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by Edmund Campion

Priests: A Calling in Crisis



Andrew Greeley, now in his late seventies, is still pretty good at stirring the possum. His new book, Priests: A Calling in Crisis (University of Chicago Press, $38.95) will enrage, puzzle, hearten, exasperate, cheer and confound its various readers. And, as often before, Greeley, the USA's best-known religious sociologist, will protest: don't blame me, I am only the messenger, I only report the facts. What facts? The facts in Priests come from a survey conducted in 2002 by the Los Angeles Times, a serious newspaper. Polled were 5,000 (from 45,382) American priests, of whom nearly 2,000 co-operated. That's a fair sample, you might say. How one reads the sample, however, depends on where you are standing and which spectacles you are wearing.

Priests is a short, snappy book where every paragraph is freighted with sentences that set you thinking. Here are some findings of the LA Times survey worth thinking about in Australia:-

- Most priests are happy in the service and, given their lives over again, would still want to be priests. On this score, they rate higher than doctors, lawyers, academics, or Protestant ministers.
- Most priests are heterosexual celibates; and while the percentage of homosexuals is higher than in general community, most clerical homosexuals are sexually inactive.
- As with protestant ministers who resign, the main reason for leaving the catholic priesthood is dissatisfaction with your work, not the celibacy rule. Very few priests say that loneliness is their major challenge - too busy to be lonely, says Greeley.
- Over the past half century the Vatican II project has sought to bring the church out of the Middle Ages and find a place for it in the modern world. Old and middle-aged priests think this a good thing; not so sure, younger priests hanker after the good old days before they were born.
- Condemnation of masturbation, birth control, premarital sex and even abortion as always wrong was decreasing until the arrival of this younger generation of priests, which seems to have slowed or stopped the trend. Same goes for homosexual sex.
- Most priests support the idea of married priests. About half want women priests and again, about half want to see the popular election of bishops. (Greeley says about two-thirds of the laity support all three propositions.)
- On issues such as preaching, respect for women, counselling, youth work and worship, protestant laity rate their clergy higher than Catholics do theirs, according to Greeley's own surveys.

On the other hand, according to the LA Times survey priests do not see their preaching as much of a problem for the laity. Indeed, most of the priests think that lay disaffection or alienation is not the clergy's fault, they are the fault of lay immorality or loss of faith or materialism or apathy. The it's-not-my-fault syndrome.

The LA Times survey was done during the stormy months of what Greeley calls the Year of the Paedophile, when priest rapists were uncovered in Boston, New York and parishes everywhere. Yet the survey shows only tepid responses by priests to the engulfing scandal. Why is this? He thinks the culture of clericalism may be the cause. Cops and doctors who cover up or don't want to see the misdeeds of colleagues have the same sort of culture. Miscreant bishops who reassigned abusive priests were doubtless conditioned by clericalism too. They didn't want to know. By contrast, Cardinal Bernardin gave the boot to some twenty abusers in Chicago, which didn't make him the most popular guy in the upper echelons of the hierarchy. Auxiliary Bishop John Michael D'Arcy, who tried to follow the same policy in Boston, today heads a bush diocese (where I am told, he follows from afar the Boston baseball scores, as if he were in exile).

Facts are facts but since it's Greeley who's reporting them you expect them to come with a certain amount of comment, interpretation and suggestions about policy - his enemies say of him that he has no opinion unpublished. All his life people have badgered him about the poor quality of Catholics preaching. Agreeing with them here, he says that homiletic training in most seminaries is a joke. Preaching is creative work, so some element of creativity should be a condition for ordination, as evidenced by a short story, a cycle of poems, an art or photo exhibit. As well, priest organisations have a part to play in bringing their members up top speed in their preaching. (It will be interesting to see what that excellent magazine The Swag, organ of Australia's National Council of Priests, makes of this challenging book. Come to think of it, whatever happened to that column reporting on the quality of Sunday Mass and Sunday sermons in different parishes which featured in early numbers of Online Catholics? Too many complaints from priests? I thought it a welcome innovation.)

Greeley's most fertile suggestion is a priest corps, modelled on the old Kennedyesque Peace Corps; young men would commit to priesthood for a limited but renewable term of say, five or ten years. After their term of service, if they didn't choose to renew, they would be free to go, with honour and gratitude. The benefit of such an idea, a breaker of present logjams, is obvious. Equally obvious is how repellent it might seem to those carrying a residual traditional theology of priesthood - the ontological sacerdotal character impressed on the soul by ordination and all that. I use the word "residual" with care; as one ordained before Vatican II I notice how much of our personal history we carry through whatever cultural changes we undergo.

An example of this is Greeley himself; speaking of priests resigning from the ministry, he uses the word "defection" (p. 62) a rare, cruel insensitive word. Its survival in Andrew Greeley's prose is a reminder of the tenacity of the hard old church thinking that formed our youth.

The Work:

  • Priests: A Calling in Crisis




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