Saturday, 22 June 2013

Crisis in the Priesthood

For observers of Roman Catholicism there is a worthwhile article and discussion to be found in The Irish Catholic - prompted by the recent disturbing suicides of three Irish priests - about the pressures on  priests  in contemporary Ireland (pressures which I expect would apply also in Australia and in other, similar national Catholic churches). The article touches upon the clerical sexual abuse crisis, which must be a huge factor in the crisis in the Irish priesthood, but helpfully shines its light on other aspects of the current priestly crisis in the Roman church that receive less attention.  

I must say that the average Roman Catholic priest who conducts his ministry with integrity, and I'm sure there are many of them, has my sympathies. From my perspective as a Lutheran pastor, priests appear to have too many administrative duties and social expectations thrust upon them which are really extraneous to the essential work of a pastor, which is often burdensome enough as it is, especially, I would imagine, in the very large parishes in which Roman priests are called to serve. One insightful commentator on the article cites the Vatican II document, The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium, 1964) as offering at least part of the solution to the problem: "Let the spiritual shepherds recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the laity in the Church. Let them willingly employ their prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties to them in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action. Further, let them encourage lay people so that they may undertake tasks on their own initiative." 

The fact that the Roman priest is "in charge" of a parish, with final responsibility for its spiritual and the material well-being (and answerable for such to his bishop, who may or may not be entirely sympathetic), seems to me to be asking for trouble of many kinds. In contrast, in Lutheran congregations, the pastor, while he is the "spiritual leader" of the congregation, is not "in charge" of it, but sits as a member of a lay-led administrative council, where, ideally and constitutionally, his counsel is heeded, especially in spiritual matters. But the pastor is not individually responsible for every facet of congregational life down to the finances and what colour the new carpet in the narthex shall be, as the priest seems to be. The Lutheran administrative model may not be able to be replicated exactly in Catholicism because of differing dogmatic principles and cultural heritages, but how many Roman Catholic priests and parishes follow the guidelines of the 'Dogmatic Constitution'? I'd be interested to know. 

Then there is also the matter of how celibacy - a gift that has been legislated for the Roman priesthood - impacts upon the morale of Catholic clergy...I've noticed that in my neck of the woods the younger priests are  recent immigrants from third world countries who have a cultural background quite different from the average Australian Catholic. Presumably migrant priests are being imported to other Western countries as well. I suppose that solves the problem of having someone "to say Mass", as Catholics say, and without the Mass it is difficult to imagine traditional Catholicism surviving - but is that, I wonder, the best way to deal with the shortage of native born priests that is a major aspect of the crisis in the priesthood in Western countries?      

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