A Calling in Crisis

In light of the upcoming Diaconate Ordinations of several good friends of mine in Oakland this weekend, I thought I’d publish a review I wrote in class for Andrew Greeley’s Priests: A Calling In Crisis. I was particularly impressed by his sociological defense of celibacy.  Enjoy.  

This book is hopeful, terrifying, insightful, angry, and challenging.  There is no other book about priests quite like it.  It is hopeful because it explodes the myth of celibacy and reveals priests to be happy, healthy men.  It is terrifying because it shows that these men who are happy and healthy are also isolated and aloof behind the walls of clerical culture.  It is insightful because it offers to policy makers in the Church the data and statistics they need to make constructive decisions.

How is this book hopeful?  For a man like myself who is studying to be a priest and who has heard often enough that celibacy is repressive and psychologically unhealthy, Fr. Andrew Greeley’s analysis of the data offers a perspective rooted in real study.  Greeley begins his book by explaining what sociology is not.  It is not Eugene Cullen Kennedy’s “sweeping generalizations” based on personal opinions.  Nor is A.W. Richard Sipe’s “blithe disregard for elementary methodology” honest sociology.  Greeley instead bases his analysis on the 1993 and 2002 Los Angeles Times Poll: Survey of Roman Catholic Priests – which has the benefit of providing a before and after of the Year of the Pedophile – and on the doctoral dissertation of Thomas Nestor, a study of priests in the archdiocese of Chicago.

The findings about celibacy are surprising.  Nestor found that in all levels of intimacy, “priests were either significantly better equipped than the controls for close relationships or, at least, were equal to the controls in the practice of engaging, developing, and sustaining close relationships.” Scrutinizing the L.A. Times survey, Greeley also notes that 83% of priests successfully live their vow of celibacy, and only 3% consider it “not relevant to my priesthood.”  Priests are also more satisfied with their job than Protestant ministers, and 92% said they would “chose the priesthood again.”  Only 1 out of 6 men leave the priesthood because of celibacy.  Most leave, Greeley contentiously maintains, because of “dissatisfaction with the work he has been doing.”

How is this book terrifying?  “Do priests have extraordinary skills of denial or do they live in a world apart, protected by the vestiges of lay respect that existed a half century ago?”  Greeley answers in the affirmative to the latter.  Out of 1,854, only 19 priests listed “bad sermons or liturgy” as a problem – though a notorious concern for the laity.  3 out of 5 priests attribute the problems of the laity to their own failings or to cultural forces.  When asked about what troubled them most about abuse allegations in 2002, “only 5% said that it was the suffering of the victims.”  Greeley chalks these problems up to the “iron law of denial” reinforced by “clerical culture,” a “male-bonding, band-of-brothers phenomenon that has gone to far.”  As many young priests seem to be re-plastering the cracks that Vatican II made in this clerical wall, there is great reason for concern about the future of the priesthood. 

How is this book insightful?  In 2007 the Congregation for Catholic Education published an Instruction in which it explained:

The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or who support the so-called ‘gay culture’.  Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women. One must in no way overlook the negative consequences that can derive from the ordination of persons with deep-seated homosexual tendencies.

While written three years earlier, Greeley’s analysis was prescient to what has been an ambivalent response to the Instruction.  He notes that “it would be a wise policy for church leaders to tone down the hysteria and leave homosexual priests alone, so long as they avoid the gay ‘scene’ and the gay ‘lifestyle.’”  His opinion is based on findings that 3 out of 4 priests say that celibacy is no more difficult for homosexual men than it is for heterosexual men.  While the Times survey did show that the “proportion of heterosexuals who are celibate is much higher,” the majority of homosexual men “are celibate or at least try to be.”  Especially in the light of the vocations crisis, it would seem unwise to kick out the 16% of American Catholic priests who self-identify as gay.

How is this book angry?  Greeley admits as much in a footnote, or at least that “it was written with some passion.”  He introduces the book as a “research exercise” approached with an “open mind and an empiricists hunger for evidence.”  By the end of the book, however, it is hard not to conclude that his analysis of “clerical culture” was already set, and that a certain amount of eisegesis is applied to the Times survey. In one particularly long rant, he presages with a footnote in which he notes: “The following paragraphs are a phenomenological description of clerical culture by one who likes priests but can’t stand clergy.”  The disclaimer notwithstanding, this “phenomenological description” places him back on the same level as Kennedy, Sipe, and every other cocktail party sociologist.  The book could have done without the angst.

This book challenged me.  If Greeley’s assertion is true that the most serious problems facing the priesthood are neither celibacy (as many liberals claim), nor homosexuality (as many conservatives claim), but rather “the findings reported in this study about the inadequacies of priestly service and negativity of clergy reaction to their laity,” then a serious examination of clergy culture and its strategies of formation must be undergone.  I myself felt moved to self-examination, and as I look forward to priestly ministry, it will be a daily imperative, as Greeley exhorts, “to see that there is no substitute for excellence.”  The people of God deserve that much from their priests.

2 Responses to A Calling in Crisis

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve asked you to examine in this in more detail before (although past requests have been subtly made, so this one will be direct) but could you please explain what you think constitutes a return to clerical culture? I see it only amongst some seminarians and young priests today and I get the sense that you 1) see it more than I do and 2) view things as part of a clerical culture that I view as healthy theology.

    • Which parts do you view as “healthy theology” that you suppose I view as “clerical culture?”

      Most of my critiques have to do with my experiences of how formation is done in major seminaries. It is very insular and contributes to this attitude among many young priests when they leave the seminary of wanting to do things alone without the laity, a growing trend as recent polls show. I also see seminaries reinforcing a clerical separation that, although real, is overemphasized. Then I could point to the “band of brothers” attitude that created the abuse crisis and the fact that polls showed little concern among priests for the victims themselves. I think that comes from lack of contact with the laity during formation. A lot of the liturgical training done in seminaries focuses around following the rubrics correctly. While that’s important, that is only half the battle. The other half is learning methods of fostering full, active and conscious participation among the laity. I don’t see that happening. The emphasis is all: “if you do these things then the mass is said correctly,” as if the validity of the mass is all that matters, rather than it producing its full effect of actualizing the body of Christ on earth. Some of the problems I think boil down to the reservation of all internal forum matters to a spiritual directer, so that the rector is operating only with the knowledge of external forum knowledge. That fosters an atmosphere of suspicion and politics, where all attention is placed upon external practice rather than internal growth.

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