My pastor was trying to write a parish mission statement when, forsaking all modesty, I blurted out, “Father, you can write our mission statement in six words: Glorify God, Save Souls, Make Saints. He liked it and promptly had it emblazoned on—the collection envelopes! About a week later, trying (as writers do, to revise, and, in this case, to establish perfect first-letter parallelism), I changed it to Glorify God, Save Souls, Teach Truth. It was too late, for the order was off to the printer.
Here, though, I concern myself with the third element of my parish mission statement (and our primordial duty as Catholics): We are to teach truth, “using words when necessary.” As we attempt to sort through the controversies surrounding priests who speak out “politically,” we have an acid test by which, in good measure, to determine if they should be commended or censured: Do they boldly but benevolently speak the truth, knowledge of which and commitment to which will set us free?
In New York, Father Kenneth Boller, SJ, led a prayer, during Mass, against “white privilege.” In Indiana, Father Theodore Rothrock denounced Black Lives Matter organizers as “maggots and parasites.” In Wisconsin, Father James Altman contended that one cannot ethically be at once a Catholic and a Democrat. There are—and will be—many other examples of such “free speech.”
The Boller case is perhaps the easiest to resolve. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal is clear: “[T]he Priest will remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass” (#24; CCC #1125). In leading a denunciation of “White Privilege” during Mass, Father Boller used the sacred liturgy to promote his political judgment; that constitutes liturgical abuse.
The Rothrock case is very different from the Boller case. Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors maintains that she and her other organizers are “trained Marxists.” Marxist Socialism entails the worship of the omnipotent state (until it ostensibly withers away), which is idolatry violating the First Commandment. Catholics therefore agree—or should agree—with Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931) that “Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism . . . cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth” (#117; cf. CCC #2425). Thus, the Rothrock case seems to be more a matter of “style” than “substance.” Father Rothrock is right about the irreconcilability of Catholics and Marxist socialists; he was wrong, though, in his rancorous speech.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice,” we read in Ephesians (4:31). This hardly means that there is no such thing as righteous anger, but St. Paul’s instruction may well be taken as basic to effective preaching. If the priest’s language, rather than his message, becomes the focus of our attention, he has missed his mark. Bishop Sheen used to say that if you want someone to listen closely, whisper. The stronger the message, the more aplomb is required to ensure its reception (see 1 Peter 3:15-16).
One might parenthetically add to the issue of speech the case of Notre Dame’s President Father Jenkins, who cavalierly and cravenly dismissed Coach Lou Holtz’s entirely accurate characterization of Biden’s attitude and actions as “abandon[ing] innocent lives” and as “Catholic in name only.” Better by far the observation of Princeton Professor Robert George: “How can anybody who, as a Catholic, is committed to the proposition that every single member of the human family . . . is a creature made in the very image and likeness of God . . . expose an entire class of human beings to death?” After his triple denial, Peter came to his senses and found again his courage. Honorary degree for Obama; Laetare Medal for Biden; pusillanimous dismissal of Lou Holtz’s analysis—Jenkins’s triple denial. May we hope for that Jenkins will come to his senses, please God, and finally find some moral courage?
Finally, the Altman case is another type of presbyteral expression. Father Altman did not distort the liturgy. He seems, to me, not to have been feral or even intemperate, in his choice of words and gestures. His conclusion—that we cannot now simultaneously be Democrats and Catholics—alienates some, but, given the Jacobin ideology of the Democratic Party and its virtual celebration of sixty million murdered children, of the demolition of sacramental marriage, and of noxious gender ideology (cf. CCC #2333), one can reach the conclusion that Fr. Altman (and every other priest) should indeed be shouting from the housetops (Mt 10:27) the teachings of Christ and to be warning others that traducing that teaching carries with it the grave risk of eternal punishment.
In his newest video message, Father Altman stands firmly by his previous message. No weak knees (Is 35:3, Heb 12:12) here—one finds boldness and, I think, benevolence. One may say that Father Altman appeals only to his “base,” that he is preaching to the choir. Many in the choir may well need such preaching, and many in the “base,” simply disgusted by having heard only the uncertain trumpet (1 Cor 14:8) from the ambo for many may well yearn for clarity and cogency of Father Altman and his (much too small) band of brothers. One danger: Pray for Father Altman, lest his earnest and well-expressed conviction become pride.
Does inductive reasoning help us, in these types of cases, to find certain enlightening principles or concepts to teach us to navigate the turbid waters of our day? I think so; three come to mind:
Substance: Is what the priest says in perfect synchrony with Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and Sacred Teaching, which is the settled (bimillennial) Magisterium? This excludes theological novelty and opinions rooted in the profane or the ideologically “progressive.” Blessed Pius IX seems to summarize the argument so far put forward here: “Decorous language should be firmly maintained so that whatever is Catholic, whatever proceeds from this See of Saint Peter, the safe harbor of the whole Catholic communion and the mother and teacher of all churches, may be welcomed and believed. May whatever is against it be rejected, so that every error and profane novelty may be repelled and eliminated” (Optime Noscitis : #4).
Style: Does the priest speak from a gentle, kind, and humble spirit? The image of Rambo in the Ambo is precisely the wrong one! Proverbs is customarily helpful: “A gentle response diverts anger, but a harsh statement incites fury” (15:1). This does not, though, mean diffidence or obsequiousness. The truth can be boldly championed with “grace under pressure,” as Hemingway put it.
Subordination: Is the priest obedient to proper authority in saying/doing what he is? The Church is, after all, hierarchical, and we must remember that. St. Paul saw the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5 and 16:26; his Epistle begins and concludes with that certain teaching) as fundamental to the Christian life. All that said, obedience (except directly to God Himself [as Our Lady teaches by word and deed–Luke 1:38]) is always contingent, conditional, contextual, and circumstantial. If a Catholic pastor, for example, were to instruct his parochial vicar or curate to preach a homily supporting abortion, the latter would, of course, refuse, becoming “insubordinate.” Our first duty is always to God: substance trumps subordination. When loyalty to a human being becomes disloyalty to our Lord, we must obey God (cf. 1 Sam 15:24-25 and Acts 5:29).
When one person–or many people or an entire political party– supports the slaughter of the innocent, our Catholic and baptismal duty is clear: to testify to the truth (see CCC #1273). Confirmation, moreover, “gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the cross” (CCC #1303; my emphasis). This is, in fact, the obedience of faith.
In armies of old, the guidon was the standard or banner behind which the troops rallied. If the guidon-bearer fell, another would seize the guidon and, with it, the honor of “showing the way” to his comrades-in-arms.
When misguided, intimidated, or “juring” prelates grow silent in the face of evil–or, worse, instruct their subordinates to be quiet–the guidon has fallen. “Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights all who are helpless,” we are taught (Proverbs 31:8). Some–actually, most–cower in their chanceries, afraid of using the crosiers they carry to defend their flocks from the savage wolves lurking both outside and inside the very walls of the holy Church of which, ostensibly, they are teachers, governors, and sanctifiers (see Rev 21:8, Acts 20:29). Other bishops, and priests, and deacons, and lay people should be prepared to pick up that guidon, which is the holy Cross, and display it dauntlessly, remembering this great Thomist adage: agere sequitur esse (“what you do follows upon what you are”).
Bishops who refuse to defend Catholic art or statuary, or who perniciously tell us that abortion is not the preeminent issue of our day, or who chastise priests who have charitably spoken the truth flowing from the moral law—these are men who need to be reminded of the graces and obligations attending the Confirmations which they confer. They are men who need to be reminded to take up the Cross of Christ–His teaching, His truth–even, or especially, when it’s “inconvenient,” “unpopular,” or “counter-cultural.” There is a word for that: guts. We don’t see much of that now, do we?
It was Pope Benedict XV who, in June 1917, reminded bishops that their paramount duty was preaching. “But,” the Holy Father continued, “since among the truths revealed by God there are some which frighten the weakness of our corrupt nature, and which therefore are not calculated to attract the multitude, they carefully avoid them, and treat themes, in which, the place accepted, there is nothing sacred. Not seldom it happens that in the very midst of a discourse upon the things of eternity, they turn to politics, particularly if any questions of this kind just then deeply engross the minds of their hearers. They seem to have only one aim, to please their hearers and curry favor with those whom St. Paul describes as ‘having itching ears’ (II Tim. vi:3).” See Humani Generis Redemptionem: #5, #10.
Every parish–and everyone connected with every parish and every diocese–should speak the truth concisely, clearly, and cogently. We glorify God and save souls by teaching truth. There is a word for that: parrhesia, meaning “boldness in speaking.” We don’t see much of that now, do we?
And when we do (as in the cases of Fathers Altman and Rothrock), it is often criticized from within. “Even from your own number,” we read in Acts, “men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” (20:30).
“The greatest obstacle to the apostolate of the Church,” Pope St. Pius X taught us, “is the timidity or rather the cowardice of the faithful”—especially, he might add, if those “faithful” are wearing mitres.
All of us, in these days of moral and political peril, must take to heart the Pauline exhortation, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27).
Editor’s note: we recognize that, excepting violations of liturgical rubrics, some of the examples outlined above will be interpreted differently by Catholics of good will. The opinions offered in this article are those of the author, not 1P5. Nevertheless, we believe this to be an important contribution to a necessary discussion on the criteria for evaluation of such occurrences as they become more commonplace among those members of the clergy who are no longer willing to stay quiet. As St. Catherine of Siena famously said, “We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues – I see the world is rotten because of silence.”
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed numerous columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.