Shock Treatment or Selfishness?

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Moral Theology

surpriseRecently I heard a priest describe something that happened to him in the early days of his priesthood.

From his age, I’m guessing this would have been the mid-1970s.

He said that, for the first twenty-five years of his priesthood, he had really long hair (down to his waist, if he stretched it out) and a full beard.

At one point, he was assigned to a parish and came to know a local gentleman by phone but not by sight.

In one phone conversation the gentleman said that he really respected the priest and wanted his help with his son, who he felt was “going over to the other side.”

By this, he meant that his son was getting rebellious and not wanting to have his hair cut.

The gentleman asked if the priest could come over to dinner and perhaps talk to his son.

“I’d love to come to dinner,” the priest replied.

At this point in the homily, several people in the congregation laughed, knowing the kind of punchline that was coming.

So the priest went to dinner.

But, as for the topic of hair length, he said, “It never came up.”

Big laugh from the congregation.

Personally, I was cringing.


A Disclaimer

First, a disclaimer: I get the humor in this situation.

It’s a standard trope: Person A is unaware of a relevant fact about Person B, assumes the opposite, and then gets surprised.

Big laughs.

Comedy fish in a barrel.

I can think of lots of instances where this trope is used, like that episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where Rob and Laura Petrie are driven frantic with worry by the thought that their newborn may have been accidentally switched with the baby of another couple with a similar last name.

They talk to the other couple by phone, and though the other couple is quite sure that the babies weren’t switched, they agree to come over.

When they do, Rob and Laura discover that the other couple is black and thus, if the children had been switched, it would have been obvious. All their worry was for nothing.

A contemporary use of a long-standing comedy trope. For some older ones, just think of all those plays where Shakespeare has women disguised as men and fooling even the men closest to them before the Big Reveal at the end of the play.

Big laughs in the 1500s. Shakespeare used the device in around a fifth of his plays.

Or go back a little further, to when the two disciples on the road to Emmaus suddenly discovered that they had been hosting Jesus himself.

So yeah, there is inherent humor in this kind of situation.

But I was still cringing.


What Was He Thinking?

Anecdotes told by priests in the course of homilies are often of dubious historicity and are frequently intended for rhetorical and entertainment value rather than factual accuracy, so the priest may have been embellishing what really happened.

I hope so.

But taking him at his word, what was he thinking?

I imagine that he was thinking he would teach his phone friend a lesson of some sort, such as that you shouldn’t look down on people with certain hairstyles.

After all, the man had come to respect the priest through their phone conversations—enough to ask for help with his son—and yet the priest had precisely the kind of hairstyle that wasn’t to the man’s taste.

Perhaps the priest thought that showing up would provide a dramatic illustration of the point and thus teach the man a lesson—maybe one that would let him get along better with his son.

Maybe these or similarly high-minded things were what were going through the priest’s head.

But if the story is as he told it, there’s something that seems not to have been going through his mind.


What He Wasn’t Thinking

What the priest wasn’t thinking about was what his sudden appearance with long hair would actually likely do to the gentleman.

It would likely humiliate him.

In his own home.

In front of his son.

At a time when generational tensions were especially high.

Think about it: The man had gone to significant lengths to set up an encounter between the priest and his son in which he hoped the priest will straighten out his son on the subject of hair length.

And the priest led the man to believe that he was amenable to that plan.

But really, the priest was planning to turn the tables on the father.

The father would have every right to feel betrayed by the priest.

Further, the man may well have told the son that the priest was coming over and would be discussing hair length with him. If so, the father would feel even more humiliated by the priest when the he showed up and reversed expectations.

Even if the father hadn’t told the son about the expected conversation, the son knew his father’s views about long hair. For the priest to show up without warning the father would not only put the father in an embarrassing position, it would enable the son ever after to say, “Well, that priest you like so much has long hair. Why can’t I?”

The priest thus undermined the father’s authority in his own home.


What the Priest Could Have Done

Instead of deciding to teach the father a lesson by shock treatment, the priest could have thought more about how he could really help the man.

Instead of simply saying, “I’d love to come to dinner,” he could have said, “I’d love to come to dinner—but there is something you should know first. I have long hair myself, and I don’t want to do anything that would undermine your authority with your son. If you’d like me to come, I’d be honored to be your guest, but I totally understand if you’d rather I not come. I know how delicate situations can be between parents and children, and I don’t want to make your situation any more difficult. I want to do whatever I can to serve you and your family.”

Taking this open, honest, and supportive approach would have done several things.

For a start, it would have avoided making the father feel humiliated, betrayed, and undermined by the priest.

It would have avoided throwing gasoline on a tense family situation (possibly even sparking a family argument after the priest left).

Most importantly, it would not have communicated to the man the message that priests may humiliate, betray, and undermine you in front of your family.

And, as an added bonus, it may have even opened the man’s eyes to the fact that not all longhairs are bad. They can even care about you and try to help and support you.

Taking this approach might have led the man to respect the priest even more.

But if the event happened as the priest related it, he chose a much riskier and less loving path.


A Warning for All of Us

Of course, the priest is not alone in taking the kind of approach he did.

We can all fall into that.

Sometimes we rationalize our actions by saying that we’re going to teach a person a lesson by “shock treatment” or “tough love” when in reality we’re just being selfish. We’re not genuinely thinking about how to help the other person.

This is a constant danger in apologetics, and I’ve fallen victim to it myself.

To my shame, I vividly recall times when I took this approach in responding to a non-Catholic or even a fellow Catholic who was being rude.

It’s a human temptation, and it doesn’t just apply in apologetics. It applies in all areas of life.

Of course, sometimes, there is just no way to avoid a blunt lesson.

But frequently, there is—and the fault is ours if we don’t look for ways to be helpful and supportive of others, even when they disagree with us or come off abrasively.

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Joy April 26, 2015 at 2:44 pm

What you say is all very true,but it’s not the kind of thing I would ever have realized, UNTIL I BECAME A PARENT. It is very wise of you, Jimmy, a single man,to see so clearly. But for most, I think it is hard to see the implications of your actions in the eyes of parenthood unless you have experience as a parent – and not just a parent of small children, but a parent of children above the age of reason. I used to make these blunders all the time as a young adult. I recall asking my young cousin to come on a trip with me to visit our Grandparents. I asked in front of his parents, without asking them first. It put my aunt and uncle in a difficult spot. They said yes, but told me alone later that I should always ask them first about such things, an embarrassing lesson for me that I appreciate so much more now as a mother.

So I’d say cut your priest some slack. He was probably young and inexperienced,and just didn’t realize what he was doing.

Kevin Downey April 27, 2015 at 4:35 am

I was raised by a father with PTSD from WWII, he fought in Europe and Japan, one of only two Army Division that were in both theaters. I was raised by the example of “blunt responses and lessons” and only began to overcome that learned patteren when I started offering my “responses” to GOD each day in my mornning prayer along with my “Works. . . Etc”. Only after making that commitment to GOD did I begin to catch myself and think of another way.

John Rovetto April 27, 2015 at 5:15 am

Thank you. I think part of the problem is the way that human interaction is portrayed in the media. They are always showing us “best” and “worst” case scenarios where there is a definate “bad guy” who always deserves to be taught a lesson. I think watching too much of the media warps our perception in this area and hurts our ability to see the other side of the story. A great example is the television show, MASH. I wonder if it’s ever occurred to avid viewers that the ways that Hawkeye and Trapper John were constantly humiliating Frank Burns was highly uncharitable and downright wrong?

Paul April 27, 2015 at 7:49 am

Jimmy, reading through your scenario I predicted the outcome would be the priest cut his hair before going to dinner, and then confided in the family what he had done as an example to the boy the true relationship between our own priorities and the love of others.

Wouldn’t that have been the most virtuous path, at least the one we would aspire to? At least that’s the priest I would have wanted to be!

RICHARD QUENNEVILLE April 27, 2015 at 7:50 am

Just a brief comment here.Ii read your posts often, and generally find them both helpful and enlightening. This last one, the priest with long hair, shows both humanity and common sense. However, I was surprised by your comments about Fatima.They seem to show a gross lack of both research on the subject, and an unfortunate tendency to take certain high churchmen at their word. We all find it terrible when priests, bishops, or even cardinals are untruthful. certainly, they could be employing the principle of reservation, only seeming to lie since they judge they must. To misquote Sr. Lucy, for whatever ‘reason,’ is both misleading and shows a certain lack of research. Is it not possible that the Catholic world has been misled on purpose? Is it not possible that certain ones desire the Apparitions at Fatima to just go away. Your complete misunderstanding of the situation now in both Church and world is rather surprising to me. While I Certainly do not understand the present crisis in the Church and in the secular world, only the truth about Fatima will help. Perhaps reading Antonio Socci’s book, THE FOURTH SECRET, available on, will start the process of wonder or doubt which precedes any honest examination of the sources. William Thomas Walsh wrote a book, I think in the early fifty’s, about the Apparitions of Mary at Fatima in 1917. Perhaps that would be helpful in recalling what Catholics once thought of these Apparitions. This is a huge subject, but one has to start somewhere. RQ

Susan jorgensen April 27, 2015 at 9:07 am

Interesting article and your insight is refreshing. For all the reasons you wrote, I wouldn’t have been laughing, had I been a parishioner, listening to his homily.

Maria Melchioris April 27, 2015 at 12:31 pm

I am a grandmother now and more acutely aware of the deadly effect humiliation has on relationships. My parents insisted that disrespecting anyone, especially those older than I am was a grave sin. Treating younger siblings or friends in a hurtful manner was also a sin because we were failing to give good example. I know many ‘former’ Catholics who left the Church because a priest (spiritual father) treated them with disrespect. If this story is true, this priest most likely lost the respect of both father and son. No matter how difficult the relationship was between the two, the son would not appreciate seeing his father brought down. And even if the story is made up, to hear my fellow Christians chuckle at such treatment would leave a wound in my soul. We need holy priests, not priests who go for cheap entertainment when teaching us in Christ’s name.

Brian D Barry April 27, 2015 at 6:52 pm

I would have said I am a priest and do not dislike Jesus, because he had long hair, besides I have very long hair and have not lost any parishioners that I know of due to it.
As for coming to dinner if you still wish me to come knowing this I would only be to pleased to meet you and your son at dinner.

maeve kennedy April 29, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Sacrificial love – the priest could have cut his hair —
yes, there is no fault in the hair itself, but
in perception. Saint Paul said to cause no offence
toward the weaker bretheren.

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