Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Rerum Indeed, Revisited

Shawn at Rerum Novarum had posted an idea from Fr. Greeley about a priesthood limited in duration. (That text can be found here.) I replied, briefly, raising some questions. (That text can be found here. Shawn's latest thoughts on my concerns are here, and I thought I'd continue this interesting conversation.

I had expressed some reservations on the "temporary" priesthood because it "makes some pretty significant inroads onto the idea of priest as alter Christus (alter Christus for 10 years?)." Shawn replies that in the days of shorter lifespans widowers would often come to the priesthood with only ten or fifteen years of life remaining: "So what is being proposed here does not differ . . . except [that in earlier days] it was ten to fifteen years on average of alter Christus before being taken from service by death. Now it would be ten to twenty years of alter Christus before being essentially "decomissioned" (in most cases) or being selected for an additional period either for higher orders or continued priestly ministry."

That's a dimension I hadn't thought about, the option to "re-enlist" at the end of one's ten or fifteen year stint. I like that addition very much. Would the re-enlistment be for another similar term of years, or for life? Would the priest have the final say, or would the bishop have the authority to continue his service "for the duration of the present emergency"? Just curious here.

But I still think there is a difference between the methods. I don't want to provoke a lengthy "laity vs clergy" debate about participation in holiness or divine glory, but I think it's undeniably true that the priestly life is marked by aspects or expressions of holiness which a layman cannot fully enjoy. It seems to me that these distinctions are both in kind (e.g., the power to administer the sacraments), and in degree or manner (e.g., poverty or chastity, which are required of all but lived in different ways according to one's state). I don't have a problem with the idea of a man passing into a more potent and vivid station in the Body of Christ. Where my concern comes in is the idea of a man going back down the ladder, so to speak, with the possible connotation that he's "done his time" and can now enjoy "real life."

That latter concern is mollified enormously by the "re-enlistment" idea, since the continuation of priestly service would remain a (no doubt preferred) option for many. But the analogy unintentionally implied by Shawn's defense would, I fear, be taken up by many: As in olden days, when priests died and gained their reward in Heaven, they now get "decomissioned" and are rewarded with married life and secular employment. I have always found a very strong agreement that the spiritual life is a "march or die" proposition -- there's no "hover mode," and it's foolish to think you can go back to where you were before you were given a spiritual benefit (Matthew 12:42, 2 Peter 2:20-22). I realize those Scriptures are speaking specifically about sin, but there's just something unpleasantly counterintuitive in saying that growth requires a decrease, that (to paraphrase John Paul II on priestly decomissionings) the God who once wished to hear "yes," also wishes to hear "no mas."

Shawn writes, "Besides, as the priest functions as ‘another Christ' at mass and in the sacramental ministry, within the ministry of the domestic church, the father is supposed to be ‘another Christ' to his family. Thus, I do not see the problem here that Maureen does or you seem to. There is biological fatherhood and spiritual fatherhood. Both roles have an ‘alter-Christus' dimension to them albeit in a different way." Yes, but that illustrates my concern rather well: When does a father get to say "I've had enough and I'm resigning?" The gift, once given, endures and can be accepted only by increase and growth, not by stepping down. I realize you can make the further analogy between them by saying that demands on a domestic father become different, even less intense, as his children grow to adulthood. Still, he remains their father and has no ecclesiastically-sanctioned lessening of his basic connection and obligation to them. Also, the priestly role as alter Christus is dedicated to serving the permanent state of dependent childhood among the faithful, (Matthew 18:3). It is obviously part of God's plan that a domestic father come to a point where he can stop ensuring that his children do their homework, but how is it part of God's plan that a priest stop ensuring that his children confess their sins and receive the Eucharist? A domestic father cannot put away his bride except for scandal, how do we reconcile that with the idea that a priestly father can lessen his intimacy with his bride because he wants to settle down, get married, and become an avionics technician?

Shawn also thinks the idea is interesting because "this principle is one way of dealing with the fact that (i) there is a vocations shortage (ii) the traditional lustre of ecclesial ministry has more additional options opposing it today than the mundane peasant life of the past (iii) the longer lifespans coupled with more demanding pastoral work means a quicker burnout by the priests." He's also concerned about ways to counteract the encroachment of laity on the roles of priestly ministry, and I think those are all very good points. He also says "there would in my view be another valuable function for priests in the situation Fr. Greeley described other than being a priest in emergency situations after the period of service was up. And that is being trained as part time spiritual directors. Certainly after ten to twenty years of hearing confessions such men acquire a tremendous insight into the human condition." This is also a good point, and it could be of great benefit. But what does a decommissioned priest say to a man who want's to divorce his wife? "You know, Fr., you were married to the Church, and now you're not. Sometimes it's too hard, isn't it?" I see a great opportunity for scandal here, resulting not from the nature of the proposed change but from the ignorance or unclarity of laymen. That too is a valid concern.

I was also concerned about the creation of an Orthodox-style priesthood: "Secondly, I think it's probably the Orthodox priesthood in by the back door. Nothing wrong with the Orthodox priesthood, but celibacy is, as Greeley says, a "strength and treasure of the West." I can't believe we wouldn't take just the point we were now discussing about indelible marks and come up with a "Semi-Retired Priest Corps" that goes on and on and on until it eventually takes over all parishes." Shawn replies, "SAM, first you say there is nothing wrong with the Orthodox priesthood and then you lament this idea as necesarily one that would "take over all parishes" and be "Orthodox priesthood through the back door." If there is nothing wrong with Orthodox priesthood then what you see as lamentable would not be a problem if it were to happen. (And I am not convinced that it would.)" As to the alleged inconsistency, I'm sure Shawn would agree with me that there's nothing wrong with a lifelong, Latin-style celibate priesthood. Would he follow his own point and say that no Orthodox church contemplating union with Rome should be concerned that the result might entail, at some point, the imposition of the Latin model of priesthood? I don't think so. If I were Orthodox, and had read about Cum Data Fuerit, I'd spend a mighty long time contemplating that possibility. A customary discipline can be good without being good everywhere and for everyone. If lifelong celibacy is a "strength and treasure of the West" than it is so for distinct and unique reasons which aren't seen as being so useful, or edifying, in the East. The same goes for a married Eastern clergy in reverse and, although I don't really understand why they think that regimen is useful or edifying enough to forego the Latin model, I really do lovingly accept what must be the wiser judgment of the Church, which has always maintained the wholesomeness of the Eastern practice. I value it because they do, and because the Church does, even though I don't "get" it.

I think our present manner of priestly life ought to be cherished for at least the same reasons, and so I think the establishment of a virtual Orthodox priesthood ought to be seriously considered as something which might be wholesome among the Orthodox but dangerous to ourselves. If the argument admits that a celibate Latin-model clergy is a "strength and treasure of the West," one feels obliged to ask, "Why?" I suspect that the answer will not be congruent with a married clergy, and while I realize that a married clergy isn't the point of Fr. Greeley's suggestion, I think the possibility of having such clergy ought to be given some serious thought.

I am worried, and I think it's a justified worry, that some or many of these "discharged" priests will become very insistent about their inactivity being unnecessary, harmful to the Church, and about their continued ability to serve as priest at all times. I think it's also likely that the same manpower pressures which have resulted in Fr. Greeley's idea will cause Bishops to give these pleadings an attentive ear, and to find ways around the obstacle of the priests' "discharge." Shawn has, in another context, mentioned one possible method for this transformation, the principle that "in the rare emergency situation, all priests are given faculties and all penalties - even excommunication - are temporarily suspended." One can imagine all kinds of legalisms by which the principle of "rare emergency" can be extended and "morph" into something else, just as the rare emergency use of communal confession has been extended and "morphed" into something which was never intended. In discussing policy, it is a bad business to assume that the original intent, or even the letter, of a policy will always control its future use. The old saw, "you can write the law, so long as I can pick the judge," is apt in this context.

Orthodoxy also figures into this discussion because of something our traditions have in common -- the belief that celibacy is the normal or "default" state of clerical life. The Orthodox don't allow priests to marry. They ordain married men as priests. Now I realize that the marriage is usually 24 hours before ordination, and that everyone involved understands that the result of a married priest is accepted and intended by all. But the principle remains, especially with respect to Orthodox bishops, who (from what I understand) cannot be selected from among the married clergy. The West has made exceptions along the Orthodox pattern for priests, but it's my impression that the idea of a man being married once he has been ordained a priest isn't congruent with how Christianity has rightly understood chastity for successful, ordinary clerics (as opposed to clerics who have "left the priesthood").

It really doesn't matter to me whether the idea came from Fr. Greeley or Fr. Fessio. It's an interesting idea, I just have some uneasiness about it.

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