Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dealing with Clerical Narcissism

The Catholic Church has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals. But another very sinister problem has been brewing as well. This is the issue of clerical narcissism. It's a terrible thing, because it has driven many people out of the pews. I'm convinced it's a contributing factor in the plummeting Mass attendance and shuttered churches.

A priest who suffers from narcissism, or any type of personality disorder, is not a good shepherd. Instead of focusing on his flock, he is wrapped up in himself. Prone to mood swings, he may angrily lash out at parishioners over trivial things. Unfortunately, this type of treatment is something many Catholics in the United States have gotten used to.

The majority of priests are kindly souls who love their flocks. But a significant minority are difficult to deal with. They act extremely bothered by the very fact that we show up for confession, as if it's putting them out to absolve our sins during the scheduled time slot. In most parishes, confession is scheduled on Saturday, about an hour before the Sunday vigil Mass.

They don't do well with sick calls. They aren't good at comforting the sorrowful. For instance, right after my grandmother died, I realized someone from another state had called a certain priest to see if he would anoint her. The caller was unaware she had already passed.

I telephoned Father to tell him not to come. (My grandmother, fortunately, had already received her Sacraments.) However, the priest was unhappy with the request. The caller meant well, but she'd made a couple of odd, but innocuous, statements. So, immediately after losing my grandmother, I had to calm this priest down. I was only somewhat successful. Apparently, he was so perturbed, and put out, that he neglected to tell me he was sorry my grandmother had just died.

When a priest has a personality disorder, the entire parish suffers. People tiptoe around him, living in fear of setting him off.

The crisis in the Church, seen mostly in First World countries, has only exacerbated the problem. Faced with a dwindling number of priests, bishops may keep an ill-tempered priest in his current assignment, instead of removing him from active ministry and making sure he gets help.

The problem may bot be as acute in parts of the world, where the faith is stronger. The men called to the priesthood there may have better formation, and a more sincere desire to serve God.

Psychologists describe narcissistic personality disorder as a fixed condition that can never change. I believe it can, but only with God's help. The problem is driven by pride, and, as we know, pride goes before the fall. Disordered personalities also tend to have substance abuse problems. This is something that can be treated. By one estimate, about 10 percent of the American Catholic clergy have a drinking problem, a figure seen among the rest of the adult population.

If a member of the clergy has narcissism, we have to hope it's not the malignant variety. Otherwise, he will likely find one parishioner (at a time) to single out for emotional abuse.

Don't get me wrong. I have no plans to leave the Catholic Church and I hope by writing this I am encouraging others to stay as well. We need to stick with the Church and receive the Sacraments in order to get to Heaven. This is the Church founded by Christ himself in the year 33 AD, so leaving is not an option. And, where would we go, anyway?

Although we need to stick with Christ, and his Church, nothing prevents us from seeking spiritual nourishment in a healthier setting. We may want to join a prayer group or a Bible study, led by a different priest. Perhaps we could go to confession at a monastery, or with a religious order priest. We may have to drive a bit, but it's a small price to pay for good spiritual direction.

The overriding message I want to leave is that clerical narcissism is not acceptable. Emotionally abusive priests are not acceptable. If you run into one, I suggest you give him lots of space, so his aberrant behavior does not harm your soul.

For a discussion of female malignant narcissism, please visit my Female Bullies blog.


  1. In my opinion, my rector, Bob Malm of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA, fits the description to a T. Wish I had better understood this before getting involved in the parish!

  2. You dont have to stay in the church when you suffer from emotional abuse. If you read about the Magdelen sisters emotioanl abuse is habitual in the church ditto if you read about the girls in Regnum Christi in some Regnum Christi awareness site or the Opus Dei. The church pretends that you should cure the church from within, that way they can just sit on complaints. If you want to make a real difference it has to be from without were they cannot just ignore the complaints.

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