Silencing priests weakens Church authority — Sean O’Conaill

Why exactly does the Catholic magisterium seek to prevent Catholic priests from questioning magisterial positions, even on merely disciplinary matters?
The only good reason surely must be to strengthen the authority of those positions, to persuade us that those positions are the only correct ones.
However, I have to say that for this particular Irish Catholic the action recently taken against six Irish priests has had precisely the opposite effect.  I strongly believe that the authority of the magisterium itself, and of all clergy who expressly support its positions on controversial disciplinary issues, has never been more seriously undermined in Ireland than by this action.
The reason is that in Ireland we tend to give authority to teachers in proportion to their disinterestedness – the degree to which they obviously derive no personal benefit from what they teach.  So, the few Catholic clergy who disregarded the Irish penal laws of the period 1691-1750 gained authority from the fact that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by staying in Ireland and proclaiming what they taught.
It is no accident that the authority of Catholic clergy in our own era has declined markedly in proportion to what they may gain by supporting automatically the positions of the magisterium.  It is obvious for example, that Irish clergy had everything to lose in terms of promotion in the church by questioning Humanae Vitae in 1968.
That is not to say that those who supported Humanae Vitae then and since necessarily lost their authority.  That position was unpopular with many, so adherence to it could also be a sign of integrity.
Now, however, every priest in Ireland who adheres vocally to the magisterial line on any controversial matter will be subject to the gibe:  “But you must say that, mustn’t you?”
By placing sanctions on all contrary positions, even on merely disciplinary matters, the magisterium has attached a disproportionate institutional advantage to every position it seeks to uphold – and inevitably weakened those positions.  We now cannot know whether a compliant Irish cleric really believes what he says or writes, (on, say the need to maintain mandatory celibacy), or is doing so merely for personal advantage.
The situation reminds me very strongly of the era when communist theory lost authority everywhere because of the suppression of all dissent in the Soviet Union.  Committed communists in every country lost credibility because of that unanswerable question:  “But you must say that, mustn’t you?”
How sad this is when we recall the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom:  “Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”
Seán OConaill

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  1. JeannieGuzman says:

    I think that you’ve hit the nail on the head! What do the priests have to lose by questioning those in authority? Except for their careers and their pensions, I can’t think of anything! I think that many priests are now simply “Going thru the motions!” What they believe and teach might be somewhat controversial from the standpoint of the Hierarchy, but the Hierarchy can ill afford “to can” subversive priests, who often have more support of the faithful than the bishops themselves! I think that many priests are simply holding on by their fingernails and waiting for old bishops and their old ideas of conformity to die.

  2. Mary O Vallely says:

    “Why exactly does the Catholic magisterium seek to prevent Catholic priests from questioning magisterial positions, even on merely disciplinary matters?”
    Why indeed? Is it fear of loss of control? ( maybe extreme fear of loss of absolute control) Fear leads to anger and anger, of course, breeds violence. What is the greatest antidote to violence? Conversation, speaking of ones fears, listening to the fears of others and “in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope.” ( Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs)
    Fear leads us to do terrible things and lash out at those we do not understand. I cannot equate this silencing of some priests and this refusal to engage in dialogue with the Jesus in the Gospels. It just does not ring true.
    Sadly too there is a breaking down of trust if our moral guardians are not acting with integrity. How many priests and bishops are afraid to say what they really think? Fear is indeed something we all must face and conquer and pray about.
    Mary V

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