- On the hand they must have a sober understanding of disease and how serious it can be. They cannot minimize or simply dismiss it. They must learn to identify its causes and symptoms and address them forthrightly. They must often speak frankly to their patients about health related issues. A great deal of disease is behavior related. Hence doctors must prophetically and clearly call their patients and the public in general to healthy living. They must insist that we avoid excesses of certain foods, that we eat good foods and exercise regularly. They must regularly teach us that smoking, excessive drinking, obesity and the like may well kill us. If we need medicine they insist that we take it regularly. We expect all this of them even if we don’t always like to be reminded of such things. But in the end a good doctor will be firm, clear and insistent about disease, its dangers, its causes and its cures. Anything less would be a kind of malpractice.
- On the other hand, a doctor must be willing to work with sick and diseased people. They must do this with patience and compassion. Many of their patients struggle to implement all the best practices to improve their health. Despite all the prophetic utterances of doctors and the medical community many people still struggle to eat well and eat less. They have a hard time drinking moderately and ending smoking habits. Healthy foods seem less appealing than fattening ones, exercise seems so hard to do. But the good doctors will not abandon patients. They continue to treat their diseases and to exhort them to at least to make small changes that will improve things. They offer medicines to help counteract bad tendencies and the cumulative effects of the past. They patiently work to bring healing to us, many of whom, repeatedly struggle to follow their advice. But they do it anyway.
Portrait – Just about everything said above applies to priests as well. Priests too need to be sober about sin and its effects. They have to exhort us stay away from unhealthy and bad behaviors that ruin our spiritual and moral lives and cause us to be in poor spiritual health. They must insist that we take the medicine of the sacraments, scripture, prayer and repentance. But priests must also be willing to be around spiritually sick people who struggle to get it all together and make the necessary changes. They have to patiently but persistently help people to implement small changes that add up to better spiritual health. They must work to bring us healing even if their patients are a bit stiff necked.
Problem – But what is interesting is how the modern world seems increasingly to insist that priests and the Church should NOT exhibit the qualities of doctors above. Objections are often raised by many when the Church and her priests soberly warn us of the disease of sin and how serious it can be. How dare the priest even call certain things “sin.” And if the priest warn of spiritually unhealthy behaviors he is often denounced as “judgmental.” Oh, perhaps he’ll be allowed to gently suggest we pray more, and try to be “more loving.” But God forbid that he should speak frankly about bad behaviors such as fornication, abortion and missing Mass and tell us that they are wrong. Even worse if he should warn us that such things can spiritually kill us and land us in hell! No indeed many people want their priest to engage in a kind of spiritual malpractice by tacitly approving their bad behavior and replacing any warnings with affirmations and reassurances. And sadly, some priests have slipped into this kind of gentle affirmation mode.
Proper Practice – But as physicians of the soul priests have to do the spiritual equivalent of BOTH 1 and 2 above. The world would rightfully question a medical doctor who just shrugged in the face of serious illness and told his patients they were fine, who just told them jokes and made them feel good but still sent them home with a serious cancer growing in their body. The world would scorn a medical doctor who didn’t feel comfortable talking about disease because it might upset his patients; who didn’t want to upset them by insisting that they must take their medicine. What a poor doctor! And yet many insist that priests act in just this way when it comes to the soul.
I hope you can see that priests have to do both 1 and 2 above. It is true, no one likes a grouchy or overly negative doctor. It is the same with priests. We are to speak the truth in love, with compassion but also with clarity. We can do nothing less for otherwise it amount to a spiritual malpractice.
Prescription – So as a priest I have this to say: Stay away from bad and excessive behaviors. They might kill you spiritually! Take your medicine: the Eucharist, regular confession, daily prayer and scripture! Take it or you will die! Get proper exercise through plenty of good deeds, prayer and acts of kindness. And if you fall? Keep coming back. We’ve got healing medicine here for you. You may not even know how you are going to stop but keep coming back and let the Lord minister to you through the Church. I’ll see you at your next appointment (this Sunday!).