success stories

Posted March 27, 2004

Book: Priests: A Calling in Crisis
Author: Andrew M. Greeley
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp.116

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

For several years now, the Roman Catholic Church and the institution of the priesthood itself have been at the center of a firestorm of controversy. While some of the criticisms lodged against the recent actions of the Church — and a small number of its priests — are justified, many of them are not. Hyperbolic and misleading coverage of recent scandals has created a public image of American priests that bears little relation to reality, and Andrew Greeley’s “Priests” skewers this image with a systematic inside look at American priests today.

No stranger to controversy himself, Greeley here challenges those analysts and the media who parrot them in placing the blame for recent Church scandals on the mandate of celibacy or a clerical culture that supports homosexuality. Drawing upon reliable national survey samples of priests, Greeley demolishes current stereotypes about the percentage of homosexual priests, the level of personal and professional happiness among priests, the role of celibacy in their lives, and many other issues. His findings are more than surprising: they reveal, among other things, that priests report higher levels of personal and professional satisfaction than doctors, lawyers, or college faculty; that they would overwhelmingly choose to become priests again; and that younger priests are far more conservative than their older brethren.

While the picture Greeley paints should radically reorient the public perception of priests, hedoes not hesitate to criticize the Church’s significant shortcomings. Most priests, for example, do not think the sexual abuse problems are serious, and they do not think that poor preaching or liturgy is a problem, though the laity give them very low marks on their ministerial skills. Priests do not listen to the laity, bishops do not listen to priests, and the Vatican does not listen to any of them. With Greeley’s statistical evidence and provocative recommendations for change — including a national “Priest Corps” that would offer young men a limited term of service in the Church — “Priests” offers a new vision of American Catholics, one based on real problems and solutions rather than on images of a depraved, immature, and frustrated priesthood.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Priestly Service and Clerical Culture

The findings reported in this study about the inadequacies of priestly service and negativity of clergy reaction to their laity are arguably the most serious problems that the priesthood faces. How can mature men, happy in their priestly commitment and determined to remain in the priesthood, be sloppy in their professional activities and dismissively contemptuous of their laity? The protective structures of the clerical caste must be broken open, and authentic and honest communication between the laity and their clergy must begin. It is intolerably tragic that a cultural system should block the effective ministry of men who have given up much to be priests.

What is to be done?

The seminarians must face that fact that they are not turning out well-trained professional clergy. They must realize that preaching is creative work and that some element of creativity should be required as a condition for ordination. No one should be ordained who has not done some kind of creative exercise — a short story, a cycle of poems, an art or photo exhibit.

Bishops must realize that it is idle to babble about evangelization when those in the neighborhoods who are supposed to evangelize do not, on the average and with some happy exceptions, do a very good job at it.

The priest organizations around the country, both local and national, should realize that their membership has a serious image problem and undertake programs to improve it. Maybe the National Federation of Priests’ Councils will even fund a study by Dean Hoge of preaching and preparation of homilies — including a study of the reactions of parishioners.

Individual priests should consider mailing the NORC questionnaire on ministerial service to their parish list. They might establish parish oversight committees to challenge priests on the quality of their service, not unlike the national oversight committee headed by Justice Anne Burke to make sure the sexual abuse rules are enforced. They might also think about reading a little more, too. It’s hard to write a decent sermon when you have not had a new idea in ten years.

Is it possible to do research on the qualities that make for good preaching and good ministerial service? It is possible but complicated and expensive. Nonetheless, one cannot escape the harsh fact that, as a ministerial profession, the priesthood has very serious problems. They are not new. They did not develop yesterday or last year or even with the Second Vatican Council (which gets blamed for everything these days). They will not go away tomorrow or the next day. However, the laity, who pay the bills, have a right to high-quality priestly service, in strict commutative justice with the obligation to restitution. Somehow priests must come to see that there is no substitute for excellence.

At every step in the training and the ongoing education of the clergy, in every planning committee, and at every meeting, retreat, prayer day for priests, the laity would be present, not to fight, not to demand, not to seize power, but to communicate, respectively but honestly. The clergy as a collectivity and priests as individuals may pretend that the problems are not there, but the ocean is washing over the beaches in whose sands they have buried their heads. Clerical culture and its blind loyalty to the guys is in the final analysis the cause of the abuse scandal, not homosexuality or celibacy.

Finally, priests must assume responsibility for responding to the anger of the laity because of the sexual abuse scandal. It is not permissible for them to wash their hand of it. They must not content themselves with blaming bishops, the media, and the laity for the decline in church attendance and contributions. Much of the anger is also the result of their inadequate professional service, their cruelty in denying the sacraments, and their insensitivity to parishioners, especially, as they see it, to women parishioners.

It would be useful (and perhaps necessary) for priests’ groups to take out ads in the papers saying in effect, “You think you’re angry? We’re angry too and angry at ourselves because we weren’t alert enough to stop the abuse. You can count on us. We’re not going to let it happen any more. And we’re going to improve our preaching and our liturgy and make our rectories user friendly.”

Such a declaration would begin to weaken the walls of clerical culture that stand behind the rectory door.

Table of Contents:

1. Inside the “secret world”

2. Sexual orientation and celibacy

3. The morale question

4. Why they leave

5. Priests and the Catholic revolution

6. Clergy, hierarchy, and laity

7. Priests under pressure

8. Conclusions

9. Policy implications