology! Now let’s see who is narcissistic Mr. Stevens-Arroyo.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    In reply to Diakonia,Wow! Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo really hit the nail on the head with this one. The Catholic Church could use more people like him.

  • tojby_2000

    The Pride and Priest dialectic is internally consistent.

  • YEAL9

    Something for the Confraternity of (the all-male, old and mostly white) Catholic Clergy to worry”We are faithful Roman CatholicsWe love our family, the Catholic Church. We fully accept the authority of the Pope. We respect his personal integrity as an outstanding spiritual leader. But we are convinced that the Pope and his advisors in Rome are making a serious mistake by dismissing women as priests. We feel obliged in conscience to make our carefully considered reasons known, fulfilling our duty to speak out as our present Pope has repeatedly told us to do. “All the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”

  • JoeCatholic

    Dear Dr. Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, I would like to respectfully reflect back to you that your “fear” and feeling the need to “alarm” us is likely rooted in your being a professional educator who determined (mostly during the 1970s) the educational goals which you tirelessly spent a life wishing, hoping, and praying would last. Now, as you approach the end of an active and productive teaching career, you are disappointed and somewhat frustrated to see different and perhaps conflicting goals grow in emphasis. Negatively commenting on groups which evidently image opposing faith formation goals may help you feel better, but are no less narcissistic than those who you judged.

  • PaulLeddy

    An organization of 600 hundred priests. Out of how many active and retired priests in the states? 40,000? The COCC makes up 1.5% of them. Hardly a threat.

  • jmj1459

    >>>Note: It was not the Roman collar and black clergy shirt: it was the full cassock.GASP!!! The full cassock!!! Quick, someone get the wooden stake!This has to be the most judgmental and petty article I have ever read. Anthony Stevens-Arroyo clearly is afraid of the faithful and intellectually honest generation of priests who are creating a counter-revolution in the Church. They are swiftly sweeping out the old hippies and “Social Justice” types who cling to the phrase social justice without much regard for authentic justice, such as the right to life, and respect for the natural law. As this counter revolution grows, more and more people are living a holy and virtuous life, leaving the older, secularized generation on the sidelines, wallowing in their own distorted social justice theological vomit.Anthony Stevens Arroyo needs to wake up and examine his motives and perspectives. Is this article an authentic call to follow Jesus, or a bitter, fearful rant about his lack of influence on a generation of Catholics who would rather follow the Pope than this sort of tripe?

  • LadyJane341

    Our world is like Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.

  • thaskala

    Why not contact the president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, Fr John Trigilio, and get his side of the story?

  • rossacpa

    What Stevens-Arroyo omits is that Catholics believe that ordination ontologically changes and sets apart the man receiving the sacrament. While there is the “priesthood of all believers” in which all Catholics are called to participate and offer themselves for the world, the sacerdotal priesthood is unique in that the priest performs the actions of Jesus Christ for the community that composes the Bride of Christ.Priests receive no support for their vocation in secular culture. People like Stevens-Arroyo who blur the distinction between the common priesthood and that bestowed in the in the sacrament of Holy Orders, render the Church ever less supportive for priests who have left everything for the sake of Christ and his Bride.If they can support each other in the ideals, life, and vocations they have chosen, I really don’t understand why it’s an issue for any lay person.

  • usapdx

    There are a lot of good priest but I wonder who do some of them think they are? Are we the members there for their benefit? It is the members that are the center of the church. Many are called but few are choose is not always true. Some preist should take a good look at a mirror.

  • PSolus

    In other news, the local Star Trek Fan Club erupted into brouhaha when one of the Spock impersonators arrived with extra pointy ears.Film at 11:00.

  • coloradodog

    Meanwhile:VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI condemned the abuse of children by priests Monday, saying the church will never stop deploring such behavior.More crocodile tears from the Hitler- Youth Pope whose Church never even started “deploring such behavior” by turning it’s pedophile priests over to civil authorities less alone “defrocking” them.