Local priest weighs in on Catholic ethics and education

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Peter Edgar

Issues facing Catholic youth have been at the center of the national news focus several times over the past few months. Priests and bishops met in early January to discuss a way to overcome and eliminate abuse in the church, and Catholic private schools have been scrutinized following Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation in October and an incident at the Lincoln Memorial two weeks ago. 

Father Tim LaBo has been a serving priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in downtown Lakeland since the beginning of the summer.  LaBo has been a Catholic “from birth all the way up.” LaBo has been a pastor for 32 years and has served parishes in Winter Park, Maitland, DeLand, Orlando. Melbourne, Apopka, Kissimmee, and Poinciana. 

LaBo described being Catholic as an identity, but he notes that the experience of church is different between people raised in the church and people who join the church after childhood. “Catholics who have been in the church all of their lives can become complacent,” he said. “Sometimes people who come in later in life are far stronger in their faith… because we can take it for granted sometimes.” 

LaBo also makes a distinction between Catholics in the United States and members of the faith internationally. There is a cultural aspect to the way that the church works in other countries, especially predominantly-Catholic nations that have a strong church-state relationship.

“We’re not connected to the government in the same way,” he said. “Catholicism here tends to be a lot more diverse. You have Catholics from… the very liberal to the very conservative, whereas in Catholic countries everybody is pretty monolithic in the way people look at things.” 

Americans, LaBo qualifies, see church ordinances and laws “very legalistically.” American legalism often will trump a focus on piety (a general personal pursuit of holiness), a reverse image of cultural Catholics abroad.

LaBo specified the church’s penchant for diversity because of how international Catholicism contributes to a global mindset, in contrast to a specifically American point of view. An example of global Catholic unity is World Youth Day, which was hosted by Panama over the course of five days at the end of January.

World Youth Day is held every two to three years and is an international festival for Catholic youth that officially began in 1986. Attendance has varied over the event’s history and has exceeded the million-visitor mark several times. 

Each year, WYD chooses a specific passage from the Bible to serve as a guiding principle for the week. In Panama, it was Luke 1:38, which highlights servanthood and obedience and trust in God. The next WYD will be held in 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal. 

LaBo stressed the importance of WYD and the impact that it has on students who attend in terms of how it, in turn, helps the students’ home parish. 

“Youth gather together to try to deepen their faith,” LaBo said. “[they] find something to take from that whole week of activities… to revitalize the church’s young people: they’re important and needed.” 

LaBo hopes that when youth make contact with Catholics who model Jesus’ teaching, they may learn values like respect and love. He was disappointed and embarrassed by the events that unfolded on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., when students from a Kentucky Catholic School engaged with a group of Black Hebrew Israelites (a black separatist hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) and then with Nathan Phillips, a Native American Veteran. 

“I don’t know if I’ve gotten the full picture of what happened; I don’t think anyone really has,” LaBo said, “I would have hoped for those students that they would’ve simply walked away.”

 The students drew fire for attending the March for Life, for wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats and for being disrespectful to Phillips (many of them were yelling, though reports vary regarding the content of the yells). Phillips was blamed for inserting himself into the crowd of boys. As more video coverage emerged surrounding the event, some media groups backpedaled on their coverage. Others hunkered down in their indictment of different participants. LaBo chose to see past the coverage and address the student’s roles as Christians. 

“‘’Why do I feel the need to engage folks, even if they’re being rude or nasty or calling me names, or whatever?’” he wished the boys had asked themselves. “They did that to Jesus. Walk away! I know it’s hard to do… it could have been avoided. Our witness as Christians… we’re called to be different.” 

LaBo had many questions about the confrontation, not just about the students and others present but about the people who were not there. “There’s so many ways that we could deal with those kinds of things… I wonder, where were the leaders, where were the adults?” he asked.

LaBo continually expressed similar disappointment with church leadership, not just in schools but in parishes and the Vatican themselves. He immediately called the issue of pedophilia and child abuse in the church a crisis and saw the higher authority as avoidant of the issue. 

“I think they’re dragging their feet and are afraid of addressing things the way it needs to be addressed,” he said. “It’s power. As you get higher up into this power structure, you believe and feel that you are no longer under scrutiny or under the law… which is really a bad thing to have.”

LaBo is firm in his belief that the church should act. He commended the priests on their efforts to formulate a response, but even as priests are held accountable, bishops and higher leadership aren’t. He sees even these problems as symptoms of a larger issue: a failure to discuss sex in a healthy way. 

“I don’t think that the church deals well with sexuality at all,” he said. “One of the mistakes that the church did in the past was to say it’s just a moral problem”—that priests could just pray away their habits of abuse— “and that ended up not proving to be the case.”

LaBo is interested in providing people with help and in restorative justice, which he sees as ‘scriptural.’ He defined restorative justice as a way to get abusers to a new place in their life, through mercy and love: love that holds people accountable. “It’s saying, ‘I will not allow you to be abusive’… and that may mean incarceration, so that they’re kept away from society, so they’re kept away from children.”

To LaBo, pedophilia is “obviously” a mental illness. “We need to put a lot more into mental health counseling,” he said. “We need to address issues of sexuality…. We don’t do that well at all; as an American society, we don’t deal with that well.” 

LaBo ended addressing multiple issues at once. He seemed to accept a “both-and” between justice and mercy, between judgment and love and compassion. “We’re all human, but I’m not also going to give an excuse,” he said. “I will not ever—I never want to give an excuse for [abuse]. To me it’s just sad that we can’t get beyond that whole thing… you kind of get some hope that we are, and then something else comes forward.” 

He also doesn’t think that the church has done enough in making reparations with those who are victims of abuse. Over the past half-decade, the church has offered to pay victims, a move that was criticized by many for the stipulations the compensations sometimes included, such as a required promise to not file suit. “Money doesn’t do anything,” LaBo said, “And I’m not saying they shouldn’t get money, but I don’t think we’re doing enough.”

The issues that the church is facing seemed to have taken a toll on LaBo. “it’s embarrassing to me as a Catholic priest… and it’s sad and it hurts,” he said. A sickness that’s taken root in the core of the priest’s identity necessarily harms the priest, and he wants to cure it. “I would hope that my church would begin to really grow and develop itself where we could address these issues up front, and honestly, and with integrity—and begin to rebuild trust with people,” he said. “We’ve lost trust, and it’s sad.”

Though the church at large and its leadership must solve the matter corporately, LaBo is simultaneously focused on the individual at the same time. “I have to take care of me and be responsible for me” he said. “It’s a time for us to say, ‘we need to be humble, and we need to be true; we need to be truthful.’” 

Note: This article is the second in a series on the relationship between people involved with the Catholic faith in and around Florida Southern College. The first may be found in an earlier edition of the Southern, under the headline “Catholic student leadership stands with church amid scandal.”

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