“Ask a Priest: What to Do About Lukewarm Clerics?”

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Q: The following is out of love for the Church, please understand that. Part of growing closer to God and his Church is asking questions. Sorry for any disrespect. It really seems like so many of the clerics in the Catholic Church are afraid to just speak the truth. Why? If the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ and is protected by the Holy Spirit in matters of faith and morals, then why not say that? Is it so hard? Regarding our Protestant brothers and sisters, the word ecumenism is used all the time. It’s not that I have a problem with the word itself, it’s just that Protestantism is a heresy, period. When did the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church decide that heresy isn’t so bad? Even the Our Father has been modified in many parishes to include words written by a Protestant (which are not found in the Bible). I didn’t know that the Protestant version was superior to Christ’s original version. Also, I am so tired of the word pastoral. God forbid we tell the active homosexuals and the divorced and re-married Catholics and the Protestants and the abortion supporting politicians that their souls are in grave danger, we might hurt their feelings. The only sin any more is the sin of hurting someone’s feelings. The only hell is the one that Hitler is in (never mind the thousands of people who helped him massacre God’s chosen people). Also, I find that many priests either don’t know or don’t care how to properly receive the Eucharist. I find it hard to believe they don’t know (because I do, and I am not “educated”). So, they must not care (or they think they know better than the Pope). Hardly anyone receives the Eucharist at my parish properly. Disrespect is shown all the time (and the priest says nothing). Is he afraid? I mentioned it to him once and he agreed with me; still, he says nothing and continues to allow the abuse of the Eucharist. How hard is it to explain to your congregation how to receive the Eucharist in accordance with the rules? People should either receive properly or they should be denied, simple. Any sin can be forgiven, but only through true penance. For those who refuse to repent, who cares? They are the children of the serpent and have made their decision. Hell is a choice of free will. We need to stop walking on eggshells for these people. Sorry for the tone, I’m just so frustrated with the “lukewarm” attitude of so many clerics. Sometimes I just want to shake them! The worst part is that I have e-mailed countless bishops on these issues and have never gotten a single response, ever! Any help on this matter would be most appreciated. My faith is really being challenged these days. God bless. -JH

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is good to hear that your e-mail is motivated out of love for the Church. That is a crucial principle to keep in mind when confronting the problems you mention.

Let’s say it up front: The Church is in a mess, no doubt, and some of the mess is of its own making. But this isn’t anything new. The Church has had problems since the beginning — note the betrayal of Judas and the scandals cited by St. Paul in some of his letters.

All this shows that the Church has both a divine and human side.

The divine side is perfect: It is the mystical body of Christ. It is holy. It helps people get to heaven. It shows God’s glory in the world.

The human side is far from perfect: It is full of weak people who sin, some grievously. More than a few give terrible scandal to the people around them.

The Church is a kind of world-class hospital. It has the best equipment, the best staff, the best training. And it is full of sick and disabled people who struggle with all kinds of issues.

Having said that, I’ll turn to the matters you raise.

First, I know a lot of clerics who aren’t afraid to speak about tough teachings of the Church. True, this cannot be said of every cleric. Some avoid tough issues for various reasons. Some, I suspect, are gun-shy because of negative feedback from parishioners. This isn’t an excuse for not teaching Church doctrine, but it might explain the environment in which some priests have to work. Out of love for the Church, what to do? A remedy here might be for parishioners to let a priest know that they appreciate it when he speaks about a tough topic. Encourage him, and let him know he has support for teaching Church doctrine.

Second, while it is true that the Church has sound and solid doctrine, there is a subjective element, a (sorry to use the “p” word) pastoral element. That is, it isn’t enough to teach “the truth” — it is also necessary to take the audience into account.

A lot of Catholics simply don’t have a solid grounding in the faith. They sometimes have a hard time understanding even the basics of why the Church teaches what it teaches. You and I might understand why the Church teaches against same-sex “marriage.” But many people have had their ideas about this issue distorted by decades of TV shows and Hollywood movies. How do we get through to them? It’s not easy. A priest can deliver a hard-hitting homily on the subject, but it might not sink in. It might even cause a backlash. Love of Church here might mean that we need to do some foundational work, such as study circles on theology of the body, or group discussions to critique certain movies, etc.

As for Protestants: Most non-Catholic Christians have grown up in their respective denominations assuming that they are practicing the faith that Jesus expects of them. We need to respect their good will. We can’t and shouldn’t deal with Protestants today in the same way we might have confronted them in the 16th century. Today, for love of the Church and for the sake of unity within Christianity, we try to look for common ground. We look for ways to build bridges. On this particular point, it might also be helpful for you to read up a bit on the difference between a “material heretic” and a “formal heretic.”

Ecumenism is not meant to water down the faith, although at times that has seemed to be its practical consequence in some areas. Catholics who get involved in serious ecumenical efforts have to be well trained in theology. Out of love we should look to share the fullness of our faith with non-Catholics at opportune moments. Conversely, we can learn a lot from many Protestants and evangelicals who are exemplary in their love for Christ, their knowledge of Scripture, their dedication to family life, and their pro-life efforts. It would be no surprise if many of them have higher places in heaven than a lot of Catholics.

(By the way, no parish should be changing or adding words to the Our Father. If that is occurring, the diocesan chancery might be interested to hear about it.)

It’s true that some people, including politicians, might be endangering their souls by unworthy reception of the Eucharist. In practice, however, it is hard to know a person’s heart and intention, and whether his mistake is based on callousness or ignorance.

The matter of denying someone Communion on the spot is a complicated issue, and one that bishops and pastors have to address on a case-by-case basis. (For more reading see my colleague Fr. Edward McNamara’s article.) Suffice to say that, ultimately, the onus is on the person who goes up to receive the Eucharist; he will have to answer before God as to whether the reception is worthy.

As for proper treatment of the Eucharist in general: I agree that this should always a top priority. It is unfortunate that respect for the Eucharist has waned in these past decades. The problem has lots of roots and lots of bad fruits. You didn’t mention any specifics about what you see as disrespect for the Eucharist, so I’ll keep my response general.

Restoring a sense of awe and respect for the Eucharist begins with each of us. The way we receive it, the way we live our Mass, the time we spend in adoration — all these are ways we can teach by example. And example is not to be underestimated. Living the Gospel in its fullness would make us saints — and saints can change the world, with God’s grace.

When you see clerics who seem lukewarm, pray for them. When you see sloppy behavior around the Eucharist, be sure to act more reverently. When you see a lack of priests in an area, pray for vocations. “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

We are in the middle of a war. The devil has launched a major offensive on all fronts. There is dissension and, yes, some cowardice, in the ranks. The Church is suffering from infighting and infidelities. This Church, this bride of Christ, is under attack.

All of that is true and urgent. And yet, on the other hand, each of us needs to keep in mind that the battle is also personal. In a particular cleric’s case, the devil may be trying to undermine his courage. In your case, maybe the devil is trying to make you forget about Our Lord’s call to be merciful and to avoid judging our neighbor (see Luke 6:36 and Matthew 7:1-5). In battling against these temptations, we build up Christ’s Kingdom and grow in holiness ourselves. Neither of us is responsible for the choices of our fellow-Catholics, but we are responsible for our own growth in intimacy with Christ and in Christian virtue.

Now isn’t the moment for us to point fingers at one another. Now is the time to defend the Church, the bride of Christ. If we want to bring joy to Our Lord and help the Church, we need to intensify our prayer. We need to try to build unity in parishes and dioceses. We need to support bishops and priests and consecrated men and women and spouses and families and single people and widows and widowers and the unborn.

We need to cooperate with Protestants and Orthodox to build unity within Christianity. We need to cooperate with non-Christians as well, to build peace and justice in the world.

This is the way to face the mess that we see around us. We need to go beyond complaining and start building and repairing. This is the task for our age.

It isn’t an impossible task. The Church started small on that distant day of Pentecost. A handful of apostles and disciples were up against tough odds. But God had a plan, and the seed of the Gospel was sown and eventually bloomed and transformed the world. Could a repeat be in the offing?

I hope some of this helps. God bless.

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