Why I’m Not So Quick to Judge Jonathan Morris for Leaving the Priesthood

Last night, I watched the interview that the now laicized Fr. Jonathan Morris gave to Martha MacCallum on Fox News, where he’s been a contributor for many years. A lot of folks are very unhappy with Morris, and I can understand why. But I think there’s a good reason to reserve judgment in this particular instance.

It was a tough interview for me to watch, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I, like most Catholics, never want to see a man leave the priesthood. Certainly not very publicly, and over an alleged desire to get married at a time when some factions in the Church are pushing so hard to ordain married men.

Second, Morris’s mannerisms and way of speaking are so characteristic of his formation as a Legionary of Christ that they set off an instinctual revulsion in me. This reaction is rooted in my own experiences with what I can describe only as a cult founded by a man under demonic influence, not a religious order. (I’ve written about my experiences here before.) Morris has, if I’m being honest, always irritated me with his almost smarmy delivery of platitudinous and shallow theology. In my limited experience of viewing his commentary as a Fox News contributor, his view of Catholicism was very much the “lite” version — about as anodyne as it comes.

And all of this is why I was surprised to find myself moved to profound sympathy for this man as I watched him talk about trying to figure out what to do now. A man who has spent the past 26 years of his life confused about who he is and what God wants from him, who actually tried to get out of the seminary before ordination but was pushed to continue by the founder and then general superior of the Legion, the despicable Marcial Maciel — one of the most demonic clerical sexual predators the Church has ever produced.

For people who were not subject to the kind of vocational pressure the Legionaries produced, what Morris is doing (and my sympathy for it) likely doesn’t make much sense. But it is critical to understand that the Legionaries were merciless in their recruitment techniques. They laid on the guilt so thick, and in my personal experience, they played on my scruples and my desire to do God’s will to such a degree that I wound up spending probably half a dozen years in a state of near constant anguish. And after I left, they backstabbed me and tried to destroy my reputation.

For me, the results were unsurprising. I became depressed. I was tempted to leave the Church, since the Legion and Regnum Christi had all but replaced the institutional Church in my mind, and I didn’t know how to get to God without them. And even though I had every reason to discard everything they’d ever told me, the guilt and the fear lingered. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my desire to be married and have a family was nothing but a manifestation of my own selfishness, because they had kept telling me God wanted me to be a priest. This turned into a constant state of vocational anxiety, that really only went away some time after I was married.

I suffered with all of that, and I was deeply involved for only about two years — and never even went through their seminary.

When I went to write this piece today, I decided I should present more than personal experience. It only took about five seconds of research to find documentation corroborating my impression of their tactics. I came across a Hartford Courant article from back in 1996, when the Legion was at its peak, and Maciel had not yet been revealed as a monster. It was also the time when I was most deeply involved. It was the second half of my senior year of high school at The Highlands School in Irving, Texas, where I lived in community with the Legionaries who ran the school. Later that year, I would go on to work and live with them full-time after graduation at their house of apostolate in Atlanta.

According to the Courant:

The Legionaries of Christ, a militaristically styled order of Roman Catholic priests based in Connecticut, calls recruiting candidates for the priesthood “capturing vocations.”

The language is more than figurative, say several men who accepted invitations last year to join the Legionaries’ novice training program.

They say that superiors of the tightly controlled, boot camp–like training program would not release them when they decided that priesthood in the Legion was not for them.

They say that the Legionaries tried to manipulate and intimidate them psychologically, refused to return their civilian clothes and subjected them to such intense pressure to stay that they felt they had no choice but to plan escapes and flee.

Nineteen ninety-six was also the year I was guilt-tripped into trying out the Legionaries’ seminary discernment program. I was told by a very important and high-ranking priest in the order, whom I esteemed very much, that he “knew” I had a vocation and that he had been waiting for me to go into their “candidacy” program since he had first met me. “Like Christ said, ‘I saw you under the fig tree and I knew.’ I just knew,” he said.

I didn’t want to let God down. I was only 18. I was desperate for approval and wanted to find my place in the world, and more specifically, in the Church.

But it was a poor fit, and I knew it. And I began to immediately notice subtle manipulation. Although it was supposed to just be a discernment program, all of the “candidates” were referred to as “Brother,” just as the professed novices were. From the moment I began, I was “Brother Stephen,” as though my status had already changed. And then there were the prayers the candidates were required to say. Instead of asking God for wisdom and discernment of our vocations, like what you would expect in a process of discernment, the prayers we said were worded so that we were thanking God for our priestly vocations. As if it was a given that we all had them. And very much like the practice of daily affirmations, if you say something enough times, you begin to believe it. We were also told to abandon ourselves to the guidance of our spiritual directors because they represented the will of God. To me, it felt like abandoning my own identity and allowing them to replace it with something else.

Which, in retrospect, is exactly what it was. They didn’t care if we had real vocations. They wanted more grist for the mill.

Thankfully, I fought it. I refused to say the prayers. I talked to the other guys about how I knew I didn’t belong, and in so doing, I unintentionally began causing some of them to reflect on their own doubts, too. I remember sitting at a meal one day and saying I didn’t know why I was there, and that I wanted to be with my then-girlfriend, who was visiting the seminary for her own older brother’s religious professions. (In those days, my entire social sphere comprised people involved in “the movement.”) One of the guys responded, “At least you have a girlfriend. I’ve never had the chance. I’ve been here since the 7th grade.”

Ultimately, the priest who had pressured me to do the candidacy program saw that I was making waves, and that this made me a liability. I wasn’t cooperating with the program. I was going off script. He got upset with me and told me I was not listening to God. But then he told me — I’m not making this up — “I have been consulting the Holy Spirit. I don’t want you to stay. You’re under too much pressure.”

He told me to leave but to keep discerning. He knew I was heading into their “co-worker” program — full-time volunteer work in the apostolate, allegedly modeled after the Mormons’ missionary service. And he knew I would be in the care of a priest who was a particularly nasty partisan of their mission. While under his spiritual direction, I was lied to and manipulated further. Although I left the program under the advice of my family’s parish priest after about six months, I spent the next five years feeling so anxious and guilty about not pursuing the priesthood that I had constant knots in my stomach. Every Mass I attended, every rosary I recited, every prayer I said involved me begging God to help me to figure out what I was supposed to do. I knew I didn’t want to be a priest, but I was so afraid of not doing what God wanted that I was locked in a kind of paralysis.

And even with all of that, in a sense, I got off easy.

I wasn’t subjected to the same tactics — the intimidation, the withholding of personal effects, the more extreme forms of pressure. Most likely because I had never made it into the seminary, where every phone call and letter was monitored, every moment of the day was scheduled, and any resistance to the program could result in being told that you were resisting God’s will and would be punished. I remember one of my friends telling me about how he drove hundreds of miles to go pick up his younger brother from the seminary in the middle of the night because his brother had called and said he wanted to escape, but that when he got there, his brother got cold feet. He was afraid to leave.

These experiences weren’t uncommon. More from that Courant article:

The former novices allege that they were subjected to the same kind of mind-numbing, sleep-depriving tactics that the Moonies had been accused of using on recruits in the 1960s and ’70s.

Hugh McCaffery, 30, of Pensacola, Fla., said he kept saying he wanted to leave “but they laughed it off.”

“They’d say, ‘OK, you’re complaining, you’re venting, but you’ll get over it.’”

When he insisted he wanted to leave, “They told me to write down on paper what you don’t like and we will discuss it. I gave them a page and a half and said it was intolerable,” McCaffery said in a telephone interview from his home.

Still the order resisted releasing him, McCaffery said. “They are totally trained to tell you this is the fundamental option in life, and if you don’t choose it you will go to hell.”

He said the idea to flee crystallized one afternoon when a priest told the novices, “You guys think we are brainwashing you. You think we are stealing your personalities away. I said to myself that’s exactly what you are doing.”

At the end of November during an outdoor retreat, he said, he shed his cassock, folded it carefully on the ground, and fled.

“As soon as I got to the woods I started running like a deer. My sunglasses fell out. They cost me $80 but I didn’t stop to pick them up,” he said.

He said he ran 3 miles into Mt. Kisco. He had no money, he said, but rented a car with a credit card he had in his wallet and drove straight home to Pensacola, surprising his parents.

Several weeks before McCaffery fled, two other men made an elaborately planned getaway, according to an account one of them gave The Courant. He related how the fathers repeatedly brushed aside his request to be released.

Finally, he said, he and his companion broke into the mansion’s attic to retrieve their suitcases. They hid them under their beds and watched for an opportunity to retrieve them unobserved. That came one day when the students were at athletics. They hid their bags in bushes and jogged into Mt. Kisco.

He telephoned a friend. “I told him I just escaped from the seminary and I have a friend with me. Can you pick us up? He said, ‘no problem.’”

This man, in his 30s, at first talked freely and at length in a telephone call and a personal meeting but was ambivalent about being identified in a news story. He finally decided he did not want to be named because he thought it might jeopardize his chances to get into another seminary.

Also, he said, he talked to his “spiritual adviser” and “a couple of priests I think a lot of and they personally feel to go public would do more damage to the Catholic Church at this time.”

Another former novice who was sent from Cheshire to Monterrey, Mexico, said it took the order weeks after he said he wanted to quit to return him to the United States. The order held his money, passport and clothes so he couldn’t leave on his own, he said.

He, too, asked for anonymity.

“I fear retaliation if my full name is printed in your story because the Legion is a powerful, wealthy and secretive organization,” he wrote in a letter to The Courant. He also is seeking admission to another seminary.

“I became disillusioned and left the Legion over their brainwashing, which turns people into robot-like personalities, their unrealistic expectations, their pressure on members to obey rules and accomplish tasks, their ridicule, their secrecy, their manipulating and their pressure on members to raise money for the organization.”

Now apply this information to the situation of Jonathan Morris. He had a serious girlfriend at Steubenville but went on a Legionary retreat, where they convinced him he had a vocation at age 21. (This same story happened to the priest who recruited me — except he was engaged to be married when they got him. He has also since been laicized.) Morris said in his interview last night that even after he was in the seminary, he became involved in an illicit relationship and went to his superiors and told them he needed to leave. Instead, they took him to Maciel, who told him to think of it as though it had never happened and expedited his ordination by two years.

Clearly, they didn’t want one of their star prospects to reconsider.

The Legion was always fond of bragging that their formation program lasted over a decade before their men would be ordained. It made them feel superior to diocesan priests and those of other orders, whom they dismissed as “poorly formed.” But it was, in effect, a long period of brainwashing. It was a process of dissolving a young man’s free will and autonomy so he dropped all of his objections, submitted his decision-making faculties to the machine, and became a good soldier for the cause.

It always reminded me of the process of assimilation into the Borg.

I truly wonder how many Legionary priests ever had a vocation in the first place. Every time I hear about one being laicized, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t for the best. These are not just men who found the priesthood too hard. They are often men who have been severely psychologically manipulated and damaged to such a degree that they don’t know which end is up. Some of them lived lives of contradiction, never having felt an actual call.

I’ll never forget how one of the priests I knew well — the superior of the community during my time at The Highlands — told me that he, also, knew I had a vocation. When I said I didn’t feel like I had one and didn’t want one, he said, “I never wanted a vocation. I still don’t want a vocation!”

Imagine living like that! He always seemed so sad to me. He was a very cynical, bitter man in many respects, and even his humor had an acid bite to it. As far as I know, he’s still a priest, though no longer with the Legion. I wonder if he’s ever found peace.

I don’t know what kind of man Jonathan Morris is. I doubt we’d see eye to eye on much. Frankly, we’d probably argue a lot. There’s still something about him that sets my teeth on edge.

But I do feel sympathy for him, because it is clear to me, watching this interview, that he has no idea who he is. He is a man who has spent the past 26 years being the guy other people told him he should be, even when he didn’t feel that it was right. And all because he didn’t want to “let them down.” He kept saying that in the interview. “I didn’t want to let people down.” I find that absolutely tragic. I look at Jonathan Morris and I see a man who is broken and lost.

I’ve seen people saying some disparaging things about his choice to leave the priesthood, and while I can’t blame people for being upset, all I can say is, “If you weren’t subjected to it, it’s hard to understand.” He is 46 years old and needs to start the process of figuring out who he is. And while he should absolutely not remain in the spotlight, it’s been his one non-priestly job for the past 14 years, and I don’t think he knows anything else. So he’s likely to stay there, whether it’s good for him (or for those who watch him) or not. He seems convinced that he won’t lose his faith, so maybe he won’t. But lots of guys, after leaving the Legion, do. I know how close I came.

The long and short of the thing is this: whatever you think about Jonathan Morris and his decision not to be Father Jonathan Morris anymore, be assured that he needs your prayers.

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