Priests, like soldiers, should show moral courage

I’m away today doing canonical research, so I won’t have telephone or Internet access until 8. p.m. at the earliest. Before I leave, however, I just want to comment on something that’s been troubling me in emails, phone calls and blog comments from friends still on the inside of the Legion of Christ (LC) and Regnum Christi (RC). It’s the widespread belief that as individuals most Legionaries are good priests.
I can accept that they are fervent, as well as doctrinally conservative for the most part. Prayerful might also be an adjective that describes most Legionaries.
However, I simply don’t see evidence of the moral courage that I would expect from good priests. Especially among an order that has adopted a military motif. Of course it goes without saying that I am judging actions, and not what is in each Legionary’s heart. Nevertheless, unless God has granted us the grace to read souls like He did to Padre Pio, actions are what we must go by.
As some readers know, many of my friends and readers are military. One of the basic virtues instilled in soldiers by the military is that of courage. Soldiers are taught two forms of courage. The first is physical courage, like when a soldier faces down a terrorist firing an assault rifle at him.
The second is moral courage, which is the courage to do the right thing despite potentially uncomfortable consequences. A friend of mine witnessed an example of moral courage during his basic training. He and his fellow recruits were having a difficult time learning a new parade drill under an extremely crotchety drill sergeant (or what the Marines would call “Heavy Hat” during Marine Corps basic training – that is, the sergeant who is perpetually grumpy and picks apart everyone over the slightest mistake). The sergeant was so upset by their failure to learn the move that he kept them an hour into their next timing.
Now I have to pause here to add a few details. Timings are sacrosanct in the military. If you’re not on time for something, then everyone else suffers. And in theater the suffering can be fatal if another group of soldiers are relying on you for cover from the enemy, supplies, etc. Additionally, the timing happened to be a lecture being given by a Major, which is a senior officer. You simply don’t keep senior officers waiting, especially for an hour. The marching NCO, whose job it is to get recruits to their next timing on time and who I will call “Corporal Bloggins,” had reminded the sergeant a few times that he had gone over his time limit. (Oh, and one last detail, the recruits were very grumpy too because it was a hot summer day on the black parade square.)
Suddenly, the drill sergeant looked at his watch and said: “Oh my goodness, we’re an hour over our next timing. The Major is going to be upset.” (Okay, I’m paraphrasing in somewhat less colorful language given the family nature of this blog.)
The drill sergeant had several options. He could blame the recruits for marching like a sack of hammers due and lacking motivation that afternoon. He could also blame Corporal Bloggins, the marching NCO, for not having been more forceful in his reminder. Instead, the drill sergeant turned to Corporal Bloggins and said: “You will march them over to their next timing right away, and I order you to tell the Major that it is my fault they’re an hour late. It may be your duty to get them their on time, but the Major is to hold me responsible.”
That was the moment, my buddy tells me, that the recruits went from dreading the drill sergeant to admiring him. Why? Because of his moral courage in taking responsibility for a major faux pas. As upset as he was with the recruits’ poor performance, he didn’t pass the blame down to them. Nor would he permit the marching NCO to take the blame for keeping a senior officer waiting for over an hour. The recruits knew that their drill sergeant was a soldier who practiced what he preached, holding himself to a higher moral standard than that which he held the recruits.
Most importantly, the recruits now knew that they could trust the drill sergeant. There was moral substance behind the show. He wasn’t just spit-shined boots, razor-thin creases, starched hat and snappy drill movement.
So how does this relate to goodness among Legionary priests?
Well, with the exception of Fr. Berg (and a couple of others) who has now left the order, I have not seen the moral courage that I would expect from soldiers, and definitely not what I would expect from priests. I’m not saying that it isn’t there – that isn’t for me to judge; I simply haven’t seen it.
To quote George Orwell: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” This is especially true when universal deceit threatens the salvation of souls, negatively impacts the reputation of good men such as Pope John Paul II, and destroys the reputation of legitimate victims who showed moral courage in bringing the truth to light. All because nobody appears to want to take responsibility for the Legion’s questionable handling of Fr. Maciel’s actions. In short, good priests don’t allow their founder’s sexual vices and deceit to endanger the eternal salvation of souls. Good priests don’t allow their founder’s victims to continue suffering unjustly with sullied reputations. Good priests don’t drag out public scandal to Catholics and non-Catholics by employing Clintonesque communication strategies.
Moreover, while I speak for no military, I know of no soldier who would trust a person lacking in moral courage. Especially if the person avoiding responsibility is a man of the cloth, in a position of responsibility over others or claims to be a soldier of some sort. Failure to own up to the truth and accept the consequences of one’s actions is not simply a mistake, but a failure of character in the opinion of most soldiers I know.
This may seem harsh to those who consider themselves part of a spiritual elite building God’s Kingdom, but that’s the real world. If one soldier in uniform sins, especially if that soldier is among the senior ranks, then all soldiers are tainted with the scandal. All soldiers in the unit are held in disgrace by the public. And the stain to the unit’s honor and reputation can only be removed if the fault is corrected, the perpetrator held responsible and the truth made known. All of which require moral courage.
Nor do I buy the excuse we cannot judge because we’re not in their position. As my Tyranny of Nice co-author Kathy Shaidle often says, to put forward this excuse is to assert cowardice as one’s defacto position. Moral cowardice is contrary to goodness and the example of heroic virtue lived by the saints. Look at St. John Fischer. Nobody reading this blog lived under the reign of King Henry VIII. Yet none of us as Catholics invoke the intercession of the other bishops living under his reign – those who followed their monarch into schism because they lacked the moral courage of St. John Fischer. Those who were kept from speaking the truth openly because of pressure from above.
Now western society no longer has kings who lop off the heads of clergy for expressing Catholic orthodoxy. Rather we have media barons who make or break reputations. A good example of such, in conservative circles, is Sean Hannity at Fox News. Hannity is a former seminarian who believes the Church’s traditional teaching on contraception is outdated. Which of the following is an example of moral courage among the priesthood? Going on national television and correcting Mr. Hannity, or using one’s position at the same media outlet to publicly attack a brother priest for zealously defending Catholic teaching and admonishing a Catholic in error?
Of course the former, a retired Marine, understands the value of moral courage. And thus his actions provide a living example of the Marine motto Semper Fi (“Always faithful”). Which is why I and many other pro-life Catholics look up to him as a good priest.
Therefore – and I am speaking now to each and every Legion priest reading this blog – it is your responsibility before God to show moral courage, come forward with the truth, and repair the great injustice that your founder’s deception has inflicted upon the Church. This is the way of a true soldier and a good priest.