Sunday, April 10, 2016

On Fr. Longenecker and the Catholic Pharisees

Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Some of you might have taken notice of the recent altercation between Fr. Longenecker and the staff of The Remnant. Ignoring the matter of the dispute itself, I'd like to commend Fr. Longenecker for recognizing that he crossed a line, and for issuing a formal retraction and sincere apology.

This article, however, is not about Fr. Longenecker's dustup with The Remnant. Rather, it is in regard to a piece he published today, entitled The Pope's Exhortation: A Parish Priest's Perspective.

Let me begin by saying that, to his credit, Fr. Longenecker seems genuinely concerned about the people he meets in his confessional. I feel confident in the assumption that he takes their various problems seriously, and attempts to offer advice and assistance which will help them reconcile their lives with the teaching of the Church. While these are, of course, absolutely necessary qualities in a confessor, Fr. Longenecker is nonetheless to be commended for possessing them.

Also, his advice to withhold judgment on the new papal Exhortation until one has found the time to sufficiently digest the text is thoroughly prudent. I, for one, won't be writing anything on the subject until I've had the chance to read the whole thing at least twice and compare it with the great encyclicals on marriage and the family, such as Leo XIII's almost universally forgotten Arcanum Divinae of 1880.

With that being said - and not in a false show of charity, but in genuine appreciation - I cannot overlook what can only be described as the clericalism which permeates his approach to lay Catholics outside the confessional as expressed in his most recent missive. I offer the following passage for your consideration:
With respect to all the dear laypeople, the armchair experts, the theoreticians, amateur theologians and experts in church law – it is we priests who actually deal with the real life situations of ordinary people. We're the ones who have to help them match up their lives with the teachings of the church. [...] We priests realize more than anyone else that many of our people are the walking wounded. We are the ones they go to when it all goes bad. We are the ones who hear them crying in the confessional. We are the ones who struggle with them as they try to reconcile their lives with the teaching of the church.
Now, before laying into Fr. Longenecker, I'd like to try to see things from his point of view.

It is no secret that sitting in the confessional, sometimes for hours on end, listening to penitents as they relate some of the most horrifying and depressing stories ever told is hard, sometimes utterly exhausting, work. If any of you have any doubts, try picking up a good biography on the Curé d'Ars, St. John Vianney. The Saint, who was blessed with the gift of reading souls (though he often experienced this as a great cross), was known to spend up to eighteen hours a day in the confessional, enduring sweltering heat in the Summer and sub-zero temperatures in the Winter. Though I will never know from first-hand experience, I can at least sympathize with Fr. Longenecker - as with all good priests - for the tremendous amount of energy and heroic patience which their special work requires.

Do we, the laity, show enough appreciation for that work? Probably not. We leave the confessional feeling reborn, overflowing with joy and thankfulness. How often do we think of the priest who just absolved us, and who remains behind, in the dark, with the stench of our sins hanging thick in the air? How often do we include him in our prayers of thanksgiving?

Am I saying that Fr. Longenecker writes out of bitterness or a sense of a lack of appreciation? Not at all. But I think his own words make it clear that his work inside the confessional, as laudable as it is, is blinding him to what should be an obvious truth:

We all deal with the real-life situations of ordinary people. They might be his penitents, but they are our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. We are those ordinary people. To suggest that the priest alone suffers with those in difficult situations, that the priest alone helps in the work of bringing those who have lost their way back to Christ, that it is to the priest alone that people go when they are wounded, that the priest alone hears their sobs and dries their tears, is nothing but rank clericalism of the worst sort.

It is certainly true that only a priest can speak those beautiful words, "Ego te absolvo," and that absolution is, ultimately, what really counts. But to think that the priest alone accomplishes the difficult work of guiding the wayward back to Our Lord is a particularly ugly form of self-aggrandizement.

Furthermore, to imply, as Fr. Longenecker does, that those Catholics who insist on doctrinal clarity only do so because they are somehow insulated from the suffering of those living in sin, i.e. that they don't understand the moral complexity of "real-life situations," takes the art of patronizing to insultingly new heights.

I invite Fr. Longenecker, therefore, to drop the tired caricature of the "Catholic Pharisee" as someone who lives in total isolation from the real world and only condemns sin because neither he nor anyone he knows - and loves - suffers under its crushing weight. I invite him to consider the very real and painful difficulty many of those so-called "Pharisees" face when a loved one looks to them for the approval that their faith prevents them from giving. I invite him to imagine the frustration and self-doubt they experience when the parish priest, the bishop or even the pope condemns them as "hard-hearted, whited sepulchers" for attempting to do nothing other than give witness to God's truth with both fidelity and charity. Above all, I invite Fr. Longenecker to remember that priests are not the only people in this world who know compassion.

It is a sad commentary on the present state of the Church that, in an age when delivering the truth of the Gospel with pastoral delicacy is writ large on every felt banner, those in the pews - and, more importantly, in the bedrooms, in the living rooms, in the offices, and on the streets - who are trying their best to do just that are being excoriated as the enemies of Christ.

If he really wants to further the discussion, Fr. Longenecker will stop resorting to condescension and lame caricatures and instead enable his readers to at least understand where it is those he disagrees with are truly coming from.


  1. You commend Fr Longenecker for recognising that he crossed the line and for issuing an apology. It's a bit disappointing that he did so only after a lawyer wrote and demanded that he apologise.

    You also comment that it must be hard for priests to sit in the confessional for hours. Well, in my neck of the woods, priests hear confessions for half an hour a week. I guess they're too busy to administer God's mercy for any longer than this.

    (By the way, kudos to Fr Longenecker. I understand he hears confessions for about three hours a week, over three days.)

  2. Thank you for this. I read Fr Longnecker's post yesterday and it left me feeling both annoyed, as well as appreciative of what priests face when dealing with difficult situations. But you are right: we also have to deal with such situations with friends and family members. When my brother announced he was moving in with his girlfriend, I couldn't congratulate him on that move. For the last few weeks I have been agonising over how to respond to a divorced, occasionally practicing Catholic friend who goes from one man to another and always seeks affirmation for her actions. These are difficult things and it is not at all helpful to hear from the pope and a number of priests that I am essentially a pharisee or a fundamentalist because I actually believe and follow what the church teaches.

  3. Father Longenecker is just another example of a priest who has bought into the new thought, and who uses the new language - or uses the same language in its new meaning. I wonder what it would be like to sit down with this priest and just talk about these issues. There would be an opportunity to dig a little deeper to find out if he really means what his words imply.

    It might be interesting to hear directly from a priest's mouth that dogma can stand, but not stand in practice. It is discouraging to hear now the perverted teaching that has been coming down from the hierarchy is playing out in parishes.

  4. "If he really wants to further the discussion, Fr. Longenecker will stop resorting to condescension and lame caricatures and instead enable his readers to at least understand where it is those he disagrees with are truly coming from."

    Amen to what you say Matthew. Fr. Longenecker, if he continues as he is, renders himself irrelevant to the on-going civil war in the Church over it's present state and future. Father should be helping us all seek the truth and proclaim and not let false loyalties intervene.

    Keep up your good work and God Bless all you do.


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