Orthodox priests in a divided Church

Orthodox priests in a divided Church

Fr John Trigilio

In an editorial last November, the liberal US journal 'Commonweal' drew attention to the alleged poor calibre of recently ordained American priests. They were, it complained, "older, less educated, less thoroughly schooled in theology, and less likely to see its relevance to ministry." Worse still, they were "focused on 'orthodoxy' and Roman control, and less inclined to collaboration with the laity".

These priests, 'Commonweal' continued, were guilty of adhering to a "cultic" model of the priesthood that stressed "the essential difference between clergy and laity", that saw the priest as "a man set apart whose job is providing the sacraments, teaching the Catholic Church's doctrine, and being a model of faith and devotion."

There was little sign of the "servant-leader" model which emphasised "the collaborative elements of clerical leadership within the community". But, 'Commonweal' noted sadly, "the popularity of that model, ascendant in the 1960s, has waned".

This assessment was repudiated by Rev Dr John Trigilio, President of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, a national association of American priests and deacons loyal to the Church's magisterium. Fr Trigilio is also featured on EWTN.

I entered the seminary in 1976 after graduating from eighth grade (parochial school) and continued from high school seminary to college seminary to major seminary until ordination in 1988. During those twelve years of seminary, I saw and heard a lot. Likewise, in the subsequent eighteen years of priesthood, mostly in parish ministry with a brief stint in Tribunal and Hospital Chaplaincy ministry, my experience was certainly not insignificant.

During the later years of the pontificate of Pope Paul VI when I entered High School Seminary, there was a general malaise prolific in many minor and major seminaries. Faculty members who hoped the reforms of Vatican II would lead to further and more revolutionary changes (priestly celibacy, women's ordination, etc) were hoping that Paul VI's successor would open the doors and not just the windows (as did John XXIII).

Faith and morals were considered "fluid" and "malleable" in that they could and needed to adapt to the times, or so this group thought. Immutable doctrines and absolute moral laws were relics of the past, they maintained. Many of these theological and liturgical "hippies" were the ones who ran the seminaries and therefore sought to remake the mould used to form the contemporary priest.

Collaboration with the laity was not their real agenda any more than was subsidiarity. True, this group was unmistakably prone to dissent from Magisterial teaching (as evidenced by their enthusiastic embrace of Charles Curran and his dissent from Humanae Vitae) and they were certainly not concerned or preoccupied with loyalty to Rome.

Yet, they were not the populist saviours they purported to be, for revolutionaries often depose authority so as to replace it with their own brand. Some of the extreme radicals of the post-Vatican II Church sought to sever their doctrinal and disciplinary obedience to Rome but to keep intact their own fascist control over their subordinates.

Prior to the papacy of John Paul II, the other group in the seminary was indeed loyal to the Magisterium and obedient to the Roman Pontiff. Sarcastically labelled as "traditionalist" or "rigid," those of us who wished to be faithful to the hierarchical structure, intended and founded by Christ when He personally established the Church with Saint Peter, were in the minority and had no influence whatsoever.

Those who rejected infallible doctrines and absolute moral laws embraced and promoted dynamic doctrines that adapted themselves to become more appealing to non-Catholics. They also embraced an amorphous morality which would open the doors to contraception, fornication, homosexuality, pornography, corruption, graft, etc, since there were no more ethical absolutes.

Many of the problems and scandals inside the seminary and afterwards in the parishes after some of these men were ordained can be traced to bad theology and bad morality. Both were sustained, sadly, by bad liturgy. The raping of the Catholic worship resulted in the intentional loss of reverence, sacredness, sacrifice and worship of the divine.

Liturgical aberrations and abuses promoted the dissident theology and adulterated morality by glorifying man over God. Human nature was deified while divinity was dethroned. Concupiscence was no longer the effect of Original Sin, but a natural inclination which needed to be understood and nurtured. The only official deviancy was the old regime and the few new recruits who sought to restore Peter to his chair.


It is a false dichotomy to say one had to choose between loyalty to Rome and collaboration with the people. Ironically, it is the people who are often more Catholic than their clergy.

The ecclesiastical radicals bragged about their disdain for the Pope, the Vatican and the Magisterium. Academic freedom and liberty of conscience were their mantras. Yet, if someone under their authority dared to disagree or, worse yet, disobey the disobedient, then the fascist side of them emerged.

While there was no equivalent to the Peasants' Revolt in Luther's time, we did have in the seminary those who refused to be disloyal to Rome. It was not the people in the pews who faithfully went to church for Mass and confessions who demanded that their parishes remove statues, communion rails or whitewash their sanctuaries.

The liturgical Nazis imposed iconoclasm on many parishes and even deported Christ by removing tabernacles and placing them in obscure, small, and covert "Eucharistic chapels" instead of in the main worship space.

If the ultra-reformers (those who feel Vatican II did not go far enough) were truly collaborative, they would not be the ones who bully and harass the elderly woman who chooses to kneel for Communion. Paradoxically, the same bullies are too timid to refuse Communion to politicians who openly support abortion.

Bishops who remained silent when local "theologians" publicly espoused het- erodox teaching or even overtly dissented from Humanae Vitae or Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, or who refused to enforce Ex Corde Ecclesiae by requiring and monitoring the mandate needed to teach theology, are often the very same ones who quickly and with ferocity impose sanctions (such as suspension or interdict) on those who dare question their prudential judgments.

Disagree with the Pope, even from the pulpit or in the classroom, and nothing was done. Disagree or question a diocesan policy, however, and incur the wrath of Khan. Authentic collaboration occurs when the bishops, priests and deacons listen to and respond to the spiritual needs of the parishioners who support and attend the local church.

"Spirit of Vatican II"

If many post-Vatican II clergy need to be re-educated it was not because they were poor students while in the seminary. Some just got bad or poor education because they were not given the unadulterated truth. There was no Catechism prior to 1992. (I was ordained in 1988). We had the Code of Canon Law since 1983 but even that was criticised in class, as in the case of mandating first confession before first communion (#777 and 915).

The documents of the Council were not taught but the "spirit of Vatican II" was invoked all over the place.

What was not taught in the seminary besides orthodox doctrine and morality was business management. The corporate model of ecclesiology was never explained or taught but extensively used as many of us discovered once we were ordained. The hierarchical institution model was always ridiculed but the servant, herald, mystical communion or community of disciples, while promoted to one degree or another, did not reflect the reality outside the seminary.

Many priests who find themselves discouraged, disenchanted or even demoralised are so because they do not feel, see themselves or are treated as spiritual fathers of a local family of faith. Instead, they are often employees of the corporation.

Pastors spend more time doing fundraising, attending committee meetings, and reading and completing diocesan paperwork than they do celebrating the sacraments. Often, they are treated like branch managers of the company, with the bishop being the senior vice president, surrounded by his board of directors in the chancery office.

Policies to protect assets, increase revenue and reduce expenditures are certainly prudent and required by good stewardship. Sadly, these often become the high priority while the teaching of orthodox doctrine and the reverent celebration of the sacraments are put on the back burner if at all.

When parishioners ask for devotions like Divine Mercy, Eucharistic Adoration, public rosary, Novenas, processions and the like, often the so-called "collaborators" ignore or insult them. When parishioners utilise their legal option to receive Communion on the tongue or to confess anonymously, their legitimate choice is denied. So much for collaboration.

Seminarians do not need administrative or managerial skills or training. They need orthodox theological and sound philosophical education within the context of solid spiritual formation founded on prayer and proper celebration of the sacraments, especially the Holy Mass. Instead of running parishes and dioceses like businesses and corporations, we need to return to the familial model. Pastors and bishops should be paternal and not middle or upper management.

Many of us clergy long for the day when competent and qualified deacons and laity can handle most if not all of the mundane business of the parish, like budgets, committee meetings, fundraising, employee relations, labour disputes and diocesan bureaucratic paperwork. I would rather spend time teaching the faith and ministering to the sick rather than worrying about salaries, benefits, insurance, decreasing offertory income, or rising expenditures. Here is where real collaboration can take place.

The pastor still represents the authority of the local bishop but the division of labour is such that he is assisted by the wisdom and experience of the laity who help him with their expertise. Tampering with doctrine, morals or the sacred liturgy is not the prerogative of either the pastor or the parishioners.

Families of faith

Real faith communities are not places where the clergy have abdicated their authority to teach and govern and become mere sacrament dispensers. Real faith communities are families of faith where the pastor is the spiritual father. Collaboration and cooperation occur in the diverse apostolates of the parish, like teaching the faith to children and adults, keeping the church clean, or planning and celebrating reverent liturgies that conform to the traditions of our church.

Ironically, it is the other side which unilaterally imposes liturgical aberrations and illicit innovations upon the parishioners whether they like them or not. This is not a battle between liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. The issue is whether to abandon or entirely embrace the "corporate business" model.

Many of us choose to restore the ancient family model which was never democratic but essentially hierarchical; yet always in an atmosphere of charity, justice and mercy. Since the wonderful reign of John Paul II and his current successor Benedict XVI, we have two exquisite role models and one marvellous vision. Many of the bishops these two have appointed are superb choices and in fact shepherd their dioceses as a father leads his family.

There are some, however, who still use a business model and prefer the role of executive to that of father. But disobedient children cannot be ignored nor encouraged in their folly, especially when it endangers the rest of the family. Redefining doctrine or reinventing sacred liturgy are not viable options.

Sentire cum ecclesiae (think with the church) and ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia (where Peter is, there is the church) are our best road maps.

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