‘Isms’ That Poison the Heart

The toxic behaviors that can undermine priestly work


Father David BonnarWhen I was in high school, there was an advanced political science course called “Isms.” The class focused on various themes such as communism, Marxism, fascism and nationalism — just to name a few. Although I did not take the course, I came to appreciate, at least from a distance, these particular movements.

Forty years later, I have come to see the presence of some other isms that cannot only jade the human heart but also become poisonous to a shepherd’s heart. In fact, these isms can totally diminish all the good works of the priesthood. The Lenten season provides an opportunity to reflectively look at our lives to see if any of these isms are present.

Perhaps the most toxic ism is cynicism. The cynic is one who is always critical of others and distrustful of their motives. At our most recent clergy convocation, Father Michael Gaitley, the director of evangelization for the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, identified cynicism as “the greatest of sins for a priest.” Why is it that the older we get and the longer we serve the more cynical we may become? At the root of cynicism is a strong sense of judging others. Thankfully, there is only one judge who is more compassionate and forgiving than we can ever imagine.

Sarcasm is another reality that can infect our hearts and be detrimental to our priestly life and ministry. The sarcastic one is sharp and caustic with words. It is interesting to note that the word “sarcasm” comes from a word that means “to tear flesh” and “bite the lips in rage.” Given this imagery, sarcasm hurts. Some of these hurts even leave scars. Nothing tears the Body of Christ apart like sarcasm. Why is it that as priests we can tend to become sarcastic about those in authority? As priests, we must always seek to build up rather than tear down.

Individualism is another ism that can adversely affect our priestly life and ministry. The individualist is one who takes on the persona of the Lone Ranger. At the same aforementioned clergy convocation, Cardinal Thomas Collins reminded us of beloved televangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen and his book “The Priest Is Not His Own.” While we all have a particular uniqueness in that we are made in God’s image and likeness, none of us stands alone or apart from Jesus. Every day we act in persona Christi. What is more, we belong to a special fraternity of brothers. Some have called it “the greatest fraternity in the world.” Why is it, though, that we sometimes withdraw from Christ and separate ourselves from the brotherhood? Our priesthood is so much stronger when we live it out together.

Materialism is but another ism that can adversely affect our priesthood. When we allow ourselves to become consumed with money and possessions, we can lose our priestly way. Whether we are vowed to poverty as a religious or seeking to live the simplicity of life as a secular priest, we cannot permit the ways of this world to engulf our hearts. We need to recognize that in spite of what the world says, less is more. Some years ago, I attended a mini-sabbatical at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana. One of the most moving talks centered on decluttering one’s life. Why is it that we allow things to accumulate and assume more power than our relationship with Jesus?

Still another ism that can wreak havoc on our priestly hearts is chauvinism. The chauvinist typically holds a blind allegiance to a certain group at the expense of others. There are many forms to this undue partiality. For example, in the case of the priest, one may demonstrate a superior or condescending attitude toward women. The chauvinist may also be the one who never stops praising or visiting his former assignment to the extent that he is not rooted in the new one. Why is it that we fall prey to locking in on certain groups while locking others out?

The final ism that can undermine our priestly heart and make it hard to have a good confession is rationalism, whereby we can talk ourselves in and out of sin. The mind is a powerful thing! In the end, these isms are not just a good title for a class. They can serve as a point of departure for a healthy examination of conscience. Interestingly, what these isms all share in common is that they each have an “I” in them. Isn’t that one of the roots of sin? 

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 15 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, email us at Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

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