A few weeks ago, the Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America released the results of a massive survey of Catholic priests in the United States. Priests interviewed numbered 3,500 from 191 American dioceses.
Predictably—at least for those who have been paying attention—the results constitute a biting indictment of the American episcopacy. The most prominent finding of the survey is that a majority of priests do not trust their own bishops—and, shockingly, only 24% of priests trust the US episcopacy in general. In other words, the bond between priests and their putative “fathers” and “brothers” is badly corroded. Even worse, bishops are largely unaware of the decay, with over 90% claiming they are very helpful to priests dealing with personal struggles. In fact, only 36% of diocesan priests think that bishops care about their difficulties, with one man summing it up, “We’ve been saying for a decade now that bishops see their priests as liabilities.”
Why this stinging critique of the US episcopacy? As the study points out, there is tremendous anxiety among priests because of the way the Dallas Charter has been implemented. While priests acknowledge that the abuse crisis needed to be addressed—and addressed vigorously—most believe that the implementation of the Charter has been disastrous. Many priests have been removed from ministry upon accusation—with no concrete evidence against them and without even a brief investigation. And when dealing with their priests, bishops are now as deeply “lawyered up” as any corporate CEO.
Accused priests, on the other hand, no matter how many decades of untarnished service they have rendered to the Church—and no matter how flimsy, bizarre and aged the charges against them—are treated courteously but are subjected to harsh and unyielding norms.
Yet the crucial issue raised by this entire survey—one that is unspoken—is the theological understanding of the priesthood that is ultimately at stake. It is this issue that is decisive and one that the bishops—despite being the Church’s doctores fidei—seem unwilling to address. Given their abrupt suspension of accused priests—with priests unable even to dress or to present themselves publicly as the ministers of Jesus Christ that they assuredly are—the bishops have eroded the theological density of the sacrament of Holy Orders. By so doing, they have undermined the very deposit of faith they seek to protect and transmit.
The Catholic theology of the priesthood holds that the sacrament of Orders has ontological effects. Priests are chosen for their ministerial vocation by the grace of God. Through ordination, they are conformed to Jesus Christ in a new way. As Vatican II teaches, “by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, priests are signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Presbyterorum ordinis, no. 2).
Neither baptism nor ordination can ever be repeated precisely because these sacraments orient the person to God in a way that cannot be reversed—even if, at some point, the recipient of the sacrament abjures his baptism and/or ordination. In other words, a priest is a priest forever, even beyond this mortal life. This is why at ordinations one often hears the hymn, Tu es sacerdos in aeternum—You are a priest forever (Psalm 110).
The sacral character of the priesthood is not intended to separate a priest from the laity, but to acknowledge a man’s unique vocation. As the council states, priests “by their vocation and ordination are, in a certain sense, set apart in the bosom of the People of God. However, they are not to be separated from the People of God or from any person; but they are to be totally dedicated to the work for which the Lord has chosen them” (PO, no. 3).
It is precisely this sacral character of the priesthood that the American bishops have called into question by their panicked response to the abuse crisis. The great majority, undoubtedly, do not intend to obscure the Church’s faith. Some bishops, however, seem to have a nebulous understanding of Catholic theology.
Evidence for this assertion? A few years ago, one bishop spoke about the possibility of forcibly laicizing all credibly accused priests. One could only ask: What understanding does this man have of Catholic teaching? Precisely because of the singular character of Holy Orders, laicization should be a court of last resort, reserved for those priests found guilty of serious offenses. But this bishop was considering laicizing those simply accused of abuse. This type of mentality reduces priests to mere contract workers, little more than members of the gig economy. Priesthood itself is deeply diminished.
It is precisely this myopia that has forced priests, as the national survey indicates, to regard bishops as the last ones to whom they would turn for spiritual or theological support. Is it any wonder vocations to the priesthood are in steep decline, with major archdioceses ordaining no one or only a handful of men. It is much too facile to blame secular culture for this descent. The bishops must examine their own consciences.
One also hopes that the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, has carefully digested the survey’s results. He has had a significant role in choosing US bishops for the last several years. If this survey means anything, it means that he and his predecessors have not been entirely successful in their episcopal nominations. The nuncios have sought, unquestionably, to appoint men with pastoral gifts—and with a clear dedication to the Church. But they have not, for the most part, nominated men of theological insight and fortitude who, even in the face of relentless attacks, can ably articulate and boldly defend the Catholic understanding of the priesthood.
At their meeting in Baltimore a few weeks ago, the bishops no doubt discussed the somber results of the recent survey. Surely, they asked themselves how to regain the respect of their priests, with an accent on the need for greater fellowship, more extensive outreach, etc.
May I offer a suggestion?
If, as I believe (and as the national survey indicates), the current crisis has weighty theological dimensions, American bishops could profitably spend time studying classical treatises on the theology of the priesthood—and then preaching and teaching on the subject. As Cardinal Newman wisely stated in The Via Media of the Anglican Church (1877), “Theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole Church system.” By understanding more profoundly the theology of Holy Orders—and taking the time to speak clearly and articulately about the Church’s faith—bishops will have gone a long way towards recovering the respect and trust of their priests.
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