Monday, August 10, 2020

'Emergency' and schism: Father Leatherby of Sacramento

One of the ideas making the rounds these days -- although it isn't a new idea -- is that when things get bad enough, you are justified in doing things that otherwise would be wrong. I'll skip over the granular examination of this idea, other than to quote Pope St. John Paul II Paul VI: "it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it (cf.Rom.3:8)."* What gets us in trouble is when we feel a kind of panic over things seemingly being out of control, so that we're tempted to take extreme action. 

Many Catholics feel this temptation as well, including priests. So consider the case of Father Jerry Leatherby, who has been declared excommunicate by his bishop, Jaime Soto of Sacramento. What did Father Leatherby do? According to the bishop's letter:

Fr. Leatherby has violated my instructions by offering Mass and teaching publicly to a number of the faithful. He has instructed them against the legitimacy of His Holiness, Pope Francis. He has substituted the Holy Father’s name with the name of his predecessor, and omitted my name during the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer while offering Mass. After obstinately not responding to a number of my inquiries by telephone and correspondence, he has now confirmed his schismatic stance. Because of the grave scandal of these actions I have no recourse but to announce publicly the consequence of his decisions: He has brought upon himself an automatic latae sententiae excommunication.

What does Father Leatherby say of his actions? Here's a letter purporting to be in his own hand, in which he relates the following:

- Several years ago he was accused of unspecified misconduct with an adult female, and was suspended from active ministry.

- He violated "boundaries" with that woman and sincerely regrets those wrongs.

- Father Leatherby waited and continues to wait for the opportunity to defend himself; in the meantime, he felt terribly isolated, and has been unfairly and falsely accused of various things.

- He was "on the way out of the priesthood."

- When the covid virus struck, Father Leatherby judged the situation to be dire enough -- with the faithful unable to attend Mass and not partake of the sacraments -- that he should bring the Eucharist to people in individual cases.

- When this proved impractical, he began inviting people to join him at Mass, even as (a) public Masses in general were suspended, and (2) he himself was suspended from celebrating Mass publicly.

- He consciously omitted reference to Pope Francis in the Eucharistic prayer, choosing to offer Mass instead "in union with Pope Benedict" -- because he does not recognize Francis as the successor of Saint Peter.

I wouldn't blog about this sad case, except that this process of reasoning is not unusual: i.e., things are so bad that I'm not only permitted to do what otherwise I ought not to, but indeed, I am compelled. This is a very seductive temptation, and many of the faithful can be sucked in by it. But it is a temptation, and it is wrong. Let me illustrate why. 

(And, by the way, I know there is more to Father Leatherby's story; there's always more to every story. Was this connected to his father blowing the whistle on misconduct by others? Was the bishop unfair to Father Leatherby? Is Father's account of his situation accurate? I don't have access to enough information to answer those questions, so I'm not addressing them. Moreover, to the point I am making, they are finally irrelevant.)

Let us (for sake of argument) take at face value Father Leatherby's complaint that he has been treated unfairly; and respond that this is wrong, and those who have been unjust to him, if deliberate, have their own sins to repent of. I do not have a heart of stone, and I can only imagine this priest's suffering, and that makes me feel great sympathy. Nevertheless, those injustices cannot justify any injustice of his own, namely, disobedience and schism.

But it was an emergency! People weren't able to receive the sacraments! Indeed, and church law addresses this: a suspended, or even "laicized" priest can provide sacraments in danger of death; not in a case of generalized emergency. That's not what this priest did.

Look: I know a lot of the faithful think the bishops erred terribly in suspending the public celebration of the Mass, and other sacraments, in the context of the spread of Covid-19. Let me just point out that such actions are not unprecedented; St. Charles Borromeo did similar things in his time. And let's acknowledge that there's a big difference between saying no public Masses, versus no sacraments at all. I simply don't know what the Bishop of Sacramento decreed in this regard; I know what I and other priests in Ohio were told: no public Masses and other liturgies; but other sacraments could go on, with great care. So, for example, the sacraments of baptism, anointing and confession went on. Funerals happened, but with great restrictions; and I testify here and now that nothing in the directives I received said I could not give Holy Communion in individual cases. And Mass itself was not suspended, only being present at it by the faithful was suspended. These restrictions caused suffering, yes! But this is not a complete suspension of the sacraments. 

And in any case, none this has any bearing on Father Leatherby, because he, himself, was suspended. He may believe this suspension was unjust; nevertheless, he was bound to obey it.

And let me say out loud what I suspect, but cannot prove, because it's a counterfactual: had Father Leatherby merely brought Holy Communion to people in individual cases, and along the way heard confessions or given anointing, this would not have come to a head. What surely forced the bishop's hand was celebrating Masses with up to 350 people present -- during a pandemic when all other public Masses were suspended! -- and omitting Pope Francis's name from the canon. Father Leatherby may think he had no other choice, but he is simply wrong in that belief.

What about the pope? Is Francis really so terrible that Father Leatherby (and others) are justified in refusing to recognize him?

In a word: NO. This is exact same temptation and same error.

Let us consider several scenarios, which which I stress are hypothetical. In no way am I accusing Pope Francis of anything. But let's spin out the scenarios based on what others find troubling, and therefore, lead them to entertain Father Leatherby's line of thinking.

What if Pope Francis believes and allows terrible things, or does them himself?

Tell me: when were we promised that no pope would ever sin, even gravely? When were promised no pope would publicly engage in scandalous behavior, or encourage others to do so? This largely recapitulates Protestant attacks on the papacy: they point to examples (real or exaggerated or false) of bad popes and say the papacy must be false. And what has always been our response? That when the Lord Jesus entrusted Peter (and his successors) with special authority, it was to govern, and teach, and that when the pope would teach publicly, in a formal way, he would be preserved from error (i.e., infallibility). You can look all this up in the Catechism; we don't believe that popes can't be terrible people who sin gravely, or even -- shocking to consider -- they, themselves, might voice erroneous ideas, or tolerate those who do.

When Peter denied Jesus, were the Apostles justified in rejecting Peter as the head of the college? How about when Paul confronted Peter about his cowardly behavior regarding Gentile believers and those who demanded those believers be circumcised (see Paul's letter to the Galatians)? No: despite his failures, Peter was still pope.

And in any case -- and I do mean, any case -- what necessity compels you, or me, or any priest, or any Catholic, to render a judgment on whether Francis is pope? The college of cardinals met and elected him, after Benedict, before the world, resigned. Please do not waste everyone's time with conspiracy theories and obscure claims of knowledge! Even if you are right, how can you be sure? And how can I be sure? Do you actually think God operates this way? That he expects you to search the cobwebby crevices of the Internet and patch together a Rube Goldbergian theory to explain why Benedict is still pope? Or maybe the last pope was John Paul II? Or Paul VI? Or Pius XII? See where this goes? What sort of God do you think we serve, that he faults us for not putting faith in such tales?

Remember: most Christians, up to the present moment, have never had access to such abundance of information as many of us engorge ourselves with. So even those who think they are well informed, can only say they are well informed about the present times; they do not have comparable information about the past, and therefore, they are wrong when they breathlessly say, "this is the worst EVER!" How can they know? And how can they really know they have even the full story about present things? Ah, see the problem with giving credence to "hidden hands" and unseen explanations? 

The college of cardinals elected a pope, who calls himself Francis. As far as I can see, and as far as my bishop -- who I am convinced is a bishop (or maybe not! See where this leads us?) -- can see, Francis is pope, and so I recognize him. If these fantastical claims of widespread conspiracy are true, then the sin lies with the conspiracists, not with the faithful who manifest humble obedience.

If Pope Francis or my bishop -- or yours -- says or does something you or I cannot stomach, then do not stomach them. That is, weigh them, applying the most charitable reading, make sure you have all the facts, and if you don't agree, then...don't agree. I don't have to publicize all these things -- nor do you -- but if asked, I try my best to be charitable, truthful, prudent and humble. That means say no more than necessary, give the benefit of the doubt, allow that you may be mistaken, and be respectful. 

If the pope, or the bishop, or president or governor or mayor tells you to do something you must not do, or forbids you to do something truly necessary, then we must disobey. But these circumstances are actually extremely rare. 

For example, the Archbishop wants me to wear a mask at various times, including when celebrating the sacraments. You or I may think this misguided or silly, but it does not violate any moral law, and therefore, I have no just basis to object: so I wear the mask out of obedience. When I get out of breath, I take it off. 

The Archbishop, after all, is doing this out of obedience to civil authority. The bishops are accused of being cowardly toward government, but this is more than I know, as I cannot read their souls. If they are, then they will answer for that before God. But what is plain enough -- and it really is enough -- is that they are practicing the exact same virtue of obedience. Public authorities have the responsibility of safeguarding public health, and so they issue orders to do this or that in response to a pandemic. Maybe their advisors are misguided; perhaps their motives are tainted, or they are overreacting. Is it possible their policies are uneven and unjust? Certainly. And thus there is recourse: we can speak out, we can seek legal redress, and we can seek to minimize, in legal and moral ways, the negative consequences.

Let me close by pointing out two things that get overlooked with this sort of thinking. First, we miss that that all this is a temptation; the enemy always wants to sow discord and use these circumstances to lead us into vice. How often we use "stress" and "this is an exceptional situation" as an excuse for any number of sins! Don't play the devil's game.

Second, when we are casting about for rationales for doing things we otherwise must not do, we treat with contempt those avenues that are always open to us, and which no one can shut: the power of prayer and personal holiness. I don't mean to pick on Father Leatherby, who I think has suffered greatly and I suspect is in agony over his choices; I pray for him to find the right path. But it is not true that he had no choice, no other recourse, and it is simply never true for us. Nothing keeps us from growing in our own holiness, and nothing keeps us from fervent prayer, but we ourselves. What does it say that we think these options aren't sufficient?

*I always thought it was JPII, in Veritatis Splendor, but it turns out he simply quoted Paul VI. Maybe you thought the same.


Anonymous said...

Arrgh! I just spent a half hour composing a comment with so many erudite points about Frodo and personal salvation (: then lost it when I tried to send. Simply stated: your best post yet after years of excellent postings by you! TBTG for you and good priests like you. Without you to provide light, the darkness can get overwhelming at times, most especially THESE times.

🙏 thank you.

Liz said...


Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your kind words! But what does "TBTG" mean?

Anonymous said...

“Thanks Be To God”. Sorry, Father!

rcg said...

“TBTG”. Almost as short as Deo Gratias. 😆

FWIW, this really makes me sad. I always feel that the right help at the right time could have helped the young priest. Pray for, guard, and protect our priests!!

Anonymous said...

Father thank you for being able to look at a situation from all angles and comment with restraint and wisdom.

justice said...

Can you please explain to me why after 4 plus years Fr. Leatherby never had his "day in court". Nobody seems to want to address this. What kind of a bishop keeps one of his priests isolated with his life on hold this this normal or was he just hoping he would vanish so he didn't have to deal with the problem........this is cruelity.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Justice - I did address it, to the extent that I could; I acknowledged that he may have been treated unfairly. What more can I say? I don't know the whole story, and no matter how unfairly, or even cruelly, he may have been treated, that does not justify the actions he took, that are the focus of my post.