Clerics & Curates: Who Needs Them?

June 2018By Kenneth Colston

Kenneth Colston, a retired teacher of languages, resides in St. Louis. His articles on literature have appeared recently in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Saint Austin Review, The New Criterion, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Crisis, and First Things.

What good is organized religion? Or, better yet, what good is a church? Why all that fuss and rigmarole? Who is anybody in a funny robe to tell me what to do with my spiritual life? At times, even Pope Francis seems to hold back an answer; his frequent critiques of “clericalism” could be construed as a statement against hierarchy, his commission on deaconesses a challenge to the dogma of male-only ordination. Martin Luther and Vatican II both emphasized the priesthood of all believers. What need have we then for presbyters?

Pope Pius XI, in Ad Catholici Sacerdotii (1935), explained that the priest is, in fact, natural to any flourishing society:
The human race has always felt the need of a priesthood: of men, that is, who have the official charge to be mediators between God and humanity, men who should consecrate themselves entirely to this mediation, as to the very purpose of their lives, men set aside to offer to God public prayers and sacrifices in the name of human society. For human society as such is bound to offer to God public and social worship. It is bound to acknowledge in Him its Supreme Lord and first beginning, and to strive toward Him as to its last end, to give Him thanks and offer Him propitiation. In fact, priests are to be found among all peoples whose customs are known, except those compelled by violence to act against the most sacred laws of human nature.
Modern societies have been dispensing with mediators of prayer and sacrifice by relegating prayer to the private zone (or dismissing it altogether) and demanding sacrifice only for the state. An argument from precedent or natural law is unconvincing now; indeed, the notion of a public religion shared by a community, particularly in the West, threatens the regnant liberal sensibility that cultivates tolerance and, it is argued, the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution.

Pius XI emphasized “the work of the altar” and the other sacraments, by which “the priest accompanies the Christian throughout the pilgrimage of this life to the gates of Heaven.” In addition, the Holy Father continued, “The Catholic priest is minister of Christ and dispenser of the mysteries of God in another way, that is, by his words.” It is “by means of her priests” that the Church “pours out the treasures of heavenly truth,” first and foremost of which is the “mustard seed of the Gospel.”

The priest is thus an unarmed huissard for the civilization of love under duress no less now than in the stormy 1930s. As Pius said:
Consider the truths themselves which the priest, if faithful to his ministry, must frequently inculcate. Ponder them one by one and dwell upon their inner power; for they make plain the influence of the priest, and how strong and beneficent it can be for the moral education, social concord and peaceful development of peoples. He brings home to young and old the fleeting nature of the present life; the perishableness of earthly goods; the value of spiritual goods and of the immortal soul; the severity of divine judgment; the spotless holiness of the divine gaze that reads the hearts of all; the justice of God, which “will render to every man according to his works.” These and similar lessons the priest teaches; a teaching fitted indeed to moderate the feverish search for pleasure, and the uncontrolled greed for worldly goods, that debase so much of modern life, and spur on the different classes of society to fight one another like enemies, instead of helping one another like friends.
In today’s exodus of “the nones” toward ecclesial homelessness, the first hard, ignored truth for the “spiritual but not religious” man is that he has a fool for his pastor. The second is that even if he possesses rare self-knowledge and self-mastery, his temporal enemies can make his life of virtue hell. For these twin jobs of standing up to evil within and without, Christ preached the evangelical counsels and called for flinty fishermen willing to walk the earth for the salvation of souls. The Holy Spirit followed through, and the Council of Trent mandated seminaries “to bring home to young and old the severity of divine judgment.”


Two classic novelists, each of whom wrote only one long masterpiece, make the perennial wisdom of institutional Christianity concrete, one explicitly, the other unconsciously: that Holy Mother Church must generate tough guys, strong fathers specialized in spiritual warfare, to defend us in battle against the wiles and snares of the Devil.

Probably not realizing it, British novelist Emily Brontë foresaw the tragedy of life without organized religion, which is life without spiritual fathers. In striking contrast, at the same point in history but in and about a culture in which Christendom was less in decline, Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni looked back in time with a bittersweet comedy of Christian marriage, the foundation of temporal life, held aloft by broad-shouldered priests and bishops. These are examples, of course, not proofs, but imaginative literature can be a kerygma for the uncatechized.

Wuthering Heights (1847) is often read as a critique of tyrannical patriarchy, but that is only part of the story. Men will be tyrants, especially when they are unopposed by good men. The novel features several failed fathers, abusive and even evil patriarchs with power but without moral authority, from whom the young are unprotected. Mr. Earnshaw, the first ineffectual paterfamilias of an 1840s Yorkshire estate, is well-meaning but impulsive and imprudent. He picks up an abandoned orphan on a trip to industrialized Liverpool and brings the boy into his home, and thus jealousy and hatred into his family. He and his daughter Catherine favor and spoil the boy, in part because his son Hindley and his Christian nurse Nelly hate him. Enraged and partial, Earnshaw, on the nameless local curate’s suggestion, ships Hindley away to college.

The only overtly religious figure present in this disordered household is a grouchy, nearly incomprehensible, Bible-thumping, child-beating servant in league with his demonic masters, whose ironic namesake is the patron and protector of the Holy Family. According to Nelly, Joseph is “the wearisomest self-righteous pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself.” Rather than catechizing and evangelizing, the “sermonizing and pious discoursing” of this untrained religious (but not spiritual) layman turns Earnshaw against all his children. Who might intervene to bring rational love to this divided house? Not the parson, who cannot even show up to comfort the children on the night of Earnshaw’s death.

The new master, Hindley, returns married and out for revenge. The mistreated orphan, Heathcliff, grows up wildly and becomes the vindictive Romantic anti-hero of the novel, an attractive and cruel son of Satan. Hindley deprives Heathcliff of “the instructions of the curate” in favor of “hard labor” on the estate. He fails to encourage church attendance until the curate and Joseph complain, and he uses their admonition as an opportunity to administer a “flogging.” From a distance, the curate orders Bible verses by heart, and Joseph thrashes Heathcliff “until his arm aches,” but the boy and Catherine skip church freely and turn all that they have been taught into a “naughty plan of revenge.” This brutal combination of paternal neglect and abuse with sour religious force-feeding produces two diabolical soulmates in a chilling story often championed by teenagers and immature teachers. Like Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter, Brontë’s novel is read as a dithyrambic defense of authentic but star-crossed young love pitted against prejudiced and evil elders, rather than as a realistic depiction of fatherless misrule. The household of Wuthering Heights, and the adjacent Thrushcross Grange pulled into its degrading chaos, hides from the world its sins of animal torture, incest, child abuse, adultery of the heart, and even necrophilia. Joseph is the familiar religious character who makes with his nasty hypocrisy the modern (and trite) case against the utility of organized religion.


Perhaps the local curate was torn, as was Emily’s own overworked and underpaid Low Church minister father, between care for his household and his parish. Indeed, his institution is literally falling apart. In the antepenultimate paragraph of the novel, the local “kirk” is described thus: “Decay had made progress, even in seven months — many a window showed black gaps deprived of glass; and slates jutted off, here and there, beyond the right line of the roof, to be gradually worked off in coming autumn storms.” Surely, this description is Brontë’s heavy metaphor for the continuing decline of Christianity into the future. In any case, not once in the novel does the unnamed curate intervene in his person on behalf of the endangered souls in his care. Bible verses need flesh.

We never hear, for example, the curate or the weak Nelly and the hypocritical Joseph, the only other nominal Christians, present the orthodox affirmation of authentic married love, that the true end of eros is not the unmitigated mutual pleasure of two soulmates, but holy matrimony, with its trials and limitations, as a means to furthering the Kingdom of God. For such a lesson, we must head southward from the thinning Christianity of industrialized northern Europe toward the then still thick (and perhaps idealized) Catholicism of Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed, 1827), one of Pope Francis’s favorite books. The wise, courageous Fra Cristoforo, a Capuchin monk whose righteous anger once went too far, is perhaps the very model of what the current Holy Father means by pastoral “accompaniment.” The Betrothed shows the power of the cloth even as it depicts the cowardice of some of the men who wear it. Written at the same time as Brontë’s classic but looking back to the early days of the Counter-Reformation in Milan during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), it tells the story of Renzo and Lucia, a persecuted couple who are prevented from marrying each other by the intimidation of Don Rodrigo, a local thuggish lord, against Don Abbondio, a cowardly parish priest. Cristoforo confronts the bravo and manages to rescue his spiritual children so that they might become husband and wife, not merely for their mutual care but also for the common good of society. When they are reunited late in the novel, he concludes the lesson of conjugal love that their long betrothal period has taught them:
If the Church now gives you back this companion in life, she does not do so to provide you with a temporal and earthly happiness, which if perfect in its kind and without any admixture of bitterness, must still finish in a great sorrow when the time comes for you to leave each other; she does so to set you both on the road to that happiness which has no end. Love each other as fellow-travelers on that road, remembering that you must part some day, and hoping to be reunited later for all time. Give thanks to the power that has led you to this blessed state not by the path of turbulent and passing pleasures, but by the path of toil and affliction, to bring you to a steady and tranquil gladness of heart. If God grants you children, you must endeavor to bring them up for him, and to instill in them the love of him and of all men.
So Cristoforo counsels and returns to ministering to the sick in a lazaretto, a field hospital, in plague-ridden Milan, a veritable death sentence. The typical novelist working today would offer no spiritual foil to the feckless Don Abbondio. Don’t you see, he would shake his pen, the hypocrisy of organized religion? Manzoni, a Catholic revert who once extolled the French Revolution, looked away from the secular clergy to the religious orders for Gospel strength, capturing the freedom of movement and speech of celibate authority, which had no analog in the emerging liberal democracies.


It takes trained nerves to defy the world with the unlikely, high-minded truth that matrimonial love is a foretaste of Heaven and a means of instilling the double commandment, not the domain of self-referential teenage idolatry that Catherine, later married to Heathcliff’s effeminate social superior, Edgar Linton of Thrushcross Grange, describes thus:
My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger. I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff — he’s always, always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being — so, don’t talk of our separation again — it is impracticable; and —
Perhaps sensing that she is confessing grave sin in idolizing her adultery of the heart and choosing a husband for convenience, Catherine breaks off.

Here we see that wild-eyed sin requires spiritual authority. Nelly admonishes Catherine for being “ignorant of the duties you undertake in marrying,” for speaking “nonsense,” and even for being “a wicked, unprincipled girl.” But Nelly lets the matter drop and slinks away when she witnesses the great evils in these two isolated houses: jealousy, brutality, pedagogical neglect, and revenge. With no standing and no clerical backup, she cannot keep up the good fight. Catherine, spiritual but not religious, and without a tough, persistent, robed, economically independent churchman to correct her, condemns herself with the sterile idol of earthly love, no different from the love of oneself, worshiped as the telos of existence. It might not be clear whether Brontë celebrates or condemns Catherine’s vision of romantic love, but that self-centered article of faith has replaced agape as the gospel of the modern world, where no other voices than those of lonely churchmen proclaim an alternative, and theirs, too, are sometimes shaky.

In sheer revenge for Catherine’s marriage to Edgar Linton, Heathcliff marries Edgar’s sister, Isabella, and mistreats her and his own son. Catherine withholds her affections from her jealous husband and openly favors Heathcliff. Heathcliff steals his step-brother’s property by gambling and keeps his nephew in a state of illiteracy. Late in the novel, after Catherine’s death, he unearths her buried body. It is a tale of uninterrupted sickness and misery flowing from a Romantic distortion of romantic love inspired by the unopposed Byronic hero.


In contrast, holy matrimony in The Betrothed has a Daniel who enters the lion’s den of local power. Fra Cristoforo’s courage takes him into the “house of ill omen” of Renzo’s antagonist, Don Rodrigo, to denounce the latter’s lustful desires for Lucia, like Pius XI’s truth-inculcating priest:
I pity this house; the curse of God is hanging over it. You will see if the justice of God can be overawed by a few bricks, or terrorized by a few thugs. You believe that God made a creature in his own image to give you the pleasure of tormenting her. You think that God will not defend her, and you despise his warning! You have judged yourself. The heart of Pharaoh was as hard as yours; but God knew the way to break it.
Why is Cristoforo able to enter a private fortress and defy Rodrigo in front of his thuggish friends? Rodrigo gives the answer in his reply: “You can thank the robe that covers your rascally back for protecting you from the blows we usually give your sort, to teach them how to speak to their betters.” Unlike Nelly, who has her situation to consider, and the Yorkshire curate, who has his own household to mind, the Catholic clergy in Milan operate a counter society of goodness, a uniformed unit on guard against evil, holy resistance fighters fortified by their robes and able to penetrate the great halls of the powerful corrupt. But what priest enjoys this authority today?

Speaking truth to power requires now confrontational diagnosis of evil deeply embedded, now encouragement of goodness suddenly nascent. Manzoni’s ordained performs this latter role too. Rodrigo’s murderous overlord, the Unnamed, had been inured to evil by “the constant examples, the non-stop spectacle of violence, revenge, and murder” that “filled him with a competitive spirit” and “served as a counterweight to conscience.” But now, having become ever so slightly aware of “a confused but terrifying idea, that the individual is responsible for his own justice, and that rightness cannot be established by examples,” this prodigious sinner is touched by compassion for helpless Lucia, whom Rodrigo’s thugs have captured and dragged to his castle. Compassion for her innocence makes him realize that his villainous past was irrational, “the fruit not of a deliberative decision, but rather the instantaneous response of a mind trained to follow long-standing, habitual ideas — the consequence of a thousand previous events.” The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, the Psalmist sings, but where to go, what to do, and whom to consult?

For this magnificent interior repentance, the visible Church can provide heroic auricular confessors. Lucia makes a vow of perpetual virginity through the Blessed Mother, and her late-night prayer coincides with an early-morning procession. The jubilant church bells echo in the Unnamed’s lonely heart, and he follows them to a prince of the Church, the saintly Federigo Cardinal Borromeo. Calling himself a “poor wretch,” the humble but spiritually commanding Borromeo teaches the Unnamed to be joyful and not ashamed, for God brings good out of evil: “What profit so great a Lord may find in you, and what use he may make of that ardent will, that unshakable resolution, when he has animated them and fired them with flames of love, hope and repentance?” Then with “unsullied hands” the cardinal embraces “the author of so much violence and treachery, clasping the jacket which had so often concealed the instruments of death.” He calls this coming home to God “a foretaste of joys to come, which God gives you to make you love his service, and to hearten you to enter resolutely into the new life in which you will have so much evil to undo, so many acts of reparation to perform, so many tears to shed.” Justice comes here in the same breath as mercy. The first act of reparation will be to free Lucia. Thus, Borromeo offers to the Unnamed what neither Nelly nor Joseph nor the village curate nor even, Pius XI declares in Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, the angels and archangels are capable of: the remission of sins.

Manzoni is, however, no sentimental apologist for the clergy; his eyes are wide open to clerical corruption. When Cardinal Borromeo, visiting Lucia in a humble tailor’s home, discovers the cowardice of Don Abbondio, he reminds him of the call of martyrdom: “Did the Church guarantee your life?… Were you not warned that you were sent forth as a lamb among wolves?… And to save your life, or rather to prolong it for a little space upon this earth, at the cost of all charity, all duty, what need was there of holy oil, of the laying on of hands, of the special grace of the priesthood?” If the gospel of the world, which preaches “pride and hatred,” does not accept as an excuse for disobedience the desire to preserve one’s life, “what then of us, who are the children and the preachers of the divine promise?” Having thus chastened Don Abbondio, the cardinal appeals to higher motives: “Love casteth out fear. And so if you loved those who are entrusted to your spiritual care, those whom you call your children…then while the weakness of the flesh made you tremble for your safety, the spirit of charity must have made you tremble for them.”


Charlotte Brontë, in the preface to the second edition of her sister’s Wuthering Heights, defends some of Emily’s characters against the charge of perfidy: Nelly is “a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity,” and Edgar Linton an “example of constancy and tenderness.” Heathcliff, she admits, “stands unredeemed,” connected to humanity only by a “rudely confessed regard for Hareton Earnshaw, the man he has ruined; and then his half-implied esteem for Nelly Dean.” Otherwise, she says, Heathcliff is a “man’s shape animated by demon life — a Ghoul — an Afreet.” She claims that her sister held that “mercy and forgiveness are the divinest attributes of the Great Being who made both man and woman, and that what clothes the Godhead in glory, can disgrace no form of feeble humanity.” What is missing, however, in this Romantic deism, well-intentioned and sincere though it may be, is the hard-headed power of the robe to exorcise demons from households with the applied Gospel, both by admonishing evil to its face and by encouraging the better angels of our nature.

Early in the novel, the first narrator, Lockwood, caught in a snowstorm at Wuthering Heights, reads in bed a pious tract titled Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy-First. He remembers an abandoned local chapel: “The roof has been kept whole hitherto, but, as the clergyman’s stipend is only twenty pounds per annum, and a house with two rooms, threatening speedily to determine into one, no clergyman will undertake the duties of pastor, especially as it is currently reported that his flock would rather let him starve than increase the living by one penny from their own pockets.” Then he dreams that he is listening to the sermon of the author Jabes Branderham, which turns out to be a comically literal interpretation of Jesus’ admonition to forgive seventy times seven: “The four hundredth and ninety first is too much!” The congregation in the dream breaks into a riot, clubbing each other, “neighbor against neighbor,” with no referee. This dream is a self-aware parody of a Christianity that would limit God’s mercy with a number, and it is a caution against reading Brontë’s novel as offering only a cast of cowards and reprobates. It is nonetheless a nightmare delivering a mythical caution, always the case from the earliest days of the faith, but increasingly true in our craven times: It takes a truth-telling steward to bring order to the vineyard of grace.


Well-intentioned accompaniment needs the direction of authority, without which there can be no sure transformation, no accomplished metanoia, and no enduring newness of life. The Unnamed, unlike Heathcliff, although the same kind of terrible Byronic hero, wakes up one morning with the mustard seed of grace in his heart, but it needs a magnifico of mercy to make it grow. To be sure, the loss of spiritual paternity within contemporary Catholicism is also profound. Long gone are the days when the local priest knocked on doors to tell mothers to dress their daughters more modestly or fathers to put away the bottle, and does anyone know how to bring that time back, let alone Manzoni’s imagined moment when the monasteries produced wandering milites Christi to work rational love back into unleavened dough? Many factors have conspired to cut off the heads and atrophy the muscles of organized bodies: scandal at the top, the therapeutic culture, the decline of faith, a roles-hating feminism, and an infantile masculinity. It is hard enough to get biological fathers to appear in their own households — not a new problem, as Heathcliff never knew his, and Renzo’s and Lucia’s are never mentioned. But it is important not to forget the heroic Fra Cristoforos and Cardinal Borromeos when castigating the Don Abbondios. An early stop on the road to restoration might well be the reappearance of fearless, authoritative strong men from organized religion into our fatherless family rooms.

DOSSIER: Literature & Literary Criticism

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