You’re No better than I am, but you better be

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One of the annoying things about being clergy is the no win scenario of people resenting an idea that clergy is better than they are, while at the same time, resenting clergy who do not behave in a way that is better than they are. This is a universal condition. Protestants and Catholics fall victim to it.

People will occasionally remind their clergy by saying something like: “You’re no better than we are,” or “You’re no more holy than anyone else,” or “You’re no closer to God than anyone else” (all of which are true statements). When someone among the clergy is trying to authentically live his or her faith with integrity, trying to be the person s/he preaches and talks about, people often get resentful and say things like: “He thinks he is so special,” or “He’s all holier than thou,” or “Look at him trying to act like he is better than everyone else.”

For the sake of discussion, I am willing to admit that there may be clergy out there who think they are all that, or who may think they are better than everyone else. There are jerks everywhere — even in the Church and even among the clergy — but I will add that I don’t know any of them. The clergy I know are mostly trying to do the best they can with what they have and feeling pretty much inadequate in the process. I was a priest for ten years before I started to get over the idea that I was somehow a fraud. My experience of being clergy is that it is like my experience of being an adult — I know that at 46 I am, and have been, an adult, but I am still waiting to feel like an adult. I am still waiting for the time when I get to feel like a “grown up” because most of the time I am just as confused and unsure as ever I was, and I feel as if I am making most of it up as I go along. This is mostly how it feels to be clergy (at least my experience of it).

So I have no problem when people remind me of my limitations, or tell me that I am no better, or no more holy, or no closer to God than anyone else. Frankly, I remind people of this whenever I can when they are not busy reminding me of it. My problem is when, after being reminded of how I am no different than anyone else, I am held to a different standard of conduct to which these individuals do not hold themselves.

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For instance, the people who tell me that I am not better than anyone else will go to a bar and drink, but if I show up in that bar, 90% of those people who tell me I am no better than they are, are offended that a priest would be in a bar. The people who tell me that I am no more holy than they are often use foul language, but are then offended if I, a priest, utter the same word, or combination of words, as they do. If I am no better, or no more holy, or no closer to God than they are, why are they offended when I behave like them?

There is a lingering idea from the Middle Ages that is still present in the Church. That idea is the idea of a monasticism of faith. By this term I am not saying that monasticism is a bad thing, or denigrating monks or anyone else. I am simply highlighting a Medieval concept of monasticism that said that monks and those who lived in “religious communities” were holy on your behalf, so you don’t have to be holy; yet, you get to participate in their holiness by supporting them. The practical application was that you can eat and drink and be merry; you can use foul language and go to pubs; you can get drunk and sleep around; you can do whatever carnal thing you wish to do because the monk is up there in the monastery being holy for you, so all you have to do is make a regular donation, provide the monk with some food, or clothing, or money, and that holiness will trickle down onto you. So you can live an “unholy” life but still be “holy” because someone is being holy for you — all you have to do is make a regular donation and you’re covered by the monks’ holiness.

I know. It sounds absurd. No one in their right minds would ever believe such a thing in this day and age. If someone did, it would be the Catholics because Catholics are “superstitious” and often fall victim to this kind of thinking. Protestants removed this logic when they shut down the monasteries in their territories.

The problem, however, is that even if many people within the Church do not cognitively believe this, they functionally believe it through their actions. They behave as if the priest or the minister is paid to be holy on their behalf, which frees the people doing the paying to live however they wish, while holding the clergy to a higher standard they do no want for themselves. This is the source of this double-standard of being reminded that clergy is no better than anyone else, while being criticized for not being better than anyone else.

If the clergy reminds people of how they are called to behave, they are criticized for thinking they are better or more holy than anyone else. If the clergy lives like that anyone else, they are criticized for not being better than anyone else. It appears to be that the people in the Church, regardless of denomination and jurisdiction, do not want to live as if they are in the Church, but want to pay someone to live in the Church for them, so they can continue to live in the world, but yet, they want to feel as if they are not subject to the consequence of being in the world which is passing away. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard “leaders” in a congregation say to the clergy “That’s what we pay you for” when it comes to the clergy trying to inspire the people to some behavior or practice (like leading prayer).

It is like the members of the congregation think as if they own a “House of God” and are paying the clergy to serve as “House Sitters” for them while they are off on a daily vacation from the Church. It is as if they believe that if they pay someone to be “Christian” for them, “Christianity” will somehow trickle down onto them. It is as if they believe that the clergy are simply an insurance policy that allows to live unhealthy, reckless lives, but still demand to receive payment because they think supporting clergy is the same as paying their premiums. This is why they get so upset when clergy turn out to be just as fallible and human and subject to the same behaviors as they are: they are counting on their association with the clergy to be a form of “Life After Death Insurance” and a breach in clergy behavior is in fact a reminder that the policy is not worth the paper on which it is written.

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So, the moral of the story is: Yes, you are right. Clergy is no more holy or no closer to God than you are. So stop holding clergy to a standard to which you do not hold yourself. No one can be holy for you. You have to do it yourself. Clergy are not “Professional Christians,” or a form of “rabbit’s foot,” or “House-Sitters within the Church.” Paying, sustaining, or any other synonym will not cause their “Christianity” to trickle down onto you. You, like them, have to be Christian for yourself.

So, the Father R. Joseph self-examination for behavior is as follows:

1) Anything you are doing that you feel you have to keep secret is probably a sin. (I know I did not talk about this anywhere in this rant that this came out of nowhere, but I feel it needs to be said. and I’m not addressing those anonymous good deeds you may do for someone or a surprise party, but those habitual behaviors that you know you probably should not be doing, which is why you are keeping them secret in the first place. If you have to hide it from others, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.)

2) If you would be offended by your priest or minister doing or saying it, you should not be doing or saying it. (Instead of holding someone else to a higher standard, try holding yourself to a higher standard. Do not get offended when the priest says a “bad word,” get offended when you use a bad word. If you know your priest or minister should not be doing it, then you clearly know the difference between right and wrong, so apply that knowledge to yourself, not to others.)

Do not criticize others for not being the way you want them to be. Show them how you want them to be by being it yourself. That way, at least one person — you — is living up to your standards. But if you fail to live up to your own standards, then no one else can either. You either have to change yourself, or change your standards.

(And yes, I appreciate the irony of a post that appears to criticize people for criticizing others. We are, all of us, works in progress.)

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