Just Good Company
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A Dying Breed of Brave Men:
The Self-Written Stories of Nine Married Priests

Edited by Robert J. Brousseau

(1st Books Library, 2003)

Reviewed by Don Foran

The nine profiled married priests in this moving volume often mention Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae as a watershed moment in their decisions to either leave the active priesthood or speak out against the pathology of the papacy and be “fired.” It is, as poet W.H. Auden said in a more general context, “the crack in the teacup” which “leads to the land of the dead.”  As Jim Drane, a particularly gifted, Rome-trained, Ph.D. put it: “Sex undoubtedly is important and serious, but based on my little experience, it was neither the evil act nor the source of all other human evil.”

The diverse accounts Robert Brousseau assembles in A Dying Breed were painful and exciting reading for a former Jesuit and married priest like myself who had relatively few “run-ins” with the episcopacy or even the clerical caste during seventeen years as a Jesuit, three and a half of them as an ordained priest. Some of the nine writers struggled not only against authoritarian pastors in parishes, classmates consciously climbing the clerical ladder, monsignors, and seemingly oblivious prelates at every turn; they also found themselves in various states of arrested development both in their dealings with women and with the entire culture of the Church. The late Anthony de Mello, no stranger to ecclesial censure, put his finger on one of the saddest aspects of Church failure: "Religion as practiced today deals in punishments and rewards.  In other words, it breeds fear and greed -- the two things most destructive of spirituality." And herein lies the bravery of the eight priests Brousseau knows and in his book gives voice to. Each refused to remain complicit with the fear and greed which was diminishing him.  For some, their lives were decidedly happier. For others, loneliness, bitterness, and family ostracism were their only rewards for inviting or at least receiving the stigma of “failed priests.”

Jim Drane realized that since infallibility means that “the Church in the sense of the Pope does not err, consequently every error must be covered up.” He left, married, and, after he and his wife raised five children together, she walked away from the marriage of twenty-five years. He hopes he has learned enough about dialogue to keep relational bonds strong in the future, but, obviously, there are no guarantees this will be the case.

Bob Westerman is a relatively conservative priest who served the Church and humanity for many years in Guatemala, then literally built parishes back in the states.

He later fell in love, married, and continued to minister in his parish, wanting to prove that “a married man could serve very effectively as parish priest.” When he suggested as much to Bishop John Quinn, the latter turned from friend to foe and cut off Westerman’s medical coverage, withdrew priestly faculties, and told him he and his wife were not to attend the parish he had been ministering to. Westerman ends his narrative insisting that optional celibacy “should be recognized and accepted as a full Christian commitment.” Bob Westerman and Jim Drane, and a few others remain close to the Church, but excluded from it in fundamental ways. Several, like William Lally, have “no bitterness toward the Church because I see it as the people of God,” and “I am one of these people and the leaders are only temporary servants of us all. We will be Church despite them and not allow them to have power over us.”

Other writers in A Dying Breed, Thomas Cahill, Joseph Dillon, Walter Chaney, John Carl, and Robert Brousseau exhibit a wide range of behaviors.  Some seem like loose cannons, others slow to catch on to the manipulations of the hierarchy and the elitism of the Church “system.” John Carl, the youngest man featured in the book, says of his many friends still in the priesthood, “I see them as Dutch boys with fingers in the dike. I entered the priesthood to be someone special. I left when I figured out that I already was.”  

All are shown to be brave and good men who earnestly committed themselves to service in God’s name and found great happiness or great torment or a mixture of both.

Like all heroes, they challenged the dominant culture.  Those whose relationships thrived and whose families love them are happy men indeed. The others escaped with their consciences intact.  However scarred, they are like us all, doing their best, in virtually every case, conscious of working for justice for millions of oppressed people, including those whose lives have been negatively impacted by the Roman Catholic Church. This timely volume reinforces the call to action rumbling through the Church. It holds up a mirror to the clerical culture and to various manifestations of the spiritual sickness at the heart of that culture.

Don Foran is a professor of English and Philosophy at Centralia College and The Evergreen State College. He was named Professor of the Year for the state of Washington by the Carnegie Foundation in 1995. He and his wife, Maggie, live in Olympia, WA. His daughters Amanda and Erin are flourishing as college students.