Donald B. Cozzens is president-rector and professor of pastoral theology at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Wickliffe, Ohio. This article is excerpted from his book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, $14.95).

Priests continue to grieve a number of losses. They have lost their innocence and the trust that for so long was simply taken for granted. The absolute confidence parents once placed in them has faded into a wary cordiality. They have lost their once unquestioned authority, their role as moral leaders and spiritual guides. They have lost their place in the hearts of at least some of their parishioners. Teenagers turn elsewhere when confused and desperate for an understanding ear. Young adults are not always comfortable in their presence. Furthermore, the crisis of confidence has crept into their own ranks. Priests don’t trust one another the way they used to. Men they have known for years, unless among their closest friends, are scrutinized for signs of misconduct with minors, for behaviors that might again harm the young and further erode the confidence in which they were once held. 

For more than fifteen years now, priests have reeled from allegation after allegation brought against Catholic clergy for sexual misconduct with teenage boys and, in some cases, with children. If their personal integrity was not at risk, their corporate integrity suffered. They could take little consolation in church officials who reminded the public that boundary violations with minors was a social problem and that the percentage of priests involved in these behaviors was about the same as other professionals having regular contact with teenagers and children. Is it possible, they ask, that some of their colleagues are making subtle and incremental compromises with their integrity as they attempt to explain the scandal to their parishioners?

Some priests have lost confidence in their chanceries and seminaries. They point to the paucity of serious theological reflection among church leaders on the dearth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Instead, strategies for more effective recruitment by vocation directors and parish priests are discussed, while Catholics are urged to pray for vocations. As important as these initiatives are, they easily distract from the hard creative and analytical thinking demanded of the present situation.

Authority Crisis
Priests clearly have taken it on the chin in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The blows have echoed throughout the Catholic community as well as to the outposts of the global village. Priests and their foibles have been fodder for the op-ed pages of our newspapers and ripe material for cartoonists, satirists, and comedians. Perhaps the priest-pedophile jokes, even more than the painful media coverage, signaled the extent of the clerical free fall from grace. 

Caught in the wake of the church’s authority crisis, priests have seen their moral authority, their ability to lead and to offer pastoral guidance, likewise diminished. The sins and crimes of some of their brother priests and bishops, of course, contributed in no small measure to the weakening of their authority. The scandal of clergy misconduct with minors has cast a long shadow on the credibility and authority of priests and bishops—a shadow that will last well into the twenty-first century. They are still welcomed as pastoral caregivers, of course, but their prophetic preaching of the gospel message is taken by many with a grain of salt. Still welcomed as “chaplains” to comfort and console, they are less likely to be welcomed as pastors who bear a word from the Lord. While it is clear that many bishops and priests are indeed credible and compelling teachers both to Catholics and to society at large, the crisis of credibility and authority shows no signs of abating.

Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck reports a telling conversation with another bishop that left him exasperated. He follows with a commentary both prophetic and disturbing:

Not long ago a bishop renowned for his conservatism said to me with a smile: “In our diocese every priest has three parishes—and things run splendidly.” That most reverend gentleman has never had the responsibility for even one parish—let alone three. If he had, he could hardly have made such a lighthearted remark. In France I have met worn-out, exhausted priests who have to attend to seven or even ten parishes. Even if such priests have the best theological qualifications, their voices will never be heard in the church’s higher councils. Such priests are not made bishops. Few bishops know what these priests face—with the result that their experiences and frustrations are never represented at the church’s highest level. The best we bishops can do is to sigh sympathetically about the difficulties our priests face and utter moving complaints about the shortage of Christian families capable of producing celibate vocations. At a higher level still all energies are devoted to defending the existing rules—as in this latest decree. The church’s real needs are never considered. . . . The tendency to place human laws and traditions above our divine commission is the most shocking aspect of many church decisions at the end of this millennium.

Stecher’s candid letter underscores in bold strokes the frustration and discouragement many priests feel as they encounter resistance to dialogue and the practice of true collegiality. Certain that their voice is not taken seriously, morale remains low. Preaching, in this climate, particularly wears on priests’ souls. Only a deep and integrated spirituality grounded in hard thinking and study offers any hope for successfully tending God’s word to a people hungry for gospel freedom and holiness.

Study’s Reward
One of the effects of the dramatic decline in the number of priests during the last three decades of the twentieth century has received relatively little attention—the impact on the intellectual lives of clergy. Fewer priests have led to longer working days for most of them. Often responsible for more than one parish, they tend to spend more time on the road. At the end of the day, there may be precious little psychic energy for literature, theology, and Scripture—essential for priming the sacramental imagination so critical for effective preaching. When the intellectual life of the priest grows shallow, his preaching inevitably suffers, and when his preaching is poor, there is precious little affirmation. Priests who preach well are regularly affirmed. Priests who don’t, aren’t.

Clergy, I believe, are no more in need of affirmation than most people, but being human, it can sustain them in times of fatigue and discouragement. The life of the mind is important for other reasons as well. Serious reading and study is intimately connected with the life of the spirit. The inner life of the priest who is determined to feed his mind is simply different from the inner life of the priest who doesn’t. There is a different quality to his prayer and contemplation, and his prayerful living permits glimpses into the mostly hidden drama of grace at play in the ordinary events of life.

Without regular study and serious reading, clergy easily come under the influence of the polar opposites of relativism and fundamentalism. 

The greater danger for priests appears to be an ecclesial fundamentalism, which, according to the master of the Dominican order, Timothy Radcliffe,

derives from a profound fear of thinking, and which offers the false hope of faith without ambiguity. Within the church this fundamentalism sometimes takes the form of an unthinking repetition of received words, a refusal to take part in the never-ending search for understanding, an intolerance of all for whom tradition is not just a revelation but also an invitation to draw nearer to mystery.

Radcliffe continues:

This fundamentalism may appear to be a rocklike fidelity to orthodoxy, but it contradicts a fundamental principle of our faith, which is that when we argue and reason we honour our Creator and Redeemer who gave us minds with which to think and to draw near to Him.

Saturated and shaken by the radical individualism and relativism of contemporary society, priests and seminarians may be tempted to eschew the anxiety inherent in such a society by embracing an ecclesial fundamentalism that, in their eyes, is nothing other than strict orthodoxy. At the same time, they have little tolerance for the ambiguous dimension to all knowledge that is communicated by the symbols we call language.

It bears repeating that priests who study regularly, pray differently. Their reading and reflection become staples of their spiritual lives allowing their imaginations to encounter with ever fresh insight the mysterious presence of God. Their preaching echoes the passion and liberating force of the Word made flesh in the present assembly. Having discovered the narrative nature of God’s revelation and the human psyche, they listen for rumors of angels in the stories of love and betrayal, of comedy and tragedy, spoken by their parishioners. Strangely, the loneliness inherent to celibate ministry takes on a different hue. Having fed their minds and hearts with the wisdom of the ancients and the insights of contemporary theologians and spiritual writers, they discover a certain intimacy of soul in their hours of solitude. Such liberating and purifying study must be engaged, of course, as an act of faith and prayer. Priests who study in order to win arguments and change people’s minds simply know more facts than when they opened their book. Approaching study without a sense of reverence and humility leads to pride and hardness of heart.

There remains a significant number of priests who lead vibrant intellectual lives. Some pursue formal post-seminary studies leading to advanced degrees. Others take summer courses and attend seminars and workshops that sharpen their ministry skills and expand their intellectual horizons. Countless others read widely and wisely, developing personal libraries that nourish their imaginations and souls. The quality of mind and soul of these men enriches the presbyterate and the congregations they serve. These are the priests who will sustain their colleagues through the present years of crisis; it is their voices that will speak the collective wisdom of the fraternity of presbyters. Their commitment to prayer, study, and ministry will continue to change the face of the priesthood well into the twenty-first century.

Signs of Hope
While only the naive or disingenuous would argue that the crises facing the priesthood are simply passing blips on the church’s ever-illuminated screen, there are signs of hope on the horizon. The first of these signs is the growing number of priests who believe the present critical problems must be forthrightly faced. Joined with bishops and laity who see the Spirit at work in the People of God, priests will begin to speak what their pastoral experience and theological reflection require them to speak. Having listened long and hard to their parishioners and to their own inner voices, they are ready for respectful, meaningful dialogue with their ecclesial superiors. The passivity evident in numerous priests is ready it seems to give way to committed, responsible action to address the underlying causes of the present troubled situation. They will face criticism, of course, from those who see any attempt to address the issues and concerns outlined above as threatening to the very well-being and integrity of the church. John Tracy Ellis appreciated the risk involved here. During an address to the Association of Chicago Priests in 1968, he said:

What I find particularly disappointing and even depressing, however, is that while numerous priests are quite articulate in private about the unhappiness they feel with their present lot, they will not take the steps to improve it even when offered an opportunity through approved channels such as committees of their diocesan senates. One gets the impression that they would prefer not to be confronted with the consequences that such a free action often entails. In a word, they would seem to fall into that category of man about whom Sir Isaiah Berlin was talking when he said, “Where there is no choice, there is no anxiety; and a happy release from responsibility.”

Another reason for hope lies in the apparent purification and maturation the priesthood has undergone in the last two decades of the twentieth century. From their own pastoral experience, priests know that something happens to the soul when it is subjected to ordeal upon ordeal, to unrelenting criticism, and to the anxiety that follows the loss of one’s place and identity. Either it surrenders to despair or chooses to hope against hope that life will go on, that mercy upon mercy will lift it up. Most priests have not given in to despair or lost their nerve. Their confidence has been shaken, to be sure, and their spirit bruised. But now, with status diminished and reputation questioned, priests have turned with renewed poverty of soul to the sustaining mercy and grace of God. In the midst of unprecedented crises, they stand as men without illusions, totally dependent on the strength of the Spirit. In the truth of their circumstances, their humility inspires freedom and courage.

The strongest reason for hope, of course, is their faith in the power of the Spirit to be with them through the darkest hours. In the power of the Spirit they are reminded that nothing can separate them from Christ’s abiding love and the saving promise of their creator God. In this abiding love and saving promise they look, without fear, to the renewal and transformation of the priesthood. Behind the changing face of the priesthood remains the saving face of Jesus the Christ. 

2000 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., published by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.

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