The Priest in the Church

By Rev. Richard P. McBrien
The Tidings
October 3, 2003

The Catholic Common Ground Initiative (CCGI), originally inspired by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago to promote unity in the church through dialogue, has sponsored various workshops, conferences, and lectures to that end, and publishes a quarterly report on its activities.

Last March CCGI held a three-day conference in San Antonio on "The Priest in the Church." The subject had a special urgency, given the nasty eruption of the sexual-abuse scandal in January of the previous year and its continued festering throughout the subsequent months.

Summaries of the various conferees's remarks in the June issue of Initiative Report disclosed a moderately broad spectrum of views.

The renewal of the church itself

is essential to any effective renewal of the priesthood, and a renewal of the church means

a renewal of the whole community of disciples --- laity as well as clergy and religious.

The pastor of a Manhattan parish, ordained in 1958, pointed out, perhaps for the benefit of younger clergy and the lay participants, that in the years immediately prior to the Second Vatican Council seminaries were isolated from the world, provided "almost zero" pastoral training, and imposed an "authoritarian discipline." Based on my own experience, I would suggest that seminaries of that period resembled benignly run minimum-security prisons.

This fact, however, flies in the face of a theory that circulated for a time last year that the seminaries which produced some of the highest profile predator-priests, ordained in the late '50s and '60s, were grossly permissive institutions where faculty members winked at sexual indiscretions of a homosexual kind and where the seminarians were given free rein in their behavior.

Only those who never experienced seminary life in the '50s and '60s could have made a charge so wide of the mark as this. But it fit an ideological agenda, and that is probably why it gained such currency within a relatively tiny faction of the church.

Other participants, however, were less inclined than the New York pastor to address the challenges facing priests today in so pastorally realistic a fashion. They relied instead on a highly theoretical approach that priests and laity alike know, from their own experience, does not correspond with reality at the parish level.

One lay theologian suggested that the priest is an alter Christus ("another Christ") --- a term redolent of an earlier era in the church. A woman religious theologian noted in reply that the phrase had been rejected by the Second Vatican Council in favor of one that situates the priest within the Christian community, in persona Christi capitis ("in the person of Christ the Head").

In fact, neither expression corresponds with the actual ministry of a pastor, or with the way in which priests who were formed in the spirit of Vatican II see themselves, or with the way that most parishioners view their pastors. Technical Latin terms of this sort contribute little or nothing to the task of identifying, analyzing and solving the problems confronting priests today.

Even further removed from the actual life and experience of priests was the insistence of another lay theologian that every priest is an icon. Thus, when laity gaze upon the priest as he presides over the Eucharist, they see not him but Christ.

A pious thought perhaps, but also one that fails to correspond to the reality it seeks to describe. As the Initiative Report informs us, this notion of the priest as icon generated some of the most heated discussion at the conference.

According to the Report, there were other interventions that scored higher on the reality-meter, but none higher, in my judgment, than those of Father Enda McDonagh, a moral theologian of great reknown at Maynooth College in Dublin, Ireland.

McDonagh pointed out what should have been obvious to most of the other conferees as well, namely, that the renewal of the church itself is essential to any effective renewal of the priesthood, and that a renewal of the church means a renewal of the whole community of disciples --- laity as well as clergy and religious.

Unfortunately, McDonagh continued, relationships within the church --- between priests and laity, priests and bishops, and laity, priests and bishops --- are fractured and in need of healing.

He was supported by others, who emphasized not only the importance of healthy relationships, but also the structural dimensions of the current crisis. Attention to personal holiness is not enough.

Father McDonagh also noted that questions about married priests and the ordination of women had been bracketed at the conference for the sake of the dialogue, but this gave rise to "some unarticulated tensions" among the participants. Those issues, he said, are in the background of every discussion about the future of the church and the priesthood, and they cannot be ignored or suppressed any longer.

Wise counsel from the Irish church.

Father Richard P. McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.