A Tale of Two Priests

When I heard about the death of Father Gerard Jean Juste this morning, my initial thoughts were to write about the passing of a man who dedicated his life and ministry to securing justice, freedom and equality for the people of his native Haiti. I felt compelled to comment because I believe that, outside of the Miami area and Haiti, there will be little, if any, mention of his passing or of his dedication to the cause of freedom. During the day, as this message was forming in my head, I heard news concerning another local priest, Father Alberto Cutié, who has decided to abandon the Catholic Church and join the Episcopal Church so that he may marry the woman he loves. The case of Father Cutié needs no elaboration; it has been the fodder of local, national and international tabloids since last month, when he was photographed on the beach with his girlfriend. It just seemed to me an interesting coincidence that these two priests, who have ties to the Miami area and have very different backstories, would be in the news today.

I met both men, in passing, many years ago and the sum of all my conversations with both men is the same sentence: “Hello, it’s very nice to meet you”. What I do know about these men comes from news reports, interviews and conversations with people who have had longer conversations with them than me.

Father Jean Juste was a forceful advocate for the Haitian people since the early ’80’s, perhaps even earlier. In Haiti, he confronted the dictatorships in power, from Duvalier to the present, attempting to gain better living conditions for his people. For his efforts, he was beaten, jailed and forced into exile. While in Miami, he fought for justice, jobs and better treatment from the U.S. government, especially with regards to U.S. immigration policy. He fought in the courts, in the media, with hunger strikes, protests, boycotts and marches. He even had run-ins with his own church leadership concerning his methods. A friend of mine, who is a priest, commented to me once (during one of Fr. Jean Juste’s hunger strikes), that he thought that Fr. Jean Juste was ‘showboating’ for the TV cameras. I’ve always thought of Fr. Jean Juste as a noble person who was trying to make the world a better place. The church heirarchy might take issue with priests who engage in ‘liberation theology’, and perhaps it should because of the possible perversion of Christ’s message of love but, in the case of Fr. Gerard Jean Juste, I can’t help but believe that the Haitian people and even the world would be a much worse place without his noble and tireless efforts. I will pray that God grant him peace and I thank God for his presence among us.

Father Alberto’s case affected me differently. Before the scandal broke, I was envious of his good looks; jealous of his charming personality and I resented the successful and celebrity lifestyle he led. After the scandal came to light, I secretly delighted in his misfortune and downfall. I realize that it wasn’t him that led me to sin, it was my own pride, vanity and ego. I thank God that he has kept my devastating good looks and winning personality “on the down-low” because I’m not certain that I would be able to resist the temptation of women throwing themselves at my feet and I am sure that if I were ever a ‘celebrity’, I would be a major douchebag! I am angry at him (another sin) for the way in which he handled the entire publicity affair.

I suspect (and here I am assuming Fr. Alberto’s motives – probably another sin) that he purposely allowed himself to be photographed on the beach. I believe that anybody in the public eye has to know that they are being watched everywhere they go and being caught on a public beach was not very discreet. The local gossip says that Archdiocese of Miami would not give him a ‘dispensation’ to leave the priesthood (because of his celebrity earning potential for church coffers) so he chose a public scandal to force the church to let him go. I think it’s a matter of ‘having your cake and eating it too’. I don’t doubt that Father Alberto fell madly in love, but he wants to remain a priest. It appears to me that he’s not interested in the vocation of priesthood, but rather, the career of priesthood. That’s the reason for his abandonment of his Catholic family to move in with his Episcopal neighbors.

This is not meant as a criticism of the Episcopal faith. I believe that the Catholic Church is a family, its my family and Father Alberto is my brother. It hurts me that my brother no longer wants to be a part of our Catholic family nucleus but instead, wants to move in with our Episcopal cousins. You cannot change your spiritual DNA anymore than you can change your biological DNA. Father Alberto will remain my Catholic brother and I will pray that God give him the grace to overcome his spiritual crisis and return to our Catholic home, whether as a priest or as a married layman.

There has been much discussion about the Church’s celibacy policy but the focus of this case should be on the vow Fr. Alberto took when he became a priest. He was not coerced into becoming a priest and he knew and freely accepted the condition of celibacy. An honorable man’s word is his bond; if we ignore our promises and vows, then we are not honorable. If we are not honorable then we cannot be trusted. If we cannot be trusted then we cannot have a civilized society. If we cannot have a civilized society, we become animals, or worse, we become politicians.

Dominus Vobiscum

President Obama at Notre Dame

Last week, President Obama was awarded an honorary degree at the commencement ceremonies at the University of Notre Dame. There has been much controversy surrounding this event due to Mr. Obama’s political stance on abortion, which is in direct opposition to Catholic Church doctrine. Protests & boycotts were organized and Ms. Mary Ann Glendon, the former ambassador to the Vatican (who had been awarded the prestigious Laetare Medal) declined the award rather than appear on the same stage with Mr. Obama.

In his speech, the President asked the following question: “As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate?” (the text and video of Mr. Obama’s speech may be found here). Through these protests and boycotts the debate is being carried on.

I was bothered by the university’s choice of commencement speaker but at the same time I applauded them for their choice. By their action, Notre Dame has embraced the idea that universities are sanctuaries where ideas (no matter how controversial they may be) can be presented, discussed and debated. Too often in the recent past, it seemed that colleges and universities were steering the ‘safer’ course where controversy or discussion was avoided and guest speakers were only invited if they espoused ‘vanilla’ views or views that were in line with those of their board of trustees or benefactors. History has taught me that one important sign to look for in the decline of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism is the muzzling of free expression, especially in the universities. Witness the case of Fidel Castro: free expression was very important when he was a student, but once he came into power the universities were silenced.

Returning to Mr. Obama’s address: Through protests, demonstrations and boycotts, the firmness of the anti-abortion position is presented to our leaders. Strong, vocal displays of disapproval with government’s abortion policy are important in calling attention to the president and our representatives that we will not go away quietly. I firmly support Mr. Obama’s efforts to remedy the social conditions which may influence a woman to seek an abortion. Catholic social doctrine demands that we become ‘our brother’s keeper’; we must help  our sisters who are facing serious emotional, societal and financial burdens associated with giving birth.

Ideally, the implementation of the president’s initiatives and policies will reduce the abortion rate to zero. Unfortunately, if it is reduced to only one (instead of zero), the only choice that that one unborn child has is to not exist. That child will never have the opportunity to give or receive love and the entire world would be much poorer for it.

So the debate must continue; it must be vocal and it must be visible. It must be respectful of those who do not share our views but our position must be unwavering. While there may be aspects of this issue where compromise is possible, the central issue is life, not choice, and where life is involved, there can be no compromise.

Dominus vobiscum.