Fr. Richard McBrien has probably stirred up a hornets nest again. His last article on Eucharistic Adoration certainly stirred up passions. This week his article is far more important because he is dealing with the fundamental issue confronting Catholicism, and it's not Eucharistic Adoration. It's the priesthood.
In this Pontifical Year of the priest Fr. McBrien is issuing a call for real discernment about issues which are of critical importance to the future of the Church and the priesthood. These issues are not about a priest's faith formation or his pastoral duties to his flock per se, but all of these additional concerns certainly impact priestly formation and service. Here are Fr. McBrien's ten issues.
1. The shortage of diocesan priests cannot be addressed by band-aid solutions, like inviting priests from foreign countries to engage in sacramental ministry in dioceses with sharply declining numbers of domestic vocations. There needs to be a public discussion, involving priests themselves, concerning obligatory celibacy and its pastoral ramifications.
2. Many priests do not perceive themselves to be close collaborators with their bishops, as Vatican II envisioned them to be (Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, n. 7). Too few bishops reach out to their priests to ask for their honest opinions about anything that seriously affects the life of the church and the priesthood. (In too many dioceses this lack of collaboration actually masks outright but silent hostility.)
3. Many diocesan priests still feel betrayed by their bishops with the passage in 2002 of the Dallas Charter. Priests who have been accused by anyone of any sexual impropriety whatever with minors have been summarily removed from the active ministry. At the same time, no bishop, other than one cardinal-archbishop, has been forced to resign because of his mishandling of the sexual-abuse scandal. (Or, other than Rembert Weakland, has any bishop been forced to resign because of their active participation in sexual impropriety.)
4. There is a growing rift between so-called "Vatican II priests" and so-called "John Paul II priests," which is painfully evident in some dioceses when priests gather for the Eucharist at retreats and other diocesan events.
5. There is a concomitant return to clericalism in the priesthood, involving not only a fascination with cassocks and birettas and a preference for antiquated vestments and devotions, but also a negative, censorious tone to preaching and a cavalier dismissal of consultative structures that are supposed to be in place in every parish. (This is the worst of the consequences of the fascination with the pre Vatican II Church.)
6. At the same time, the Vatican and the bishops have failed to address concerns raised by the disproportionate number of gays in seminaries and the priesthood, including also the hierarchy. It is the elephant in the living room, as pointed out almost 10 years ago in Fr. Donald Cozzens's The Changing Face of the Priesthood. Yet how many priests' retreats and clergy conferences have used that book as a basis for discussion? (This issue can never be meaningfully addressed in the current climate of gay scapegoating.)
7. There has been a substantial attrition of Catholics -- women, gays and lesbians, divorced people, critics of official teachings on sexuality and reproduction -- from active membership in the church, to the point where fully one-tenth of the U.S. population now consists of ex-Catholics. What is being done about it? (Virtually nothing except to ask more of us to leave.)
8. Resigned priests are treated like traitors. To be sure, some bishops welcome them back at clergy reunions, but others boycott such gatherings as a sign of their contempt.
9. Appointments to the hierarchy since the pontificate of Paul VI have been of a certain type. Those who do not fit the official profile are excluded from consideration or are harassed by Vatican officials if they are already bishops.
10. So many senior priests say to their friends, "I can't wait for retirement." Why this sense of discouragement over the present state of the Church, bordering sometimes on hopelessness? (See previous nine statements.)
I don't suppose Fr. McBrien and the other priests for whom he writes are going to have any of these issues addressed. The Year of the Priest was not called to deal with the practical issues of the priesthood, but to reinforce the mythology of the priesthood. In using the term mythology I am referring to the archetypal aspects of the priesthood which speak to the unconcsious mind. Fr. McBrien is addressing issues which speak to the rational conscious mind. While each can effect the other, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a solely archetypal approach to have any meaningful impact on the rational aspects. What usually happens when a mythological mind set attempts to reform or address practical problems is a worsening of the problem.
Personally, I think Pope John Paul II leaned far to heavily on a mythological approach in reforming the priesthood and this can be seen in the divide between JPII priests and those who were not products of JPII seminaries. Not only are they apart and separate from their brother priests, but they also have a vision of their priesthood which separates them from those laity whose minds do not work in the same fashion.
A conservative mythological mindset seeks the Kingdom of God in a return to a mythical golden past when everything was consonant with God's plan for man. They filter out anything which contradicts that belief. On the other hand, the typical rational Western mind is enculturated in a world view that looks to a brighter future. They see the Kingdom of God as still coming to fruition as a product of a process of maturation and they work to further and deepen their understanding of revealed Divine truth. A traditional mythological mind set easily sees this as secular relativism. A progressive liberal will often see the return to external trappings of the past as an act of escapism propelled by fear of the unknown future and the ever changing present.
Somewhere a long the line we have lost the truth that mankind needs both a mythological world view in order to deal with the underlying questions secularism can't answer, and a reasoned world view which keeps the individual anchored in and responsive to the current reality. That's a hard balance to achieve.
The Vatican seems to be leaning heavily towards the traditional mythological aspect of the priesthood while willfully ignoring the current and future practical aspects. The upshot of this will only result in more Catholics being denied access to the Sacraments. This is really ironic since the Sacramental system is the core of Catholic mythology. It is the aspect of the Church that responds to the unanswerable questions and fulfills our need to ritually enact our relationship with God. This strategy is a disaster in the making for millions and millions of Catholics.
It may be that in last week's article on Eucharistic Adoration Fr. McBrien was underlining this problem between those who see the truth in a mythical past and those who see a bleak future for a Church which over emphasizes myth and ritual at the expense of practical reality. The truth is the past does not impact the present and future in any meaningful way unless it is changed. What changes is not the past itself, but the lessons we take from it.
It's time we took a look at the history of the Church and the development of the current priestly mythology. That mythology has developed and changed when it needed to in order to respond to needs in the Church. It can do so again, and it can be firmly rooted in the Scriptures and Tradition. But that can't be accomplished unless the Hierarchy is first willing to admit that maintenance of the current mythology is counter productive. The Holy Spirit is waiting.