home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted November 2, 2005

Book: Who Shall Lead Them? The Future of Ministry in America
Author: Larry A. Witham
Oxford Press, New York, pp. 246

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

The clergy today faces mounting challenges in an increasingly secular world, where declining prestige makes it more difficult t attract the best and the brightest young Americans to the ministry. As Christian churches dramatically adapt to modern changes, some are asking whether there is a clergy crisis as well. Whatever the future of the clergy, the fate of millions of churchgoers also will be at stake.

In Who Shall Lead Them?, prizewinning journalist Larry A. Witham takes the pulse of both the Protestant and Catholic ministry in America and provides a mixed diagnosis of the calling’s health. Drawing on dozens of interviews with clergy, seminarians and laity, and using newly available survey data including the 2000 Census, Witham reveals the trends in a variety of traditions. While evangelicals are finding innovative paths to ministry, the Catholic priesthood faces a severe shortage. In mainline Protestantism, ministry as a second career has become a prominent feature. Ordination gages in the Episcopal and United Methodist churches average in the 40s today. The quest by female clergy to lead from the pulpit, meanwhile, has hit a “stained glass ceiling” as churches still prefer a man as the principal minister. While deeply motivated by the mystery of their “call” to ministry, America’s priests, pastors, and ministers are reassessing their roles in a world of new debates on leadership, morality, and the powers of the mass media.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Despite such dark days for the priesthood, especially for a hierarchy that apparently had turned a blind eye, most Catholics doubtless presume the “inexpressible dialogue” with God is continuing among men called to be priests. For the foreseeable future, the concern about ministry and the shortage of priests will seeeminly be bound up in three topics: priestly identity, human sexuality in a clerical culture, and the role of an expanding lay ministry.

Also for the foreseeable future, the impact of the Second Vatican Council, and its milestone status for three generations of American Catholics and their priests, will be the broader context for discussion of ministry. “After the council, there was a period of great upheaval,” said Monsignor Paul J. Langsfield, ordained in Washington, DC, in 1977. From the council forward, many liberals wanted more change and a small but vociferous group of church reactionaries rejected the whole idea of reform.

Yet even the most orthodox assertions about the priesthood, whether made by Pope John Paul II or the 1993 Program of Priestly Formation for American seminaries, draw on Second Vatican Council statements. A battle for the priesthood was indeed waged at the council, led by the liberal Dutch journal Concilium and expressed by Father Hans Kung of Switzerland. “In a pluralistic and democratic society, what sense is there in the polarity between office and people, ‘above’ and ‘below?’” he said in his book Why Priest? He argued that a “universal priesthood is strongly emphasized” in the council documents, a break from the Council of Trent, which declared “anathema” anyone who questioned a priestly hierarchy “established by divine ordinance.”

Many Catholics would view Kung as over-polarizing even “Protestantizing,” the council’s direction. American theologian and Cardinal Avery Dulles argues that the liberals deliberately “organized a movement to put a progressive spin” on the council, which was not too hard to do. John XXIII wanted the council to deliver “medicine of mercy rather than of severity.” As a result, Dulles said, “One looks in vain in its documents for clear statements of what it rejected. It is easy to get the impression that it tolerated almost everything.” But priestly powers were never handed over to the laity. And “the primacy of the Pope, as it had been defined in Vatican I, remains intact.”

Yet with allowances for more lay governance, the image of the priest in the United States definitely changed. After the Second Vatican Council “the picture of the priest is him surrounded by laity at a committee meeting,” said Sister Katarina Schuth of St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Minneapolis. “It used to be a priest sitting at his desk or talking with other priests.” Canon law still holds priests responsible for their parishes. “There are things only a priest can do,” Schuth said. Even with lay collaboration, “The old role of priest doing everything is still there, but the number of priests is not there.”

Both priests and parishioners have lived through the eras before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). For many, those changing eras best explain the complexity of Catholic ministry today.

Before the council, Catholics knew a traditional church in America. As this generation of Catholics left ethnic enclaves and stepped up from the working class, they still worshiped under the aura of the First Vatican Council (1870) and the Baltimore Catechism (1885). Mass attendance was 75 percent (with half taking Communion), and the Church had one priest for every six or seven hundred members. These Catholics — who still make up a fifth of today’ s U.S. Catholic Church membership — extolled their clergy and often designated a son for such service. While every priest was fairly versatile to fulfill all his duties, his theological standing in the church was chiefly in a sacramental role (what researchers, to the chagrin of many Catholics, call “the cultic model”). As seen by his flock the priest “was highly educated and wise, and had unquestioned authority,” said Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk. “The specifics of his personal life were shrouded in mystery. He seemed happy, and he seemed to live better than most of the parishioners.”

A greater number of Catholics today (about a third), however, know an American church from 1960 onwards. It was a time of main streaming and liberalizing, with the “medicine of mercy” being applied in experiments and innovations. For Philip Murnion, ordained in 1963, and once the leader of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City, liturgy and social justice became one fabric: the council, civil rights and anti-poverty movements “inspired us to believe we could reshape both church and world,” he said. They wee the “conciliar cadre,” or what researchers now call the “servant-leadership” priests, more activist and less sacramental. Back then they “wed personal conversion with social transformation,” Murnion said. “Things have changed.”

That change has been attributed to the 1978 arrival of the doctrinally conservative John Paul II. The first global and media-age pontiff, he cast his message on the latest of three U.S. Catholic generations still alive today. Now in their twenties and thirties, this group was reared in well-educated and affluent homes and makes up fully half of today’s church population. They relish mysteries an sacraments and side with social justice. Yet they have imbibed the ethic of choice, not authority – a generation with individualistic views on “truth and the role of conscience” and that favors “more lay participation.” They back the idea of allowing priests to marry (by 71 percent) and the ordination of women (by 60-70 percent).

They have heeded the Second Vatican Council’s ecumenism, but as a result see less contrast between Catholics and other Christians. They also value personal experience over tradition. Combined, more lenient attitudes have led to “lower levels of commitment that are likely to persist throughout the lives of today’s young Catholics, said one study. The two older generations of Catholics alive today, this study said, are honestly bewildered and challenged “to understand the post-Vatican II” generation; how “make room in the church for them: is their sincere question. Sociologist James D. Davidson, a middle generation Catholic, said: “My kids thnk that guitar and vernacular have always been the way the church has conducted Mass. They assume that the priest has always faced the people.” Since his own childhood, when Mass attendance was at 75 percent of all Catholics, Davidson has seen participation drop to 54 percent in the years when he reared a family; and it has moved down further to 37 percent today.

Table of Contents:
1. Call to Ministry
2. The Protestant divide
3. Women in ministry
4. The Catholic priesthood
5. Southern Baptists
6. The minority challenge
7. Spirit filled
8. Organized religion
9. Fault lines
10. Image makers
11. The soul of ministry