Monday, May 20, 2013

Look in my eyes, what do you see? The cult of personality

It's a misnomer to speak of a "vocations crisis" in the Catholic Church. Is anyone really prepared to argue that God is failing to call enough men to fill the ranks of the priesthood? Church leadership is wont to point the finger of blame outward: bishops blame our pornography saturated culture for making celibacy appear unattractive; they blame parents who want a more lucrative career for their sons; they blame a wholly materialistic culture that tells us whoever dies with the most toys wins; they blame a reluctance on the part of young people to make life-long commitments. All of these things play a part to be sure, but I don't think they're the only reasons or even the most important reasons. Celibacy is no harder today than it was during the fall of the Roman empire or during the Renaissance. Parents have always wanted more well-paying career tracks for their sons; St. Alphonsus Liguori's father was furious when his son announced he was quitting his career as a lawyer to become a priest. Even the heathens speak frequently of how America's materialistic culture kills the soul, so surely we civilized Catholics can do them one better. Catholics divorce and remarry at about the same rate as the general population these days, but they remain willing to devote themselves to political leaders who continually lie to them or ignore them.

The chief reason for the priest shortage lies with the personnel policies of Church leadership. They want to inspire young men to be priests but more often than not end up doing the opposite. If bishops and vocation directors are honest, they'll tell you that the problem they face is not that too few men aspire to be priests, but the kind of men who aspire to be priests. There is not a "vocations shortage" in the Catholic Church. It's more accurate to say that there is a shortage of the kind of men vocations directors and seminaries like who are able and willing to be priests given the current understanding of the nature of the priesthood. Compared to fifty years ago, the priesthood is depleted and demoralized. There are many ordained men who do not live as priests, and many priests who do not understand what their vocation actually means. Many Catholic men who might have become priests back then become instead teachers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, or social workers today.

There is no shortage of men who wish to enter the seminary or novitiate, but there is a shortage of men who get ordained or take final vows. The blame must rest squarely upon the clergy for this. For the last few decades many men who, by all of the traditional criteria, fittingly aspired to the priestly life have been unable to survive the formation process. Vocations directors will tell you that they receive a disproportionate number of applications from self-identified Traditionalists. These young men are typically interested in the things that only priests can do: confect the Eucharist and absolve penitents. Seminary faculty ding these men for being too narrow - or worst of all, rigid - for not being as interested in social justice, or cutting edge theology, or other things that the faculty thinks important. I'm not going to make specific charges that can no longer be substantiated, but anyone who has been in the seminary can tell you that there is often a strong homosexual subculture that alienates healthy heterosexual men from ever trying their vocation. You don't have to take my word for it - Fr. Donald Cozzens and Fr. Andrew Greeley, no conservatives they, have written extensively on the reach and power of the lavender mafia. To be fair, American seminaries are much improved compared to thirty or twenty years ago. Even so, there are some seminaries where I would consider it to be to a man's great credit if he got himself dismissed.

It sounds trite, but I believe there would be far more priests if Church leadership emphasized those specifically priestly duties: offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and absolving repentant sinners. These days a priest is not only a priest, but he also has to be a fundraiser, an administrator, and a counselor. Many of them end up as mere bureaucrats who don't date, as social workers who can't get married. This is not to say they don't work hard; priests are some of the hardest working men you'll ever meet. The problem is they end up having to do a lot of work that could just as easily be trusted to a lay person. If priests could spend more time on those specifically priestly things such as improving the liturgy, improving their preaching, praying more, and spending more time hearing confessions, the life of the Church would be immensely improved. I don't think we need to belabor just how God awful so many priests are about their preaching: "Jesus was a nice guy so let's all be nice guys too." When it comes time for communion, the smiling old priest is surrounded by a bevy of clip haired old ladies in pant suits who distribute communion and offer "blessings" to people who come up with their arms crossed. Why should a healthy young man give up a wife and family when he can just be a lay minister or whatever?

Contrary to what the heretics say, priests are essential. No priests, no Eucharist. No Eucharist, no Church. If you read the linked article, you'll find that Mr. Cahill said his priest friend defined his priesthood as "all about the people, all about relationships, all about service, all about Jesus' message of love and inclusiveness." That sounds all well and good but... why do I need to be a priest to be all about people, relationships, and service? Why do I need to give up a wife and family to be all about love and inclusiveness? Emphasize those specifically priestly duties, and the men will come. Stop blurring the ontological distinction between states of life. Stop clericalizing the laity and laicizing the clergy and they will come.

H/T: Michael Liccione

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