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.

Pray for Priests! An Urgent Call Based on a Teaching by Robert Cardinal Sarah

One of the most consistent concerns expressed both by my readers and by attendees at the various talks I give, is the large number of tepid and problematic clergy. We clergy give our people much to endure, yet for the most part they are so very patient and loving with us despite our foibles and idiosyncrasies.

Most of the people are highly concerned about the widespread silence and/or vagueness of the clergy in the face of the grave moral meltdown in our culture. At best, many pulpits are silent or replete with abstractions and generalities. At worst, some pulpits and clerical teaching contain outright errors or ambiguities that (intentionally or not) mislead and confuse the faithful.

There are, to be sure, numerous exceptions to these concerns. There are many fine, hard-working priests who teach courageously and clearly, with love and zeal. However, the problem is widespread enough that it is a common concern of the faithful.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, in his recent book The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise, presents an insightful analysis of the problem and its causes. He relates the problem to a lack of prayerful silence on the part of many priests, who find little time for prayer let alone deeper silent contemplation. He begins by referencing Fr. Henri Nouwen, who once said,

Silence is the discipline by which the inner fire of God is tended and kept alive … Especially we [priests], who want to witness to the presence of God’s Spirit in the world, need to tend the fire within with utmost care … [Yet] many minsters have become burnt-out cases … in whom the fire of God’s Spirit has died, and from whom not much more comes forth than their own boring and petty ideas and feelings; … It is as if [they] are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people [cited in The Power of Silence, p. 77].

Here are two key insights. First, a priest who is not accustomed to silently praying and listening to the voice of the Lord begins to hear only the voice of the world and to parrot its slogans and often insipid, ephemeral notions. The voice of Christ and the light of the Gospel grow dim, and his mind centers more on vain things and worldly notions. Gradually, he “goes native,” taking up the mind of the world, fleshly notions, and even the doctrines of demons.

Second, a priest can slip away from the “still, whispering voice of the Lord.” He can begin to lose trust in the power of God’s grace to touch and change people’s hearts. Vigorous preaching is rooted in confidence about both the truth proclaimed and the power of grace to bring about what the revealed Word announces. It is true that the Lord’s teachings are often challenging to the faithful, but this did not trouble Christ who, knowing the power of grace, did not hesitate to point to the highest truths and confidently summon the faithful to trust in His grace and mercy to get there! Without deep prayer, we lose our trust in God and in His people.

Gradually, as Nouwen notes, a priest’s untended inner fire grows cool and the numbness of the world extinguishes his joy, zeal, confidence, and love. The demands of the Gospel come to seem unreasonable or even impossible to him. And because he sees the Gospel as too challenging he is hesitant to preach its demands. As the inner fire grows dim, he slips into watering down the Gospel message, into the obfuscation of abstractions and generalities, or into outright denial of the harder truths.

Cardinal Sarah warns priests of this tendency and its outcome:

Christ is certainly distressed to see and to hear priests and bishops, who ought to be protecting the integrity of the teaching of the Gospel and of doctrine, multiply words and writing that weaken the rigor of the Gospel by their deliberately confused, ambiguous statements. It is not inopportune to remind these priests and prelates … of Christ’s severe words: “Therefore I tell you every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven … either in this age or the age to come. [He] is guilty of an eternal sin” [Ibid., pp. 77-78].

Thus, as both Fr. Nouwen and Cardinal Sarah point out, priests who let the fire of God grow dim and who no longer trust God or His people, sin against the Holy Spirit. They do so because they come to doubt or even deny the power of grace to make possible the satisfaction of the Gospel’s demands. Human flattery and worldly perspectives are preferred to the Holy Spirit’s urging to announce the Gospel plainly, lovingly, and without compromise. Human weakness becomes the baseline for what is expected. God the Holy Spirit is dismissed as irrelevant or incapable of perfecting God’s people. This is a sin against the Holy Spirit and a disastrous end for a priest, especially one who has reached the point of outright misleading God’s people and confirming them in sinful and erroneous notions.

Therefore, I ask all of the faithful to pray often for priests and bishops. In our human weakness, we clergy can stray from prayer. From there, the fiery zeal of God and the joy of the truth give way to the thinking of the world and to a lack of confidence in preaching without compromise. From the point of compromise, things just keep getting worse.

In his book, Cardinal Sarah references St. Augustine’s own plea for prayer, and I will conclude with that:

It is not my intention to waste my life on the vanity of ecclesiastical honors. I think of the day when I will have to render an accounting for the flock that has been entrusted to me by the Prince of pastors. Understand my fears, because my fears are great [p. 79].

Tu es Sacerdos in Aeternum by Vivaldi:

When Life Keeps You Up – As Seen on TV

After God created the heavens and the earth, He rested on the seventh day. His rest was not one of exhaustion but of enjoyment. He commanded us to rest as well, a rest of leisure or enjoyment, not necessarily one of sleep. We work to live, but sadly many often live to work. This is a particular problem in our time due to the 24×7 availability made possible by modern technology. In addition, we are out of rhythm with our nature as a result of artificial light and the noise and distraction of modern diversions.

This cycle is not easily broken, and even when we finally do sleep, it is often fitful rather than deep and restful. In the commercial below, a woman tosses and turns; work his on her mind. A funny moment occurs when she dreams that her boss expects her to respond to his email before she wakes up. We all know that feeling!

At least try to make some progress in recapturing silence and leisure. Consider putting your phone in “do not disturb” mode so that only people you designate can get through to you after a certain time of day. Try turning off that sound that occurs every time you get an email or a text.

Let your evenings be more relaxed. If you don’t you’ll probably have the fitful sleep of the woman in the commercial. The suggested solution for her is to use drugs to bring on sleep.

God says that we should rest and He means more than merely sleeping.