education sexuality

Parish Priests, Stock Traders, and their Limited Moral Reasoning

The parish priest is not an outpost of the CDF, however much he may want to be.

In his recent book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, Alasdair MacIntyre explores some of the weaknesses of modern economics. In promoting a Thomistic-Aristotelean moral philosophy, MacIntyre explains how some modern moral philosophies serve to deceive and deflect from important questions. In his chapter on “Theory, practice, and their social contexts,” he focuses on some inadequacies in academic economics. For example, he explains among four things which academic protagonists of capitalism fail to adequately reckon:

“What traders put at risk is not only their employers’ and their investors’ money, but the livelihoods of large numbers of people, unknown to them and unconsidered by them, on whom from time to time they casually and incidentally inflict great harm, something which the narrowness of their education in academic economics or in business studies helps them to put out of mind.”

Those who are familiar with After Virtue and MacIntyre’s other work will recognize worries about experts who view themselves primarily as technicians, who have been trained within a specialized field of technical knowledge and are unable to take into account considerations outside of it. In law school, I remember discussing the dangers of seeing the lawyer as an “intellectual prostitute,” someone whose mind could be for hire to serve whatever ends the pay-er had in mind, who felt no need to do anything than to utilize his expertise to serve the ends requested without question.

Invisible Goods

With this in the background, one concern which arises in MacIntyre’s latest book is the ways in which contemporary modes of knowledge can work so as to make certain considerations invisible, how philosophies can serve not only to explain and illuminate, but to “disguise and deceive.” By taking on a narrow consideration of ends, for example, utilitarianism can convince people that the only thing they care about is utility. Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy moves people to overlook the fact that “how we conceive utility… depends on our prior formation and commitments.” Instead, utilitarianism sets “utility” as the ultimate value, hiding the fact that “utility maximization as a freestanding notion that by itself provides guidance for action is a philosophical fiction.”

So too with much theological education, including much priestly formation. Take, for example, the approach taken by many American Catholic clergy when preaching on matters of sexual morality. Many such clergy have been trained that the highest value in moral matters is the truth of a thing, with “truth” meaning the Vatican-approved linguistic rendering of a conceptual idea.

One consequence of this approach is a sort of dismissive attitude those towards those who may have an adverse reaction to these approved linguistic renderings. So consider the priest who says in a homily, “A same-sex marriage is a disordered union pretending to be a marriage, which it is not. And people who insist on presenting themselves as in a same-sex marriage are in danger of going to hell.” Someone in the pews, a young gay man named Peter who has recently overcome the inclination to commit suicide because of his sexuality and who feels ostracized by his Catholic family, begins crying audibly. Peter gets up and leaves.

The priest who has been trained as I have outlined above may respond in a number of ways. He may think (or say), “That young man was not open to the truth.” Or the priest may think, “Satan has clouded his vision, and he is being misguided by his disordered desires.” The one thing that the priest has been trained not to think is, “Perhaps I said something wrong.” The priest has done what he was trained to do. He has spoken the truths as presented in Catholic teaching, and he is convinced that if someone has an adverse reaction to those truths spoken by the priest, that there must be something wrong with that person. As long as the doctrinal formulation is right, his words can never be wrong, so the priest believes.

The ways in which that priest is mistaken might be made clear by considering a friend of Peter. The friend (Kate) knows that Peter recently considered suicide, in part because of the conflict between Catholicism and his sexuality. Kate also knows that Peter is worried about his family rejecting him and is, generally, in an emotionally fragile state. When Peter tells Kate about his sexuality and that he thinks he may want to get married to a man, most human persons should recognize that it would be inappropriate for Kate to respond, “A same-sex marriage is a disordered union pretending to be a marriage, which it is not. And people who insist on presenting themselves as in a same-sex marriage are in danger of going to hell.” This response would be inappropriate, even if Kate conceptually believes these words to be accurate representations of religious doctrines to which she assents.

What makes these words inappropriate is in large part the fact that they would be contrary to the goods of friendship. Friendship (in the Aristotelian sense) concerns itself with a mutual pursuit of virtue. Kate, even if she thinks that a same-sex marriage is contrary to Peter’s ultimate flourishing, also recognizes that Peter is not in a state to hear these words and respond in a way that is open to them and productive. Instead, she recognizes that Peter is going through a hard time and mostly needs someone to help him to overcome the all-encompassing vice of despair and to find a sense of stability. She recognizes that voicing an objection to same-sex marriage may be counter-productive, pushing him away from the faith the two have shared, and also away from their friendship and, consequently, towards an uncritical embrace of such a marriage. But, more than anything, her concern is that he overcome his recent inclination towards suicide and find some sense of peace with himself.

What Kate is able to do here, while holding onto a belief in Catholics positions about marriage, is place the good of voicing those beliefs in relation to other goods, such as the good of their friendship and the good of Peter choosing to live. Kate’s friendship with Peter involves a host of considerations when talking with him, beyond, “Is this the Vatican-approved linguistic rendering of the Catholic position on this matter?” Kate recognizes that there may be times when voicing this rendering may be a failure on her part, because she needs to take into account those other goods and considerations, or because she knows that voicing this rendering will result in pushing Peter further towards decisions directly in conflict with it.

For the priest, however, the proper linguistic rendering becomes the all-encompassing good, a good which crowds out all other goods. He has been formed such that those other goods are largely invisible to him. He only sees himself in relation to one good: that of conveying approved linguistic renderings to the masses, however those renderings might be received. The priest is trained to diminish any accountability for those who have adverse reactions to his statements, because his primary obligation is not towards the persons before him as persons, but, rather, towards a deposit of faith conceived of as a host of statements. He is MacIntyre’s stock trader, because he is in a position “from time to time… [to] casually and incidentally inflict great harm, something which the narrowness of their education… helps them to put out of mind.”

Priestly Role

The parish priest who views his role as, first and foremost, repeater of “settled doctrines” fails in many ways to properly work towards the good of his parish community. This comes in part from a failure to pay due attention to the complex constellation of goods concerning his community members, and it also comes in part from a failure to conceive of his own role properly, from a tendency to view the priestly role as singular and universal, rather than contextual and particular. This latter failure may also come from his philosophical-theological training.

Many priests are formed to conceive of virtue in a highly individualistic way (something which they then train the laity to do, as can be seen by recent exhortations to be “courageous” and go to Mass during the pandemic). When presented with a moral conflict, a certain type of American priest will prioritize and promote the virtues of the individualist. That is, they will emphasize the two self-focused cardinal virtues of fortitude and temperance over the cardinal virtues which must necessarily take into account the goods of others, prudence and justice. They will also focus on two theological virtues, faith and hope, in a way that considers their excellence as a focus on my (the priest’s) faith and my hope, and de-emphasize or overlook the highest virtue of charity which, of necessity, goes beyond the self. Or they will frame charity as a sort of sub-virtue of justice, by saying something along the lines of, “I am saying this thing which you will not want to hear and which will make you miserable, because it is the truth (understood as proper linguistic rendering), and the truth is what is required by love.” Once this “truth” has been communicated, the priest then steps away from any responsibility towards the consequences of this communication, or the mode in which it is received. For this priest, it does not so much matter how that person acts and reacts, as long as the priest has told the person how to act, and this telling is consistent with certain doctrinal positions.

The priest speaks and behaves this way because he conceives himself as a sort of outpost of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the CDF). The CDF was founded to “spread sound Catholic doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition which seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines.” The priest likewise believes that he bears responsibility for the deposit of the faith and its consistent communication to the masses, and he worries that the deposit of the faith will fail or falter if he does not accurately convey it and insist on its proper repetition by his congregants. When it comes to his communication with the laity, he believes that his first and primary role is, as an outpost of the CDF, to “spread sound Catholic doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition which seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines.” One problem with this position is that the parish priest is not an outpost of the CDF. He is not a member of that Congregation, however much he may want to be.

A problem arises, again, with the way in which this priest’s focus creates an overly individualistic and universal view of the role of the priest. MacIntyre, in differentiating modern from Thomistic-Aristotelian accounts of moral theorizing and practical virtue, pushes against framing the key moral question as: “How am I to act?” Instead, MacIntyre picks up Aristotle and Aquinas in suggesting that we ask, “How are we to act?” He says, “What is at stake is a common good and not just the goods of individuals.” MacIntyre then goes on to say:

“Suppose further both that those common goods are the goods of family or workplace or political society, goods to be achieved and enjoyed not by individuals qua individuals, but by individuals qua family member or qua fellow worker or qua citizen and that individuals cannot achieve their own individual goods except through achieving such common goods. Were this to be the case, moral agents could not act as such without also acting as political and social agents and the abstraction of ‘the moral’ from ‘the political’ and ‘the social’ would be a misleading and distorting distraction, one whose outcome might be that moral theorists would be blind to important aspects of the life of practice, indeed to aspects of their own moral lives.”

A Thomistic-Aristotelian understanding of virtue and the moral life necessarily involves a great degree of embeddedness. A parish priest seeking the good cannot simply ask, “What is my responsibility as a priest?” He must go further to ask, “What is my responsibility as a parish priest?” And still he must go further to ask, “What is my responsibility as a parish priest in this parish?” And even further he must ask, “What is my responsibility as a parish priest in this parish, giving a homily, with Peter in the pew looking up at me with tears in his eyes?” The greater the contextualization, the more the parish priest is able to recognize and prioritize the relevant moral goods for himself and his parishioners.

When we conceive of virtue in this way, we may start to see how the moral responsibility of the parish priest concerned with the pursuit of virtue takes on a role that looks much more like the role Kate has played in Peter’s life. The parish priest who speaks to or before Peter has some responsibility both for the way in which he speaks and the mode in which his words are received. As MacIntyre writes, “For to be a rational agent is not only to have reasons for acting as one does and to be able to evaluate these as better or worse reasons. It is also and inseparably to offer reasons for others for acting in one way rather than another and to be responsive to the reasons that they advance.” The excellent moral agent and moral teacher is not simply characterized by a powerful articulation of ideas, but is also characterized by the quality of his or her responsiveness to others.

Pastoral Priest

For these reasons, ideology, partisanship, and dictatorial leadership are contrary to the proper flourishing of both the parish priest and the parish community. And priests who are “pastoral” rather than “theological” (understood lamentably as being person-oriented rather than doctrine-oriented) are simply acting as fuller moral agents and teachers. The “pastoral” priest, understood this way, is one who not only has a conception of his moral role and goods to be pursued, but who is also able to contextual this role and these goods as circumstances require. He is able to engage in a complexity of moral reasoning that the “theological” priest has been trained to exercise blindness towards.

But this distinction should really die out. The pastoral priest is one who is theological, and the theological priest is one who is pastoral. Christ became man and carried on conversations that were responsive to the diverse people he encountered. Theological reasoning is personal reasoning, because the Word became flesh and dwelt among the bedsides of our dead children, our washing of feet, and our dinner parties. The Word dwelt among our insecurities, our sinfulness, and our desires for belonging. To the extent that we de-contextualize the Word, we turn Christ into something that He is not.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

1 comment on “Parish Priests, Stock Traders, and their Limited Moral Reasoning

  1. Pingback: Why Christian apologists give such bad advice – Chris Damian

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