The Resolution of Conflicts in Priestly Life and Relationships

Loving, supportive and mutually encouraging relationships among priests are essential to the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of priests and to their ministry1—a ministry which is becoming increasingly demanding.

Factors contributing to this pressure are a society which is becoming less Christian, and more hostile toward the faith; the present culture of relativism and narcissism; a declining number of men entering studies for the priesthood; the exodus from active ministry of ordained priests; and a laity which is often unaware of the increased stress priests experience, and which is too often overly influenced by the moral relativism of the culture.

The crisis in the Church due to the sexual abuse of minors—primarily adolescent males—has been another major source of stress in priestly ministry.2 The Church has responded effectively to ensure the protection of minors. However, an ongoing problem that needs attention is the evaluation process of accusations against priests.

False accusations are made against priests, both in regard to allegations of past inappropriate sexual behavior, and/or of manifesting angry rigidity, or pastoral insensitivity, in priestly ministry. The present weaknesses in treatment of accused priests are harming the relationship between the Bishop and his priests, as predicted by Cardinal Avery Dulles in his 2004 article in America on the Dallas charter.3

The falsity of accusations is often identified when appropriate psychological science is employed.4 These include the accusations made against priests who are committed to present the fullness of the Church’s teaching on sacraments, the liturgy, and sexual morality, including contraception.5

Stress Reduction

The most significant ways in which stress is reduced in married men, after the daily activity of work, is through trusting the Lord with their stresses, and with loving family relationships. Such love helps to renew these men, in addition to the Lord’s love in the sacrament of marriage, enabling them to go forth daily to face their responsibilities.

It is equally important that during an active day of ministry, priests be renewed both in divine love, and in the unique love that is present in priestly relationships. Some experience a difficulty in being open to loving relationships. Often this arises from childhood and adolescent hurts within the family, or with peers, or in priestly ministry that has damaged trust.

Significant Consequences

When daily renewal in love is absent, the consequences can be significant. The result may be depression, anger, alcoholism, sexual acting-out, burnout, withdrawal from relationships, physical illness, or abandonment of a personal prayer life. Unless positive steps are taken, such symptoms can cause serious difficulties in a priest and in his ministry.

Emotional obstacles that interfere with self-giving in priestly relationships are often unconscious, and are the result of a number of disappointments in relationships with parents, siblings, and peers early in life and, later, with priests, pastors, those in authority, women Religious, laity, and particularly those who are selfish, angry, and controlling.

Most men enter adult life with a degree of insecurity because they did not receive the praise, affection, and male acceptance needed to develop a positive male identity from their fathers, and other male authority figures and, in some men, from their brothers or their male peers.

Other causes of insecurity include a negative view of one’s body, lack of affirmation in childhood or in priestly ministry, and the absence in childhood of athletic abilities and subsequent loneliness with male peers in a culture that places excessive importance on athletic success as a measure of masculinity.

Since it is common for children to idealize parents, their marital relationship, and family life, many priests who seek growth in self-knowledge are surprised by the degree of sadness and loneliness they had unconsciously struggled with from childhood and adolescence. The most common cause of this sadness, in my clinical experience, is the absence of a warm, loving, affectionate relationship with the father.

The childhood experience of a controlling, angry, or selfish mother leads a child to create distance in the relationship that results in an unconscious loneliness for comforting female love. The unconscious mistrust that develops in such a relationship can limit, later in life, a priest’s ability to trust in, and become vulnerable to, Our Lady’s love.

In some priests, the primary source of loneliness was due to the absence of close male friendships in childhood and adolescence, while others struggled with the sadness of the absence of a supportive relationship with a brother. Finally, a loneliness caused by the absence of wholesome friendships with females can influence later conflicts with loneliness.

Unfortunately, in the contraceptive/divorce era, not a small number of seminarians and young priests struggle with the emotional trauma of their parent’s divorce. Adult children of divorce harbor a painful loneliness for stable family life and love, as well as a serious weakness in trust/anxiety.

Emotional wounds of loneliness and sadness from childhood and adolescence produce an effect that is similar to that occurring in rheumatic heart disease, when heart damage occurs early in life. The full effect of that damage may not limit a person’s life until decades later. This pain can emerge later in priestly ministry, as it does in married life, and create unhappiness and confusion. In each vocation, the individual can then incorrectly believe that his emotional pain is completely the result of his vocation. Studies demonstrate that approximately 80 percent of adult psychological conflicts begin during adolescence.6

Major mistakes can then be made of abandoning or rejecting one’s vocation in an attempt to escape from the emotional pain which regularly re-emerges later.

Another common source of sadness in the active ministry has been the pastor/parochial vicar relationship. Many pastors have difficulty in praising and affirming their associates, and many associates are not sensitive to the pastor’s problems. Many priests do not realize how important self-giving is to one’s brother priests, and how vital it is to create a sense of home, and loving fellowship in the rectory. The problem of emotional self-giving often arises from modeling after a father who had difficulty in communicating his love and praise, and who may have had more confidence in his work than in his ability to develop close relationships in the home.

Other frequently related sources of sadness are the absence of close priest friendships, serious family conflicts, or the absence of closeness with family, the loss of friends through multiple moves, and religious indifference in the laity.

Anger, Mistrust, Insecurity, and Loneliness

Anger most often originates from hurts at different life stages, and from selfishness. The failure to resolve anger by engaging in the daily hard work of forgiving can lead to conflicts with irritability that may damage physical and psychological health, one’s spiritual life, priestly friendships, and all aspects of priestly ministry.

The priest who cannot master his anger is weakened in his ability to become a bridge for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Humanity. Instead, his anger can become an obstacle for others in their attempts to know and love Jesus.

Some young men enter seminaries with a limited ability to trust in loving relationships, and are unable to allow others to become close to them because of hurts with their parents, siblings, or peers. This is particularly the case in those who have experienced the trauma of divorce, or who were bullied.

Seminary experiences that interfered with the development of trust—which is essential to loving and to communicating—include the failure to forgive seminarians, or seminary faculty, for hurts occurring during those years.

Later events that can interfere with the ability to maintain trust, and to feel safe in priestly relationships, include: the loss of priest friends through failing to maintain friendships after ordination, through a friend’s leaving the active ministry, through a friend’s becoming a workaholic, or through death; the failure to forgive priests for hurts in ministry; and disappointments with women Religious or the laity.

There are multiple ways in which the wound of insecurity is manifested in men. These include: workaholism, a very critical attitude, inability to compliment or praise, excessive competitiveness, drinking, inability to be close to priests, and difficulty in receiving human and divine love because of the false belief of being unlovable.

In every state of life, men make an unconscious attempt to undo low self-esteem, and the sadness associated with it. Common ways include sexual acting-out (either heterosexually or homosexually), and the use of pornography which can be an unconscious attempt to experience oneself as being lovable and special.

Unresolved anger with one’s father, brothers, or peers is often misdirected unconsciously at brother priests, pastors, other authority figures, or at God, through rebellious behavior, in either an active or passive-aggressive manner. This expression of anger can bring a certain pleasure and, for some, even a sense of exhilaration, particularly in those priests who have never resolved their anger with the first authority figure in their lives, their father. St. Thomas Aquinas described this dynamic in the Summa by describing anger in its early stage as associated with the pain of a hurt, but in its later stage being associated with a sense of pleasure in its expression.

Such anger may have played a significant role in the rebellion over the past forty years against the fullness of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and, ultimately, in the crisis in the Church. Priests who refused to teach the fullness of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality had difficulty in living that truth.

Those with wounds of mistrust from family life, or adult life, are often loners who socialize or vacation primarily with laity. They do not communicate easily with priests in the rectory. They often use anger, aggressiveness, and criticism to keep others at a distance because of their fear of vulnerability. They may have a multitude of superficial relationships in an attempt to mask their fear of intimacy. Often, controlling behaviors are present in response to unconscious fears of being betrayed. As pastors, they may have difficulty treating others with respect, and with delegating responsibilities; and as associates, they may be controlling and distant.

From early adolescence, the wounds of sadness from family life, and peer relationships, may produce homosexual or heterosexual acting-out or temptations, alcoholism, masturbation, and drug abuse. The latter actions are an unconscious attempt to obtain a good feeling and, thereby, alleviate for a period of time a strongly denied loneliness.

The Resolution of Conflicts

Some are tempted to leave the priestly ministry because they mistakenly believe that their emotional pain, and lack of happiness and joy, arise solely from their present adult life situation. Such priests may refuse to examine sadness or trauma in early family life and peer relationships because they are caught up in illicit sexual relationships, or in substance abuse.

Another reason that prevents men from facing their denied emotional pain is a fear that disclosing personal vulnerability diminishes or threatens their masculine identity.

Conflicts in priestly relationships can be diminished significantly by daily growth in a number of areas, including: forgiveness, trust, a commitment to more self-giving to one’s brother priests, awareness of one’s giftedness, and learning to communicate in a positive, loving manner.

The emotion of anger is one of the major obstacles in loving relationships in every life state. Because of this, the recognition and the resolution of anger is necessary.

Daily openness to forgive those one lives and works with will strengthen relationships with priests and laity. This can be done by reflecting on who has disappointed us in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening, and by choosing to forgive those persons, or asking the Lord for help with this process.

Dr. Bob Enright’s research studies on forgiveness at the University of Wisconsin demonstrate that the process of forgiveness not only decreases anger, but also diminishes anxiety and sadness, and enhances self-esteem.

We can forgive intellectually through a decision. We can forgive emotionally when we truly feel like forgiving through understanding the pain in those who inflicted the hurts, or we can forgive in prayer through the graces in the Sacrament of Reconciliation when the other two methods of forgiveness seem to be impossible. The forgiveness of priests who have abused minors is essential because, in our clinical experience, the failure to forgive leads to overreacting in anger against brother priests under various types of stresses.

Forgiveness a Must

Forgiveness can be exercised any time, but it is particularly effective when employed at the end of the day, because it prevents anger from being carried into the next day, as St. Paul counsels (Eph 4:26). Consequently, the sun does not go down on one’s anger. Its immediate use is also essential when one feels intense anger in ministry. A significant body of medical research exists which demonstrates that the expression of excessive anger is harmful, especially to cardiovascular health.

There is also value in reviewing one’s family life, and seminary years, and forgiving those who may have caused disappointment in each of these life stages. An essential part of this process is an openness to forgive a parent who may have inflicted hurt.

The nature of anger is such that, without forgiveness, this anger will be misdirected years, or even decades, later.7

Finally, as in marital relationships, it is helpful to bring forgiveness into each year of one’s vowed commitment. In this process, many priests are surprised that they had denied anger with their brother priests, and then later, misdirected this anger at priests, or others, who did not deserve it.

Forgiveness is essential today concerning the disagreements that exist among priests because of conflicts over fidelity to the Church’s teaching on issues concerning sexual morality and the sacraments. Unfortunately for many years, not a small number of priests have failed to communicate the liberating truth of chastity, while others have taken great personal liberties with the liturgy.

Younger priests, who are faithful to the Magisterium, and who preach on the sacraments, issues of sexual morality, contraception, the liturgy, and marriage, can experience criticism, anger, and rejection from older priests, parish staff, or parishioners. These individuals may even accuse them of being pastorally insensitive, rigid, and angry. Pressure has been applied to these loyal priests to receive a full psychological evaluation at a Church-related treatment center.

One young priest responded to a Vicar for Clergy—who cited several staff and parishioners’ accusations against him—that if the Vicar’s generation of priests had taught the Church’s truth about the sacraments and sexual morality, there would be no such criticisms of his ministry.

The trust in priestly relationships has been damaged by conflicts over the celebration of the Eucharist. Pastors who take liberties with the liturgy are often angry toward younger priests who do not engage in such liturgical irregularities. Some pastors have even pressured associate priests to leave parishes because, in the pastor’s opinion, their “liturgical style” did not fit in with the pastor’s vision for the parish.

Dr. Paul Vitz’s article on narcissism in the liturgy, published in a November 2007 issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, is helpful in understanding the influence of this character weakness, and its associated anger in the priesthood.8

Teaching on Contraception

On the fortieth anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae, July 25, 2008, Cardinal James Francis Stafford wrote that dissenters to this important papal document involved a level of infidelity that divided the ranks of clergy to such an extent that they have still not recovered:

In 1968, something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church.

He went on:

Conversations among the clergy where they existed, became contaminated with fear. Suspicions among priests were chronic. … The Archdiocesan priesthood lost something of the fraternal whole which these priests had known for generations.

Referring to his own personal struggles, Cardinal Stafford wrote that as a relatively young priest attending a clerical gathering in August 1968 to discuss Humanae Vitae, he was verbally abused, and his integrity derided, for being the only priest at the meeting to support the papal document. Furthermore, he was warned that he was risking his ecclesiastical future by his support of Humanae Vitae which he recounted in his article, “The Year of the Peirasmòs” in L’Osservatore Romano.9

Cardinal Stafford has identified a serious division in the priesthood, which is rarely discussed. This conflict is not properly described as being between conservative and liberal priests, or between traditional and progressive priests. It is more accurately identified as being between priests who are loyal to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and those who refuse to communicate the fullness of the Church’s truth and are dissenters.

In my clinical experience, the anger described by the dissenters against loyal priests has intensified over the past 40 years, and is manifested in many dioceses and religious communities in a variety of ways: attempts to laicize loyal priests; forced exclaustration; severely restricting or stopping priestly ministry; refusals to reinstate priests falsely accused; and, supporting false accusations of mental and sexual disorders against such priests.

Fortunately, healing of divisions can occur within the priesthood in many ways, including embracing a new fidelity to the fullness of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. On April 23, 2002, St. John Paul II told American cardinals and bishops meeting with him on the crisis in the Church that:

We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now, you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (Romans 5: 20). So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.

The influence of the contraceptive mentality upon the divorce epidemic—with its devastating psychological consequences upon Catholic marriages, spouses and children—should be addressed. 10

Trusting and Loving

Conflicts in rectories can also be diminished by making a daily commitment to create a fellowship of love in the rectory, and in priestly friendships in a diocese or religious community. Priestly ministry is limited if it is not based, first, in a loving friendship with the Lord, and second, in loving priestly friendships within a rectory or diocese. Thus, it is the responsibility of each priest to try to make a daily commitment to love those with whom he lives, or ministers with, in a diocese or religious community.

Love and commitment between priests depend on a basic ability to trust. A daily commitment, with the Lord’s help, to trust the priests one lives with, or ministers with, is as important to priesthood as is the commitment to trust that the married man should make to the Lord, and to his wife, daily.

Equally important is the decision to trust daily in the love of the Trinity, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to set aside time daily to receive this love. If one doesn’t trust in human priestly love, however, problems develop, and it is very hard to trust in God’s love. If one rejects genuine priestly love, there will be difficulty in experiencing the warmth of God’s love.

Some priests have been hurt so deeply by family members, priests, sisters, or laity that the movement toward trust requires daily prayer for the gift of feeling protected in relationships. The fear of becoming vulnerable, and the risk of being hurt again, can be very strong.

Commitment to priestly brotherhood should include complimenting and praising, encouraging, helping one’s brother priests grow in confidence, maintaining an open door and ear, giving one’s time, and recognizing the tremendous power of love within each priest to help others grow.

These steps can be challenging for many men because self-giving at the emotional level is more challenging for males than for females who find expressing love and giving compliments as something that comes more naturally for females. This difference relates to what has been describes as the male and the female “genius,” but it also relates psychologically to the reality that the role model of most women—their mothers—tend to be more emotionally self-giving than the role models of most men—their fathers. Furthermore, women are gifted biologically with the hormone, oxytocin, which plays a role in facilitating close bonding with babies, and others.

Many married men and priests have grown in their self-giving abilities, and in their confidence, by daily meditating upon St. Joseph as their other father and role model.

Self-giving to brother priests is also facilitated by a deeper appreciation and regular expression of gratitude for being gifted as a son of God with a special vocation, and for the reality of being lovable. It is much easier to be affirming and complimentary if a priest is aware of his own special and powerful gifts, and is able to receive love.

The obstacles between priests can also be diminished by a decision to let go of excessive competitiveness, aggressiveness, jealousy, and the tendency to criticize, often present in male relationships. Priests who are workaholics could be more cognizant of the importance of loving friendships with priests, and could consider that the call to self-giving to brother priests may be as important as the call to ministry to laity.

Specifically, this means keeping in touch with classmates and priest-friends, relaxing together regularly, and maintaining communication with one’s priest brothers. Priests report that participation in priest-support groups, such as Jesus Caritas, is beneficial, provided that the meetings involve prayer and primarily positive communication.

The Mission of the Priest

Marital conflicts can be prevented and resolved when spouses share a true understanding of the nature of Christian marriage, and accept God’s plan for this vocation as described in Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the teachings of the Church over the past 2,000 years. Similarly, conflicts in priestly relationships can decrease by an acceptance of the Church’s clear teaching on priesthood, the sacraments, sexuality, and the human person.

The conflicts in the priesthood and episcopacy have been intensified by other recent events in the Church related to the Synod on the Family. Cardinal Walter Kasper’s recommendations to change the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, by altering the immemorial discipline of denying access to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried,11 has resulted in strong criticism of his views by Cardinals Brandmuller, Burke, Caffarra, and Muller in their book.12 Kasper’s views were also challenged by Cardinal Pell in his forward to another book by two marriage and family scholars at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome.13

In addition, the interim report of the Synod, that would condone, in some manner, conjugal cohabitation outside of the Sacrament of Matrimony, and sexual relations between persons of the same sex, lacked practically any consistent reference to the constant magisterium of the Church. It was described by a Synod Father as, “a manifesto, a kind of incitement to a new approach to fundamental issues of human sexuality in the Church.” 14

Hopefully, the teaching of the Church on these important moral issues will be more clearly communicated, as they have been in a sensitive, merciful manner over the past 35 years by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict. Conferences on their wisdom should be incorporated into ongoing educational programs for priests.

Sharing God’s Love

Stress in rectory living, and in priestly friendships, can be diminished by an openness among priests which allows sharing more freely, and without fear, one’s personal experiences of the insights into Scripture, the Lord’s love, and prayer. Unfortunately, it is often awkward for priests to share the power of the Lord’s love, and the ways his love has touched them, and his people. It is often more acceptable to talk about parish burdens, conflicts, politics, and sports.

This difficulty has its roots in developmental experiences in the male world where discussing loving experiences is viewed as not being masculine, or even feminine, but this problem can be overcome. Discussion among priests of the Lord’s love for them and his people brings hope, joy, strength, confidence, and conflict resolution.

Friendships

St. Augustine’s words to his priests about the importance of priestly friendships are relevant today:

Preserve, my sons, that friendship which you have begun with your brethren, for nothing in the world is more beautiful than that. It is a comfort to have a faithful man by your side.

As in the Sacrament of Matrimony, healthy friendships require a daily commitment to grow in numerous virtues, particularly patience, forgiveness, forbearance, and trust.

Understanding the dynamics and importance of loving priestly friendships is essential. Regardless of the length of time a particular emotional or behavioral conflict may have been present, healing can occur. Loving and supportive relationships among priests are vital to the well-being of the individual priest and, subsequently, to his priestly ministry.

  1. Richard Fitzgibbons. “The Origins, Manifestation, and Resolution of Conflicts in Priestly Relationships.” The Priest, September 1985, 38–40.
  2. Richard Fitzgibbons and D. O’Leary, “Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Clergy.” The Linacre Quarterly 78(3), August 2011, 252–273.
  3. Cardinal Avery Dulles. “Rights of Accused Priests: Toward a Revision of the Dallas Charter and the ‘Essential Norms.’” America. June 2004, 21-28.
  4. Stevem J. Lynn, Elisa Krackow, Elizabeth Loftus, Timothy Lock, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. “Constructing the Past: Problematic Memory Recovery Techniques in Psychotherapy.” In S. O. Lilienfeld, S. J. Lynn and J. M. Lohr (Eds.), Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology. Second Edition. (New York: Guilford Press, 2015).
  5. Richard Fitzgibbons. “Accusations Against Priests: The Need for More Justice and Psychological Science.” hprweb.com/2015/01/accusations-against-priests/
  6. Kim-Cohen, J., et al. “Prior Juvenile Diagnoses in Adults with Mental Disorders: Developmental Follow-Back of a Prospective-Longitudinal Cohort.” Archives of General Psychiatry. 2003; 60:709-717.
  7. R. Enright & R. Fitzgibbons. Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2015) p.108.
  8. Paul Vitz and Daniel C. Vitz. “Messing with the Mass: The problem of priestly narcissism today.” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, November 2007.
  9. Cardinal James Stafford, L’Osservatore Romano, 2008. “The Year of the Peirasmòs.” catholicnewsagency.com/resource.php?n=675.
  10. Richard P. Fitzgibbons. (2015) “Contraception’s Cascading Rampage.” thecatholicthing.org/2015/01/29/contraceptions-cascading-rampage.
  11. Cardinal Walter Kasper. Gospel of the Family. (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2014)
  12. Robert Dodaro, O.S.A. Remaining in the Truth in Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014)
  13. J.J. Perez-Soba and S. Kampowski. The Gospel of the Family: Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate on Marriage, Civil-Remarriage, and Communion in the Church. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014)
  14. Cardinal Raymond Burke, Remaining in the Truth in Christ on Holy Matrimony. voiceofthefamily.info/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Cardinal-Burke-Chester-20150306.pdf (March 6, 2015)
Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons, MD About Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons, MD

BS from St. Joseph's University; MD from Temple University School of Medicine, Dept. of Psychiatry, Hospital of the University of Medicine, and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center.

Richard Fitzgibbons, MD, is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, located outside Philadelphia, and has worked with hundreds of Catholic marriages and families over the past 40 years.

Over the past 38 years, Dr. Fitzgibbons has consulted with priests from many dioceses and religious communities. He has authored articles in The Priest on identifying and resolving emotional conflicts in priestly life and has given conferences on these topics in many dioceses. He coedited an issue of the Catholic Medical Association's Linacre Quarterly (August, 2011) on the crisis in the Church, and has served as a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy. He coauthored Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, 2015, American Psychological Association Books. His website is www.PriestlyHealing.com.

Comments

  1. Fr.Kenny Ienimoa Katia says:

    As a newly ordained priest, I really need help in Pastoral Review so that it will enable me in my new ministry. Thank you for this site and those who contribute to it because it is helpful. Your topic on:The Resolution of Conflicts in Priestly Life and Relationships” is marvelous.
    Thank you.

    Fr Kenny Ienimoa Katia

  2. Rev Francis Grundowski says:

    Excellent article. Very well researched and very well written. The insights presented here by Dr. Rick could be very helpful to today’s Catholic priests (of all ages). Thank you, Dr. Rick !

    Rev. Francis Grundowski