The Rise and Fall of Celebrity Priests

Every now and then, some Catholic becomes a bit of a celebrity, if not only among Catholics, but also in wider society. Living in a secular age of celebrity, it is not surprising that some fans have taken to elevating certain Catholics to celebrity status, and given the power and wealth of some celebrities, it wouldn’t be surprising if some Catholics had sought to achieve that status for themselves as well.
While there can be positive outcomes from this influence, it also leaves the celebrity and the wider public vulnerable to scandals, alleged and actual.

When one looks at the list of high profile Catholics who have recently been damaged by real or alleged scandals, it really makes you think:

  • Fr Corapi, a regular guest speaker and TV show host on EWTN was accused of financial misconduct, drug use, cohabitation and sexual relationships with prostitutes. He left the priesthood and his religious order in response to the investigation into his conduct.
  • Fr Euteneur resigned from Human Life International after admitting to sexual relations with an adult woman and allegations about misconduct during exorcism.
  • Rev Alberto Cutie was a regular guest speaker on secular shows like Oprah, as well as running radio and TV shows in Spanish and English himself. After it emerged that he was cohabiting with a divorced woman, he apostatised to the Episcopalian community and got a civil “marriage” to the woman.
  • Fr Marcial Maciel fathered children in several countries, and amassed a fortune, while being the founder of a large religious order.
  • Fr Charles Ara married and fathered children while a priest, and now sells himself as a “celebrity priest” to Catholics who wish to marry but apparently cannot licitly do so.

(NB: I just want to make clear that I do not mean to imply that the actions or allegations against any or all of these people are or were comparable)

  • Fr Pavone was recalled to his diocese by his bishop, who was attempting to gain assurances that the faithful would not be scandalised following questions over a lack of transparency mechanisms for organisations he was involved in. Although he hasn’t done the best thing in speaking out against the bishop on occasions, it could well turn out that everything has been fine.
  • Christopher West took a sabbatical from his speaking tours and DVDs after Catholic philosophers and theologians questioned the unnecessary sexualisation of some parts of his talks, the lack of prudence in talking about sensitive issues, and misrepresenting pre-Vatican II attitudes towards sex. When he returned he dismissed their points as being from right wing extremists.

But we can take wise words from Cardinal Newman, who realised that the blame lies not just with the celebrity priest, but with us for making them into a celebrity:
“Wealth is one idol of the day, and notoriety is a second. I am not speaking, I repeat, of what men actually pursue, but of what they look up to, what they revere. Men may not have the opportunity of pursuing what they admire. Never could notoriety exist as it does now, in any former age of the world; now that the news of the hour from all parts of the world, private news as well as public, is brought day by day to every individual, as I may say, of the community, to the poorest artisan and the most secluded peasant, by processes so uniform, so unvarying, so spontaneous, that they almost bear the semblance of a natural law.
“And hence, notoriety, or the making a noise in the world, has come to be considered, a great good in itself, and a ground of veneration. … Notoriety, or, as it may be called, newspaper fame, is to the many what style and fashion, to use the language of the world, are to those who are within or belong to the higher circles; it becomes to them a sort of idol, worshipped for its own sake, and without any reference to the shape in which it comes before them. It may be an evil fame or a good fame; it may be a notoriety of a great statesman, or of a great preacher, or of a great speculator, or of a great experimentalist, or of a great criminal; of one who has labored in the improvement of our schools, or hospitals or prisons, or workhouses, or of one who has robbed his neighbor of his wife …”

Perhaps we should take a long pause, ourselves, before contributing to the “celebritisation” of people.
On the other hand, many celebrity priests and other Catholics have done an enormous amount of good. Take Fr Benedict Groeschel, Blessed John Paul the Second, Fr Michael Scanlan, Abp Fulton Sheen.

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