TRUTH TO POWER: Father Michael Pfleger is equal parts activist and priest.
Father Michael Pfleger is not your typical priest. He has drawn media attention for his activism (protesting drug paraphernalia stores and alcohol advertising), evangelism (paying prostitutes to talk with them about how they can escape), criticism of the Catholic Church (he’d like to see women ordained), political rhetoric (once mocking then-Sen. Hillary Clinton at President Obama’s then-church—although he later apologized), and personal life (adopting three children). He’s the white priest of a predominantly African American congregation. He’s also a beloved leader in Auburn Gresham, a neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside that’s broken by poverty and gang violence.
Recently, Cardinal Francis George asked Father Pfleger to consider leaving St. Sabina Catholic Church to become the president at nearby Leo High School—a request that caused a dispute but eventually ended in a decision to prepare a transition plan for St. Sabina. In the Catholic Church, priests are normally reassigned after at most 12 years at a parish, but Father Pfleger has been allowed to stay at St. Sabina for the past 30 years.
In an interview on the Smiley & West radio show in April, Father Pfleger made it clear he didn’t want to leave St. Sabina and said he would “look outside the church” if forced to leave. Cardinal George suspended Father Pfleger from his duties a month ago, writing in a letter to Father Pfleger, “If that is truly your attitude, you have already left the Catholic Church and therefore not able to pastor a Catholic parish.”
After conversations between the two, the cardinal reinstated Father Pfleger on May 20th, with Father Pfleger reaffirming his commitment to the Catholic Church in a statement and taking his place at the pulpit again that weekend. Both issued statements (found on the St. Sabina website) about their conversation and agreement. Although it’s not clear what will happen next, Father Pfleger said in his statement that he is working on a transition plan for St. Sabina to finish by Dec. 1.
Chicago Theological Seminary associate professor Julia M. Speller is a scholar of African American religious history who has led workshops on leadership at St. Sabina. She said the tension surrounding the Father Pfleger controversy comes from the “personality and methodology” he uses to serve his parish.
“He’s a very outspoken, unapologetic, passionate man,” Speller said. “Perhaps the way he lives out his calling makes people uncomfortable. It’s not the way the average Catholic priest might do it, but that’s the way he lives out his calling on behalf of his community.”
Speller said that Father Pfleger’s style meets the needs of his particular neighborhood. She said Father Pfleger preaches like many African American pastors, using stories and an emotional appeal to drive people to socially conscious actions. While many white Protestant churches tend to preach only to the head, Father Pfleger speaks to both the head and the heart, she said.
“In black churches and other churches that are socially conscious, oftentimes the sermon is an opportunity,” Speller said. “Get their mind and emotion and energy all combined, so when they leave the service they’re ready to do something.” (See a video clip of Father Pfleger preaching upon his return below, or watch the entire sermon.) Indeed, in many ways St. Sabina feels more like a traditional black Baptist congregation than a Catholic parish, which may also be at the root of the conflict between Father Pfleger and Cardinal George.
Speller said she sees St. Sabina as an example of parishes that have adopted the cultural expressions of an ethnic group, as Catholic churches have done throughout American history. She said the parish’s music and worship style are similar to that found in many African-American churches, only the ritual and theology is uniquely Catholic. “The same spirit is there, but it’s placed around the traditional experience of the mass and the Catholic Church,” Speller said.
Speller compared St. Sabina’s ministry to the spirit behind the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, since St. Sabina has encouraged lay involvement and collaboration between denominations. Ultimately, she said the cardinal’s decision to reinstate Father Pfleger reflected the Catholic Church’s support of his work.
“I trust that this decision was made in an effort to continue the dynamic work that was done in this community,” Speller said. “I trust that (Cardinal George) understands (Father Pfleger’s) compassion and recognizes the value Father Pfleger brings to that specific parish.”
With the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse back in the headlines, we’re once again confronted with questions of power, dysfunction, and deception in the church. Here’s an inside view of why the matter continues to plague churches, and why our thinking about the issue needs to change.
The sex abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church simply will not go away. Even the Pope himself is not immune. Recent stories have focused on his alleged complicity in transferring a known pedophile in his diocese to another parish after he had been caught in sexual abuse. This happened around 1980 when the future Pope Benedict XVI (then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) served as archbishop in Munich.
That this happened then and that it continues to take place is not a surprise. Much has been written about troubling revelations and staggering numbers of clergy, Catholic and Protestant, who’ve been caught in the snare of sexual misconduct. Little has been written about why sex. Why not, for instance, kleptomania?
A few years ago I participated in a writer’s conference, sitting at a table to represent my publication, when a disproportionate number of aspiring authors who came for critique ended up being pastors’ wives with narratives and poems in hand, their faces wide with tragic optimism. As I read their stories I quickly laid aside the manuscripts and looked into their sad eyes. We ended up discussing not the writing but what had gone wrong in the church that these isolated women must resort to “fictional” narratives about sex and betrayal of clergy husbands. I too had been married to a pastor. I understood them.
One woman at the writer’s conference told me that the man who had been her senior pastor and personal friend had “impregnated a woman he was counseling.” She said, “If I weren’t married to someone I knew to be a man of God, I don’t think I could ever listen to another preacher again. God calls unusual people to ministry. I think you’ll find they usually have family issues.”
Hard numbers are nearly impossible to come by since the nature of the problem is so deeply personal and compromising; those who confess usually do so at the point of being found out rather than volunteering a confession. I dare say that the gifted, devoted, and disciplined men and women who lead religious communities with humility and integrity greatly outrank the number of the fallen. That said, numbers of the fallen are greater than one might presume.
I have written extensively on the topic and cannot include all my research in this post. However, in the course of my work, I spent many hours with a former Catholic priest who had been caught in predatory sexual abuse of young men in his parish. He freely and openly told me his story. Below I render a small portion from an on-the-record interview that explains, twisted though it may be, why the clergy abuse issue is about sex and not kleptomania:
I perverted my own neediness into the delusion that I’m giving something incredibly special to these human beings. Some of the youth themselves felt that way at the time. It was the only kind of love they had ever received. The hardest part of their recovery has been their recognition that, as a man of God, my relationship with them ended up being a form of abuse.
A priest or minister is given constant adulation for the smallest things they do. The minister can easily take on a youthful charm and use it seductively. Even if the seduction is focused on an adult, the minister can be living in an adolescent kind of world. When you do that as a priest of God, you can do immense harm.
Struggles against lust of the flesh in the imaginations of the godly are not new to the landscape of church history. St. Francis of Assisi exhorted his brothers a few years prior to his death: “Don’t canonize me too soon. I’m perfectly capable of fathering a child.” His personal remedy for “impure desires” was to plunge himself into snow banks or freezing streams. (He guaranteed the results.)
Francis knew well the weakness of the flesh. He also knew the temptations of the office. He imposed rigorous disciplines on his brotherhood, understanding the need both for external constraint and internal resolve in order to battle and overcome fleshly forces that assault the spirit. He and his clerics faithfully recited liturgical readings at regular points of the day and night; he ordered them to confess and serve and discipline one another; to do penance and to absolve; and to work with one’s hands to avoid idleness.
We cannot all take the Franciscan vows. But one can, and indeed must, recognize that humans are weak. Men (and women) need constant reminding of that weakness, before God and one another, in order to stand strong against the “heady wine” of spiritual power they exercise over others’ souls. They ought not “to accept any office that may give rise to scandal or bring about the loss of one’s soul,” echoing Francis, who was not speaking in abstractions.
“Clergy sexual abuse,” says hospital chaplain Beth Darling, “comes down to being a matter about the role, nature, and purpose of the church in this world.” Maybe the church today has built itself around a model that is flawed, a model that foists upon mere men the burden of being the sole procurers of grace and bearers of God with no one to answer to. That burden can crush a man. Churches, large and small, Catholic and Protestant, are adept at creating “stories” around personalities and office, and at living those false stories regardless of shadows that may haunt the protagonist.
In all things we, as a believing people, must uphold the promise that God himself chose human flesh to bring amnesty to his fallen race and thus imbue it with beauty and dignity and purity. Despite our temptations and weaknesses, his Spirit empowers us to overcome.