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Identity crisis


At a BC conference, priests met to talk about their rights, their happiness, their differences

Breakout session, June 16. Photos by Lee Pellegrini

Breakout session, June 16. Photos by Lee Pellegrini

By William Bole

The 130 scholars and clergy who registered on campus for a conference on the "Roman Catholic Priesthood in the 21st Century," June 15–17, did not need a wake-up call about the urgency of their subject, but they found the message anyway, in their morning newspapers. On the final day of the gathering, sponsored by BC's Church in the 21st Century Initiative with financial support from the Order of Malta, attendees were greeted to headline news about the U.S. Catholic bishops voting overwhelmingly to retain the so-called "zero-tolerance" policy toward priest-molesters. The day before, the Boston Globe ran a page-three feature about fledgling priests being hurled prematurely into pastorates, there to fly or fall, because of the diminishing ranks of clergy.

To speak of a "crisis" in American Catholicism is to speak inevitably of the priesthood. That was plainly evident even before the revelations of child sexual abuse by priests in many dioceses and what has sometimes been portrayed as cover-ups by bishops. Besides the scandals that broke three years ago, the U.S. clergy drain has been one of the most talked-about subjects of Catholic concern (the number of graduate seminarians, for instance, has declined by more than 60 percent in roughly the past 30 years). But conference goers spent the bulk of their time considering what theology has had to say about the priesthood in recent years, and the attitude of U.S. priests toward their calling.

Indeed, the very question of what it means to be a priest has been "one of the most neuralgic issues" since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), said Susan K. Wood, SCL, a theologian at St. John's University in Minnesota, whose talk opened the conference. Specifically, Wood was referring to the tensions extending along two connotations of priesthood carried forward from Vatican II: the "common priesthood," which cites the calling of all baptized Christians to build the Body of Christ; and the "ministerial priesthood," or the ordained clergy, which is at the service of the common priesthood.

IN RECENT YEARS, the Church's highest authorities have grown anxious about what they view as a collective identity crisis among the clergy. The Holy See has sought to affirm the essential difference between the common priesthood of the faithful and the ordained priesthood, underlining the profoundly greater authority of the latter, according to Wood. She labeled this "defensive driving," an attempt to divert momentum away from the burgeoning roles of the laity, especially lay professional ministers who help tend parish flocks.

Among priests, many attendees acknowledged, there are two main theological camps. One adheres to a so-called priestly cultic model, which was the leading buzz phrase of the conference; it thrives on the notion that by virtue of ordination, priests are ontologically apart, different in their very being from the ordinary faithful. The other camp styles itself according to a servant model, the second-leading buzz phrase of the conference; it accentuates the vocation that priests and laity have in common to minister to the people of God. "Servant" priests think of themselves as working in concert with the faithful. "Cultic" priests pursue their identity through ministries only priests can perform, particularly sacramental ministries. They were not a noticeable presence at this gathering.

The cultic view is rising, however, as shown in survey research presented by sociologist Dean R. Hoge of Catholic University. (See "Facts and Figures.") This is not news to liberal priests of a certain age. At one dinner table on the first night of the gathering, three pastors traded laments about younger, conservative priests casting themselves in opposition to the mainly middle-aged, servant-style clerics.

Generational factors surfaced also in a breakout session to discuss the associations of priests that have emerged in a handful of dioceses. The right to associate was one of the "moral rights" of priests proposed in a talk by James Keenan, SJ, akin, he said, to the moral rights of all people "to food, or work, or health care." The BC theologian enumerated six moral rights for priests "with the hope that they may be eventually articulated into canonical precepts," including the right to share in the ministry of the bishop, the right "to privacy," and the right "to fair treatment." One group that has exercised the associational right is the Boston Priests' Forum, started by diocesan priests in 2001 as a study and support group; members of the forum helped orchestrate calls for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law in the wake of the sexual abuse revelations in 2002.

Fr. Thomas Mahoney of the priests' forum noted that there are no young clerics in the association. "I'm 45, and I'm the youngest guy," said Mahoney, an archdiocesan priest who chaired the discussion session. When the forum tried to reach younger priests by direct mail, a few fired back letters and e-mails demanding to be taken off the distribution list. One younger priest characterized the Boston Priests' Forum as "opposing legitimate authority" in the Church, according to Mahoney's account.

A portion of Dean Hoge's research into these clergy camps did not go down well with the audience, namely his findings that younger and more conservative priests of the cultic variety tend to have higher morale than the servant-style priests, although they are notably less happy about working with lay professional ministers. Could it be, some suggested, that Hoge and other researchers are simply picking up the fact that cultic priests feel things are going their way in today's institutional Church, doctrinally speaking? That was the gist of a question by Fr. Michael Himes, who took a lead role in organizing the conference through BC's theology department. "You're absolutely right," Hoge replied.

CLERICAL HAPPINESS was an issue on its own at the gathering. Much has been said about the flagging morale of celibate clergy, both since and prior to the abuse crisis, but Hoge reported that research has not substantiated these worries. "The level of happiness is pretty high," he said, pointing to findings that nearly nine in 10 Catholic priests say they would choose their calling again, a figure comparable to other American men of similar age and education. He was referring primarily to a major study he conducted in 2001, before the molestation scandals. A scattering of research since then has yielded similar findings.

A contrasting view prevailed, however, at a breakout session titled "The Priest and Parish Burnout."

"I'm skeptical when I hear that priestly morale is fine," said Fr. James Burns, a psychologist who led the session and conducts research through Boston University's Danielsen Center for the Study of Religion and Psychology. "I'm around a lot of dioceses and archdioceses, and priest morale is not great. It's not in the toilet, but it's not great." His fear is that many priests will hear experts say clergy morale is surprisingly high, and wonder, "Wow! What's wrong with me?"

When asked about these and similar comments made during the small-group session, Hoge allowed that priest-morale research has been spasmodic at best. "I wouldn't want to overplay it," he clarified in an interview, referring to research both pre- and post-crisis. "I wouldn't say it's definitive at all." His assumption is that the scandals have tamped down morale, but the evidence is anecdotal.

One ambition of the conference was to scope out possible directions for the priesthood in the 21st century. Among other theological motifs, Sr. Wood suggested an alternative way of conceiving the difference between priests and laity. Look at priests "almost as an extension of the episcopacy," as formal representatives of the Church, she proposed. In other words, stress their institutional roles, not their state in life as purportedly higher spiritual beings. Edward P. Hahnenberg, a theologian at Xavier University in Cincinnati had another thought: Stop "obsessing" over the difference between the ordained and common priesthoods. Think of priests as helping laypeople carry out the common vocation, to spread the Gospel of Jesus.

More than one speaker invited the audience to imagine the possibilities latent within a single statistic: 35,000 men and women serving in lay professional ministries in the United States, a sampling of whom attended the conference. "Could you envision that as an enormous pool for ordination? We would have our pick among ministers who have already proven themselves," Fr. Eugene Lauer of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York submitted in the closing talk.

Hoge had already presented findings that the Church could put an end to the perceived shortage of priests in the United States by making celibacy optional. But he'd added, "We're not supposed to talk about that."

Alluding to those words, one pastor remarked in a conversation, "I'm just sick of not being allowed to talk about things." For three days he found a place to talk and listen in Chestnut Hill, and wound up asking to be quoted by name. He is Fr. Thomas Ivory. He was joined at the conference by two of his lay pastoral associates at the Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

William Bole's articles on religious topics have appeared in the Washington Post, Commonweal, and other outlets.


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