Exceptional misfortune or ecclesial mendacity?
In most dioceses across the country, Catholics have been led to believe that the current "shortage of priests" has been a wholly unexpected and rather unexplainable curse. They have been asked to pray for an increase in vocations which have mysteriously dried up in these modern times.
Rather then objectively evaluating the possible causes of this "shortage" 1 and coming up with solutions, many bishops are focusing on accommodations of how to function with less (or possibly no) priests. Certain measures which would otherwise be cause for outrage are accepted as appropriate measures in the current "vocations crisis".
This is not to say the "priest shortage" is not very real and very serious, but so are its underlying causes, two of which will be examined here. The first is an indirect attack that has been waged through the various reforms put in place since the Second Vatican Council. The second is an explicit screening process that has allowed progressive bishops to prevent the ordination of even slightly orthodox Catholic candidates. Strictly speaking, the first is a more formal cause, while the second is a means to propagate and extend the "shortage" for certain aims. The first explains how we've come to this point, while the second exposes the dishonesty (and outright treachery) of those with no intention of reversing the trend.
Like every other Church vital sign subject to statistical measurement, the number of Catholic priests has significantly decreased since the close of the Council. Such a widely-recognized fact should not need much supporting argumentation, but it is useful to consider just how significantly the U.S. alone has been effected:
- From 1965 to 1998, the Catholic population of the United States rose from 47 million to 62 million (32% increase) while the number of active diocesan priests has dropped from 35,925 to 23,857 (33% decrease).
- During that time, approximately 12,000 priests is the U.S. have abandoned their vocations (out of 50,000 defections worldwide).
- In 1962, there were 46,189 seminarians in the US but by 1992 the number had fallen to 6,247.2
Novelties take their toll
The modern novelties which have plagued Christendom since Conciliar days have arguably been the greatest contributing factor to the "priest shortage". This can primarily be seen in the Novus Ordo Mass of Pope Paul VI. With what has come to pass for "active participation" in the modern liturgical rites, the priest is no longer seen to occupy an exclusive role.
At one time, only the priest would have access to the altar. His alone was the privilege and responsibility of proclaiming the Word of God, administering the sacraments, holding in his consecrated hands the Body of Christ and drinking the Precious Blood. His duty could not be replaced by a committee, nor his functions consigned to the laity. These days, in pretty much every parish in America, any member of the laity can read an epistle, become an extraordinary minister (distribute the Body of Christ) and receive communion in the hand. In some of the more "forward-thinking" parishes, properly termed "disobedient" (for now, at least), any man or woman can read the Gospel, deliver the Homily, recite the "opening prayers" or completely lead a priestless "communion service".
So what is so special about being a priest? Why would a young man want to take a vow of celibacy and dedicate his life to serving God in the priesthood if those priestly functions most visible have been consigned to the laity? Why not just be a layman who "actively participates" in the liturgy? It is not insignificant that what was once the exclusive domain of a consecrated priest, is open to all. Fr. James McLucas provides an excellent analogy:
"The liturgical legislation of the post-Conciliar era has eliminated the Eucharistic exclusivity that marked the office of the priest. The celibate priest no longer possesses the unique corporeal relationship with God. He is not denied the relationship, but others have access to it. Consider a parallel situation: i.e., within the Sacrament of Matrimony. The possession of an exclusive bodily prerogative with one's spouse is primary; in fact there exists no greater convergence between the Divine Law and the instincts of even fallen human nature than on this point. Violate this pact, and one risks murderous rage. If a celibate priest, however, reacts with even the slightest resentment towards the loss of what was his corporeal exclusivity within his Sacrament of Holy Orders, he is considered a candidate for psychological evaluation.
"The fact is that many priests do have an instinctive reaction against the presence of the non-consecrated hand touching the Body of God. A non-consecrated hand in the tabernacle, or reaching for the Sacrament at the reception of Holy Communion, violates an intimacy that was, before the engineering of liturgical "roles," exclusively the priest's. A dynamic equivalent to what would fuel the emotions of a husband who realizes another has shared the exclusive intimacy with the one to whom he has permanently committed himself, is present within priests. The sense of alienation is more intense for the traditional celibate priest because he is aware that his spouse, the Church, has arranged and promoted the nonexclusivity." 3
"The catalyst that oriented the Latin Church towards the married priesthood was the introduction of the concept of 'collaborative lay ministry.' This began with the elimination of 'minor orders' by Pope Paul, and the tearing away of the substitutions, the 'ministries' of lector and acolyte, from an exclusive orientation towards the ordained priesthood. ...
"Once that hurdle was cleared, it was only a relatively small step to the erection of full-time lay 'pastoral administrators' that currently 'lead' anywhere between 10 to 15 percent of the priestless parishes in the United States. Curiously, in 1995 the Vatican declared that no lay person who administered a priestless parish could have the word "pastoral" attached to his [or her] title." 4 (emphasis mine here and throughout)
If the post-Vatican II orientation and New Mass provide the implicit disincentive force working against vocations to the priesthood, seminary psychological screening is the impenetrable wall. The hundreds of stories of young men being dismissed from seminaries and blocked from ordination cannot be ignored. In 1995, Archbishop Elden Curtiss, a former seminary rector and vocations director, commented:
"It seems to me that the vocation 'crisis' is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these ministries. ... I am personally aware of certain vocations directors, vocations teams and evaluation boards who turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordaining women or who defend the Church's teaching about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the rosary." 5
"Sister Kathy had an agenda about what kind of priest they'd be sending out into the field and what kind of seminarian they wanted at St. John's you know, 'collaborative ministry,' 'empowered laity' and all that stuff. [Seminarians] were asked, 'do you receive communion on the tongue or in the hand?' 'Do you genuflect?' 'Do you say the rosary?' 'What do you think about the pope?' 'How do you feel about women priests?' 'What would you change if you were pope for a day?' ... If he indicates in any way that he's loyal to the Magisterium of the Church, or to the Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ, that he doesn't have any problem with defending the moral teachings of the Church, that would definitely make him suspect. He wouldn't even make it past the starting gate." 6
"There are numerous reports that mental health professionals who do not support the teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality have been chosen to evaluate candidates for the priesthood and reject candidates who do accept the Church's teachings on the grounds they are 'rigid'. There are also reports that some mental health professionals do not report homosexual attractions and conflicts in candidates for the priesthood to diocesan officials or religious superiors.
"Mental health professionals chosen to evaluate candidates for the priesthood ... should be Catholics in good standing who support the Church's teaching on sexuality, life, contraception, homosexuality, celibacy of the priesthood, the Ordination on only men, and the hierarchical structure of the Church. ... Non-Catholics and Catholics who do not support the teaching of the Church should not be employed in this task." 7
"There are reports that seminarians who during the course of studies expressed support for the teaching of the Magisterium, the Catechism, and Sacred Scripture, particularly on issues of sexuality and homosexuality, were told they were rigid and divisive and needed new psychological evaluations. A number of these seminarians were either told that they should go to a Church-related treatment center for evaluation or were sent there even though only a few years earlier they had passed their psychological testing. Some of the seminarians who were retested were diagnosed as having serious psychological problems and were dismissed from the seminaries.
"Unless there are signs of a severe mental breakdown, there should be no need to retest a person who has been evaluated within the past five years. The basic personality structure does not change.
"No seminarian should be referred for retesting because he supports Catholic teaching. No seminarian should be retested unless they showed clinically significant evidence of a serious mental disorder." 8
Q. "What if one of my personal beliefs clash with that of the institutional church?"
A. "Do you think that St. Martin de Porres, the mixed-race Peruvian slave who doctored and fed the poor of Lima, was comfortable with the institutional Church's position on slavery? There are great saints who challenged the institutional Church during their lifetimes, and great Catholics today who do the same. There is a prophetic dimension to our Catholic tradition." (emphasis mine)
(Question and response from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' Office for Vocations Web site as of 1/10/02 - grammar from original)
In many dioceses, the current condition may have been the plan all along. With a celibate male priesthood coming to be seen as merely a necessary (rather than ideal) component of the Church, one wonders if some bishops would just as soon do away with priests completely and have parishes run by "lay committees". The first steps have already been taken by appointing "nuns" as "Pastoral Life Directors". Priests are just brought in for certain parts of the Masses and to occasionally hear confession (which often amounts to little more than a free therapy session).
These new measures are defended as "necessary" due to the "priest shortage" which, remember, is beyond the bishop's control or understanding. But are these such measures unfortunate or regrettable? Not according to Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles:
"What some refer to as a 'vocations crisis' is, rather, one of the many fruits of the Second Vatican Council, a sign of God's deep love for the Church, and an invitation to a more creative and effective ordering of gifts and energy in the Body of Christ." 9
At the beginning of 2001, Seattle Archbishop Alexander Brunett announced his intentions to commission a "study" to investigate new ways to utilize the "gifts" of the laity in response to the vocations crisis. Does anyone doubt what the results of this "study" are going to be? Certainly not a strong repudiation of the questionable steps already taken, particularly the use of lay "Pastoral Administrators".
Calling a laywoman a "Pastoral Life Director" rather than "Pastor" (or "Pastress"?) does not avoid the serious disruption of authority it incurs. This also applies whenever "pastoral committees" are put into service. The usurpation of the priestly role is not without its cost:
"The loss of the priest's unique intimacy with the sacred has subtly, but mightily, contributed to this development. While insisting that nothing has essentially been changed for the priest because he is still the one who consecrates, the liturgical engineers have made his presence optional at the most intimate moment of holy communion between the flock under his care and Our Lord. The majority of Catholics receive the Eucharist from the hands of a lay person. The act of shared intimacy that is at the heart of shepherding ('Feed my lambs, feed my sheep') is absent. The Church, echoing an increasingly feminized society, is telling priests: 'Once you have consecrated, you are no longer needed.'" 10
"For a parish to have a priest as its own pastor is of fundamental importance. The title of pastor is one specifically reserved to the priest. The Sacred Orders of priesthood represent, in fact, for (the priest) the indispensable and necessary condition to be appointed as a valid pastor. Other faithful may actively collaborate with him, even full time, but, as he has received the ministerial priesthood, they can never take his place as pastor. ... The ecclesial community absolutely needs the ministerial priesthood to have Christ Head and Pastor present in it. ... [the non-ordained] must be faithful to their proper function as consultants and care must be taken that no office or person deprive the parish priest of his authority." 11
The "vocations crisis" has not only allowed feminists to come to positions of power in the Church, it has succeeded in convincing an increasing number of Catholics that liberal agendas are acceptable as "solutions". We've already seen this in lay-run liturgies but it goes much further, as shown in surveys of those calling themselves "Catholic":
Respondents were asked about the acceptability of possible changes in their parishes if there were a reduction of priestly activities in the future. They were also asked about their views toward including previously excluded groups into the priesthood...
We asked respondents if they would be willing to have parishes run by a lay administrator and visiting priest instead of a resident priest. Over time, the laity was more willing to accept that change in parish administration. In 1985, 39 percent thought that a lay administrator and visiting priest were satisfactory. By 1993, 56 percent agreed...
The laity increasingly accepted the option of ordaining women. Gallup poll data were available from 1974 through 1999 on the statement that "it would be a good thing if women were allowed to be ordained as priests." In 1974, about 30 percent thought so; by the 1990s, over 60 percent assented... 12
Where to go from here
Since I'm regularly derided for making criticisms without proposing any solutions, this article will end on a somewhat positive note. Not that I acknowledge that clear demonstration of a solution is a necessary prerequisite for making obvious observations or necessary criticisms. Just because I can see the immense crater where a city recently stood and recognize it was caused rather than just happened though a natural geographical development, doesn't mean I know the guaranteed method for repair or have a magic "quick fix". Even such, the restoration of traditional Catholic beliefs and practices is an obvious place to start.
The re-establishment of the pastor as the head of the parish is a necessary step against the growing trend towards laity administration, but is much less important than the re-establishment of the traditional liturgical rites. We should return to (or at least propagate) the Tridentine Latin Mass which emphasized the special nature of the priest and his exclusive role in offering a Holy Sacrifice rather than just a "presider" of a congregation.
What to do about seminary screening is less of an issue, particularly if the priests are going to go from their ordination to a role of "Mass priest" for three parishes run by feminists in Jedi costumes. How will traditional Catholic seminarians ever make it through to their ordinations without being screened out? Deception was the method used by Modernists and Communists to get through seminaries, but for Catholics, that's not an option. The first (and best) means is through the prayer and sacrifice of all Christ's faithful. We should continually keep in our thoughts and intentions the simple truth that the restoration of the Church cannot come about without faithful Catholics entering the priesthood.
The second option is the establishment and expansion of traditional priestly orders like the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) which are outside the normal diocesan structures. This addresses both of the main problems and allows for a seminary training not influenced to the same degrees by the liberalism infecting the Church. Although such orders have the problem of being shunned by local bishops or receiving undue scrutiny and intervention by Vatican officials, they are successful in their mission of turning out truly Catholic priests.
Those who deny the New Mass could have anything to do with the "priest shortage" and don't believe their bishop could possibly screen out acceptable seminary candidates, can still easily witness the refusal of bishops to bring in a priest from a traditional order. In Seattle, it has been deemed preferable to have laywomen "pastresses" and priests who "cover" multiple parishes than an FSSP priest. It's not that priests are unavailable, it's that the ones available are not in-line with progressive agendas.
The correlation between traditional practices and ordinations can clearly be seen in the seminaries of traditional orders. While bishops across the nation struggle to attract new seminarians, the FSSP receives more seminary applicants than they can accommodate. This correlation can also be seen in certain "conservative" dioceses (e.g. Lincoln, Nebraska) which receive much more vocations than their "liberal" counterparts. Although this is a step in the right direction, the state of vocations in "conservative" dioceses still does not represent any sort of "renewal" of pre-Vatican II days, but a slight recovery after decades of a horrible free-fall. While these examples are useful for demonstrating an important correlation, they should not be held up as the new acceptable standard and praised as the "solution" to all the Church's problems.
To those who claim the return to pre-Vatican II days and restoration of Christendom are not possible, I ask why not? We've already seen how much change can happen in fifty years, and the Church is still standing (albeit weakly). Could changing back possibly do more harm than we've already endured? If "communion services" run by laywomen and parishes run by committees can all be justified by the current "priest shortage," can not the restoration of traditional Catholic beliefs and practices also be justified?
Peter W. Miller
1 "Shortage" is put in quotations not to suggest no such shortage exists but that it is not entirely accurate and suggests the Church hierarchy has no culpability in the matter that the "shortage" occurred about in normal operation because the well just dried up.
2 K. Woodward, "An Acute Shortage of Priests," Newsweek (4/18/1983)
3 J. McLucas, "The Emasculation of the Priesthood", The Latin Mass (Spring, 1998) [EOP]
5 M. Rose, "Priestly Vocations: A Self-Imposed Shortage" (09/2001)
6 R. Kumpel "It was us against them; Does Mahony Want a Priestless Church?" DailyCatholic.org (3/19/2001)
7 Catholic Medical Association, "Statement to U.S. Bishops" (11/1999)
9 R. Mahony, "As I Have Done for You, A Pastoral Letter on The Ministry" (2000)
11 Vatican Information Service, "John Paul II Profiles the Parish Priest" (11/23/2001)
12 K. Meyer, "Accommodations to continuing priest shortage", National Catholic Reporter (10/29/1999)