Rock and a hard place: Pope says laity can’t fill priest vacuum

posted by David Gibson

Benedict XVI today announced a “Year for Priests”– a fine idea, though one that apparently also comes with a tough message for lay people dealing with a shortage of priests, and the Eucharist.

First, the announcement. According to the Vatican press release:

“Benedict XVI highlighted the “indispensable struggle for moral perfection which must dwell in every truly priestly heart. In order to favour this tendency of priests towards spiritual perfection, upon which the effectiveness of their ministry principally depends, I have”, he said, “decided to call a special ‘Year for Priests’ which will run from 19 June 2009 to 19 June 2010″. This year marks “the 150th anniversary of the death of the saintly ‘Cure of Ars’, Jean Marie Vianney, a true example of a pastor at the service of Christ’s flock”.

The news release ends, however, with this paragraph, in full:

“The centrality of Christ leads to a correct valuation of priestly ministry, without which there would be no Eucharist, no mission, not even the Church. It is necessary then, to ensure that ‘new structures’ or pastoral organisations are not planned for a time in which it will be possible to ‘do without’ ordained ministry, on the basis of an erroneous interpretation of the promotion of the laity, because this would lay the foundations for a further dilution in priestly ministry, and any supposed ‘solutions’ would, in fact, dramatically coincide with the real causes of the problems currently affecting the ministry”.

That seems like a pretty direct admonishment to lay reform groups, such as Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) on this side of the Atlantic, or Wir sind Kirche (We are Church) in Europe–or to the many individual Catholics or groups who are trying to cope with a growing shortage of priests, and of parishes and of the Eucharist. 

A couple of thoughts: I don’t think one should necessarily conflate lay initiatives for reform or simply lay-led ministries in the absence of a priest as intentional or even unintentionally undermining the role of the priest. Many if not most of these groups value the priesthood. And some argue that the women’s ordination movement itself reflects a kind of clericalism!

Obviously the laity in the post-Vatican II age of a “priesthood of all believers” and a vocations crunch has contributed to an intense debate over the role of the priest and that of the laity. With or without the vocations shortage there would still be a debate, I believe, about the servant-leader and what is often called the cultic or iconic model of priesthood. (And most will respond, “both/and, not either/or…”)

But the vocations “crisis” (scare-quotes are used to denote doubt about the term–some will see it as a good thing, perhaps, others as non-existent) has also forced the church on the ground into new arrangements–lay people as pastors, even women as pastors, the ordination of married converts, and of course overworked, overstressed circuit rider priests who are used as sacramental machines rather than pastors, and with parts wearing down and no replacements.

The pope rightly stresses the centrality of the Eucharist, but without offering viable remedies to the absence of the Eucharist for so many people. Priests are central to the church–I support anything that supports them, as this Year of Priests is designed to do. But the Eucharist is also not just for priests.

So what do we do? Reasserting clerical privilege doesn’t cut it, as the reality on the ground is what it is. Cardinal Egan even raised a discussion of optional celibacy. There are other options, all of which would not undermine the priestly office. I think it would be better to discuss options now before the crisis gets even worse.

The full text here, in Italian, of the pope’s talk today to the Congregation for Clergy in which he made the announcment.

Hat tip: Cathy Grossman at USA Today.  

Comments read comments(16)
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Meredith Gould

posted March 16, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Looks like another tough year ahead for me! I could barely stomach all the woo-hoo St. Paul chazzarai, now this? Oy vey, Maria.

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posted March 16, 2009 at 1:44 pm

This is one of those ambiguous and tricky missives from the Vatican, at least for me.
I am just now sure I see how ordaining married converts is NOT diluting the priestly ministry, while encouraging lay ministries IS diluting the priestly ministry.
Lifelong married Catholics can only go through a Permanent Diaconate process, and do part-time work for the parish.
Lifelong Baptist ministers, married with families, can convert to Catholicism and be priests.
“Circuit Rider priests” must not be overly helped by their laity … no feeling like you’re stepping in to help, or that you (Heaven Forbid) are participating in the functioning and well-being of the Church. We lifelong Catholic laity must not get …. what? too uppity?
I just don’t get it.

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posted March 16, 2009 at 1:46 pm

…. just NOT sure…. sorry, made a typo in the second sentence.

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Your Name

posted March 16, 2009 at 4:19 pm

His Holiness cannot have his cake and eat it too. We asw Catholics cannot believe in the centrality of the Eucharist, and he cannot argue for the centrality of the priestly ministry, but then fail to offer any new thinking that would begin to redress the growing imbalance between the availability of priests in the US and the availability of the Eucharist. The second goal of Voice of the Faithful is the support of priests of integrity. By reducing good priests to sacramental circuit riders, we dishonor the priestly ministry on a daily basis. Year for Priests is a lovely notion, and we should do everything we can to encourage new vocations, but do we seriously believe such an initiative can even begin to slow the demographic landslide that is heading toward us.

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posted March 16, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Not sure married ex-Baptist ministers can be ordained, or at least I’ve never heard of such. Heard of married Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian ministers/priests being ordained because they have plenty of sacramental training.
When I contemplated a possible vocation to the priesthood, administering the sacraments was what attracted me the most, being the primary function of the priest. Our own parish priest is probably as ‘run down’ as any church rider priest, yet luckily we have an ample parts factory up and running :-)

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posted March 16, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Says he’s not “moving away from his Baptist faith, just moving toward something else”
And traditionalists wonder why some people have a hard time getting 100% behind everything from the Vatican.
And, that’s all beside the point. Because if ANY married man can be ordained a priest, then…. ahem…. a CATHOLIC married man should be able to be ordained a priest.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 16, 2009 at 7:18 pm

“Reasserting clerical privilege doesn’t cut it.”
In all sincerity, what is your operational definition of “clerical privilege” ? I’ve heard too many definitions through the years to assume I know what any one person means by this.
I’m only aware of married Episcopalian/Anglican converts being permitted Ordination. If you know something more on this, please correct me.
All of those technicalities aside, I don’t think we have a vocation crisis at all. We have, and have had for some time now, a crisis of faith in the first world countries. How many Catholics raise their children with the understanding that their lives are to be lived in the service of the Church?
I have one son and two daughters. The “family name” rests on my son’s shoulders. If he raises sons, the “name” goes on. If not, it ends with him. To me, that’s unimportant. I will encourage him to consider Priesthood as a viable option down the road, and let God do the rest from there. That’s faith.
Similarly, I will Encourage my daughters to consider Religious Life as a viable vocational option down the road. Should all three of my children choose Religious Life and my wife and I never have grandchildren, we would be just as happy going to our graves knowing that our children have brought abundant life into the world in an entirely different way. That’s faith.
And if our three children decide to live lives in service to the Church, of consecrated celibacy in the single state, then that’s fine too. That’s faith.
Should they marry, they will do so having been raised with the understanding that marriage is a vocation and a Sacrament, to be lived as such in the service of the Church. That’s faith.
The idea is that their lives are to be lived in the service of the Church. Priesthood is just as big a part of that as anything else. If we will not encourage our sons to consider Priesthood as a noble way of life, we deserve what we get. (Those with smart-@$$ comments about pedophiles should hold their tongues at this point. HINT!)
Optional celibacy aint happening soon, so we need to stop wishing for the improbable and focus on what is immediately attainable.
We have a married clergy-the Permanent Deacons. The Permanent Diaconate offers the most viable solution over the next sixty years. Deacons perform weddings, baptisms, funeral services (though not masses), burials, the Liturgy of the Word, Eucharistic reception, scripture studies, Parish administration, etc. The three functions that they can’t perform are Consecration of the Eucharist, Absolution, and Anointing of the sick. Far too many pastors and Bishops treat these men in Holy Orders as glorified altar boys.
The vocations are there. We’ve been too faithless as a people to cultivate them. What makes us think that we can bad mouth the Pope and Bishops, disregard their teaching and seriously have our children want to get ordained, needing to vow respect and obedience to the Bishop and all of his successors? Let’s get real people!
When our children see us living lives of humility and submission to religious authority, they will be more inclined to do the same. Perhaps even as Priests and Religious.

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posted March 16, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Gerard –
My husband is in the Permanent Diaconate program right now.
It is entirely true that married ministers from many Protestant faiths are being ordained. In the Catholic Church. In America.
Just not lifelong Catholic men.

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David Gibson

posted March 16, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Gerard, yes, as Cindy says, there are former Methodist and Presbyterians being ordained, but I do believe the line is drawn someplace as regards sacramental “viability.” (A prejudicial term.) Part of the pastoral provision contract is that these ordinations not be publicized.
By “clerical privilege,” I mean a sense that as long as there is a priest confecting the eucharist someplace all is right with the Church–we will be preserved. I prefer (and almost all priests I know, liberal or conservative or whatever) would prefer a larger view. But that will require hard choices after honest wide-ranging conversations.
Vocations to the diaconate are a great thing, and telling about the vocations “crisis”–is it a a crisis really? But there is much to debate there, and it is true, that too few catholic undertsand what deacons are about and too few bishops can get their heads around the idea. But to use them for the life cycle sacraments and shunt priests off to consecrating the Body and Blood seems a dangerous form of specialization.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 16, 2009 at 11:10 pm

Thanks for enlightening me about the married former Protestant ministers getting ordained. Cracks in the dam?
“But to use them for the life cycle sacraments and shunt priests off to consecrating the Body and Blood seems a dangerous form of specialization.”
I completely agree. I envision a robust diaconate as a half-century stop-gap measure at best. No, clerical privilege as you describe it is ghastly. The “crisis” as I pointed out above is one of faith, which gives rise to vocations.
David, do you notice how we always pray weekly during the Prayer of The Faithful for an increase in vocations to Priesthood and Religious life, but never for an increase in the number of couples who are willing to live their marriages as a Sacrament? Where do the other vocations come from? We’ve got this all wrong. The problem with low numbers of Priests does not exist in a vacuum. It arises from the deplorable state of our marriages and families.
For any Bishop with the courage of a gladiator, we need to rebuild the Church from the foundation (our families) up.
A happy Feast of Saint Patrick to all!

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 16, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Thanks for the insight. And thank you for graciously sharing your husband and your marriage with the Church.
God Bless.

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Little Bear

posted March 16, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Gerard, I certainly agree with you about the Sacrament of Marriage. Some priests I know don’t treat it on the same level as the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Yet both are Sacraments of Service. Both need to be
cherished as important Sacraments in the life of the People of God.
I do believe that we need a renewed concept in the value and balance of these sacraments—-couples should be invited up to preach a homily on the importance of Sacramental Marriage very often during week-end liturgies. But oops, the laity are not permitted to preach “homilies” are they? And that is one of the problems in the Church today—-only priests allowed to preach. But it is married couples who really know what a sacramental marriage is like—not a priest.
The laws need to be changed so that we can do what is needed to meet the challenges of our current life—to face the current problems that we have. If a living body cannot adapt to its surroundings, it will die. The Church, the Body of Christ, will keep on slowly (or rapidly dying) as long as the leadership keeps leading like this was 1950 yesterday.

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Gerard Nadal

posted March 17, 2009 at 1:02 am

Hi Little Bear,
I think we married people preach best when we do so by the silent witness of how we live our marriages. We are present to one another in the school yards and the parish organizations, in fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, etc. We encounter one another daily, and daily we have the opportunity to offer a shoulder to cry on, time for a cup of coffee, a word of advice, help with parishioners who are sick or may need babysitting in emergencies.
We have prayer groups and Marriage Encounter weekends, the PTA at school, choir, the list is endless. We married people are walking parables-for good or ill. The area of least impact for us is the pulpit. There, it comes off as heady, theological and academic. People watch what we do, and how we do it. There, in the trenches, is where it becomes real. (“By their fruits you shall know them”)
We need more couples who are willing to look at their marriages and honestly say, “What’s so Sacramental about how we are doing this?” That’s where our seasoned couples come in. Do we mentor young married couples? Do we even offer them a solid older couple to check in with on a periodic basis? Every profession worth anything has some period of apprenticeship where one learns at the side of a master. Why not Sacramental Marriage? God knows it’s hard enough!
I don’t think the body of Christ is suffering atrophy solely because of the clergy or the structure of the Church. We’ve done just fine for a long time with the structure of the Church and its clergy. Post-Vatican II there has been a wholesale rejection of Apostolic Authority, a refusal to submit to any authority that differs from what we see in the mirror each morning. The body of Christ has become fat and bloated from unprecedented wealth and material distraction, sexual licentiousness, narcissism, nihilism, and pride. Good luck fishing Priestly vocations out of that toxic cesspool.
Poll every Catholic parent you know and ask if they would encourage their children to pursue Priesthood or Religious life. I’ll wager that the number saying yes is less than 1%. Ask the same number of people if they plan to stress to their children that they should live their future marriages as Sacraments according to the Catechism of the Church? Less than 1 %.
Material distraction, sexual licentiousness, narcissism, nihilism and pride. This is the toxic waste that needs to be purified from the Church’s soil-our marriages, before we can even begin to plant seeds for vocations, let alone talk of a harvest. We’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s been a half-Century of rebellious infidelity that got us here. It will take at least that long to recover.
Take care Little Bear; I do enjoy reading your posts. You provoke some great introspection, for which I’m most appreciative.
God Bless.

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posted March 17, 2009 at 11:32 am

It would be wise for B16 to acknowledge the fact that without the laity there would be no church either. It was Cardinal Henry Newman that once said the church wouldn’t be much good without them. Yes, vocations do come from God, but all priests were once part of the laity. He should think about that in light of the fact that millions of lay Catholics have left the Church or have stopped going to Mass period.
I’m really trying hard to find some good in this papacy. But this latest announcement is strike three for me and,as I don’t wish any ill will towards this Pope, the end of his reign cannot come quick enough for me.

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Little Bear

posted March 17, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Hi Gerard,
I’m afraid that you fall into the same trap that our Holy Father does. Blame the laity for the problems in the Church, because the hierarchy are trying to pull back from what Vatican II begun—and it isn’t going to work. We live in the real world that the Church MUST deal with–not with the world of 1957 (before John XXIII).
After Vatican II, we have seen how the former concept of ministry, clerical and celibate, obedient without reservation to Church administrators, uninfluenced by lay concerns—that this ministry has been rejected by the People of God. This rejection is not organized or overt. And, of course, there ar always those who prefer pre-Vatican II priests. The the rejection of this former paradigm for ministry is evident in the severe shortage of priests.
The old model has litttle appeal to Catholic parents and even less appeal to their sons and daughters. But the leaders of the Church are not listening to the laity–from whom future priests, brothers and sisters come.
The Church cannot go back to being the closed society that is was. There is no future there: science, communication, transportation, education, economics require and demand global connections. And our Church must work within these boundaries as well.
What must the Church become, before it can really speak to its people?
1) It must answer more questions and solve more problems than any alternative society.
2) It must be clear and not require artificial explanations to make its case (Canon Law must continue to evolve–not become set in stone.
3) It must the theoretically and elegantly simple, close to the lives of its people, so that people experience this society–this communion–this body, as natural, logical, and apt.
4) It must inspire creativity and generate it precisely because it is open, resilient, inclusive, and welcoming of the people (men and women) their ideas, their gifts, as given by God. Again, St. Paul taught that so well. Then and only then, can the problems of the Church as it works within the contemporary world be solved.

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John D. Horton

posted March 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

The vocation crisis was manufactured by the modernist/liberal hierarchy as a way of putting pressure on the Vatican to allow married and female clergy. There are plenty of vocations but most are rejected by the anti-Catholic modernist/liberal hierarchy. The applicant / rejection statistics are never provided by the modernist/liberal hierarchy. See the book by Michael Rose “Goodbye, good men,” ISBN: 0895261448, for a full exploration of this falacy.

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