I have been following, with growing dismay, the story of Fr. Albert Cutié of Miami, Florida. In brief – he was a very public and popular Roman Catholic priest who lived a secret life with a woman now pregnant by him. In a matter of just a very few days, he broke from his vows of priesthood and joined the Episcopal church where he will no doubt eventually marry and perhaps regain a measure of his public life as an activist and now Episcopal priest.
These few words cannot begin to explain the pain this has caused so many. He has broken marriage vows as surely as anyone who has broken faith with a spouse. And, being a priest, whether right or not, he is held to a higher standard. We weak humans are expected to fall and pick ourselves up again. Clerics of any stripe, because of their vows and their position of moral authority, can’t avoid this higher standard. When they fall, they fall harder and usually leave a lot of damage in their wake.
Non-Catholics don’t necessarily understand that taking priestly vows is a sacrament no different from marriage. To receive a dispensation from vows is no easy process and nor should it be. The process of pursuing an annulment of marriage vows or a dispensation from priestly vows is a process imposed to encourage deep and meaningful reflection. This discernment is meant to get us to the why and the truth that underlies our actions. Fr. Cutié’s actions have circumvented this process. He has “. . . separated himself from communion with the Roman Catholic Church by professing erroneous faith and morals, and refusing submission to the Holy Father” (attribution to John C. Favalora, Archbishop of Miami). By his own actions, he has removed himself from any licit sacramental activities within the Church. He may continue to say Mass but it will not be a valid Mass that meets the Roman Catholic’s duty of weekly Mass attendance. He also cannot licitly officiate at any Roman Catholic marriage ceremony.
Like the Biblical reference of faith and works and how one cannot stand without the other, Fr. Cutié’s good works can in no way justify his actions when he turns his back on his vows and abandons his spiritual connection to his parishioners and to his followers. Like a betrayed spouse, most of them probably did not see it coming. "He has caused grave scandal to the Church, caused great harm to the diocese and priests of Miami and has led to division within the ecumenical community and the community at large" (Favalora) . But most grievous, in my opinion, is that he has caused great harm and confusion to his parishioners and followers and has no doubt taken some of them with him in his defection.
So what should Fr. Cutié have done that would have avoided the very public scandal he has created? I can only believe, at this point, that long ago, despite his own self-absolving words, Fr. Cutié became a victim of his own position and power to influence. Once that happened, once he fell into the sin of great pride, he became blinded to the darkness that lay beneath all the alluring temptations that followed. In addition, once he fell into a romantic relationship, he should have heeded the klaxon of warning bells and gone to see his Bishop. Sadly, it took two more years and a pregnancy to accomplish would ethical behavior could not.
Cutié did finally meet with his Bishop early in May to ask for a leave of absence from the exercise of the priesthood, which was granted. There was no public imposition of ecclasiacal penalty and Fr. Cutié’s private road to discernment would have started there. Scandal would have been avoided. Any final decision would have left him free to live a secular life and one of grace as well.
But he chose not to do that. His pride made it impossible for him to be patient and pursue his dark night of the soul privately. He had a public position he did not want to lose. He had a woman and child in waiting. And, he had another church waiting with publicly opened arms to receive him. And, about THAT.
It is no secret, thanks to the media, that many Episcopal priests, married and not, for doctrinal reasons have joined the Roman Catholic Church and sought ordination. It has always been the Church’s policy to not cause scandal for itself or others. Therefore, these defections have not been publicly discussed. It is then, all the more galling that the Episcopal Archdiocese of Miami did not afford the Catholic community of Miami the same courtesy and respect. Their very public acceptance of Fr. Cutié into their membership is a public slap that will set back ecumenical cooperation for years to come in that region.
My personal belief is that long after Fr. Cutié is gone and out of the spotlight that he loved more than he loved God, there will be good people, clerical and secular, in Miami who will continue to accomplish good works and with great faith. The spiritual brain of Miami will rewire itself and heal itself. The greatest gift we can give these workers in the fields of the Lord is prayerful support. And while we are at it, we must not forget that great Parable of the Prodigal Son and with forgiveness and mercy, also pray for Alberto Cutié’s salvation and return home.