Lots of Catholics are talking about the controversy over Fr. Michael Pfleger’s politically and racially charged talk last week at Trinity United Church. Unfortunately, lots of knee-jerk reactions are happening. I have met Fr. Pfleger on a number of occasions over the years and have great respect for the way he has taken the Gospel to the streets. On the other hand, I also have many reservations about his tactics. It’s important for us as Catholics to turn to our teachings for guidance in forming our opinions in this matter. In this particular case, I think it is imperative that we explore the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit (especially since the community of Saint Sabina, Fr. Mike’s parish, takes pride in being “dependent upon the Word of God and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit”), the Virtues, and the concept of prophecy.
The power and presence of the Holy Spirit is beyond our ability to control or harness. Jesus told us that the “wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). Too many people have interpreted this passage as describing a Spirit-filled person rather than the power of the Spirit himself (no gender implied). Being Spirit-filled does not grant one license to do or say as one please. Too often, people jump to the conclusion that, to be a Spirit-filled person, means that you can do or say whatever you want and that the “rules” do not apply. It’s not that simple. For example, on the one hand, a Spirit-filled person must rely on the Gift of fortitude to challenge conventional thinking. By the same token, however, he or she also must rely on the Gift of Counsel which provides him or her with the ability to see the best way to follow God’s plan when we have choices to make. Fr. Pfleger has always been known for his fortitude which is admirable. In this most recent situation, however, I dare say that Fr. Pfleger lacked counsel. His mockery of Hilary Clinton is clearly not the best way to follow God’s plan as we make choices in this election.
A Spirit-filled person exemplifies the Fruits of the Holy Spirit as well. One of these traits is faithfulness which describes the conviction that one has in respect to the Gospel. At the same time, Spirit-filled people exemplify the fruit of self-control, i.e. the act of allowing God’s love to overcome our compulsive need for security, affection, esteem, power, and status. Fr. Pfleger is to be admired for his faithfulness to the Gospel…his convictions are deep and strong. Unfortunately, in this latest instance, he lacked self-control, allowing his need for affirmation from a congregation to cloud his thinking and to block God’s love from coming through. Not to mention the lack of the following Fruits of the Spirit in his talk: charity, kindness, and gentleness.
Finally, we can turn to the Virtues for guidance. The Virtues are attitudes or ways of acting that enable us to do good. In particular, we can look at the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. A Spirit-filled person no doubt is called to practice these virtues. Fr. Pfleger is well-known for his commitment to justice and the fortitude that he draws upon in the face of injustice. In this latest episode, it would seem quite clear, however, that he lacked prudence (the ability to carefully and thoughtfully consider one’s actions) and temperance (self-control, restraint in both actions and speech).
I have no doubt that Fr. Pfleger is Spirit-filled. This does not mean, however, that he is free to do and say as he pleases when it comes to preaching the Gospel. Quite the contrary, the Spirit frees us to speak the truth but also makes us prisoners of Christ which means that we are bound to think and act in ways that are pleasing to Christ.
Finally, I don’t know where we have gotten this notion that a person who is seen as prophetic is incapable of speaking untruth. I believe that we have less to fear with the concept of papal infallibilty than we do with what seems to be this popular acceptance of “prophetic infallibility.” People defend Rev. Wright and Fr. Pfleger by saying that they are prophetic, as though somehow they are immune to preaching erroneously. A prophet is someone who is called to speak the truth of God and to communicate God’s will in order that people may be led back to the Covenant that God made with humankind. Just because a person’s “career” has been characterized by prophetic work and words does not excuse or justify momentary lapses of judgment. Fr. Pfleger laments the fact that his reputation to many in this country will now be based on a short YouTube snippet rather than on his years of prophetic acting and speaking. This is indeed unfortunate but it does not exonerate a serious lapse in judgment. My wife and I continuously remind our kids (now college age and beyond) that all it takes is one slip up – one momentary lapse of judgement – such as getting behind the wheel after a few drinks, to damage all the good you’ve done up to that point. The fact is, preaching and living the Gospel is like cultivating a garden. You cannot hope to nurture a small patch of weeds off in the corner that (you hope) few will see. (I borrowed that idea from Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)
Fr. Pfleger has offered an apology which is the appropriate action and that apology should be accepted. He must now work to show his contrition and that may involve humbly accepting the consequences that are handed to him by Cardinal George.