Are You a “Had-It” Catholic? Are Retro-Priests Responsible?


Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 1-14B-2:2B, 8-10; PS 131:1-3; I THES 2-7B-9, 13; MT 23: 11-12

Today’s readings should make today’s retro-priests very uncomfortable.  I’m referring to members of the Catholic Clergy who long for the “good old days” before Vatican II.

In any case, both the first selection from Malachi and the third from Matthew take clergy in general to task. They’re not teaching the right things, Malachi charges. They’re too concerned with clothes and titles, says Jesus.  Meanwhile today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to his community in Thessalonia suggests remedies for such failings. Paul even gestures towards a female clergy and worker priests. See if you agree.

Begin with the prophet, Malachi. He threatens the priests in his time with a curse. Probably writing about 500 years before Jesus, the prophet says “You have turned aside from the way and caused many to falter by your instructions . . . I have therefore made you contemptible and base before all the people.”

“Contemptible?” “Base?” Pretty strong words for priests, wouldn’t you say?

Then in today’s Gospel selection, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his own day for attachment to distinctive religious dress and for insisting on special titles like “father.”

Reading those passages, do retro-priests feel their faces turning red?

Relative to titles and dress, I’m alluding to the fact that we still call our priests “father,” despite Jesus’ clear words. And then there’s this reversion on the part of many priests to pre-Vatican II garb. Some are now wearing dress-like cassocks again (I saw one in the airport the other day), and even birettas. (Birettas are these odd square caps with three or four peaks or horns, sometimes topped with a black tuft.)

Before Vatican II, priests used to dress like that. Now in 2017, retro-priests are doing the same. It makes you wonder what they’ve been learning in the seminary over the last 50 years.

And as for Malachi’s words about faulty instruction . . . Why are we still listening to pre-Vatican II sermons?

Just a few days ago, I was talking to a fellow parishioner about exclusion of non-Catholics receiving communion while attending Catholic Mass. My friend was defending the exclusivity. And his reasons were like something from my childhood – more than 70 years ago! It was as if the ecumenical movement had never taken place – as though Jesus were somehow contained inside the communion wafer, as though he still believed that Catholics have an inside track in “getting into heaven,” – you know: up there.

The point here is not to criticize my fellow parishioner; it’s not at all his fault. The fault lies with (in Malachi’s words) the “instruction” given by our priests – and, I guess, to our priests in the seminary.  What they’re telling us from the pulpit doesn’t nearly extend to us the benefits of inter-denominational dialog, the insights of the last 150 years of biblical study, or even the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

What’s up with all of that?

Again, in Malachi’s words, it’s causing people to “falter,” to see the meaninglessness and irrelevance of it all, and to “turn aside” from everything churchy as contemptible and base – or at least irrelevant to their lives as thinking people. No wonder “had-it” Catholics constitute the second largest denomination in the United States.

Priests today are not even following the instruction of the pope who gives every evidence of being a had-it Catholic himself.

Remember four years ago, when Pope Francis published his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel? Throughout the document, you could almost feel Francis’ frustration with the situation I’ve been describing here. Recall what he said. It’s amazing in its content. But what’s even more amazing is the failure of priests and bishops to implement its directives.

Recall that Pope Francis called explicitly for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church. Things cannot be left as they presently are, he asserted, but must include new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74). Changes should entail new customs and ways of doing things, with new times, schedules, and language (27). In short, Catholics must find, a new path in our world (JG 1, 25).

What part of “new” are priests and bishops not getting?  Why, has NOTHING changed? NOTHING AT ALL!

Pope Francis got more particular. Homilies, he said, have to be better prepared and delivered (135-159). (The pope devoted a whole section of his exhortation to this topic.) Women need more prominence. He referred to them as generally more sensitive than men – more intuitive, and otherwise more skilled (103, 104). In recognition that other denominations share many points of faith and practice with Catholics, there needs to be more outreach towards those communities (246).

Even more importantly, Francis called the church to be more involved in political life, joining people of all faiths and none in the struggle for social justice. He specifically identified that struggle as “a moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (220, 258). Here horizons must be widened, the pope urged, beyond simple concern for the “defense of unborn life” (213) to “each and every human right” including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192). Catholics must completely reject war as incapable of combatting violence which is caused by “exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples” (59). Wars are caused by devotion to unfettered markets with their “trickle-down” ideologies which are homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).

That emphasis on social justice shows why today’s retro-priests and bishops are not merely quaint and irrelevant, but positively harmful – even deserving of that curse Malachi threatened. I say that because they’ve ignored Francis’ desperate calls for social justice – not to mention his warnings about climate change in his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. I might even go so far as to say that neglectful priests and bishops are responsible for the election of Donald Trump and Republicans in general, whom (because of their position on climate change)Noam Chomsky has called the most dangerous organization in the history of the world.

After all, so many Catholic voters, possibly even a majority, chose Trump who in contradiction to the pope’s exhortation:

  • Denies human-caused climate change
  • Espouses trickle-down economics
  • Opposes living wages
  • Restricts access to health care
  • Loves the military
  • Threatens to annihilate an entire nation of 25 million people

What to do about all of this?

Here is where Paul provides direction. He suggests that priests are out-of-touch.

They need to get a job. Paul brags about how he worked day and night (as a tent-maker) so he wouldn’t represent a financial burden on his people. Can you imagine priests working at McDonalds and leading the campaign for $15 dollars an hour wages — and bringing that struggle into their sermons?

Like Pope Francis with his words about women’s unique gifts, Paul’s words even suggest a female clergy. He does that by comparing his dedication to his community in terms of “a nursing mother’s care for her children.”

Worker priests? Women priests? Now those changes truly represent a new path. That “New” no one could misunderstand. No more “father.” No raised eyebrows at clergy wearing dresses and fancy hats.

“Got-it” Catholics might replace the “Had-its.”

It’d work for me!  How about you?

And how might we get from here to there? (Discussion follows.)

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

11 thoughts on “Are You a “Had-It” Catholic? Are Retro-Priests Responsible?”

  1. An article in NCR mentioned that many of these restorationist priests are coming out of Josephinum Seminary, but not limited to that particular seminary. You have to wonder where the US bishops are.


  2. The words and actions of Pope Francis make me want to convert to Roman Catholicism. Unfortunately, “Catholic Clergy who long for the ‘good old days’ before Vatican II” make me change my mind.


  3. Totally agree.. I would like to find a community of believers but Bishop Gainer totally freaked me out and sent me and my husband running. I think Bishop Stowe is the real deal and so is Pope Francis but the reactionaries are waiting us out and there really isn’t anywhere to go so we keep searching…


  4. Hi Mike,

    The Pharisees control the seminaries, it would appear.

    The regalia that was imported from the Roman religions, the chasuble etc., seem to me to fit Malachi’s description of clothes that do not make the person but do make the person pretentious. Either one has it or one doesn’t. And the person who has it doesn’t need to wear a symbol declaring it. Dressing up for church, whether clergy or laity, is one step in the wrong direction. As they say in 12-Step programs, it’s an inside job.

    The Catholic Church has a tough row to hoe. The seminaries are teaching the illusion of priestly difference and superiority. The laity have lifetimes of thinking that the symbol is the reality. And the culture supports the idea of being better than others because of things that money can buy. Not to mention 1900 years of top-down church hierarchy (the bishops asserted themselves above others around 100 – 120, if I remember correctly). Literally, no one remembers when it wasn’t this way.

    The Catholic Church resembles other long-standing complex organizations organized top-down (like the Democrat’s DNC): hard to change because the system (from a General Systems Theory perspective) is self-organized to survive, and only second to thrive. A re-do is seen as too risky.

    When I was a psychology intern, I was reviewing my work with a patient and my supervisor remarked, in a deep Tennessee drawl, “Hank, you might as well piss into the ocean and wait for the level to rise.” Ditto.

    Now, if Francis has packed the Cardinals with enough of his fellow activists, perhaps in a few generations things will change. Perhaps.

    Plus, I sense that he’s about ready to drop a (bad image) bombshell. He’s been pretty quiet lately. He’s laid the groundwork for major change, moving the arch-conservatives out of the Curia and showing that he’s willing to (another bad image) do battle with the Church establishment (witness: The Knights of Malta). If I’m right, there will likely be a schism. That might be a good thing, freeing up the Church to pursue the revealed path of its founder rather than venerating the human and imagined symbols of the path.

    Thanks for the opening,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. One can only hope that that is Francis’ reasoning. I think that he is a good chess player! One thing that would be tragic to see is for all of our current priests (as well as former priests) tarred with the same brush, so to speak. I have seen many wonderful priests, and have personally worked in ministry in my own parish and Diocesan outreach with other priests – old and young (new to the PH) who are not ‘company men’ — i.e., part of the present negative mindset that echoes in the RCC. Those to whom I refer still strive to serve and to teach as Jesus did in His brief ministry. In many instances, within our current hierarchical structures, this is becoming a more difficult, lonely and dispiriting job, but they keep trying.

      In that vein, it is vital that the question of mandatory celibacy be re-examined. Catholics, especially, need to know that a married priesthood can help to create a well-balanced, effective priesthood, but the laity must understand that it will involve the financial involvement of all participants to support a wife and children the same that the laity presently do in their own lives. Former priests in good standing should be allowed to and be encouraged to return to the full priesthood. We should immediately institute the Deaconate for women as the first step to ordination to the full priesthood.

      If there is to be a schism eventually, if that is the only way to effect the change we need, it could occur within a very few years – possibly under the leadership of the next pope. Francis may be laying the groundwork now in his tenure. At my age, I will probably not live to see such a dramatic event — but I pray for it and, as a lay person in the Church that we have been told repeatedly constitutes “The People of God,’ would support such a move in any way that the indwelling Holy Spirit directs me.

      One caveat: we must go back a few millennia to study the several years that it took for the Eastern-Western final schism, to acquaint us with the dynamics and the pitfalls that eventually caused the West to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater.’
      One has only to be aware of the overwhelming interest now evident within in our society — particularly among the young people and adults entering middle age — to see the deep interest that they are exhibiting in the theology and Christology, teachings and deep spirituality of the Mystical tradition that we abandoned when the schism finally became a reality. There is a universal searching and deep desire in process – among all peoples, not just within Christianity, for answers, directions, pure spiritual leadership to deal with the overwhelming evil that is engulfing our world, Rote answers and outworn platitudes couched in antiquated, confusing hierarchical terms and language will no more satisfy that hunger.

      If Papal leadership (if we still have such an office) and other layers of control (e.g.., Cardinals, Bishops) continue to remain behind hidden, isolated barriers and administrative committees, staffs, etc. instead of ministering to the faithful discipleship ‘in the trenches’ as Jesus certainly did; if they are not visible and available as effective emissaries and representatives of Jesus the Christ on earth we will fail once again. If change does not occur – and soon – we will have failed and we will pay a terrible price for our wrong judgment.

      In the interim, we have Jesus’ faithful promise that He will be with us always, even unto the end of the age.
      It is that sacred promise that gives me hope and the reason to stay the course….and as I try to tell as many as I can, as I meet people in my daily travels, to ‘hang on, we are still in the race, on the journey, all is not lost.’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s a lot in what you say here, Alice. Such good thoughts. I guess it’s just that it’s been so long since I’ve met one of those effective priests you refer to. In our own parish we’ve had a string of the opposite. It makes me wonder what they’re teaching in the seminaries. John Paul II and Ratzinger worked so hard to reverse the spirit of Vatican II. It’s almost impossible to reverse that decades-long process. I recently read a good Guardian article on all of this. I know you’ll be interested in it:


      1. Hi Mike,

        Francis has already laid the groundwork, which is that a) personal revelation is the basis for personal morality (the line he used was practically stolen from Merton) and b) community-discerned revelation is the starting point for church policies. He knows where that leads.



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