Monday, September 14, 2009

Returning To The Mythology Of The Past Is No Way To Address The Crisis In The Present

Appealing to the ghost of St. John Vianney will not address the questions Fr. McBrien asks concerning the current priesthood.

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.


  1. Perhaps what the Church needs in this Year of the Priest is for All Priests to read Hans Kung's History of the Catholic Church and begin to have discussions about this history, learn from the mistakes and build a Church that reflects Jesus Christ and the earliest followers of Christ's teachings?

    While NCR comments in outrage against Fr McBrien for his opinion saying that Eucharistic Adoration was a step backwards, these same people advocate that those who don't agree with them should just leave the Church or be excommunicated in which they are no longer even allowed to receive the Eucharist. This is an utterly backwards view, selfish view of Jesus to deny Him and take Him away from the divorced and remarried, liberation theologians, Obama supporters, Democrats, gays. This they say as they devote their supposed adoration in the presence of the Lord, yet this presence they deny the experience of in others and relish the idea that they even be excommunicated, to have no Communion with Christ.

    While they can prevent Communion in the Catholic Church, they cannot prevent Communion with Christ.

    Fr. McBrien brings up the truth of what priests are experiencing today in his most recent article. The hierarchy is acting like a big ostrich in denial of these obvious issues such as a shortage of priest. Who will Baptize if there are not enough priest? Will the Church find reasons to not Baptize certain children? I've heard of stories in which the Priest will not Baptize the child if the parents are not married. The hierarchy seems to be into the deliberate practice of downsizing the faithful along certain lines, while at the same time allowing other elements into the Church like sspx, opus dei, legionnaires of Christ. These groups are a militant expression of the Church reminiscent of days past in which there was much bloodshed committed by the self-righteous "faithful." It is hypocrisy to promote militarism and its tactics and then to say you are promoting the Peace and love of Jesus Christ. I am wondering when the Pope will see the hypocrisy? And, if he does see it, then why does he not change it?

    I believe there is a lot of craziness going on and for the hierarchy to call this the Year of the Priest and to not deal with the various Priest issues of sexual scandals and promoting those who so loyally "protected" the molesters of children and seminarians, promoting the sealing of documents and keeping them secret, is a huge mistake. It is a total denial of the present reality.

    I don't have much hope for the future existence of the Catholic Church in its current mode of denial.

    The silent majority of Priests need to unite with others who feel as they do. But they seem to refuse to let that genie out of the bottle.

  2. We should not ordain women because there aren't enough men...we should ordain women because it is right and just. There is nothing in scripture to prevent women from being ordained...the pope's own commission said so, just before he decided to ignore them and declared that the church lacked authority to ordain women. It is blatant sexism. NCR has posted another newsnote: a catechist who wrote a letter to the local newspaper in support of Sr. Louise Akers and the position of ordaining women has been told by Daniel Pilarczyk she can no longer be a catechist in her parish.

  3. I for one do not expect any of the issues about priesthood that Fr. McBrian raises will be addressed in this Year of the Priest. I do see glimmers of hope for the church, and yet I think those hopes are only glimmers in the present state of the church. I do feel some energy for ministry which for me is exercised around the fringes of the church. Overall I would share a great disappointment in today’s church.

    I experience all of the issues that Fr. McBrian raises in the diocese in which I live and in my own religious community. And for the most part those issues are not ever addressed.

    I do experience faith based groups looking for much more than they find in the parish church or in their local diocese. In my own diocese the bishop is trying to exert more and more control over who can come into the diocese and speak. So I think national groups like Call To Action are more important these days. I also welcome the internet where there can be free and open discussion of issues that are “not allowed” to be talked about in official church circles. Somehow, I believe, the Spirit is lurking in cyberspace.

    Anyhow, I am one of those folks close to retirement, and I guess I could say that I cannot wait. Somehow that also makes me sad for so many who are neglected quality ministry today.

  4. Maybe all of the women in the Church who support Sister Louise Akers position in defense of women priests should just not show up to Church anymore.

  5. Wild hair, don't you think the fact none of these issues is ever addressed is tantamount to an admission by the hierarchy that it has no reasonable answers and that's why it tolerates no discussion.

    In some respects Catholicism is like a dog being controlled by it's fleas and tics.

  6. I am very glad to find this blog. I was beginning to feel like it was time to stop associating myself with the Catholic Church since I felt so out of step. Thank you for saying what I want to say.

  7. Welcome Beth and glad to have you on board.

  8. You are right. I have met some of the newer priests, and in at least two cases, it's obvious they are extremely conservative, and I could foresee clashes with more liberal members of the laity. Fr. McBrien is right, but unfortunately, no one in charge is listening to his wisdom. I am also getting tired of some members of the hierarchy and priesthood treating the Eucharist as some sort of reward to be doled out or withheld depending upon whether one toes the line with respect to one's political or theological beliefs. I've not experienced this in the parishes I attend, but I've heard about it in the news, and I don't think it follows Jesus' example of welcoming all.