Columns Opinion Thomas Reese: Signs of the Times

Bad priests, of all kinds, chase people away from Christ and the church

New priests lie facedown on the floor during an ordination ceremony presided over by Pope Francis, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, on April 22, 2018. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — Nothing chases a person out of the Catholic Church and away from Christ faster than a bad priest. The priest does not have to be a child molester. He may simply be arrogant, patriarchal, insensitive or just stupid. More people leave the church because of bad priests than because of disagreements over dogma.

The latest Catholic disaster was at a funeral in Temperance, Mich., where, according to news reports, the priest in his homily opined that the deceased might be denied entrance into heaven because he had killed himself.

Those attending the funeral, especially his parents, were appalled. They had come to celebrate the teen’s life, not his death. Yet Father Don LaCuesta, according to reports, mentioned suicide six times in his homily. He kept going even when the young man’s father asked him to stop. After the ceremony, the parents told the priest not to come to the burial.

In response to complaints, the Archdiocese of Detroit told The Washington Post that Father LaCuesta would not be performing funerals “for the foreseeable future” and that his future homilies would be reviewed by a mentor. The archdiocese said he was “willing to accept the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.” He has not been removed as pastor.

Thankfully, such priests are not the norm, but when they do surface, they can wreak havoc. A good priest can spend years building a parish community, inspiring active participation in the liturgy, recruiting volunteers for the parish ministries and to help the neighborhood poor. A new pastor can destroy all that work in a few weeks.

The Rev. Don LaCuesta. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Detroit

Suicide is clearly against Catholic teaching, but a quick reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was written under the papacy of John Paul II, would have kept Father LaCuesta from error.

The catechism clearly states, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” Therefore, it reads, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”

Priests like Father LaCuesta show why Pope Francis is having such a difficult time reforming the church. Like politics, all religion is local. People may be attracted by Pope Francis’ message and example, but when they go to their local church, they don’t always find someone like Francis.

What divides Catholics today is not just how we look at Francis, but how we look at God.

For too many Christians, God is simply a lawgiver and judge: “Follow my rules or you will be punished.” The church, for them, is not “a field hospital for the wounded,” in Francis’ words; it is a country club for the perfect. Those who are perfect in their own eyes can look down upon the sinners.

Jesus, on the other hand, taught us that God is a parent. But what kind of a parent is God?

Some parents raise their children using rewards and punishment. “If you are good, you get dinner; if you are bad, you are locked in the basement. If you are nice, Santa will bring you presents; if you are naughty, you get nothing.”

A certain amount of reward and punishment is necessary in raising children, but not the extreme where the parents really don’t care about the child but only care that the house is quiet.

God is not that kind of parent.

When children are born, they are incapable of being good, incapable of doing anything but crying and pooping. Yet their parents love them.

Photo via Shutterstock

So too with God: He loves us unconditionally before we ever choose between good and evil. He does not tell us, “I will love you if you keep my commandments.” His first words to us are simply, “I love you.” And when bad things happen, this God wants to wrap us in her arms and comfort us.

Gloomy Christians object when Pope Francis talks about God’s love because they think it will permit people to ignore the commandments and be immoral. For very immature people this may be true. If it were not for the risk of going to jail, some people would shoplift. Some twisted people even resort to violence.

But people also respond to love. If someone loves you, you don’t hurt them, you do things that will please them, you respond to that love.

God, like a good parent, loves us and hopes that we will respond to his love. But we can say no, just like any child can reject the love of its parents.

Like a parent, God sometimes threatens and cajoles, but the motivation is always love; it is always for the good of the child. If a child behaves simply out of fear and does not experience love, that child is going to be a problem. Sooner or later it will grow up and lose its fear, and then there will be hell to pay.

During our life on earth, God is showering us with love and asking us to respond. He tries to guide us, but like children we have the freedom to reject him.

When we die, God loses control just as parents lose control when a child grows up. At death we can choose to embrace God or flee him. To flee God is to flee love; to flee love is to choose hell, for hell is the absence of love. But it is our choice, not God’s. God comes to us with open arms.

The church is not a community of the perfect, but a community of sinners who have been embraced by God’s love. We come together to celebrate that love, especially as shown by God’s sending of Jesus, the image of the Father’s love. Christmas, the coming of Jesus, is about that love, a love we are asked to share with others. Good priests know this.

About the author

Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. He was also a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University (1985-98 & 2006-15) where he wrote Archbishop, A Flock of Shepherds, and Inside the Vatican. Earlier he worked as a lobbyist for tax reform. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He entered the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained a priest in 1974 after receiving a M.Div from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

89 Comments

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  • You are wrong to “flee God” as in to deny his existence is NOT to flee Love. Love comes from many corners, in many shapes and sizes, for those that are willing to acknowledge and accept it and give it back in return.

  • “He may simply be arrogant, patriarchal, insensitive or just stupid. More people leave the church because of bad priests than because of disagreements over dogma.” One man’s trash is another man’s treasure
    “At death we can choose to embrace God or flee him.” It has to happen before death
    Matthew 7:21-23 English Standard Version (ESV)
    I Never Knew You
    21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’I do sincerely agree with him about: ”
    I do agree with him about: “To flee God is to flee love; to flee love is to choose hell, for hell is the absence of love. But it is our choice, not God’s. God comes to us with open arms.” He said that one very well.

  • My experience is, if God calls someone, it takes a lot to not answer that love. I’m amazed that people can reject that love, but to blame it on someone else is a cop out – we all make our own decisions for ourselves and that person won’t be standing before God with the “evangelist” to say to Him – this one kept me from you.

  • Priests are viewed as such an invaluable commodity by the Catholic Church that bishops ordain men who. frankly, shouldn’t be ordained and sometimes bend over backwards to salvage some who should be let go. Father LaCuesta is a case in point. Had anybody else failed as egregiously as he did at one of the most important aspects of his job description — in this case, pastoral sensitivity at a moment of crisis for a family — he would have been fired for cause. But not this guy. Instead, he gets “mentored.”

    I fully understand that the priesthood is not a job but a vocation and that in Catholic tradition ordination cannot be undone. But when someone does harm he should not be given the opportunity to do it again. Second chances are all well and good, but not at the expense of the people of God.

  • then don’t do it
    Although I don’t think the Lord wants Heaven filled by people just not wanting to go to Hell, it is a good incentive to have them look more closely at the Lord. If they run, maybe the Lord hasn’t called them, yet. Hell is a reality that needs to be looked at.
    blessings,.,,,I’m going to have dinner

  • Thousands of people dedicated to your deity and surrounded by prayer and bibles and all things Jesus looked the other way as children were raped. In every diocese on the planet.

    The same deity who can’t be bothered to make his priests stop a rapist also can’t be bothered to stop his priests from inflicting pain on suffering families.

    It’s almost like it doesn’t exist.

    There are no new creations. There is no divine wisdom. There are just people. Kind and callous, brave and cowardly.

  • Are you responsible for what he taught? It’s really none of your business.
    Show Christ to the person he offended and hope the Lord calls him/her

  • When Jesus spoke to the woman and the well and the Roman soldier he did not tell them they were going to hell, threaten them, or condemn the way they lived their lives.

    He was kind, giving, and they naturally wanted to be more like him.

  • Then the claims in the bible about new creations are wrong.

    And with hundreds of thousands of priests “indwelled by the holy spirit,” i.e. god himself, one would think most priests would figure out that you stand by and do nothing as fellow priests rape children. It’s a pretty low bar. And very close to zero priests chose to protect children. And your deity failed.

  • Yet, Christ spoke more about Hell than most things
    ” fact, the most prolific teacher of hell in the Bible is Jesus, and He spoke more about it than He did about heaven. In Matthew 25:41–46 He teaches us four truths about hell that should cause us to grieve over the prospect of anyone experiencing its horrors.”
    https://www.ligonier.org/blog/4-truths-about-hell/
    From someone who doesn’t believe in judging, you sure do a lot of it

  • Free will excuses neitherthe perpetrators, nor the enablers, nor the church hierarchy that has known about it but done nothing.

    Most of all, it doesn’t excuse the god who loves free will so much that a child being raped or molested by one of the priests he calls to the priesthood, an event an omniscient god knows is going to happen, is not enough to have a convenient runaway truck free-will itself slightly to the right to take out the perp before it happens. What are afew molested children compared to the magnificence of the concept of free will, and all of the sins of humanity committed against humanity, especially the innocents? What do you think of a god that has a child molesting priest handling the sacred host and the blood of Jesus every week?

    I see it as moral bankruptcy on a cosmic scale, but what do I know? I’m an atheist. Oh, wait! I do know! If a molesting priest laid a finger on my nephews or grand niece, I’d be handing his balls to him on a platen

    So, leaving god out of the equation because he doesn’t seem to be of much use, loving the little children and all as he does…

    Everyone knew for decades about Theodore McCarrick. How could it have been a secret for decades? 500 priest in Illinois, to go along with the 300 from 6 diosces in Philadelphia, accused of pedophilia, and the church accused yet again of ignoring it? Do you think that no one thought that there was a problem somewhere along the line, what with 500 of them and all, the ones credibly accused only, or do you think that they just kept quiet about it?

  • Judas turned out to be a fink.

    There’s a message there, including one about Free Will, that you constantly avoid.

  • Many years ago I had a friend who worked as a musician at a church with a difficult clergyman. He shared with me an article from a psychiatric journal entitled “Narcissistic psychopathology and the clergy.” The gist of the article was that the clerical profession attracts narcissists and the profession tends to feed their narcissism. In other words, a vicious cycle. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

    I remember when I was kid my first cousin telling me how he had accidentally broken a classroom window at his school playing baseball on the playground and didn’t speak up about it until he went to confession at the Catholic school he attended. When he confessed to breaking the window the priest screamed loudly enough for the other kids to hear, “So YOU’RE the little $%% who broke that window!” My cousin never darkened the doorstep of another church again for the rest of his life, except to attend weddings and funerals. One bad priest did that.

  • But nothing drives us out like boy chasing clerics.

    I’ll deal with a so-called arrogant priest (normally it’s pride or vanity in US that causes us to smear a so-called arrogant priest) all day long before dealing with a boy-chasing or seminarian chasing bishop!

  • And if Catholics understood the nature and value of the Sacraments, NOTHING would cause them to leave.

    It’s the badly formed, vain, lazy, prideful that are leaving.

  • Reese’s article is a “pre-emptive blur job”, as the Jesuit scandals are now hitting the press.

    The Jesuits are probably worst in this abuse problem….and Reese needs to protect his jesuit bona fides, which are more important to him than his own Baptism.

  • See Ben, you’re a smart guy, but the anger you hold against God clouds your judgement.
    You know God gave man free will.
    You know evil exists in the world; a consequence of mans sinful choice and satan roaming the earth.
    You know the example that fr reese gave about a parent and a child is 100% accurate; you can raise them with all the love in the world, but they can still choose to turn away from their family and choose to hate or do evil.
    You expect the universe to work according to bens rules. You expect to understand everything.
    It doesn’t and you can’t.
    Don’t let your anger and arrogance get in the way of a relationship with God.

  • “I fully understand that the priesthood is not a job but a vocation and that in Catholic tradition ordination cannot be undone. But when someone in a position of leadership does harm he should not be given the opportunity to do it again. Second chances are all well and good, but not at the expense of the people of God.”

    The mistake that was made involved two distinct errors.

    The first was misinterpreting Jesus’ counsel to forgive seven times seventy to mean allowing an individual with an irreparable defect to remain in a position where he could do harm.

    The second was believing the mind mavens who claimed to be able to repair psychological damage in such a way that these clergy could be returned to duty.

    That was largely the result of the St. Luke operation in Maryland, which turned out to be infiltrated by individuals with their own serious disorders.

    These two distinct errors were compounded by the likes of Theodore McCarrick and Rembert Weakland who used their considerable influence to blunt attempts to correct the problem and to keep the bar lowered for seminarians with similar inclinations.

  • His anger is only indirectly aimed at God.

    The proximate target of his anger are the churches, and their members, who oppose what he wants.

    Those targets include particularly the Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, and the Southern Baptist Convention.

  • Much the same thought went through my mind as I read “Nothing chases a person out of the Catholic Church and away from Christ faster than a bad priest.” written by a Jesuit, with his fellow Jesuit Francis confusing the faithful, and his fellow Jesuit James Martin undermining its teachings.

  • You’re pretty silly if you think free will is some sort of “excuse”. Misuse of it leads many to condemnation by both God and men. It excuses no one.

    It is, moreover, quite ironic that you rail so much against free will, yet are quite happy to avail yourself of it in order to indulge in those sins you yourself happen to approve of.

    And you are far too lenient on your hypothetical molesting priest if all you do is give him the surgery that transsexuals long for, and then leave him at large to perpetrate other monstrosities. He should, after a good whipping, be banished to a monastery in solitary confinement for 20 or 30 years, on a diet of strict xerophagy (bread and water).

    I have nothing but disgust for McCarrick and the RCC’s Pedophile and Lavender Mafias. Clean them all out. Excommunicate, defrock, and imprison the lot of them – by the hundreds or thousands, if need be.

    But that, like your comments about McCarrick et al., is for the RCs to deal with (and for law enforcement!), not me. In my own small denomination, I am glad to say the pedophile or homosexual clergy are dealt with far more quickly.

  • I’ve heard it said that sometimes St. Luke’s was to priests what money laundering is to tainted cash.

  • Good or bad clerics of any stripe can easily determine if a person stays or leaves a particular congregation or denomination. That is why is the chances of a successful placement increases when a committee selects a new cleric from a congregation compared to one individual. A great cleric can impact a person their descendants for generations.

  • If God is the Creator, then he is the Creator of free will and he is responsible for the consequences of people exercising their free will. If he and his Church use the free will that God has created as an excuse to avoid responsibility, then God and his Church are moral cowards.

  • The truly well informed can receive the sacraments in a number of churches without being insulted, abused or denigrated

  • For some people Parker. For many God is hate. Just look at the evil done in his name and if you read the Bible by his approval.

    As I said Love is found in many places for those willing to acknowledge it and accept it.

  • Same answer to you. You missed my point entirely.

    I’m not angry at god because I haven’t an iota of belief in your god. It’s not that he doesn’t meet my standards— he doesn’t even meet his own, or the standards of any decent person.

  • No – you seemed to miss it by a wide mark. Intentionally; I might add.
    In the marine corps, a miss on the rifle range that wide gets you the infamous “Maggie’s Drawers”.
    I suggest you check your dope and try again.

  • For those people – they don’t understand; by choice or ignorance.
    They lack humility or have an abundance of arrogance that places the focus on man instead of God.
    God is perfection; all that is good; all that is Truth.
    He gave us perfection, yet we chose otherwise.
    Why?
    For the same reason our children have to learn some things the hard way. Arrogance; and disobedience. Does this mean the parent doesn’t love them? I would argue it takes greater love to allow them to make a tragic mistake and to learn; then to prevent them from making a mistake in the first place.
    You want a world where God controls everything. You want a helicopter parent God. On the contrary, he says; go, you’re on your own. But he still loves.
    AND, because he knows we effed up; and because only perfection can be associated with God; he sent his son to atone for our sins and allow us to spend eternity with him.

  • It is actually simple in the Catholic Church to receive the sacraments in a number of churches without being insulted, abused or denigrated:

    – conform to the teachings

    – recognize that the Church and the individual you may be dealing with are not one and the same.

  • If you’re not angry at god, and haven’t an iota of belief in “your” god, why the hell are you posting on the article?

  • If a mother gives birth to a child, and the child turns out to be a murderer, than the mother is responsible for the murders.

    Logic is really not your shtick, is it?

    Since the individuals who exercise free will bear the eternal consequences of their choices, they are not avoid responsibility, are they?

    Again, logic is really not your shtick, is it?

    You join the other atheists in refusing to believe in any deity who is not Santa Claus.

  • “For some people” describes a subjective impression.

    1 – Evil done in the deity’s name does not cling to the deity per se.

    2 – Without defining “love” your comments could mean anything.

    Parker12 is describing what he believes to be an objective reality, not his personal impression.

  • “our children have to learn some things the hard way”

    A child dying of cancer is sure learning things the hard way. Is this your God in action teaching about love?

  • When I went to my father-in-law’s funeral, the priest from Poland was insensitive to the congregation of mixed Christian denominations. If anyone had taken him seriously, it might have reignited the Thirty Years War. He blew a chance to welcome some people back and prove to others that the Roman Church was not that bad. Other clerics at that same church were more diplomatic and sensitive when conducting services with a mixed congregation.

  • This is the result of mans sinfulness.
    We wrecked the perfect world; now live with the consequences.
    As old as you are; you should know that life isn’t fair.

  • Then that is pretty sad for your friend as most people go to church for Jesus, not some pastor. lf you are looking for perfection from people, you will not find it. Very sad,

  • RCW: I read the “suicide” sermon. It’s very Catholic in its content and forcefully focused on God’s MERCY for both the deceased and his loved ones especially in cases of suicide. Fr. LaCuesta has gotten a bad rap.

  • I find that people looking to blame hard working clergy (different from sex abusers) on why they are leaving an assembly, the problem lies more in the fact that the person would prefer to leave and couldn’t find a better excuse

  • So the child is dying of cancer because the child is sinful. What sin did the child commit that justifies God using cancer to kill the child?

  • Or just annoyed with vain, lazy and prideful people supporting a church regardless of harmful and/or malicious actions towards others.

    I can see supporters like yourself driving people away from a given church with sheer uncivil behavior.

  • How would he “prove to others that the Roman Church was not that bad”?

    Serve beer at Communion?

  • Since, it was closed communion and the priest made an overly strong and undiplomatic point of that issue, presumably the beer would only go to those he deemed worthy.

  • If the priest noted that only Catholics in the state of grace could receive communion, he was neither undiplomatic nor overly strong.

  • He slammed other churches in his address. He also slammed other churchs’ baptisms and rites. My church practices closed communion, but they announce it in a diplomatic way in the bulletin.

  • Since we have nothing to go on but your say so, and to this point your say so on other topics indicate axe grinding, you’ll just have to be content with being content with your own personal opinion in your own personal world.

  • The flip side, I have seen a family very loyal to its church because a cleric took them as young motherless and largely abandon under his wing and got eight kids educated with post high school educations when a high school education was still rare.

  • Thanks for playing, george, and back to the WELS or wherever it is you nurture your anti-Catholicism.

  • Wrong Parker. People both religious and non-religious are a diverse lot. Trying to insist that one set of beliefs defines any group is simply STUPID, ignorant, arrogant, and a total lack of humility!

    Perfection is a Catch 22. One can’t be perfect and be active in this world. This is something that Eastern Philosophies figured out centuries ago. To reach Nirvana, that perfect bliss of Buddhism requires total annihilation of the Ego, of emotions, of desires of awareness. The ONLY way NOT to be moved by suffering is to be unaware of it.

    A God that has no emotion is NOT a perfect God. To see suffering and do nothing is an imperfection. To be a loving God and do nothing is an imperfection.

    Christians have tried for centuries to figure out a way to accomodate their desires for a loving God that shows them favortism while punishing their enemies. It is called Christian Apologetics and each argument seems to just dig the hole, the conundrum they are in deeper.

  • I always find it interesting that you and the atheists dismiss God except when bad things happen; then he is to blame.
    YOU more than any other person on this board cite the significance of man and his dominance over a non-existent God; yet ignore the evil that man commits in order to blame God.
    It’s s pretty convenient gig you have; claim to be in charge, but accept no responsibility.
    God is all that is good. Truth. Justice. Love. Mercy. Perfection.
    Unfortunately, man once was too. But when he sinned, evil entered the world and now it is as it is. Innocents die. Killers survive. Floods destroy. You want God to reach down and save you from yourself? Lucky for you he did by sending his son to atone for your sins; and that of the world.

  • When did patriarchal become a term of contempt on par with arrogant, insensitive and stupid?

    Will the title Patriarch now be dropped from the Catholic lexicon? Or are Patriarchs not supposed to be patriarchal?

  • Of course trying to insist that trying to insist that one set of beliefs defines any group is simply STUPID, ignorant, arrogant, and a total lack of humility is simply STUPID, ignorant, arrogant, and shows a total lack of humility!

  • That wasn’t recorded as spoken to either the Samaritan woman nor the Roman Centurion. In fact the Centurion was commended for his faith.

    It was supposedly said to the woman found in adultery. However, that is a story not found in the oldest copies of that Gospel.

    Moving on after a red herring comment.

  • Those are some very bold and very specific quantitative assessments of Jesus’ message. But are they true?

    By my count (with the help of some BibleWorks magic), there are 1,944 verses in the four gospels that contain Jesus’ words.

    Surprisingly, only about 60 of those verses–or an unwhopping three percent of them—might be construed as either directly or indirectly referring to hell.

    On the other hand, there are more than three times as many verses in the gospels in which Jesus references heaven, eternal life, or his coming kingdom: 192 verses in all, or almost 10%.

    So Jesus did not, in fact, speak more about hell than heaven. But many people who should know better still seem hell-bent on insisting that He did.

    How do they arrive at a conclusion so contrary to the facts? By reading hell into any and every possible passage in the Bible.

    You perpetuate a lie. Jesus din’t speak as much about hell as you image.
    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2015/01/did-jesus-speak-more-about-hell-than-about-heaven/

  • You mentioned God in your previous post. So which is it?

    Based upon your last statement that there is no God would imply by default that man is responsible for all evil in the world.

    Which of course he is….

  • keep hoping David. If you are going to follow me around, I take 3 creams in my coffee
    BTW – the Bible is Jesus Word. Didn’t Curry teach that yet?

  • Not completely Parker. Storms, hurricanes, tornados, lightning, floods, all cause great suffering and man isn’t responsible for those things.

    The problem of Theodicy, why bad things happen/why there is evil in the world has spawned a great deal of theologic debate and is the greatest problem Christian Apologists haven’t been able to address and thus their proofs for God’s existence fall short.

  • Since when does telling the truth make someone a “spinmeister”? What a hoot!

    You just can’t face reality.

  • What excuse will you use when you learn that Christ taught us to judge? I suggest you learn scripture before trying to converse about it

  • Judge others as not being Christians for the crime of not believing exactly as you isn’t Christ like.

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