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I Must Decrease

Over the past couple of years, since Catholic Answers’ Director of Development Christopher Check joined the staff, the staff has had the pleasure of several visits from Chris’s brother, Fr. Paul Check. Fr. Check is a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport (Connecticut), and is the Executive Director of Courage, an apostolate that assists those who have same-sex attraction to live chaste lives in accordance with Church teaching. A couple of things impressed me during his visits.

The first time Fr. Check visited, he gave a talk to the staff about same-sex attraction and the work of Courage. Afterwards he made himself available to the staff for confession or private questions. I sought him out because I was wondering what his take was on recent stories in the headlines, in particular a case in which a longtime teacher was fired from a Catholic high school after the name of the teacher’s same-sex partner was listed in a newspaper obituary. I wondered how cases like this, which are becoming more common by the day, should be handled from a pastoral perspective. How do we both uphold the Church’s moral teachings while not being unduly punitive or cruel to individuals (and their families) who may suffer greatly because of immediate terminations?

Fr. Check was very honest and very blunt: He simply did not know.

On another visit, it was Advent and Fr. Check was to give another talk to the staff, this time on the Blessed Mother. He opened this talk by smiling broadly and noting that, as much as he is grateful for the opportunities he has to speak on the Church’s teachings on same-sex attraction for Courage, he was delighted on this occasion to talk about something else. It was not often these days that he was asked to give a talk on Catholic spirituality, and evidently he had been looking forward to this opportunity.

What was it about these incidents that so impressed me?

Well, in the first case, although I did not get my curiosity satisfied, I was impressed that Fr. Check realized that situations like the one I asked him about are complicated and do not have easy answers. He was willing to acknowledge that he did not have the answer to this particular conundrum. This was remarkable, at least in my eyes, because the dilemma of what to do about a Catholic high school teacher living with a same-sex partner seemed to be well within Fr. Check’s realm of expertise. Many experts these days often are more than willing to toss off glib speculations about what should be done in situations of which they may not have firsthand knowledge but fall within their area of specialization.

In the second case, I was impressed that Fr. Check did not want to be focused on the issue of same-sex attraction one hundred percent of the time. As devoted as he is to the souls of the men and women he has been especially charged to care for, he sometimes just wants to be a “regular priest” giving a meditation on the Blessed Mother.

In other words, in both cases, what impressed me about Fr. Check was, for lack of a better term, a remarkable lack of ego. Despite being a respected expert in his field, he knew what he did not know and he was joyful at opportunities to do the work of an ordinary diocesan priest. One gets the feeling that if his bishop called up Fr. Check tomorrow and asked him to resign from Courage and become an associate pastor at St. Anonymous Catholic Church on the poor side of Bridgeport, he might miss the work he had done for Courage but move on to a new assignment with no regrets. I could imagine Fr. Check saying along with St. John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

The Case of the Celebrity Priest

I wish I could say that this attitude is normative among the well-known priests whose work for the Church in various capacities is familiar to me, but one reason I was so impressed with Fr. Check is that his lack of ego is all too often not normative.

Much more normative is the phenomenon of the rock-star priest. Whether he is a talking head on news networks, a guest star on talk shows, a well-known commentator in newspapers and magazines, or a superstar in cyberspace, the rock-star priest seems to have all the answers. And he is willing to offer them to you for the price of his latest book, a “love offering” to his apostolate, a bit of junky swag from his online shop, or a monthly donation to his favorite cause (himself).

A friend of mine has witnessed rock-star priests signing autographs and being wisked away to be wined and dined by adoring fans. Another friend told me about the arrival at a conference of a now-disgraced priest that reminded her of the arrival of the Beatles—spotlights shining, music thumping, crowd swooning. It was then that her Spidey-sense warned her years ahead of time that something was wrong.

Please understand me: I am a fierce defender of supporting priests in their ministry, and I can get quite sharp with lay Catholics who are stingy in supporting priests. What I am critiquing here is the priest who markets himself as a guru of all things Catholic, and in the process becomes a diva who seems to expect and demand all the perks of priestly stardom.

What is some of the fallout from the phenomenon of rock-star priests? The most obvious effect is the onslaught of scandals in recent years as celebrity priest after celebrity priest has fallen from glory. A small sampling of cases include three superstars of Catholic television: Fr. John Corapi, who left the priesthood after allegations of misconduct; Fr. Francis Mary Stone, who admitted to becoming “very close” with a widow and her family, and eventually left the priesthood to marry her; and Fr. Alberto Cutié, who left the priesthood and the Church to marry his lover. Other sad stories of celebrity priests gone astray can be found here, helpfully summarized by Fr. Cutié in an attempt to justify his own failures.

Another, less-obvious effect is the toll on vulnerable souls who put their trust in these rock-star priests. I once had to comfort a woman bewildered by the defection of her favorite celebrity priest, which triggered in her anxiety about her faith. If this priest who seemed so good and holy could fall away from the faith, what hope did she have? I had to explain to her that our hope is in the Lord and not in fallen men—even those fallen men who have been ordained.

Questions to Consider

I cannot presume to offer advice to priests on how to avoid the trap of celebrity. I can only leave that to the discernment of the priest and his bishop. But I can offer my fellow laity some questions to ponder when discerning whether or not they should retreat from the mosh pits surrounding the superstar priests with whom they are familiar.

How open is he to criticism? Does your favorite celebrity priest respond well to concerns raised about what he is teaching the masses? Does he listen when fraternal correction is offered, or does he (as a friend discovered with one celebrity priest) send a form letter saying he is “too busy” to take the time to meet with qualified laity who want to talk with him about controversial claims he has made?

Does he have “regular duties”? If a priest is not regularly offering Mass and the other sacraments, praying his breviary, and caring for souls in the ordinary manner of his calling as either a diocesan or religious priest, then something is bound to be wrong. Any priest who does not celebrate the sacraments and act as a father to souls—all souls, not just a chosen few favorites whom he likes or who confirm him in his stardom—is, as my father liked to say about those heedlessly racing down dangerous paths, “riding for a fall.”

Is he under the oversight of a bishop or religious superior? Priests can never be lone rangers. They must always be accountable either to a bishop (if they are diocesan priests) or a religious superior (if they are members of a religious community). A priest who does not live in his diocese or with his religious community might be heading into difficult terrain. This is not always the case, of course, since priests are sometimes “lent out” to distant dioceses or mission territories, or permitted for legitimate reasons to incardinate in a different diocese than the one for which ordained. Some religious priests are allowed to leave their religious community, incardinate as a diocesan priest, and remain a priest in good standing. But a priest should always be accountable to someone and that someone he is accountable to should be readily apparent to the laity.

Does he make a fuss about being reassigned? A priest promises obedience to either the bishop of his diocese or the religious superior of his community. A priest who squawks when told that the bishop wants him to take up new duties is a priest of whom you should be wary. This is particularly the case when he either allows or encourages the public to apply pressure to a bishop or religious superior to rescind the reassignment. No one priest is irreplaceable, no matter how worthy the cause to which he has devoted himself, and any priest who fights a reassignment has demonstrated that he is not a servant but a guru. He may well be at risk of falling prey to the cult of personality.

The Example of Venerable Fulton Sheen

One of the first celebrity priests in the United States, and certainly the most famous among them, was Bishop Fulton Sheen. From the golden age of radio through the early days of television, Bishop Sheen was a fixture in American homes, trusted and revered by Catholics, non-Catholics, and even non-Christians. His rhetorical powers were legendary, and he was responsible for uncounted numbers of conversions to the Catholic Church (uncounted precisely because he refused to count how many people he instructed and received into the Church).

In light of the recent history of fallen priestly stars, one might expect Bishop Sheen to have been susceptible to the allure of celebrity. After all, a man of Sheen’s stature, who at the height of his popularity could inspire 15,000–25,000 fan letters per day over a period of years, could be understood if his head was turned by his own stardom. But Sheen was, for the most part, remarkably immune to temptation in this area. One reason for that may be because of an incident that happened when he was a young priest.

In his memoir, Treasure in Clay, Bishop Sheen tells the story of what happened after he graduated with high honors from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. He had a host of offers waiting for him, and he asked his bishop back in Peoria, Illinois, which he should accept. His bishop told him to come home to Peoria. Once he returned, young Fr. Sheen was assigned to be an assistant at a parish in a poor part of town.

Locals were flabbergasted. How could the bishop have spent so much money to send Fr. Sheen off to Europe to be educated and then bury him in an obscure parish? Evidently Fr. Sheen’s own parents felt some consternation also because Sheen says he “begged [his] parents never to take part in any conversation about the bishop.” Fr. Sheen was disappointed at the apparent loss of “a more intellectual vocation” but accepted his assignment as the will of God. Then one day, the bishop called. The conversation between Sheen and his bishop went like this:

[The bishop said] “Three years ago I promised you to Bishop Shahan of the Catholic University [of America] as a member of the faculty.”

[Sheen] asked: “Why did you not let me go there when I returned from Europe?”

“Because of the success you had on the other side, I just wanted to see if you would be obedient. So run along now; you have my blessing” (Treasure in Clay, chapter 4, pp. 43–44).

Venerable Fulton Sheen, evangelist of the airwaves, pray for us!

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