The Priest’s Confused Identity

J. F. Powers’s second (and last) novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, published in 1988, is flawed fiction in several respects, but at least it ends on the right note for a story about a priest. Having fled his stressful parish, Fr. Joe Hackett relents and returns. These are the book’s final words: “When Lefty called after him, ‘Sure you don’t want that chair?,’ Joe shook his head and kept going, calling back, ‘Yes,’ and when Dave called after him, ‘Where is it you’re stationed now—Holy…Faith?,’ Joe shook his head and kept going, calling back, ‘Cross.'”

Just so. The priesthood, like everything else of importance in Christianity, only makes sense in light of the cross. That has always been so, but it may be truer than ever in American Catholicism today.

When I told a prominent priest-theologian that I was minded to call this article “The Crisis of the Priesthood,” he bristled and exclaimed, “You’ll just be playing into their hands!” There was no mistaking whom he meant: the progressive theologians and popularizers who, taking their lead from authors like Hans Ming and Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., have been promoting a desacralized version of priestly ministry for three decades.

John Paul II has a different vision. Priests, he repeatedly says, are “configured” to Christ. The configuring enables them to act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), which means acting with Jesus’ salvific love and taking up His cross. In his 1992 document on the priesthood, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds), the pope said, as he has done many times, that a priest’s commitment to serve his people should be modeled on Christ, whose service to humanity reached fullest expression in “his death on the Cross…his total gift of self in humility and love.”

John Paul’s writings on the priesthood embody an achingly high ideal. A priest would have to be a superman of the interior life, as well as a person of extraordinary human qualities, to measure up. Perhaps that is his point: This is too much for any man by himself, but with God—and only with God—it can be done.

But the desacralizers have had an impact. Many Catholic intellectuals in western Europe and America now “either reject the concept of ministerial priesthood or redefine it in ways that make it scarcely distinguishable from the concept of ministry in Protestant Congregationalism,” Avery Dulles, S.J., reports in his book, The Priestly Office. (Needless to say, this is not Fr. Dulles’s view.) One hears an echo of this kind of thinking in the increasingly frequent use of the word “presider,” not “priest,” for the ordained celebrant of the Eucharist.

Congregationalist theology is not the only problem. “The old ‘French’ spirituality of the priesthood was attacked after Vatican II, with devastating results,” the priest-theologian mentioned earlier pointed out to me. “But nothing was put in its place. Into that vacuum went psychology.”

The Changing Face of the Priesthood, by Fr. Donald B. Cozzens, is a case in point. Much praised by progressives for what it says about the supposedly “disproportionate” number of homosexuals among American priests and seminarians, it is hardly less remarkable for depicting clerics as delicate shoots who must be nurtured like orchids. So much feeling of clerical pain! So much psychobabble! If the priesthood is in trouble, a book like this—by the rector of the Cleveland diocesan seminary—may be part of the reason.

Whether it is tactically prudent to call the current situation a crisis, it is beyond dispute that the priesthood faces serious problems on three interlocking fronts—numbers, identity, and unity.

Numbers Story

The number of priests in the United States has been falling for the past three decades, from more than 59,000 in 1970 to 46,000 now. About 30,500 of these are diocesan priests, and some 15,000 are religious. During these years, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the percentage of active diocesan priests between the ages of 25 and 34 has declined by half (it is now about 5 percent), while the percentage over 55 has increased 50 percent (priests older than 55 now are about 59 percent of the total, including a substantial number over 75). The average age of diocesan priests in active ministry in the United States is 59. For religious priests, it is 63.

Seminary enrollments have declined sharply, from slightly over 8,000 students in theologates in 1967 to 1968 (5,000 diocesan, 3,000 religious) to fewer than 4,000 now (just over 3,000 diocesan, well under 1,000 religious). There has been a parallel drop in ordinations. As a result, CARA researchers report, “Dioceses now face the problem of too few active priests available to administer parishes.” In 1960, about 500 parishes lacked a resident pastor. Today, about 13 percent, nearly 2,500, do. However, the percentage varies from region to region—one-third of all parishes in the Upper Plains states (Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota) and just 4 percent in New England. According to one projection, there will be a little more than 15,000 active diocesan priests in the United States by the year 2010; currently, there are about 19,500 parishes. Meeting in Milwaukee last June, the American bishops had their first open general discussion about the pastoral consequences of this situation.

The problem of numbers has been a boon for people pushing a desacralized priesthood on ideological grounds. An eminent priest-scholar teaching at a university says they “are exploiting even the shortage of priests, with the aim of changing the priesthood and changing the Church.”

Sexual Orientation

Ideologically inspired views on matters like congregationalism, the priesthood of the faithful, and the ordination of women are obviously a crucial part of the ferment now bubbling around priests and the priesthood. They create continuing pressure for radical change. Just now, nevertheless, these issues are on the back burner, thanks mainly to adamant resistance by Pope John Paul. The progressives obviously are biding their time in the hope that his successor will be more pliable.

At the moment, then, sex is the most visible “identity” issue for priests. As with other elements of this debate, it is complex.

Fr. Cozzens says American priests and seminarians are disproportionately homosexual. Others say the same. “A proportionate number of gay priests and seminarians would fall between five and ten percent,” he writes. That assumes the incidence of homosexuality in the American male population as a whole is in the same range. But a lay seminary professor calls this a “phony” Kinseyesque figure: The incidence of true homosexuality among American males probably is on the order of 2 to 3 percent, although varying from place to place. While the incidence among seminarians and priests may be disproportionate, the professor says, that’s in relation to the lower figure, not the higher one.

What follows? This layman remarks that there are two kinds of priests and seminarians who have a homosexual orientation: those who are pious and chaste, and those who, more or less, are not. There is an obvious problem with regard to the latter group—one still not realistically faced by the authorities—but it should not be exaggerated. The priest-theologian notes an “activist gay agenda” at work in this connection: “It is helpful to say, ‘The Church is rife with it anyway, so why not recognize it?'”

Pedophilia is a radically different problem, with different causes and a different, extremely discouraging prognosis. There is little doubt that the number of true priest pedophiles is very small. (Authors like Cozzens err by lumping together pedophilia—attraction to immature children— with so-called “ephebophilia”—attraction to sexually mature youths and young men—which is simply a variety of homosexuality.) But small as their numbers are, sexual abuse of children by the tiny handful of pedophilic priests has produced agonizing problems for the Church and a lingering disaster for the image and morale of clerics.

The clerical culture and clericalism also are aspects of the identity issue. Despite some overlap, they are not the same. A clerical culture—a network of relationships, customs, institutions, and even perks tailored to priests—is, in principle, a good and necessary thing, just as similar networks are important for the emotional support of doctors, lawyers, union members, and people in other walks of life. In the case of priests, moreover, the priest-theologian insists, “A clerical culture is essential if a celibate priesthood is to be sustained.”

Clericalism is something else. It is the assumption of intrinsic superiority on the part of a priestly caste. Bishops and priests often seem to think it no longer exists, but laypeople know better. They also know that members of the laity sometimes are the most egregious clericalists. Many progressives are deeply clericalistic, as their obsession with power and prerogatives within ecclesiastical structures makes clear.

A layman who works as a director of religious education in a parish speaks bitterly of what he sees as the clericalism of today’s young priests. By way of illustration, he cites the wearing of the cassock as an “authoritative” symbol of office. “Why shouldn’t they wear it?,” the priest-theologian fires back, linking the cassock to the clerical culture. This triggers a passionate outburst from him on the topic of seminarians and young priests:

What I see is a revolution on the part of the young. Many say they found their vocations to the priesthood in the model of John Paul II. They’re being persecuted by their elders as a result. It’s a tragedy the way these young people are being read. They’re zealous. They give up a lot for something they believe to be absolutely important—God. But when it comes to formation, they discover, in many cases, that the people in charge are the enemy.

Their piety is attacked and ridiculed. Their orthodoxy is called rigidity. They’re pressured to fit the mold of the 60s and 70s. So they retreat. They conform to the program, but they maintain an inner space. They pass through formation without being affected by it.

Then they arrive in parishes without having changed, because change would have meant giving in. They’re called “difficult” because they’ve learned that authority can’t be trusted. Some are relatively undeveloped and, if I may use the word, even infantile in their faith. This really is a problem—a disaster.

The seminary professor sees the situation in a rather different light. Noting the extreme diversity among today’s seminarians—in religious knowledge, age, and motivation—he concedes that some, and possibly many, are immature when ordained. In itself, this does not strike him as much of a problem. Many laymen also are immature when they marry, he points out. “What’s necessary is a determination to try to be serious and shape yourself by the demands of the commitment you’ve made.” Some priests and some married men do; some do not.

Divided Within

Disunity on fundamentals of the faith may be the largest problem in American Catholicism today. It is a problem rarely acknowledged by Church leaders who, not knowing what to do about it, prefer to pretend that it doesn’t exist or else suppose that a solution can be found in a lowest-common-denominator “common ground:’

For the seminary professor, disunity is a debilitating problem, the “biggest crisis” facing priests and candidates for the priesthood. Part of it concerns the impossible task of being servant-leader of a deeply divided community. Conservative Catholics often complain that certain topics—contraception, for instance—are almost never treated in homilies today. One reason is the priests’ awareness that preaching about neuralgic matters would further divide their fractured congregations.

But of course—the other side of the coin—the priests themselves are divided. “Priests are in conflict over things they think are essential,” the seminary professor says. “Some agree with the pope, some don’t. They know this, the bishop knows it, but it isn’t confronted—it’s just there. You’re required to cooperate with people you fundamentally disagree with, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. There are all kinds of tensions and conflicts, but the situation must be treated with a smile as if it didn’t exist. It’s an awful strain to pretend there isn’t an elephant in the living room when there is.

“This situation of conflict, between the solidarity required to be good priests and the situation of institutionalized dissent now existing in the Church, worries a lot of seminarians. Clerical work isn’t like other professional work where conflict is part of the game. It’s supposed to be like being on a team—people working together for the same objectives. But that’s just not the way it is any more. It’s like players on the same football team trying to play by different game plans. And that makes becoming a priest a lot less attractive than it used to be.”

The priest-theologian suggests that the phenomenon of disunity helps explain why prospective seminary candidates today often are careful to shop around for theologically and spiritually congenial dioceses and religious institutes.

Solutions to problems like those troubling the American priesthood will not come easily. Among those frequently mentioned, one may not be a “solution” at all: to ordain married men as priests. Leaving aside a handful of exceptional cases (e.g., married former Anglican priests who become Roman Catholics), there will be no married priests in active ministry in the western Church under John Paul II. But his successor will come under early, intense pressure to allow the ordination of viri probati—”tested men” (i.e., senior married laymen)—in places where there is a severe numerical shortage of priests. In fact, this question may play an important role at the conclave in which the next pope is elected.

There is some support for ordaining married men even among supporters of priestly celibacy. Saying he sees “extremely good reasons why it’s appropriate for priests to be celibate,” the seminary professor, nevertheless, laments that celibacy is “off the radar screen” for Catholic youths and men who are reassured—by parents, schools, and the popular culture—that they needn’t be chaste. Given the dearth of new candidates for the priesthood, then, ordaining viri probati may be a practical necessity if the Eucharist and other sacraments are to be available to people.

He insists, however, that the men ordained must be the “proper kind”—older married men who have been good husbands and fathers, whose wives are past childbearing age, and who will serve “where they are” as volunteers, without salary and benefits. They should be selected very carefully, given enough training to administer the sacraments, preach, and teach catechism, and be named assistants to full-time pastors who are celibate. The point is to make it clear that the priesthood is not a job opportunity for an older man looking for a career change or for supplementary income and that celibacy remains the norm for priests.

By contrast with such qualified openness to the ordination of married men, the priest-theologian expressed violent opposition to the whole idea. Yet even he concedes that priestly celibacy is “only supportable with a very high doctrine of the priesthood.” It is, of course, just this high doctrine of the priesthood that progressive theologians and popularizers have been undermining for three decades by their congregationalist theology of ministry and their psychologizing.

Another solution to the problems of the priesthood is less controversial but even more difficult to effect, given that it would require changing entrenched habits of thinking and acting among Catholics. It is to recapture—or possibly capture for the first time—an appreciation of the universal reality of personal vocation.

Even today, “vocation” in Catholic parlance still generally means a calling to the priesthood. And in a time and place where, for many obvious reasons, the obstacles to heeding this particular call are so extremely strong, it is inevitable that the shortage of newly discerned and accepted priestly vocations will persist as long as this one- dimensional understanding of vocation does.

Paradoxically, the way to attract more candidates to the priesthood is to foster the understanding that vocation is a great deal more than a calling to the priesthood or religious life. The reality of vocation should be seen as universal and profoundly personal—universal because everybody has one, deeply personal because each individual’s vocation is uniquely his or hers—a special, unrepeatable cooperation in God’s redemptive plan. Children should be taught to think this way from an early age. It should be emphasized especially at the stage when young people typically make vocational commitments. But it also should be preached and taught to people throughout their lives, as they wrestle with the ongoing task of discerning and living their vocations. If this were done, many more men, early and late, would find that they had vocations to the priesthood—as well as other forms of committed service—than do now.

But that is in the long run. For the present, let J.F. Powers, arguably our most distinguished American chronicler of priestly life, have the final word.

For priests, as for other people, the cross ordinarily means everyday dying to self. Wheat That Springeth Green tells of a bittersweet episode in Joe Hackett’s seminary days when, naively eager to rush headlong into sanctity, the young man takes to wearing a hair shirt. Finally, though, he comes to see that sanctity may be more complicated than that—no less complicated than living a life. If, after a while, his all-too-literal hair shirt isn’t doing the job, Joe decides, he will put it away and “simply make do with the hair shirt that so many were wearing.” Very likely, that is something priests, just like the rest of us, really must do.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...