Tag Archives: Vitz

Curing Our Self-Aggrandizing Tendencies

While the evidence offered is more anecdotal than empirical, the analysis of After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests is true. We read in the introduction (here) that “in its early stages at least,” there wasn’t any fundamental difference in the “personality features of [between pre- and post- Vatican II] seminarians or priests … that would account for the nature and the magnitude of the [clergy sexual misconduct] crisis”. The difference was rather that “ascetical discipline was practiced better in the first half of the twentieth century” and almost wholly abandoned by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council.

Taking this as our jumping off point, I suspect that the rise of liturgical narcissism among (Catholic) clergy that Vitz and Vitz (here) criticize reflects not just the rise of a secular psychotherapeutic model of the Christian life but a general neglect of ascetical struggle as foundational to our life in Christ. Again, in After Asceticism:

In its purpose, theory, and practice, the therapeutic mentality stands in stark opposition to religious devotion and personal repentance for sin. Allegiance to the therapeutic mentality has dislodged ascetical habits and manners, and it now holds sway over the attitudes of clergy, just as it strengthened its materialist grip on western societies for nearly a century. … Predictably, when the storm surge in pagan sexuality began to overwhelm the natural defenses of the clergy in the 1950s and 1960s, those without the spiritual anchor of ascetical discipline were set adrift– perpetrators as well as their managers. As the initial storm surge receded, a spawn of the therapeutic mentality remained in the tidal pools.

If this analysis is correct (and I’m afraid it is) our (Orthodox) first line of defense against narcissism–what I would call our self-aggrandizing tendencies–is fidelity to our own ascetical tradition. This, however, raises another issue.

Ascetical discipline is often lax, and even absent, among both the clergy and the laity (I count myself among the lax I’m afraid). But even among those who do a better job, the absence of sound moral and human formation can deform the personality and character of the priest or the layperson.

The ascetical disciplines of the Church arose within the context of what today we’d call virtue ethics (Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds). Stoic moral philosophy and anthropology figured prominently in how the fathers understood both morality and asceticism. Today, unfortunately, most of us are more beholding to Nietzsche’s will to power or a popular express of existentialism then to virtue ethics.

What I mean is that we don’t understand moral analysis as objective. Nor do we think of virtue as the mean between extremes. When I read what people write on social media it amazes me the ease with which Orthodox Christians don’t just discuss the Fast or the length of our services but actually boast about these things. Comments like this miss the point. Ascetical struggle isn’t about how much I can do (or not do as it were) but helping me find balance in my life. The goal is a life of consonance, of synergy, with God and neighbor. In a word, love.

Deficiencies in moral and human formation also touch on the tension between institutional and charismatic authority in the Church. Metropolitan John (Zizizoulas) has argued that in the early Church (Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries) the ideal was that only men who demonstrated the charismatic dimension of authority we ordained. This means that institutional authority was entrusted to men who had the natural talents and spiritual gifts commensurate with diaconal, priestly or episcopal leadership.

Balancing institutional and charismatic authority is not restricted to the office of bishop. The same problem can exists with deacons and priests. This happens if entrust leadership to men who, whatever else can be said of them, haven’t necessarily demonstrated their ability to teach, to offer wise counsel, or to govern—or what Zizioulas identifies as the three-fold office of the presbyterate. Likewise, if we don’t seek out candidates for the diaconate from among those men who have a demonstrable gift and commitment for philanthropic ministry. The practical result of this is a style pastoral leadership that defaults to the exercise of merely institutional authority.

And all of this, I would suggest, is the fruit of not helping the laity discern and foster the gifts that they have been given personally in Baptism and Chrismation. It is in Baptism and Chrismation that we take on evangelical, philanthropic and deifying work of the Gospel. And this work is ALWAYS personal, it is ALWAYS the fruit of the specific gifts that each of us has been given for the building up of the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).

Are our parishes houses of formation for the laity our parishes or something else? Religious theaters? Museums? Schools of (popular) theology? Rarely do we come to the parish with the expectation that we will go out again better equipped to shape the world of persons, events and things according to the Gospel.

Indifference to the spiritual formation of the laity is spiritually harmful to  the laity, it has a negative effect on the ministry of future clergy. This is why I think the pastoral question lurking in the problem of narcissism among the clergy is the nature of the vocation of the laity. To the degree they neglect what they are given in Baptism and Chrismation men will, as clergy, be less able to bear up under the demands of ordination.

Taking to heart the analysis of the struggles in the Catholic Church and among Protestant clergy (here), it seems to me that what is called for is a more systematic, intentional approach to the spiritual formation of the laity. Help the laity live as disciples of Christ who are confident and competent in their ability to shape the world of persons, events and things according to the Gospel and you have gone a long way toward fostering the spiritual and emotional health of the clergy.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Vitz & Vitz On Liturgy and Clerical Narcissism

Psychologist Paul Vitz and his son Br. Daniel Vitz (“Messing with the Mass: The problem of priestly narcissism today“), offer an analysis of narcissism among Roman Catholic clergy. Their argument about narcissistic clergy is offered in a liturgical key. Vitz and Vitz contend that “the primary motivation behind many of” liturgical “irregularities” seen in the celebration of the Roman Mass are derive “from underlying narcissistic motives — that is, extreme self-love — found in many people in contemporary culture.” They have in mind here not so much major abuses but rather “the relatively small changes introduced in an idiosyncratic way into the Mass.” Such small changes, they argue, are “especially” indicative of an unwholesome form of self-love.

After tracing the various social factors that lead to “this country’s increasingly narcissistic—this is, self-preoccupied—character” and a brief summary of the “psychological definition of narcissism,” they get to their main concern: the “Catholic expressions of clerical narcissism.”

Looking at how narcissism is manifest liturgically is provocative. Given the importance of liturgy to the life of the Church, and to the self-image (and wholesome self-worth) of the priest, I think their approach has merit. The temptation for a priest to place his “‘personal stamp’ on the liturgy” is one faced by all clergy—including Orthodox clergy.

Like Schmemann (for example, his 1966 essay “The Task of Orthodox Theology in America Today“) Vitz and Vitz are critical of the “common contemporary focus on being ‘relevant'” because doing so “is a straightforward articulation of making the Mass focus on the ‘now’ with a serious neglect of where the Mass came from and where it is leading us.” The pursuit of liturgical relevance, in the pejorative sense, causes us to become forgetful of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. As in the East, so in the West the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God which is to come.

The underlying psychological point here is what matters most for Vitz and Vitz:

To be relevant is to be involved in the present, commonly at the expense of the past as well as the future. In fact, most of the innovators would argue that a “relevant” liturgy is one that speaks to the people “now”, rather than serving as a fixed reference point in a confused and changing world. The “now” is also an expression of narcissistic preoccupations. Indeed, it is difficult to disentangle the connection between narcissism and “relevant” liturgy: focusing on the “now” breeds narcissism, and narcissism creates a preoccupation with “relevance” and the “now.”

While it is easy (too easy to be good for our own salvation) to focus on dramatic liturgical abuses, it is those small “changes and additions to the Mass” that aren’t “obvious to the man in the pew” that can do the most damage to the spiritual life of the faithful. Liturgical personalization by the priest, they contend, communicates to the laity that the celebration of the Eucharist is less an encounter with Jesus Christ and more an opportunity to meet “their own narcissistic needs” through the Liturgy.

The authors conclude that “Since the narcissistic or vain needs of many priests lie behind their peculiar and idiosyncratic changes in the liturgy, it is time for these unprepossessing and non-theological factors to be more widely recognized in Catholic seminaries and in the Catholic community at large.”

Avoiding the temptation to engage in liturgical “self-aggrandizement” requires making priests and seminarians “aware of the danger of inserting one’s personality into the liturgy.” Successfully struggling against using the liturgy for his own “ego renewal” requires that the priest cultivate “a sense of the sacred” (awe) as well as a wholesome form of humility. The latter is harder than we might at first think.

Those suffering from narcissistic traits require “excessive admiration” from others; “with this comes extreme sensitivity to criticism. Such criticism often leads to social withdrawal or an appearance of humility.” So while “Imitating Christ’s self-forgetfulness and humble heart are the antidotes for these tendencies” those in the grip of narcissism can be, and often are, experts at feigning humility as a way of seeking attention.

While Vitz and Vitz are concerned with Roman Catholic clergy, their observations are relevant for Orthodox Christians. American culture, as the authors point out, can and does fosters narcissism. Even if Orthodox Christians are able to avoid the culture’s “preoccupation with the present,” “its obsession with consumption,” “its encouragement to incur debt” and “glorification of transient sexual gratification and sensory pleasures,” living in such a cultural environment still has a harmful effect. We can be clear what we reject without, necessarily, knowing what we believe. Recognizing what is unwholesome, dysfunctional and sinful is not the same as knowing what is wholesome, functional and virtuous. And knowing is itself different from doing and being.

In the next post, I want to look again at a Catholic source to help flesh out what it might mean not simply to reject vice but embrace virtue as an inoculation against narcissism.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory