The So-Called “Priest Shortage”
Two things prompt me to write – a dispute between the Denver Archdiocese and a small “mission” church (www.denverpost.com/2017/04/18/our-lady-of-visitation) and the April 17 “Letter from Rome” by Commonweal correspondent Robert Mickens (www.commonwealmagazine.org/letter-rome). By the time you read this the Denver situation may have been resolved (though probably not), but larger issues about priests and people that Mickens addresses will not be solved soon. So I thought I’d add my two cents even though of late I’ve not written much about church reform. Though I won’t be citing history and texts as Mickens so ably does, I will try for accuracy. (And, with apologies to other Christians, I will be using Catholic-speak about “the Church” to refer to Roman Catholicism.)
Let me begin with personal disclosures. I have long known many, many really good Catholic priests, and know about quite a few very, very good bishops, including the present Bishop of Rome. As a young man I spent some good years in training to be a priest, and finally decided against ordination for personal reasons, not because I’d come to any negative judgments about the Catholic priesthood. Yet my reflections today do involve a series of negative judgments – not so much about people as about the theology, traditions, and church law which have led to the so-called “priest shortage”.
To start with that shortage: Yes, there is a shortage of priests in many Catholic countries, but mostly because of bad theology and bad management. As to the latter, it involves, as I see it, narrowness of vision and entrenched self-interest on the part key members of the clerical club. Mickens indicates some of the intense battle which Francis is waging on many fronts with those folks, and you’ve probably read reports of his statements about reconsidering the celibacy rule.
Vocations to the Catholic priesthood are there in abundance – among many married men (including many who have “left the priesthood” in recent decades), and among many, many women (married or single). Rumor has it, moreover, that significant numbers of priest-pastors in parts of Europe and Africa (and probably Latin America) already live with a spouse, without benefit of the sacrament but with the knowledge of their people and probably of their bishop. There was, as one illustration, a decent 1995 British film called “Priest” which realistically depicted an older pastor in Liverpool living amiably with his housekeeper/spouse (though the film focused on a younger priest’s homosexuality).
As most readers know, it’s never been Catholic dogma that priests must be celibates. John Paul II made no such claim even as he strenuously reemphasized mandatory celibacy. Yet he did proclaim that Catholic dogma prohibits women from being priests – a claim that many Catholics and many theologians find dubious on a whole range of grounds.
Thus claims about a “priest shortage” are, to put the matter in carefully nuanced terms, basically nonsense. Yet my saying so won’t change the minds and hearts of many believers (to whom I apologize for bluntness), nor of the defenders of the clerical club (to whom I do not apologize). Nor will it be much help to those many women and men who feel called to a priesthood which is denied them.
Nor will it help the folks trying to keep Our Lady of Visitation open here in Denver.
My short version of that effort goes as follows. The (Hispanic) pastor of the large church within which OLV operates as a mission has decided he needs to close the mission and bring its small community (100-200 folks) into the larger (3000 member) suburban parish. His reason is that there are no longer enough priests even to serve the larger parish, much less to continue weekly mass at the mission. He announced the closure last Fall to the surprise of the community, and is supported by the Archdiocese.
OLV began, I’m told, when Hispanic farm families from New Mexico settled in their north-Denver neighborhood early in the 1900s. Its religious community was built around a Penitente brotherhood, a form of piety brought north from New Mexico. The present church was built in the post-war 40’s and paid for (“one taco at a time” as one parishioner put it) by the community which over many generations has become a symbolic place for some in the large Denver Hispanic population. (I don’t know when it was incorporated as a mission into the larger and newer suburban parish.)
To no one’s surprise (except, perhaps, diocesan officials) members of the community (including its council and long-serving married deacon) were stunned by the closure announcement and have fought back (with the aid of folks from Denver’s larger community) – initially by seeking dialogue with the Archdiocese (whose delegates recently at the last minute declined to show up for a scheduled meeting); then by finding a number of retired priests willing to say mass weekly at this otherwise self-sustaining mission; and finally by receiving (so I’m told) pro-bono help from one of Denver’s most powerful law firms.
The situation as far as I know is unresolved, with the May 1 closing date fast approaching.
I’ve tried to suggest to a number of media folks (at the Archdiocese and The Denver Post) that this could and should be a great “win-win” situation. Clearly this small but multi-generational community has some symbolic value for Hispanic Catholicism, and just as clearly the US Church and the Archdiocese of Denver continue to claim that Hispanic Catholics are crucial to their future life and ministry. So I hope for a joyful resolution, but I’m not hopeful.
Indeed I’m skeptical. Dare I mention that there’s also a financial factor probably involved here? The community has a $ 250,000 reserve for building repair projects (which the pastor has refused to approve), and the Archdiocese, without the community’s awareness, reportedly just had the property assessed for $ 1.2 million. And there’s a new light-rail line that will run through the neighborhood? None of this may be the primary reason for the closing, but it sure will make it easier for the bigger parish and the Archdiocese.
Yet the larger theological and ecclesial issue here (and throughout the country where parishes are being closed) is not just about a priest shortage. It’s about the teaching of Vatican Council II (1962-65) on the nature of the Church.
Here’s my quick and I believe accurate summary of that teaching and the issues it raises: The Church is above all “the people of God” on pilgrimage through history. Distinctions of office and function are secondary and have changed many times during the people’s 2000 year pilgrimage. Yes, the Council affirmed the important role of bishops (as do I), and consequently of an ordained (trained, professional) priesthood. Yet the roles of bishops and priests, and the ways they are selected, has changed often to meet the needs of different times and cultures. So too the relationship of such officials to their communities with regard to things like finances, governance, preaching and other forms of ritual and ministry. Thus theological and ecclesial questions raised by Vatican II and stirring Catholic culture wars ever since concern what changes in office and function make sense for our times and for different cultures and regions of the globe.
As noted, I think that married and women priests are much needed, at very least in modern Western cultures. I also believe that bishops should be chosen by a process involving both local election (by lay leaders as well as clerics) and Roman approval or veto. Pastors (and priest assignments) should be managed by a similarly shared parish-diocesan process. And there are many models and much experience with such processes among our Episcopalian and Protestant sister and brother churches.
More fundamentally, with Francis I believe that we must declericalize and decentralize the Church. Yes, I believe we do need professionally trained clergy, but I think that we Catholics have put far too many eggs in that basket (even if the history of that centralization and clericalization was at the time part of needed reforms). We’ve assigned too many ministries and tried to capture too many charisms within one set of officials. We’ve failed to put money and prestige into the development of other (not lesser) official ministries. Why not, for instance, separate the office of preaching and of confession from leadership in the eucharistic rite? I suspect (indeed I know) that many women would make better confessors and better preachers than many of today’s priests. More significantly we’ve largely failed to develop a sense of discipleship and ministry among “ordinary” Catholics – not just religious ministries (which these days are of necessity increasingly performed by laity), but the far more fundamental sense of discipleship in secular work and professions.
Will any of these deeper changes happen, and if so how long will it take? I do think important changes are coming since they have been mandated by the highest authority of a Council with the Pope. Yet how such change will happen and when is what the struggle is about. I doubt I’ll live to see the more fundamental changes, and I doubt that my pet theories will necessarily “win” when change comes. Yet the Holy Spirit guides the Church even though She often “writes straight with crooked lines.”
I do hope, though, that I’ll live to see an eventual win-win at Our Lady of Visitation and for other communities threatened by closure.