The Pity and the Pretense
“Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity!” –Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)
Father Frank Fourberie (fictitious) is fifty-eight years old. He has been a priest for thirty years, and he is now pastor of a large urban church in a major American city. Father Fourberie is a generally kind, thoughtful, and generous man. His parishioners like him (cf. Luke 6:26), in part because he makes few demands upon them, other than regular requests for financial support. His Masses are as unremarkable as his homilies, which are uncontroversial, brief, and invariably marked by bumbling attempts at humor. The collection, after all, immediately follows the homily, and Father Fourberie must pay the parish bills. There are no questions about Father’s character or personality, and he is generally well thought of by his bishop, his fellow priests, and his staff. “No one likes a scold,” he smilingly, if a tad defensively, insists, and he never disturbs anyone’s conscience—even his own (cf. Rom 11:8).
It’s too bad that Father Fourberie is an impostor.
Several years ago—he doesn’t actually know when or how it happened—Father Fourberie stopped believing. He had ceased reading the Liturgy of the Hours—praying the breviary—some years before he finally and fully lost his faith; he had been too busy to pray. There was always something else to do—something which he thought to be more important than praying the Divine Office or doing any spiritual reading. One day, it just happened: he doubted the presence of Christ in the bread and wine which he had just consecrated into the “body, blood, soul, and divinity” of Jesus (CCC #1374).
There had been so much confusion around him. There had been so much spiritual chaos. He became unsure whom to believe about “Church matters.” Nevertheless, he has persisted: the people need his help, his guidance. With smiles and good wishes, he tries. He goes through all the motions of and for the Sacraments. His teaching and preaching call people to lives of calm and courtesy. He rarely, if ever, though, interjects Scripture and Tradition and settled Magisterial teaching into the lessons he provides—or into the clerical life he ostensibly leads. The people, he thinks, want kindness and comedy, not pulpiteering. All religions, he thinks, teach roughly the same thing, and he does not want to be considered a “zealous” Catholic, “triumphalist” or “outdated.” It’s best, he thinks, just to go along in order to get along. Father Fourberie thinks much; Father Fourberie believes little (cf. Prv 3:5).
It is much better, happier, safer, and a great deal more popular for him to say “yes” to anything that comes along (cf. Gal 1:10). He is very tolerant, very obliging, very open to changes in the celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments; he is very permissive about heterodox organizations having time and space in the church, about modern songs instead of hymns, about sometimes religiously dubious youth activities and catechesis, and about political banners in the church and parish school. Father Fourberie is eminently avant-garde and au courant.
A priest’s straight backbone in ministry is always the result of his knees bent in prayer.
It is a pity that Father Fourberie has lost his faith and that his priesthood has become mere pretense. But what, after all, is he to do? He is 58, and he holds a seminary degree in philosophy. All he has ever done is to be a seminarian and then a priest. If he left the priesthood, he would be leaving a respectable position, earning a decent salary with perquisites, including health and car insurance. His friends are priests. What would he do if he left the priesthood and the Church? Who would hire him? What kind of money and benefits could he expect? What kind of retirement? What kind of community?
He must stay on, reasons Father Fourberie. For practical reasons, he can’t leave. Besides, rather like Willy Loman the salesman, he is well respected. He is doing good, he thinks, asking people to be kind and courteous. What more, really, is there, he narcotically asks himself repeatedly. He no longer knows what the answer is because he no longer knows Who the answer is (cf. Hebrews 4:16-5:4).
But Father Fourberie’s priesthood is a pity and a pretense. He should be man enough to leave, following his actual awareness that what he is doing, without God, is essentially emptiness and fraud. But he can’t make that decision: wouldn’t be prudent; wouldn’t be practical; wouldn’t be financially permissible for him.
How many Father Fourberies are there? How many Bishop Fourberies are there? Very rarely do they identify themselves, announcing their departure from the priesthood. Again: wouldn’t be prudent. Thus, very many Catholics in very many places and at very many times listen to and “learn” from their Father Fourberies, these men who lack the integrity, the moral courage, the simple honesty, to depart from a ministry which they long ago they abandoned.
(By the way, we are not Donatists: The spiritual fruits of the Sacraments confected by Father Fourberie are not dependent upon the worthiness of the priest—ex opera operato [see CCC #1128].)
It is, in fact, a pity that some priests have lost their faith and fervor. And all of us should pray, diligently and devotedly, for all of our priests. But the Father Fourberies, who have mentally and morally already left the faith, must also physically leave the ministry, not be counterfeit in their words, works, and witness.
Except for the honesty of the Father Fourberies who walk away after they have spiritually apostatized, there is no solution to this problem. Father Fourberie will not contact his bishop, informing him of his lack of faith. Father Fourberie will not tell his parish that he is no longer a believing, practicing Catholic, but that “you in the pews may choose to be!” Father Fourberie is very unlikely to respond truthfully even to a parishioner who privately, discreetly, and solicitously asks him. “Father, have you lost your faith?”
The pity and the pretense of morally defecting priests—of practical-atheist priests who masquerade as pastors or parochial vicars or as bishops—is a very old one. It will be with us until the Parousia.
It is, I venture to say, a much more urgent problem than any of us may realize. We can, we should, we must, pray that our priests will remember, with Job, that “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life [and direction and destiny]” (33:4; cf. Ps 104:30).
Father Fourberie is, so very sad to say, a charlatan of the worst sort. Persuaded that there is no Truth, he betrays Truth by his mountebank ministry. Persuaded that there is no Christ-founded Catholic faith which we should ardently preach and teach, he apostatizes by wanton religious indifference. Persuaded that all he does in the holy Mass and Sacraments amounts to no more than charade, he is an idolater, effectively praising the way of the world rather than trying, by divine grace, to follow the Will of the God he has deserted (cf. Mt 7:15-16, Rev 21:8).
As G.K. Chesterton trenchantly observed: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they then become capable of believing in anything.” Isn’t that phenomenon exactly what we are seeing, even among those whom we look to for sacred guidance in a profane world? Remember Malachi: “Now you priests have turned away from the right path. Your teaching has led many to do wrong. You have broken the covenant I made with you” (2:8).
Fourberie is from the French for deceit, perfidy, and trickery.
Photo: Detroit, Michigan – November 18, 2017: The Beatification of Fr. Solanus Casey at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan on November 18, 2017, which drew a crowd of over 60,000. Archdiocese of Detroit.
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 numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.