In the early ’70s, Nashville, like other American cities, was rocked and divided by civil rights protesters, Vietnam War protesters, and protesters protesting protesters. Hawks clashed with doves on the streets, in the editorials of the two daily newspapers, in political campaigns and from the pulpit. Today’s tea party rallies would barely register on the Richter scale of public temper compared to those times when the needle pulsated in the red zone.
During that time, I hosted a variety of radio and television programs for WSM radio and WSMV-Channel 4. One day, in the midst of the protest cauldron that engulfed the city, a young Catholic priest appeared as a guest on my program called The Noon Show. Tall, lanky, a native Nashvillian and product of Father Ryan High School, Father Joseph Breen replied to my questions in his typically straightforward, soft-spoken resonant voice. He said that Catholic priests should be allowed to marry. He said America’s role in the Vietnam War was wrong. He said that while he respected the pope, he is not infallible. Father Breen was punished by the local bishop for his remarks and banished from Nashville to a tiny parish with a handful of Catholics.
In 1993, he spoke out again and was reprimanded by church authorities. A little over a week ago, they came down on him again. Hard. This time for a video that was posted on his church’s website, picked up by a Catholic blog called the Creative Minority Report and posted on YouTube. The content of Father Breen’s remarks were much like those he made on my shows 40 years earlier (sans the Vietnam issue) and those he made back in 1993. On each occasion, his challenging of the Magisterium — the teaching authority of the Catholic Church — is what got him into trouble.
Joe Breen is a friend of mine. He has appeared on my broadcasts numerous times and we met socially several times. When my program, Teddy Bart’s Round Table, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a huge event, I asked Father Breen to give the invocation. And when I encountered personal difficulty, Father Joe Breen was among the first to offer his friendship and support.
Father Breen was told by the Bishop of the Nashville Diocese, David Choby, to retract and apologize for his video statements. Breen relented, wrote letters of apology to the pope and members of his parish and announced his retirement at the end of next year.
I don’t blame him for submitting to the demand of the higher authority. He has suffered enough for verbalizing the notions of his conscience. While pedophile priests are coddled, protected and shielded from criminal prosecution by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, this good man is punished for speaking his mind and his heart. His crime is thinking. His sin is being fully human.
Breen’s saga reminds me of the travails of the 17th century Jesuit priest, Baltasar Gracian, whose life is a fascinating study in survival. Though it cost him greatly, he spoke and wrote that mankind could prosper by education and enlightenment. His writings were confiscated and burned by the church. Refusing to submit, he challenged people to think for themselves. He was banished to a remote outpost in Spain, where he was told to never write, question or speak his views again. He was considered a heretic. But he did write again, using pen and ink smuggled to him by sympathetic townspeople. He died believing he had failed in life. Today, the sayings of Baltasar Gracian are considered among the most profound and enlightened philosophic thoughts about how to live a meaningful life.
I hope Joe Breen knows how many people his service has helped. Maybe he will even put his thoughts down on paper.
If he does, my advice is to hide the pages in a safe place.