Q&A: Church in the modern world
For over a quarter of a century, Father Peter Daly has been delivering sermons in the archdiocese of Washington D.C. and writing for the National Catholic Reporter. The recently retired priest plans to move back to Capitol Hill to work with St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s parishes. The Cougar caught up with him to talk about being a priest in the current political climate.
The Cougar: What has it been like being a priest in the DC-area with the current and past political regimes?
Father Peter Daly: Well the average parish priest has very little contact with the political world. Most of the time my parish might as well have been in South Dakota as far as my contact with politicians, but we are impacted by the presence of the government in many ways. So many of our parishioner’s work for the government. Some of my parishioners worked at the White House and State Department, places like that. So, you do hear a lot about what is going on in the government.
And you also have the impact of the refugee and immigrant communities in Washington, which for a while was pretty big. It’s diminishing now but still it’s impactful. That’s what I’ll be doing this coming year — I’m going to start working with catholic charities and refugees and migrant services.
TC: How would you describe the different political and social views in the parishes you’ve served in?
Fr. PD: I’ve been in four parishes over my 30-some years. I was in two mostly African American parishes and their political and social views reflect the African American communities. They’d be by and large in favor of most social programs and very concerned about things like abortion, too, just like the white community would be, but they’re more concerned about many other issues like racial injustice and community policing.
Now in this community where I’ve been for 23 years, it’s a middle class white community, and their concerns are sort of typical of middle class white communities. Drugs and alcohol are major concerns — we have a lot of people addicted to pain killers and heroin and things like that. The usual family problems and health, so forth. But I would say there is a big contrast. In the city, in an archdiocese like Washington, suburban parishes can be completely different from, say, a Latino parish or an African American parish.
TC: Your novel Strange Gods deals heavily with corruption and cover up in the Church, so what made you decide to write it?
Fr. PD: Well I wanted to get some things off my chest. I think one of the big problems with the church is this scourge of clericalism. People who are not much involved with the Catholic Church probably don’t think about it much, but (clericalism is) the idea that in a sense the clerics run the church — that the priests run the church and then they have a kind of superior position to other people. I think that’s profoundly wrong and contrary to what Jesus wanted from us. He wanted a leadership of service.
And also I think the problem is there’s a kind of careerism in the church. A lot of priests see their life as a kind of career path to greater and greater influence and higher office and so forth, and they lose sight of what it is they’re supposed to be doing, which is the spiritual nourishment of the people. So that’s why I wanted to write that. And also it was kinda fun, writing it.
TC: How do you deal with priests who are more ambitious and are thinking more for themselves?
Fr. PD: Well we all look out for ourselves in some way, that’s why I retired to some extent. I think you just have to focus on your own life, your own service and that’s what I’ve tried to do. We’ve had a tremendous program in Nicaragua building houses. I just came back from there. We’ve done a lot in our community with the homeless. We’ve done a lot of social service and I just try to keep focused on that and not get involved in the politics of the Church.
I find that it’s just too irritating to me when I hang around the clerics. They’re too concerned about their own prerogatives, their own careers. I guess that’s true for all of us and at some point you have to decide where your life is going to be.
Dorothy Day said one time that she’d rather fail at the level where the action is than succeed at the level where the action isn’t. She saw the action, in terms of the social teaching of the church, (as being) in direct contact with the poor. She didn’t think it was in some office somewhere with some big agency. That was always my view.
I’d rather fail at the level where the people are than be successful in some big agency or chancery office or something like that. I got offered a job early on in the priesthood of being the director of finance and management for the archdiocese of Washington and I turned it down because I recognize that would lead me on a path probably to my own perdition. I’d get lost there because basically I’d become a businessman with a collar and I didn’t want to do that.
TC: So how would you describe the state of the Catholic Church at the moment?
Fr. PD: The new crop of clergy is very conservative. They’re cultural warriors; they want to see us go to war with the culture. And I have always said we’re not at war with the culture, we’re in dialogue with it. Sure, we don’t accept everything culture gives to us, but on the other hand we’re not at war with people. Pope Francis is trying to correct a lot of this.
You see in his own lifestyle, the fact he didn’t move into the papal apartments, he doesn’t ride around in a big Mercedes. He keeps telling the people that they should get out of Rome and go back to their diocese and parishes, that sort of thing.
He’s very much what I was yearning to see for a long time and we didn’t see, and I had kind of given up hope. But then along comes Francis. And you should never really give up hope. I think the state of the church is in flux right now. In the United States, younger clergy are very conservative and they’re very focused on these cultural wars. Which means, in concrete terms, abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Those are sort of the big three issues.
Frankly, I’m much more concerned about poverty, immigration, social loneliness of a lot of people. Social issues like the lack of health care and the lack of security a lot of people have. I don’t hear much concern from younger clergy about that stuff.
TC: What do you preach to your congregation when you hear of hate crimes against other religious or ethnic groups?
Fr. PD: Well I think that’s very important to talk about and I hit it very hard. There was a movement in our own little community — there were people very suspicious of the Muslim community in our area. There’s a small one here. So I think it’s very important to talk about that.
One of the things that’s happened to me, that we realized, is when you start talking about that stuff you never realize how deeply ingrained racism was, even in people you’ve been friends with for years. I’ve preached upon things like gun control and Black Lives Matter, issues on immigration, and people have walked away. I’ve lost parishioners and I’ve lost friends over it, but I think it’s necessary.
The Prophet Jeremiah had that experience. The Word of the Lord tastes sweet when you first taste it, but then it starts to become sour because you realize it costs you something. I’m still outspoken on things like abortion; I’m still very pro-life. But people don’t think I’m as outspoken as I should be.
That’s the other problem about the conservative movement in the Catholic Church. Everything is about abortion, everything — the weather, global warming — everything’s attributable to abortion. You get tired of it after a while.
TC: If the President says something controversial about a religious group what do you preach?
Fr. PD: Well it’ll be interesting because now I’ll be preaching on Capitol Hill. I’m going to be helping two parishes (there). So it’ll be interesting to see because they’re mostly Capitol Hill staffers, people that work for committees.
I wrote an article about why Donald Trump is not a Christian and I got a lot of angry emails. I just went through the beatitudes. How is he a peacemaker? How is he meek? How does he hunger and thirst for justice? All the things that Jesus said we’re supposed to do.
I think that’s what I try to focus on. What is the teaching of Christ? What is the teaching of the New Testament scriptures? And what does it mean for us in the Catholic Church to be Catholic, which is to be part of this universal community of believers? We’re not just Americans; I’m not preaching Americanism. We’re not supposed to put the flag on the altar, we’re not worshiping the flag.
So, we do have to speak out against this guy on a lot of things. Especially, I think, on his treatment of immigrants, refugees and people who are suffering around the world. I just think it’s reprehensible how he degrades people.