Moral Injury, traditional Catholics and burnt out priests

From a reader…

I am a physician and have had the opportunity to work with several burnt out priests over the years. I am concerned about the emotional well being of priests during the current situation because of a stressor being called moral injury.

This injury comes from a situation when a person can not take an action that he feels to be morally right, or is forced to do something morally wrong, by the order of a superior. I am concerned that priests are experiencing this as there bishops have prohibited the sacraments.

I am keeping this in prayer but I am hoping by alerting you to this condition it might be get into some hands who are in a position to work with priests with moral injury to at least recognize this reality.

This is very interesting.  I am grateful for the information and tip about “moral injury”. Since I received this, I’ve done some reading and thinking about moral injury.  For example, good starting point summary of main points HERE

Consider this:

Moral injury can lead to serious distress, depression, and suicidality. Moral injury can take the life of those suffering from it, both metaphorically and literally. Moral injury debilitates people, preventing them from living full and healthy lives.

The effects of moral injury go beyond the individual and can destroy one’s capacity to trust others, impinging on the family system and the larger community. Moral injury must be brought forward into the community for a shared process of healing.

In the context of a soul, with respect to the diversity of beliefs and religious perspectives held by those involved with moral injury, consider this:

Moral injury is damage done to the soul of the individual. War is one (but not the only) thing that can cause this damage. Abuse, rape, and violence may cause similar types of damage. “Soul repair” and “soul wound” are terms already in use by researchers and institutions in the United States who are exploring moral injury and pathways to recovery.

On writer defines moral injury as resulting from a betrayal of what is morally right by someone who holds legitimate authority and in a high stakes situation.

For example, priests who really believe in the cura animarum, and who are ordered, bullied, threatened by authority above them to go against what they believe is right and good for themselves and their people.   Application: being virtually forbidden to provide the sacraments to the faithful during the COVID-1984 lockdown.

I am no psychologist.  On the other hand, I didn’t fall off the turnip cart yesterday, either.

While moral injury is usually a phenomenon among warfighters in military service or veterans, it is not exclusive to them, either.  The Mayo Clinic has tracked this among physicians and found that one-third suffer from moral injury, which is sometimes taken for being burned out.

While it is highly tricky to apply a “diagnosis” to a group, much less, an individual, doesn’t think explain, in part, some aspects of more traditional Catholics?

In many cases tradition-inclined priests have been treated savagely by their bishops and other priests.  Traditional Catholic have been too.  They have been for years, even for decades, prevented by authority (usually through bullying) from doing what their consciences tell them is the right thing to do.  They are forced, year in and year out, to do what they think is, if not outright wrong, at least inferior to what could be done with a little leeway and compassion.   They are in a perpetual bind, caught between the desire to be a good member of the presbyterate and one with the bishop, while knowing that they can’t stand your “legitimate aspirations”, as John Paul II called them.

Then there is the case of the priest who spends a lot of time and effort to build up something in his parish, only to be moved and see everything he built wrecked in a fortnight by some lib who succeeds him.   The lay faithful bear the brunt of the abuse and the priest who got moved is forced to watch, helplessly, from afar.

Take the example of a young priest who is, legitimately, desirous of having his whole patrimony as a Catholic priest, including tradition.   The ultra-lib pastor to whom he is assigned as an assistant will have none of it and ridicules, threatens and abuses his assistant as a result.  So the younger priest is daily forced to shove down his better instincts.

Take the example of the lay faithful who, if they want to receive Communion, have for decades been forced to receive on the hand rather than on the tongue, listen to truly horrid music, endure tragically bad homilies and all manner of liturgical abuse.  They know they are bound to go to Mass to fulfill their obligations, they truly want to worship God well, and they dread getting up every Sunday.   Otherwise, they feel guilt for going over to the SSPX “St. Joseph Terror of Demons” Chapel rather than their territorial “Sing A New Faith Community Into Being Faith Community” where Fr. “Just call me Bruce!” Hugalot perpetrates a regular catastrophe.

It takes a toll.    Warfighters sometimes will manifest moral injury after being in combat situations for only a short time.   A lot of traditional Catholics have been enduring the injury resulting from moral conflict – being forced to betray what you know is right – for unrelenting decades without an end in sight.

I don’t want to press this point beyond proposing that there could be an element of moral injury among those who have held “legitimate” aspirations regarding Tradition.  I want to avoid generalization as well.

It’s food for thought.

It seems to me that “moral injury” can, in fact, describe the plight of some priests who are thought of or think of themselves as “burnt out”.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I think there is definitely something to this idea of moral injury, and that it probably goes a long way toward explaining the phenomenon of “ugly trads.”

  2. visigrad22 says:

    I would imagine not a few of us in the pews have witnessed this moral injury being forced on priests….reach out to them let them know you care invite them to dinner…most of all pray for them !!

  3. michele421 says:

    Not being a priest I’ve never seen this from the priest’s point of view, but I’ve seen it plenty of times “from the pew” so to speak. It’s a big problem on both sides of the traditional divide, especially when the new priest has no pastoral abilities. I don’t think it will ever change until bishops take the time and trouble to get to know their parishes and their priests, or until parishioners get some kind of say about transfers.

  4. DCLex says:

    Divine Intimacy Chapter 123 — Supernatural Obedience — one exception is an order involving sin, which of course God cannot want, or a command not conformable to the Rule or Constitutions which we have embraced. In either case, obedience would be unlawful. Apart from these exceptions no limit should be put to our obedience.

  5. Kathleen10 says:

    American soldiers have moral injury when they serve in the Middle East and have to see and hear little boys used as sex toys by the military elites of the area, reportedly not uncommon. No wonder they develop PTSD. Some teachers will have moral injury when forced to teach innocent babies about homosexuality, as New Jersey is now doing, teaching minors about sodomy and “how to consent”. That ought to give teachers lots of moral injury, they ought to quit, rather than go to hell for corrupting a child. No teacher should ever agree to corrupt a child for pay. Teachers will also have a tough time this fall when they have to teach all white children how “privileged” they are and how guilty as well, for all the crimes committed against the poor black children, who will be told they have been mistreated by the white children. Lots more racial division stoked in children, coming up, courtesy of our public schools. I’ve already seen the reading list for teachers, which includes something like “How to Help White Parents Avoid Raising a Bigot”. Yes, this will all do all our children good.
    Plenty of moral injury to go around.

  6. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Here’s some advice that takes some prudence, care, and love to make work.

    If you don’t have control over a situation, and if higher authority is putting you into that situation where you must obey, you can walk a line where you obey but also do some stuff on the side, without disobeying… and preferably, without being caught.

    There’s been studies that show that, whenever a person is powerless and/or without information, it gives people back some sanity if they can do even the smallest things of their own free will.

    So obviously, we can always pray. Wisdom and kindness for our superiors, that’s always a good one.

    Beyond that, a lot of religious orders have a spirituality of exact obedience turned into Mack truck-sized holes through which one does what is necessary and good.

    There’s also excruciatingly exact compliance, or compliance that leads to the exact opposite result that was probably intended, or focusing on compliance with the directive to the point that the intended result never actually gets done. (These are a tad iffy, and you really really don’t want to get caught doing them on purpose. So maybe not so consonant with the obedience thing.)

    I mean, I hate to suggest this sort of thing. It’s borderline. But if your pastor’s homily is really really bad, and you’re a person in the pews and you keep suffering from the sin of anger, they make some very good earplugs these days. You could always spend a lot of time at Mass sincerely praying for the deaf and those with hearing problems, and asking God to teach the pastor good theology. And if you have long hair or you wear a scarf, you don’t even have to hurt the pastor’s feelings.

    But OTOH, you could also fight the anger and the problem by offering up your suffering for the salvation of the pastor’s soul. Or you could do all sorts of other things, hidden or visible. It’s never going to be wrong to take our needs and troubles to Jesus.

    But the point is to do something, not just sit and stew. Nothing good happens when we brood on our wrongs, even legitimate wrongs (which is the whole point of the Iliad).

  7. Imrahil says:

    To paraphrase (and possibly hashtagize) the dear Banshee’s excellent comment for those who are a bit into pop culture,

    “act like a house-elf”.

  8. Paulby says:

    This is a really important subject.
    One issue that genuinely puzzles me is the immense control which bishops seem able to exercise over priests, and the pope over bishops. I know that a priest or bishop can be transferred, thereby undoing his good work, so that fear keeps many good bishops and priests in-line. But there is also the question of obedience.
    What is the wording of the vow of obedience that a priest must take to obey his bishop? Do bishops take the same vow to obey the pope?
    Many priests and bishops seem to act as if these vows allow of no exception. So, they must obey all orders from the bishop or Pope, and they must never criticise the actions or words of those above them no matter how scandalous they may be — thereby giving the impression to the Faithful that there is no problem.
    Clearly, a Pope or bishop who is acting in accordance with Catholic teaching must be obeyed. Period. But what happens when those in authority are evidently not acting in accordance with Catholic teaching. Must priests act as if nothing is amiss?

  9. JonPatrick says:

    We may be seeing this moral injury now with the expectation in many dioceses for clergy to conform to the virtue signaling demanded by Black Lives Matter and other groups, the Archdiocese of Washington DC as a prime example. Those who feel that taking a knee should only be done for their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  10. 7frati says:

    I’m an organist and I left a job in a parish for this reason. “Burnt out” from doing immoral things in the liturgy that I was forced to do by the boss.

  11. AS007 says:

    This is how I feel every time I get my kids ready for school in the mornings to attend the ‘required’ Novus Ordo school mass…with prayers that they grow up never choosing that mass.

  12. Kirk says:

    I also see this in my day to day life while looking at the world that we live in. Seeing family and friends not only excepting the many sins in our culture but seeing them actually living them out. I want to scream at these people but can’t because I have no backing from anyone around me or even from the Church. The Church that should be my goto support team is missing in action or better yet has never made it on to the field of play in centuries. Without any support, I feel burnt out and want to just give up. I will say having you Fr. Z and a few others around the web does help but that is on the web and not in my life outside of it.

  13. teomatteo says:

    Theodore Daylpramphe (spelling?) wrote:

    “When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is…in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.”

  14. TonyO says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z (and your reader) for putting a name and concept to this phenomenon. I knew it has been happening, but I didn’t think of it in these terms.

    Another example of it is the moral injury seminarians are oppressed with, in being taught intentionally incomplete (and sometimes outright bad) theology, and being taught foolishness as liturgy. But even more gravely, being forced to endure sexual advances and being unable to shout out the evil of the perpetrator, and (later) being made an unwilling, silent accomplices to ongoing depravity of superiors.

    I don’t want to send this thread into a rabbit hole, but it occurred to me, as I was reading Fr. Z’s comments, that this is also what many blacks have been forced to suffer: not just blatantly racist (and illegal) behavior, but especially being unable to bring it to the authorities because you know, with near-certainty, that the authorities will not doing anything about it, and even trying is likely to get you worse attention from racists as a result. This too seems to fit exactly the description of moral injury. Such moral injury, while it does not in the least bit justify rioting and rampage an injury to other innocent people, does help explain where all that comes from. I don’t condone any of the rioting, and injuring other innocents because you have been (morally) injured is horribly wrong-minded as well as counterproductive. It is natural (and, indeed, just) for moral injury to make you angry, but there are morally appropriate uses of such anger – rioting is not one of them, it’s one of the wrong uses of anger.

  15. TonyO says:

    There’s also excruciatingly exact compliance, or compliance that leads to the exact opposite result that was probably intended, or focusing on compliance with the directive to the point that the intended result never actually gets done.

    @ Suburbanbanshee: There is a term for what you describe: “malicious compliance”. It should be noted that it does not actually have to be motivated by true malice, so it is not necessarily sinful. It can be motivated from charity (in some cases, if you are careful in your intentions and your behavior): it’s essence is in letting the superior’s errors have their natural effect, allowing them to come home to roost. We have a normal desire to mitigate the evils of our superior’s erroneous theories and judgments, so that we (usually) want to modify and adjust our compliance to minimize the evils that are likely to result from his errors. In some cases though, such mitigations actually contribute to his never learning from his errors, and never changing. Or, they may interfere with OTHER people never recognizing the error for what it is. The solution, in charity, is to stop mitigating the naturally resulting effects of his errors.

    A second kind of malicious compliance is, as you suggest, carrying out the orders in such a way that you give the appearance of compliance, but you ensure that nothing you do actually works, that is, they don’t even carry out what the superior intended. This can be justified in some of the same kinds of situations as above, but it is really a slightly different sort of behavior, because it isn’t true compliance, it is only the appearance. This can morally be used, for example, in cases where the superior gives you an order outside of his competence, so you don’t formally have any obligation to obey, but open defiance would result in worse evils (at least, to you, but probably to others as well). So instead of open defiance, you defy under a subterfuge that (plausibly) looks like obedience.

    As you noted, there can be a fine line between such acts and actual sin because of the obligation to obey one’s superior. I guess one of the subordinate’s necessary tools, then, is prayer: praying for the superior, and praying for grace to have obedience as God desires it, and praying for insight (and grace) to know when to refuse to obey (either openly or under a subterfuge) and when to submit to the superior’s erroneous judgments with real obedience. I take it that one aspect of the latter is to remember that the secondary evils that come about through our upright, just, and due actions are not our fault, but are rather to be set either to other people’s responsibility,
    or circumstances that God allows to occur: we don’t control outcomes, only our actions.

  16. Kathleen10 says:

    I must have too much testosterone confusing the heck out of my estrogen.
    I can’t, won’t, to the best of my ability, ever, capitulate to evil when I know it’s evil. I’ve done that in my younger days, but found Jesus Christ, and I don’t intent on bringing more evil with me into Purgatory when I have to answer for it. I’ve got enough back there that worries me, and yes, it’s all confessed, but still.
    I will not do wrong knowing it is wrong. I will not comply, not for my salary, not for my insurance benefits. I will not say I agree with what I do not agree with. I will not comply. I will not, ever, teach or tell a child something I think is not so. Really may God give me the grace to never abandon what I know to be right in order to sustain my temporal needs. Once we have done that, we have corrupted ourselves, we have capitulated to wrong for the sake of our comforts. We have lost our own dignity, no, we have abandoned our own dignity as free people. We might as well be slaves. “Give me liberty, or give me death.” These words have never rung so true. I do not want to trade freedom for security, ever. No priest should do it, no average citizen should do it. It is a compromise with the devil.

  17. philosophicallyfrank says:

    An excellent question and opportunity to try and deal with it. It more then obviously appears that too many priests and some Bishops are more afraid of their superior or brother Bishops then they are of Christ Jesus. One should not fear an errant Bishop any more then they should Satan. No Bishop can imperil your eternity. If by doing what is “right” it makes a martyr of you what more glorious way to go. If it is a choice between Jesus or a Bishop; that’s an easy one. With the way so many are bending, if not prostrating themselves to the new religion of the Left we all may be facing these kind of choices. I don’t know about the “End Times”; but, we best prepare ourselves and our families and friends for it. This does not fit the expectations of what, then, Fr. Ratzenger was predicting in his 1969 radio comments; but, it might just be that??? It’s getting more and more difficult to find a Novus Orde/Ordinary Form Mass that is not a profane or parody of a mass.

  18. Semper Gumby says:

    God bless faithful priests and bishops.

  19. MrsBridge says:

    “Moral Injury” has been treated in great literature for centuries, in long portrayals of “The Problem of Evil.” As long as we live with the consequences of original sin, we will have moral dilemmas, both as individuals and as groups.

    This year, at this moment, does not seem like a good time to identify yet another group of social victims, especially when the victims are well educated, highly literate men and, in the US at least, mostly white. Nor does it seem like a good time to identify yet another mental-illness syndrome that might affect white men who work under dubious and/or petty authorities in large organizations.

    Alas, I have become a victim of Syndrome Fatigue (SF). Maybe later.

  20. The Egyptian says:

    There are times I thank God for my tinittus really helpful with insipid sermons

  21. Flos Carmeli says:

    DCLex says:
    9 June 2020 at 6:51 PM
    “Divine Intimacy Chapter 123 — Supernatural Obedience — one exception is an order involving sin, which of course God cannot want, or a command not conformable to the Rule or Constitutions which we have embraced. In either case, obedience would be unlawful. Apart from these exceptions no limit should be put to our obedience.”

    I am familiar with the chapter you mention. I think it’s important to read Divine Intimacy (a very good spiritual aid), in the context it was written, which is as a spiritual help to priests and other religious who have taken public vows of obedience (along with poverty and chastity). Those of us who live out the world as husbands, wives, and other lay Catholics, have different duties as regards the specific way to live in humble obedience to Holy Mother Church. And this could mean that it is actually virtuous, for example, to politely decline to receive the Holy Eucharist in any other position than kneeling, on the tongue, or also to politely decline to wear a mask in order to come to Mass.

    For example, my situation: I am a married woman, subject to a loving, deeply Catholic man, who takes his duty to be the true spiritual head of our home seriously, and daily lays down his life for us. He has decided that we will not be conforming to the mask mandate, and he has his reasons, and they are good. This means that although the priest at our parish has said “you must wear a mask to come to Mass”, our family is NOT wearing masks and yet we are going to Mass. What is my duty as wife? To insist on being “obedient” to our priest, who is stepping outside his boundaries of authority in insisting on a mask? Or be obedient to my husband, who is within his authority to insist that I not wear a mask? Is my husband, who has a duty as head of our home, being “disobedient” by politely declining to conform to this mandate? Or, thinking of it from another point of view, would it be more virtuous for him and thus his household to comply with this mandate (which, to be sure, is not compelling anything sinful)?

    These are legitimate questions, and are not simply answered, which is the whole reason this issue of moral injury is a real consideration among good priests and laymen struggling to do God’s work in the world.

    (For the record, I do think that there is great benefit even to laymen in reading and praying with those chapters on obedience from Divine Intimacy.)

  22. MarrakeshEspresso says:

    I’ve just finished telling a priest friend my response to this article, so I’ll share it here too:

    What Fr Z describes here was my fundamental spiritual wound. And I never realized that until I went on the Grief to Grace program (which I strongly recommend for people injured by the Church). I went on the program for other injuries, but God simply reached inside me and pulled this out by the roots. Decades of anger at the Church and the people in it who had shamed and humiliated and bullied me, in public and in private, since I was a teenager at my Nice Catholic School, over doctrine and discipline issues.

    And I had no idea at all that this was what lay underneath everything else, and that it needed profound healing because it was killing me; eating me alive like a cancer. I was struggling with all the fallout of other abuses as well, and made only slow progress, until this underlying thing was pulled out of me by the Holy Spirit and with fire. Once it came out, everything else started to fall into place, and I was able to heal more quickly from other deep injuries.

    What was even better: it calmed me down and focused me like a laser – my anger at Church issues became much more rational, more justified, more coherent, more balanced, more paced, more focused, and less painful and searing. Once the calm focus came, it also penetrated every part of my life where I’d been angry before.

    So yes, the pain is real. The injury is real. But you CAN seek and obtain healing from this, and it can turn you into a more powerful witness to God’s grace and a more capable servant in the world.

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