On Priestly Discretion

To be discreet most commonly means to be careful, prudent, or circumspect, especially in terms of speech. The word discreet comes from Latin discretus, meaning separate or distinct. To be discreet is not to be secretive; it is to make a prudent discernment about what to say to whom and when to say it. Personal, private conversations ought to stay that way.

For a priest, discretion is obviously essential. This is true not only because we hear confessions (in which case absolute secrecy is mandatory) but also because many seek our counsel about things that are personal and confidential. We hear a lot of things that we have no business repeating, even to the person who sought our counsel or pastoral advice, without express provision and permission. Both pastoral and professional discretion are necessary.

There is a broader sort of discretion that is also important for priests, because we are public figures and represent not just ourselves, but the Church. This discretion involves being prudent and careful about expressing our personal views on topics such as politics, economics, and legislative policies.

This is particularly difficult today because many moral issues have been politicized. Economics and legislative policies often touch on important moral and spiritual truths. In such cases, to be discreet is to preach and teach the moral principles while avoiding merely partisan or ideological speech.

Another reason it is so difficult is because we live in contentious times and in a noisy, blabbermouth culture. Social media and other platforms such as YouTube and television talk shows encourage a lot of indiscreet and indiscriminate sermonizing and publishing of opinions. In this overall climate of indiscretion, priests can easily fall prey to the tendency to say too much about too many things. We can lose our focus on the Gospel and become too influenced by our opinionated culture.

Oftentimes priests feel baited or pressured to disclose their views. “What you think about that election, Father? What’s your view on all this global warming talk?” I’d like to make a humble request: please don’t bait us; we’re already too talkative as it is! 🙂 When I sense I am being drawn into such a conversation I have learned to say, “Why do you ask me this?”

Yes, discretion is so important for priests. Please help us stay on message and in our own field. Please help us to preach the Gospel. Please help us to learn the value of holy silence, not just in the moment, but in prayer as well, wherein we listen carefully to voice of God.

Cardinal Robert Sarah beautifully sets forth the need for priestly silence, in both prayer and in daily discretion. His words are critically important for all of us, but especially for priests:

The narcissism of excessive speech is a temptation from Satan. It results in a form of detestable exteriorization in which man wallows on the surface of himself, making noise so as not to hear God. It is essential for priests to learn to keep to themselves words and opinions they have not taken the trouble to meditate on, interiorize, and engrave in the depth of their heart. We must preach the word of God and certainly not our petty thoughts!

… Now this preaching implies silence. Otherwise it is a waste of time—petty, sententious chatter. Spiritual exhibitionism, which consists of exteriorizing the treasures of the soul by setting them forth immodestly, is the sign of a tragic human poverty and the manifestation of our superficiality. We [priests] often speak because we think that others expect us to do so. We end up no longer knowing how to be quiet because our interior dike is so cracked that it no longer holds back the floods of our words. Gods own silence, however, should teacher us that is often necessary to be quiet [Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Power of Silence, pp. 194-195].

Pray for priests. Help us, that we may be discreet and speak only after prayerful silence.