Fr. Sean Sheehy
Fr. Sean Sheehy is a retired Catholic priest of the Diocese of Kerry in Ireland. Recently, while the pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Listowel was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Fr. Sheehy stepped in to cover for him. In a sermon about sin, Fr. Sheehy gave examples of sinful acts, including abortion, transgenderism, and homosexual acts. Fr. Sheehy said, “You rarely hear about sin, but it’s rampant. We see it in the promotion of abortion. We see it for example in this lunatic approach of transgenderism … [and] … the promotion of sex between two men and two women. That is sinful. That is a mortal sin and people don’t seem to realize it. It’s a fact, a reality, and we need to listen to God about it because if we don’t, then there is no hope for those people.”
Fr. Sheehy called for sinners to repent, and for Catholics to call sinners to repentance. He preached, “God is also telling you and me today, look, you have a responsibility to seek out those who are lost. You have a responsibility to call people to an awareness of the fact that sin is destructive, sin is detrimental, and sin will lead us to hell.” A priest preaching that people who remain in sin will suffer the tortures of hell.
Fr. Sheehy referenced the upcoming Solemnity of All Saints: “When we honor the saints on the first of this coming month, we honor people who are saints. Why are they saints? Because they repented and because they sought forgiveness. As somebody said one time, heaven is full of converted sinners.” It’s good that Fr. Sheehy did not claim that saints are saints because they led perfect lives, which is the stereotypically understanding of sanctity. No, he explained clearly that saints are those who repent of their sins and ask God for forgiveness.
So far, everything Fr. Sheehy preached was perfectly in line with Catholic moral teaching. Unfortunately for Fr. Sheehy, it is not perfectly in line with the morals of the dominant culture and, as he would discovery, with the cowardly lack of Catholic conviction of his own bishop.
Bishop Ray Browne is the bishop of the Diocese of Kerry. Bishop Browne likely heard a number of complaints from those in his diocese who still regard themselves as Catholic but have little regard for Catholic moral teaching. Bishop Kerry acted quickly to resolve the dispute between a priest who courageously proclaims the truth of Catholic moral teaching and those Catholics who have rejected that teaching and demand that Fr. Sheehy be silenced. What did Bishop Browne do? He issued an apology to those Fr. Sheehy had offended by his homilies and he forbade Fr. Sheehy from celebrating Mass. In his apology, Bishop Browne wrote, “I am aware of the deep upset and hurt caused by the contents of the homilies in question delivered over the weekend. I apologize to all who were offended. The views expressed do not represent the Christian position.” Bishop Browne wrote, “The Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a Gospel of love and ever proclaims the dignity of every human person. It calls on us all to ever have total respect for one another.”
Before I go farther, I would like to address that much has been made by Fr. Sheehy’s critics of the fact that he testified as a character witness for a man who was tried and convicted of sexually abusing a woman. Based on the articles I have read, Fr. Sheehy clearly did not believe that the man was guilty. Shortly after the man was convicted, Fr. Sheehy resigned his position as pastor of a parish. Of course, none of this speaks to the rightness or wrongness of Fr. Sheehy’s message in his homilies at St. Mary’s in Listowel. It may mean that Fr. Sheehy was a poor judge of this man’s character, but says nothing about the truth of Catholic teaching or of Fr. Sheehy’s responsibility to preach Catholic teaching.
I would like to make a couple of points about Bishop Browne’s statement.
First, Bishop Browne is simply giving false testimony when he claims that recognizing abortion, transgenderism, and homosexual acts as sinful is “not the Christian position.” It most certainly is the position of Catholic moral teaching. Perhaps Bishop Browne could benefit from a review of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The relevant paragraphs on abortion are 2270-2275. The relevant paragraphs on transgenderism are 2333, 2393, 364, and 2297. The relevant paragraphs on homosexual acts are 2357-2359.
Second, while Bishop Browne is correct in asserting that “The Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a Gospel of love and ever proclaims the dignity of every human person,” there is nothing in what Fr. Sheehy preached that counters this. Bishop Browne, however, seems to be implying that condemning sinful acts is the same as failing to love and respect the one who engages in those acts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus Himself instructs us to admonish the sinner in hopes that he will repent. In the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” (Matt 18:15-17). The point here is not to accept the sinful act, or pretend that the sinful act is not sinful. It is to admonish the sinner in hopes that he will repent and return to the fold. This is the point, too, of treating him “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” In short, Jesus is recommending having nothing to do with the one who has sinned in hopes that he will come to his senses and repent.
St. Paul recommends admonishing the sinner, while being careful to avoid sin yourself. In his Letter to the Galatians, he writes, “Brothers, even if a person is caught in some transgression, you who are spiritual should correct that one in a gentle spirit, looking to yourself, so that you also may not be tempted” (Gal 6:1). In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul recommends excommunication as a medicinal remedy for the intransigent sinner: “It is widely reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of a kind not found even among pagans—a man living with his father’s wife. And you are inflated with pride. Should you not rather have been sorrowful? The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. I, for my part, although absent in body but present in spirit, have already, as if present, pronounced judgment on the one who has committed this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus: when you have gathered together and I am with you in spirit with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:1-5). To deliver the man to Satan is to send him out of the Christian community into the world, which is ruled by Satan. But understand that the whole point of the judgment against the sinner is “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
Bishop Browne seems to be under the impression that respecting the dignity of the other means keeping quiet about their sins. But this isn’t what Jesus or St. Paul said at all. It is, however, a reflection of the dominant culture, which holds that abortion, transgenderism, and homosexual acts are not sins at all. It also holds with the popular notion among some Catholics that Jesus’ admonition not to judge (Matt 7:1-2) means we cannot call sin sin, or we cannot call the sinner a sinner, or we cannot admonish the sinner – because to do any of these is to judge the other. This is incorrect. When Jesus is instructing us not to judge, He means not to judge a person to heaven or hell. That is not our job. That belongs only to God. But if we cannot call sin sin, then we cannot condemn the murderer, the rapist, or the extortionist. Jesus was confronted by some men who brought to Him a woman caught in adultery, demanding that He rule on what should be done with her, because Moses ruled that she should be stoned. Jesus ruled that those among them who are without sin cast the first stone. They all left, beginning with the older ones. Jesus then turned to the woman and told her that He did not condemn her. Then He said to her, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:1-11). Jesus did not condemn the woman. But, neither did He pretend that her adultery was not a sin, and neither did He pretend that a life of continued sin would not lead to the woman’s damnation, otherwise He would not have told her to sin no more.
The bottom line is, Bishop Browne condemned Fr. Sheehy’s sermons because Fr. Sheehy rightly identified as morally wrong what most in our culture, including many Catholics, regard as morally right. Had Fr. Sheehy rightly condemned human trafficking or racism, his sermons would have been praised by his bishop. This is an example of a bishop taking his cues from the culture rather than the gospel.
In the Book of Revelation, John receives a vision of Jesus, who instructs him to write letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. In His letter to the church in Ephesus, he praises them for hating a group called the Nicolaitans, while in His letter to the church in Pergamum, he condemns them for the fact that some follow the teachings of the Nicolaitans. Who were the Nicolaitans? The Nicolaitans were compromisers. During the early decades of the Church, there was controversy over whether Gentile converts had to follow the Mosaic Law. In other words, did Gentiles have to become Jews first in order to become Christians? The apostles gathered in Jerusalem and, in what is called the Council of Jerusalem recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 15, declared that Gentiles need not become Jews, but should refrain from eating food that had been offered to idols and also refrain from sexual immorality. Christians also faced the question of making sacrifices to the pagan gods of the Roman Empire, a practice that was regarded as a civic duty. Refusal to do so had social and economic consequences. The Nicolaitans were a group of Christians who practiced and recommended to others that they disregard the teaching of the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem and also that participation in the worship of the pagan gods was acceptable. In short, they taught that Christians should go along to get along. Sprinkling a little incense at a pagan god’s shrine was not worth losing your job over, much less being forced to pay a fine or even find yourself in jail. Go along to get along.
Bishop Browne is like those Nicolaitans. He either believes that abortion, transgenderism, and homosexual acts are not sins, or he believes preaching the fullness of the gospel, which includes the moral teachings of the Church, is not worth it if it means offending those secularists and those Catholics who reject Church teaching. And he recommends this attitude and practice to his confreres, even going to the point of punishing Fr. Sheehy for the audacity to preach Catholic teaching. This cannot be the future of the Church. Those Catholics, especially those bishops, priests, deacons and religious, who embrace the whole teaching of Jesus Christ, must not be afraid to preach the truth with passion. When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth? (Lk 18:8b). Let’s pray so!
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.