Imitate Christ or Imitate the blacksheepdog, the priest formerly known as Fr. Corapi ?
Prelude: John Corapi chose to deal with these matters in a public way and this invites our responding to him publicly. If he hadn’t made a big melodramatic public announcement, then I wouldn’t be making any public comment about it. I didn't say a word about the allegations when they first came to light months ago. But this is a different moment, a teaching moment and a prayerful moment. Also, there are complex juridical and canonical matters here as retired Bishop Gracida has so candidly pointed out. One last point, John Corapi is free to follow his conscience. We are free to respond to his newly crafted public image and the public statements he makes.
John Corapi has been one of the most effective communicators of what some have been calling “dynamic orthodoxy”. It’s really just basic Catholicism. But the truth has power and many people have been built up by Fr. Corapi preaching that truth. Others have returned to full communion with the Church, still others have come to know Christ for the first time.
So three months ago when a former employee alleged that he had behaved in a manner contrary to his priestly calling and his religious association removed him from active public ministry, dynamically orthodox Catholics grew dismayed. He may well be as innocent as he maintains. People do lodge false accusations. Children lie, women lie, men lie. He says he may soon release audio of this woman demonstrating her instability. I’m not looking forward to this trial by public opinion with only John Corapi providing the evidence. But only three months into the investigation, he claims that the process was stacked against him; that certain key figures had it out for him. And so he has resigned from active public priestly ministry and wants to be known as “the blacksheepdog” John Corapi. He says “My canon lawyer and my civil lawyers have concluded that I cannot receive a fair and just hearing under the Church’s present process.”
I am deeply disappointed. If imitatio Christi means renouncing worldly ambition and seeking salvation by deeds of private virtue, imitatio black sheepdog means
• splitting from communion with one’s confreres and brother priests.
• abandoning the canonical disciplinary process to injustice and incompetence so that others will be left to correct or be victimized by it.
• announcing that your "fans" (his word) can now stay in touch with you through social media and, BTW, offering one’s catechetical materials in a fire sale for fifty percent off.
I don’t see a renunciation of worldly ambition nor do I see the longsuffering that characterizes the saints. One thinks here of Padre Pio who was also subject to false accusations which he endured and for which we now call him St. Padre Pio. Rather, I see someone who, by Corapi’s own admission, is trying to expand his audience and the range of topics he will address. What is lacking is submission to the dying and rising that is the pattern of the Christian life. Where are his statements about joining his sufferings with those of Christ? I don’t see them.
It may be true that he has been wronged by the system. Many of us have watched and/or been the victim of diocesan administrative bungles. But even if sheepdog Corapi has been done wrong by the system, then, I think, he still bears responsibility for correcting it. We play the hand we’re dealt. We don’t fold and leave the table. Tossing over the chessboard is not a praiseworthy move in chess.
He claims that: “In the final analysis I have only one of only two viable choices:
1. I can quietly lie down and die, or
2. I can go on in ways that I am able to go on.”
No, the third viable choice is to stand firm, resist the evil one by submitting to the duly authorized authorities and trust God for the outcome. If necessary wouldn’t he do more for the life of the world by offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass as a penitent priest in some obscure monastery? Is talk radio or television more efficacious than the Mass? Perhaps this is too idealistic. However, we become followers of Christ in order to have our lives conformed to his so that his destiny becomes our destiny. This requires the passion. No crown without the cross. Thomas More knew this, Padre Pio knew this, Jesus Christ knew this.
I thought John Corapi knew this. Looking at his testimony story, he has overcome much greater hurdles than clerical incompetence. If John Corapi is anything, he is a survivor. His brother priest, Charles Murphy knew how to enter into the “humiliation of Christ”, as St. Thomas More puts it.
The first time Fr. Murphy was cleared of accusations that he improperly touched a minor girl, 25 years earlier, everyone who ever met him said they had never doubted his innocence. It was 2006. Finally, the archdiocese ruled the allegations lacked substance. The woman dropped her suit on the eve of the trial. He returned to ministry amidst great joy. Four years later, the lawyer who had lodged the first unfounded complaint brought another. It involved a male and went back forty years. This time it took nearly six months before the review board cleared him and Cardinal Sean O’Malley restored him as senior pastor. But this time the spark had died. He couldn’t bring himself to preach. He just deteriorated. Eventually, they brought Murphy to a hospice a couple of weeks ago after doctors determined there was nothing left to be done. There was no cancer, no apparent physical disease, just a broken 77-year-old heart that refused to mend.
And that’s where he died a week before John Corapi’s announcement, a wisp of the man he once was.* He died broken, clinging to his cross but vindicated and awaiting glory. He refused to climb down from his cross.
Corapi’s gifts and talents no doubt exceed those of Fr. Murphy but this is no reason to lay down the cross. As Kevin Tierney pointed out in a blog comment: “Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in many defenses of Fr. Corapi is that the Church needs his ministry, so much so that he is required to disobey. Many of his defenders would be horrified if anyone else said their priesthood wasn't that important to their life. Yet Fr. Corapi said precisely that.” What I just learned from John Corapi is that the way to solve the problem of obedience is to resign. If there is no ecclesiastical authority, there is no problem of obedience. Yes, I know that it is within his rights, but is it right? The priesthood is not about justice, it’s about love. This is what I find so disorienting in the former Fr., now John, Corapi’s actions. Men of great ministry hold it lightly because they know that doing Christ’s work can replace becoming Christlike. St. Ignatius of Loyola said he would fret all of 5 minutes if the Pope suppressed the Jesuits. This was a man whose priorities were properly ordered.
And to make matters worse: John Corapi has now insured that he will never be exonerated by any official tribunal. Once he leaves the jurisdiction of the Church, the investigation is not only moot- it’s probably over. Murphy died broken but exonerated; the black sheepdog is unleashed but the skies are still cloudy.
Comparisons are invidious but it’s just hard to see Fulton Sheen or Mother Angelica going off shelving the exercise of their office or charism, and inventing some new media identity say as “The Black Irishmen” or “Risible Rita the Righteous.” Both these great communicators had painful run-ins with the hierarchy. They fought it out. I feel as though I’ve seen a hideous mutation, a man-creature transmogrify from priest into entertainer.
His strange cold embrace of self-pity and self-reliance leaves the rest of us without the familiar warm hug of a priest many of us looked to as a model of imitating Christ. Now he’s the one who has given us the best reason to dismiss him with “yesterday’s garbage” as he puts it: he’s broken faith with the bishops, the successors to the apostles; he’s broken faith with his religious community; he’s broken faith with the imitation of Christ. When asked what the Church needed after the abuse crisis was revealed, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus said, “Fidelity. Fidelity. Fidelity.” This story seems to lack that theme. Many who have worked with John Corapi say that he’s always been a lone wolf so, I suppose, being the black sheepdog won’t be nearly the painful transition that he would have us believe. I may be wrong, I hope I’m wrong but the black sheepdog seems off on his own. Pray for him. Sheepdogs are only effective when they are in tandem with a Shepherd.
*The Fr. Murphy story is taken from Brian McGrory’s column, “Collateral Damage” in the Boston Globe (of all places) June 15, 2011.