A Few Thoughts on Narcissism in the Priesthood

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2005-2014 by Douglas P. McManaman
All Rights Reserved (revised in 2014)
Reproduced with Permission

The priesthood is the last place we would expect to find a narcissist, that is, a person with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and it certainly ought to be the last place where we should actually find one. But the reality is otherwise. There are indeed a percentage of priests that manifest varying degrees of narcissism throughout the Church. The fault for this is certainly not the priesthood itself; it has everything to do with the basic characteristics of the narcissist as well as aspects of the priesthood that the religious narcissist finds attractive and convenient to him in his quest to hide his true self and procure a hefty and steady dose of narcissistic supply: adulation, admiration, attention, approval, and awe.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity that is characterized by a radical need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and which begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five or more of the following criteria. The narcissist:

Those with this disorder suffer from a deep lack of a sense of self, which is why they are committed to fabricating a self, one more lovable in the eyes of others. What the narcissist loves is this false self that he needs to see reflected in the affirmation and comportment of others.

Most priests are not narcissists. They are committed to just what the priesthood is about: leading the faithful to the Eucharist, consecrating ordinary bread and wine into Christ's body and blood and feeding them with just that and nothing more. And most priests ever strive to appropriate more perfectly John the Baptist's "He must increase, I must decrease" (Jn 3, 30).

But not every priest operates on this particular plane, despite appearances to the contrary. It is very difficult to distinguish darnel from wheat in its early stages of development, but the former is poisonous at its roots. It has a fraudulent character about it. Christ made it clear that we can expect to encounter such frauds within the body of the Church (Mt 13: 24-30) - he did not promise that such people will not make inroads into the priesthood.

But there are clues that suggest the possible presence of a narcissist who, unfortunately, might one day be assigned to our parish. What follows is a description of some characteristics of the narcissist of this particular type, that is, the religious narcissist who was attracted to the priesthood and managed to get ordained.

At this point, I should emphasize that we ought to be careful of our logic here. Consider the following hypothetical premise: "If John has brain cancer, he will suffer from frequent headaches." Given that John has brain cancer, we can logically conclude that he will experience frequent headaches. But it is unreasonable to conclude that since John suffers from frequent headaches, he has brain cancer. The conclusion has a degree of probability, and it may be low. Further testing is required. In the same way, a narcissistic priest will exhibit many of the following or similar characteristics. Although it is reasonable to conclude that something is amiss, it is invalid to definitively conclude that a priest who exhibits one or more of the following characteristics is a narcissist. The genuine pathological narcissist is very difficult to spot, and there are varying degrees of narcissism. As Samuel Vaknin writes:

Even an experienced mental health diagnostician with unmitigated access to the record and to the person examined would find it fiendishly difficult to determine with any degree of certainty whether someone suffers from a full fledged Narcissistic Personality Disorder  or merely possesses narcissistic traits, a narcissistic style, a personality structure ("character"), or a narcissistic "overlay" superimposed on another mental health problem. (Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited. Prague & Skopje: Narcissus Publication, 2003. p 369)

Hence, it is important that we tread very carefully here, for our purpose is primarily to help others who might be struggling to make some sense out of what they find to be a very confusing, ironic, and rather unfortunate situation.

The Narcissistic Priest

For the narcissistic priest, the Mass becomes an opportunity to procure a steady measure of narcissistic supply: attention, admiration, adulation and awe. The congregation becomes the principal source of this supply. The narcissist has a radical need to stand out in some way; for he is thoroughly convinced that he is extraordinary. He is convinced of his superiority over his brother priests and his bishop. His pride is outrageous, even if relatively inconspicuous. And so it is necessary that whatever he does, it be evident to all that it is superiorly done. Thus, his liturgy will stand out from that of his brother priests, and it will do so in a way that wins him the admiration and adulation of a large portion of his congregation. His liturgy will lean heavily in the direction of the theatrical, and his demeanor will be excessively dramatic.

Instead of giving the homily from the pulpit, the narcissistic priest will often take his place at the very center of the Church, literally "front row center" - of course, it does not follow that those who preach from the center are narcissists, and so we ought to be careful not to give too much weight to this clue by itself. But some will even read the gospel at the very center rather than to the side and behind a pulpit that hides most of the body; for it is impossible for a narcissist to stay in his place at the side, for only a servant willingly remains in his place, and a narcissist is anything but a servant, despite his desire to appear as one. Some priests have been known to memorize the gospel and deliver it without reading, freeing them up so as to make eye contact with the people to the left, then to the right, at the back and in the middle. Most of us are in awe and more focused on the stagecraft than on what is being said to us in the reading of the word.

The narcissist's homily often includes lots of jokes and gives rise to much laughter - although this is not always the case. By means of the homily he will very subtly call attention to himself. The congregation is invariably directed to his cute little idiosyncrasies, not just occasionally, but week after week. They might appear to have relevancy with respect to the readings of the day, but often the link is precarious. He might even, very subtly, put down a brother priest, which has the effect of highlighting his own good qualities.

His homilies will lack good theological content and are often subtly unorthodox. They will most certainly avoid challenging people on a very personal and moral level. This is because his goal is not to help them be better persons, but rather to help them feel better about themselves; for a narcissist would not risk making anyone feel bad by calling attention to moral issues and behaviors that people usually struggle with but often delude themselves into believing are compatible with being a good Catholic. And this is not because the narcissist is excessively empathetic - which is precisely the reason some non-narcissistic priests avoid those areas - , but rather because the narcissist seeks approval. A strong and bold preacher like St. Paul can expect a measure of disapproval, opposition, and suffering to come his way. This is not something the narcissist is willing to accept. For they care far too much about what others might think of them. That is why they are notoriously permissive in their moral outlook.

They will occasionally show disloyalty to the bishop, but it will be inconspicuous, because narcissists are devious; they usually have those in high places thoroughly hoodwinked. The reason is that they typically have very dynamic personalities, they know what others want to hear, and they flatter well, at the right time and in the right proportion. It is our tendency to fall into sequential bias which helps to keep us from penetrating the façade. In other words, the positive characteristics that we encounter first tend to frame and thus soften the negative characteristics that are disclosed later on in the sequence. Narcissistic priests will often take subtle jabs at the sacred teachings of the Church, and they will make light of people's personal devotions. It is not difficult to fit these clues into the larger context of a priest concerned about excessive piety and rigidity.

The narcissist needs to break free of the strictures of Church law, which he finds suffocating. He always makes subtle changes in the liturgy. In defiance of Church law, he might use vessels made of glass or earthenware instead of ones made of a precious metal. Since most people are unaware of the regulations of canon law bearing upon such matters, they are not aware of his defiance; all they know is that he does things differently than most other priests and is thus unique. His entire demeanor on the sanctuary is loose and casual. The narcissist just cannot submit to the entire established rubrics of the liturgy, because the narcissist submits to no one.

If the narcissist has a good singing voice, we can be sure that he will let us know it. He might sing the entire Mass. Some have been known to sing their homilies. He will sing to the baby after it has been baptized, to the couple during the rite of matrimony, and he will even sing to the bereaved at a funeral Mass.

Of course, it does not follow that priests who sing throughout the Mass are doing so to procure admiration; one only has to consider the chanting of monks. There is a significant difference, however, between the monk's chant and the singing of the narcissist. The monk's voice is not a barrier between the people and Christ. It is not the kind of voice one is inclined to pay attention to; for there is a transparency about it. One is lifted beyond it, because it is simple and unpretentious. The narcissist's voice, on the contrary, is highly conspicuous. It does not direct us immediately beyond itself, but assails us, seeping into our veins like sweet nectar. And this, I believe, is the most important clue that something is profoundly amiss: the faithful who are trying to make a place within their souls for the reception of Christ will struggle to do so; it is the struggle of trying to empty oneself against the intrusion of the priest's inordinate self-love.

Narcissistic priests will have a need to walk up and down the aisle of the Church before Mass, as people gather and prepare for the Mass. He will initiate conversation, as if the faithful need not prepare for Mass through prayer and recollection; he is not inclined to think along these lines, because in his mind the people are there to see him, and we all know how nice it is when actors come out to greet members of the audience before a play. And if people are made to feel special, they just might be more willing to provide the narcissistic supply for which he desperately longs. Moreover, in his mind, he is the homily, and so he does not need to prepare, because as long as the people see him, they are going to keep coming to Mass. He does not entertain any enduring sense of his own sinfulness, stupidity, nothingness, etc.

There are degrees of narcissism, but if a priest turns out to be a full blown pathological narcissist - which is rare - , then the congregation will only have seen the tip of the iceberg, not to mention the seminary that allowed him through. A host of behaviors will remain hidden from their eyes, for he will be vindictive, manipulative, exploitative, a user of the highest order, a liar. Very few will see the nasty side of him, except perhaps the parish secretary, or his housekeeper, and some of his brother priests who are too charitable to make an issue out of him. Anyone who does figure him out and is known to have done so will be thoroughly denigrated.

Concluding Thoughts

In the context of hypothesis testing, we often speak of a type I and type II error. A type I error is the incorrect rejection of a true null hypothesis. In other words, it is a false positive. A type I error leads us to conclude that a supposed effect (i.e., a disease or condition) or relationship exists when in fact it does not exist. We conclude that the reason for the observed result is that the alternative hypothesis is true, for example, he is not normal, he is sick; in truth, however, he is not sick. A type II error involves the failure to reject a false null hypothesis; it is a false negative. We conclude that a supposed effect (i.e., disease or condition) or relationship does not exist (i.e., all is normal) when in fact it does (i.e., all is not normal).

In the context of a controlled experiment, it means our test fails to detect the change or the disorder. Thus, we conclude that the difference between the sample mean and the population mean is insignificant, when in fact it is significant. A blood test designed to detect a disease, but fails to detect the disease in a patient who has it, is an example of a type II error.

Because we are very poor intuitive statisticians, we tend to make type I and type II errors frequently without realizing it. Our tendency to think fast is part of the problem, as well as our tendency to fall into a normalcy bias. Experts in the field of psychopathology have pointed out that it is very difficult even for them to detect a genuine psychopath hiding behind a well-constructed facade; how much more so for the rest of us.

Most people, I would submit, are easily deceived about evil and character disorder - those who are not tend to be forensic psychologists, police officers and detectives, etc. Most of us readily allow ourselves to be hoodwinked, to be fooled by the dynamic personality, the "nice guy" who, when talking to us, makes us feel as though we are the most important person in the world, says all the right things, that is, things we want to hear, etc. We trust so readily in our intuition or first impressions that we disregard base rates or prior probabilities, past performance, or the smaller clues that - if we were to pay close attention to them - suggest we ought to slow down think things through more carefully, that this person may not be who he appears to be. In this regard, people tend to fall into a type II error. They believe all is well (or very well) with a person or situation when in fact it is anything but.

In a statistical context, it is similar to settling upon a significance level (p-value) that is too small (.01, or .005, etc.). The normalcy bias contributes to this as well; we have a tendency to conclude that since a disaster of this or that magnitude has never happened to me before, it simply won't happen to me ever. Thus, clues that disaster is immanent are interpreted optimistically, and gaps in the evidence and ambiguities are used to infer a situation of much lesser gravity.

There is an ever present danger, however, of a false positive, the result of a significance level that is perhaps too wide (10 or 20%?). It is easy for some people (usually people who have been hurt in the past) to rush to judgment that something is far more seriously wrong than it actually is. For example, a person who is simply immature, who has not outgrown the mild narcissism of a normal but earlier stage of development, who is imprudent, etc., gives limited but similar evidence, that is, clues that might suggest a pathological narcissist, but he might turn out to be nothing of the sort. Those clues are quickly interpreted as evidence that the alternative hypothesis is true.

The topic of narcissism in the priesthood is not a pleasant one, but it may be an important subject that some should be made aware of, because many people are taken in by the narcissist - for who does not enjoy a good show now and then, and who among us doesn't like to be affirmed? But people are bound to get hurt by the narcissist, especially if they allow themselves to become involved in his personal life. When this happens, they will be very much inclined to reject everything that the priesthood represents; the danger is that they will leave the Church altogether. Better to keep in mind that the role of the priest is to be an empty vessel, a mere instrument of divine providence that is eventually put away and forgotten when his work has been done.