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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Priestly Morale & Celibacy

Sometimes, in the quiet of the evening, I become quite nostalgic.  My thoughts travel back through the years and I look at photographs of old priest-friends.  Most are still in ministry, but a fair number have gone on to other things.  Most went with silence and no fanfare; a few said things that burned their bridges as they went, obviously hurt and angry. All the guys I encountered seemed like good priests, faithful in their obligations (as far as I knew). They defected for many reasons:  an indiscretion of the heart, a lack of support, and/or a hard assignment. Details are always scarce and the archdiocese is silent about these matters (to protect the privacy of the priest). It is peculiar though, to have “brother” priests disappear without a word, their names struck from the ordination lists, and contact information not forthcoming. It is like a death in the family, albeit a somewhat disfunctional one at times.

Fortunately, the archdiocese is doing well right now with vocation applications, no doubt due to young and enthusiastic priests who are reaching out to families and the young. However, such cannot be said in all places, and we could always do better. We must face the truth if we want to plant the seed of hope. A calling is a gift from God, but we must help our men to be disposed in hearing and responding to such a call.

How do you encourage young men to be priests, if priests themselves are unhappy? There are many reasons for the current vocations crisis; but, I suspect that there are no elements more central than this one. The attributing factors toward this lack of joy in God’s service are where the usual laundry list of problems comes into play. Often priests are approached as if they themselves are the ones entirely at fault; and yet, this would be an exaggeration. The current situation would be better served if there were a complete candor in our discussion upon the state of holy orders. A desperate fear of scandal pervades the subject, as if we are afraid to acknowledge the priest’s humanity with all its accompanying strengths and weaknesses.

When I was first ordained, I would quickly go on the defensive when someone criticized the state of the priesthood. The years have taught me that it is better to listen, even if it is a message we do not want to hear. It is in this vein that I took seriously the petition of 163 priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee calling upon the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to address the issue of married men in the priesthood. They claimed that it was a credible way to stem the decline in numbers. This proposition, which has not been proven, may itself be a rationalization of lonely, unfulfilled and unhappy men. What was particularly interesting was their acknowledgment that this effort was taken up from a push in their congregations, because of shortages, but more likely in frustration about the scandalous rascals in ministry. The current effort may have inadvertently been fueled by Rome’s allowance for Episcopalian or Anglican ministers to join the ranks of the Catholic priesthood. I suspect we sometimes underestimate how revolutionary such a step was. For about a thousand years in the West vowed celibacy has been an identifying hallmark of the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Critics will sometimes contend that compulsory celibacy was the strategy of the “institutional” Church to insure the retention of Church property and wealth against any lawful heirs. However, as in the monastic model, celibacy had always been an element of the priesthood, going back to its periodic usage among the Jews in regard to their sacrifices at the Temple. There is ample evidence that, along the lines of St. Paul, it was held in high esteem and was even considered the best lifestyle for a man called to Holy Orders.

It is true that celibacy is a discipline of the Church and is not made compulsory by the accompanying theology of the priest as a new Christ, the bridegroom of the Church. However, Fr. Stephen Dunn, a spokesman for the Milwaukee priests, exploited the wedge that had been given them when he said, “We do have married priests who are Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran converts who are ministers and become Catholic.” Does he have a point? I must regretfully say that he does. What compounds the dilemma is that while no one I know argues for the validity of Lutheran ordinations, even most Anglican or Episcopalian priests are dubious. Old Catholic and Orthodox bishops, with valid apostolic succession, have sometimes participated at Episcopalian ordinations and consecrations of bishops. This has muddied the waters where Cranmer’s intermittent Book of Common Prayer had previously breached the lines of priestly transmission. However, except for the former Anglican Bishop of London, Episcopalian priests under the indult have been ordained “absolutely” and not “conditionally”. This means that, if they were not true priests before, they are now. The petitioners, and probably many other Catholics from among the faithful and the dissenters, are concerned that married Protestant men can become priests but married Catholic men, no matter how good and holy, cannot.

A great deal is left unsaid in the present controversy. If as I suspect, this petition is somewhat self-seeking, the priests may be very disappointed at how the matter will or will not be addressed. There is a good probability that the petition will be ignored. It is the passive way that churchmen deal with important conflicts in the post-Vatican II Church. It avoids direct confrontation and sidesteps giving a voice to division in the American hierarchy. Certain more conservative voices actually side with the left in arguing that the topic should be considered once and for all. The presumption from this camp is that the bishops would assuredly side with the Holy Father and reaffirm compulsory celibacy and then label the case “closed”. I would suspect that this would happen, after much wrangling in private sessions. It is not probable that the discipline will change any time soon, but I would not take bets on it either. Years ago the media delighted in fantasy statistics about the large numbers of gays in the active priesthood. These voices have largely gone mute since the rash of child molestation cases. One somehwat uncharitable critic noted, “They protect their own.” I wonder how many petitioners themselves are heterosexuals who want the comfort of a woman in marriage? Even if the rules should change, they may be in for a terrible awakening. Marriage does not solve all the questions of intimacy and loneliness. Priests who have left the ministry for a woman have an inordinately high divorce rate. It is also doubtful that any change in discipline would be retroactive. Following the Eastern model, men would have to be ordained before the acquisition of the diaconate. Widowers would not be allowed to remarry, as is the current situation with our permanent deacons. Men who have already vowed celibacy would be held to their promises. Unless they are happy with their celibacy, can you imagine the tension for these men to labor side-by-side with married priests with families? There may be many other good priests who accepted the sacrifice of celibacy and are happy, but would feel betrayed by such a development. The hesitation to assign married former Episcopalian priests to regular parish settings illustrates that the Church is not blind to such concerns, even if largely unexpressed.

While there are common denominators, not everyone’s experience of the priesthood is the same. A man may not even recognize himself in a book or article about the priesthood, depending upon his situation and the model or models of ministry that are put forward. One priest remarked how he hated “preachy” idealistic books because they heightened his frustration in not becoming the priest he had fantasized about in his youth. Of course, this begs the question as to whether he fell sort because of weakness and lack of appropriate gifts or because the expectations of some writers are unrealistic. Priests have tended to measure themselves against the saints. This compounds the pain of priests in a society that now largely counts the priest among the hypocrites and blind guides condemned by Christ.

3 Responses

  1. I see no reason why the priesthood should suffer a different fate than fatherhood and marriage.

    I am sorry Father Joe.

    We are living in a collapsing society which the lost ones see as “evolving” towards a more “just” one. Most are unaware they are lost.

    I have returned to Mass and try to spend time when I can before the Blessed Sacrament at Perpetual Adoration, which we fortunately have at my parish. My alienation from the hierarchy remains intact and more certain.

    I have no answers. I just realize that I need to be as close to Jesus as I can, in spite of my own sin and the terrible state of the Church/clergy.

  2. An interesting post. The last pastor of my parish once told me that if he had to do it over, he didn’t think he would have become a priest. While he felt strongly about his vocation, he admitted that it was a lonely life.

    Of course, with the shortage of priests means priests living alone in large rectories with no camaraderie, fellowship or friendship. Though, I must admit, that even as a happily married woman (23 years), the occasional time alone is a wonderful respite.

    God bless and I am glad that you are back to blogging.

    FATHER JOE: He actually said that? We all have regrets, but no priest should ever include his vocation among them. He answered a calling from God. The only alternative was to say NO to God, and that we should never do. There are moments of loneliness in every life. But, when it comes to priesthood, I am always amazed at how God works even through the weakest of instruments: sins are forgiven, Jesus and his sacrifice are made present, and God’s people are fed the bread of life. What can compare to that?

  3. God bless you. These times are hard. Just wanted to say that.

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