Priests on the Spectrum?

Fr Ray Blake has written an article about the question of compatibility between high-functioning autism (or Aspergers) and the religious and priestly vocations.

I find the article sensitively written, though I doubt there are that many priests on the spectrum, given the psychological screening in dioceses and religious orders over the past fifty years. He writes in the perspective of criticism by the present Pope of religious and priests who seem too “rigid” or “scrupulous”.

Personally, I survived the seminary at Gricigliano because it was yet a new foundation in 1990, struggling with practical aspects and finding its identity. I was especially left alone for much of the day to work on my academic projects and had little else to do other than chapel duties and refectory, and of course refectory duties and manual work on Saturdays. I had the good sense to obey my superiors and play the game – so I slipped under the radar, at least to the diaconate.

Could an “aspie” priest be a good parish priest? I think it depends on the parish, whether it is urban or rural, run in the old way or as part of a present-day “pastoral sector”. The modern model of the parish priest demands extraordinary social skills and charismatic leadership, which an “aspie” by definition just doesn’t have. On the other hand, there used to be country parishes in countries like France where much less was demanded as long as the priest was generally available for pastoral duties which require less in the way of emotional energy and relationships. Socialising with country people tends to be more predictable and simple, which I can relate from my own experience.

With more imagination, the Church’s ministry can be more diverse, and a greater tolerance made for imperfections in terms of physical and mental handicaps, at least above a certain minimum judged on a case-by-case basis. A country priest has to be independent and have practical aptitudes, but doesn’t have to be a corporate manager – as long as he gets on with people reasonably well and leads a good clean life.

Ironically, the “rigid” characteristic mentioned by Fr Blake just doesn’t fit the kind of people I met in Lille last Saturday. This kind of characteristic found frequently in traditionalist circles would simply be the effect of ideology and indoctrination, perhaps in some cases of personality disorders and neuroses – not autism and Aspergers. This would be an interesting subject of scientific study by those with the right expertise in medicine and psychology. Personally, I felt very out of place with such people, whereas I felt a great deal of empathy with those I met last weekend who had a diagnosis for Aspergers or high-functioning autism. This is a vital distinction. Perhaps Fr Blake should spend time with people known to be “aspies” so that he can sense the difference.

Indeed, we are all broken vessels and fools for Christ as we read in last Sunday’s Epistle about “suffering fools gladly”. It is time for the Church to be human, and then fewer predatory and bad men would get through with shining colours!

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5 Responses to Priests on the Spectrum?

  1. Zoé says:

    I think I have encountered a few priests w/ aspergers. One just asked me rudely yesterday “Why are you calling ME?”

    Another I know has the deacon give all the sermons. He is childlike. That can be a beautiful quality in a person; but you come to a priest w/ serious life matters (death & burial etc.). Confession.

    I could go on; but I have been noticing these qualities a lot in Latin Rite priests in the States.

    With priests who marry (before their ordination) such as Eastern & Oriental Rite & Orthodox; I don’t notice that. So perhaps the difficulty w/ socialising is linked to seeking celibacy.

    • I have agonised over these questions. An “aspie” compensates emotional difficulties with the intellect. For some of us, other people’s emotions are overwhelming, so we have to have a defence mechanism which looks like lack of empathy. Not all priests are made to be pastors, but some to be writers and teachers. Sometimes, we can express ourselves through art and beauty. It is clear that most priests with Aspergers are unsuitable for parish ministry. Our talents lie elsewhere.

      Aspergers plays hell with relationships. I don’t deny that. The non-aspie partner (usually the wife) has to learn to reconstruct the relationship in a different way, not through emotions, cues and implications but through common interests in things outside the persons involved. If the marriage can adapt to such a paradigm, all well and good. However, not all monks are “aspies”, and there is a different reason for their celibacy.

      • Zoé says:

        Brilliant observations – everything you’ve written here Father!

        And so very true about monks. There is a Maronite monastery of Brothers I ring when I have some spiritual/life struggle (every difficulty in life is a spiritual test) & honestly they are more warm & clear of thought & empathic & also open minded than American Latin Rite priests I have known. (Or also many Protestant parish pastors in the town where I live now. Wall to wall churches in New England one hour from NYC). Most of them are young converts from Protestant faiths. There is a quest for the traditional I’ve noticed.

        Btw – I’ve been attending a traditional Anglican Church (‘Catholic’ the priest calls it) because it is near me. The entire parish consists of about ten people – which is nice!

      • Zoé says:

        PS: Much love & understanding to everyone w/ Asperger. Apologies if I came across as disparaging. My comments were in reference to the parish priests I’d come across. ❤️

      • Thank you. No two persons are alike even with this notion of “being on the spectrum”. I don’t think you are being disparaging, but you have suffered from unkind and pastorally negligent priests. Parish work can be made difficult also by ungrateful people with unrealistic expectations. That I know from experience. It is the role of a good Bishop to listen to all sides concerned and make sure all his priests are up to the mark. There are many ways to employ priests who are not suitable for parish ministry.

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