The Challenge of Being a Priest

Being a priest bestows the incomparable honor of changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, as well as the opportunity to help others understand the wisdom of Scripture, solve their spiritual and psychological problems, and find meaning in their lives.

The life of a priest, of course, has never been easy. It has required living as a celibate, foregoing the consolations of marriage and family life, receiving an income far below what one’s level of education would command, and practicing a demanding form of obedience.

Over the last half-century, however, the difficulties have increased, which helps explain why between 1965 and 2015 the number of U.S. priests declined from 58.6 thousand to 37.6 thousand and the number of ordinations declined from 994 to 515.

How exactly has the challenge of being a priest changed over time?

For centuries, priests were the most learned of men. The vast majority of lay people lacked even rudimentary education. Priests were therefore generally respected for their understanding of matters both secular and sacred, and they enjoyed a special status among believers.

As the masses became more educated, clerics maintained their status, but lay people became less dependent on clerical judgment in secular matters. Over time, as more and more people graduated from high school, college, and then graduate school, people’s intellectual independence grew, even in matters of religious judgment and belief. Although priests were still responsible for providing spiritual guidance, their spiritual guidance was less valued by many educated people.

In the 1960s intellectual independence spread to virtually everyone, and in matters both secular and sacred. There were several reasons for this development. One was the theological turmoil that grew during Vatican II. Theologians were disagreeing, not just about birth control, and not only in private as they had always done, but in public, and educated laymen were joining the fray. This state of affairs created anxiety for parish priests for whom supporting the magisterium required supporting some theological teachings they no longer believed. That meant choosing between obedience and conscience.

Another, in some ways more serious reason that intellectual resistance to Church teachings increased was the cultural change that swept over Western society, especially in America in the 1960s. For decades before then, psychology had challenged both religion and philosophy for ascendancy in providing guidance about life and living. In the 60s the Humanistic Psychology of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow led the field and its guidance undermined the teachings of Catholicism (and Christianity in general). Its major claims were:

That truth and reality are not discovered through faith and/or reason, but created by individuals, so that whatever they believe to be true and real is true and real for them. This challenged the idea that Original Sin left the human intellect subject to error and the will weakened. Moreover, it made individual opinion infallible and analysis, debate, and the search for truth seem pointless.

That morality is not objective and impersonal but subjective and personal. In other words, whatever a person believes to be morally right (or wrong) is morally right (or wrong). This challenged the traditional idea of sin and repentance (and, by extension, crime and punishment). It also obviated the sacrament of confession.

That emotion is more reliable than reason. This challenged the traditional idea that emotion tends to be impetuous and capricious. It therefore discouraged thinking about obligations to others and moral ideals, as well as considering possible consequences before taking action. It also trivialized virtue and its practice.

That all forms of sexual expression are natural and wholesome. This challenged the sixth and ninth Commandments and all the classifications of sexual sins enumerated in the Catholic catechism and other Christian manuals.

That self-actualization is the greatest human need, and self-esteem is the key to achievement. These ideas dramatically changed the focus on self from self-denial to self-indulgence, self-examination to self-congratulation, self-criticism to self-acceptance, self-effacement to self-assertion, and self-transcendence to self-absorption.

Humanistic Psychology’s rise to prominence in intellectual circles would have been obstacle enough to priests’ efforts to preach the Gospel, but several other events dramatically increased the obstruction.

One was the powerful influence of the new psychology beyond a single discipline into many, particularly English and Sociology. Its most notable influence was on graduate school courses in guidance counseling, as well as on non-credit courses and workshops conducted by student-personnel staffs and dormitory resident assistants. Young people at every level of education were soon being introduced to Humanistic Psychology’s claims in subtle and non-so-subtle ways.

Another, concurrent event was the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s twin treatises that gave scientific support to the idea that all forms of sexual expression are healthy and sexual restraint is harmful. Though the treatises themselves were turgid tomes, their challenge to traditional sexual morality was popularized and glamorized through entrepreneur Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine, a highly visual vehicle aimed at adolescent males, and older males whose adolescent fantasies still functioned.

Yet another influential event, actually numerous events over years, was the series of inventions and refinements in radio, television, the personal computer (and eventually the Internet and social media) that created “mass media.” This new entity required a constant flow of interesting and exciting ideas to fill its programming, and the ideas of Humanistic Psychology met that need perfectly—they flattered egos, glorified the self, made a virtue of mental sloth, and justified every manner of sin.

As I have written in Corrupted Culture, “the constant repetition and dramatization of the ideas of Rogers, Maslow, and Kinsey in the communications and entertainment media over several decades created a new ‘mass culture’ that reviled what traditional culture honored and honored what traditional culture reviled.”

Priests themselves, as well as nuns, being human, were vulnerable to the lure of these ideas, particularly to the missing something temptation: “You won’t know if you are missing something wonderful unless you try it.” For some the it was homosexual or lesbian relationships; for others, heterosexual violations of celibacy; for virtually all, elevating the authority of self. (For an authoritative analysis of the impact of Humanistic Psychology on religious orders, see Joseph M. Becker, S. J., The Re-Formed Jesuits, Vol. 1.)

Priests who were able to resist the temptations and to survive the heartache of seeing their ranks decimated found it increasingly difficult to advocate traditional Catholic values while mass culture trumpeted contradictions. Some who held on heroically through those times eventually lost their grip when the pedophilia and seminary scandals became public.

For readers who don’t recall, the seminary scandal was exposed by Michael Rose (among others) in Goodbye, Good Men. He defined it as “the deliberate infiltration of Catholic seminaries by what [Father] Andrew Greeley has dubbed the ‘Lavender Mafia,’ a clique of homosexual dilettantes, along with an underground of liberal faculty members determined to change the doctrines, disciplines, and mission of the Catholic Church from within.”

If the media had been insightful (perhaps I should say honest), they would have seen both scandals as evidence of how deeply Humanistic Psychology’s ideas had burrowed into the culture—and even corrupted priests—but they didn’t. Instead, they not only condemned the corrupted priests, a just reaction, but tainted the faithful ones, a manifestly unjust reaction.

Little wonder that under such pressure and disappointment, some priests asked to be dispensed from their vows, others simply walked away, and fewer men sought to seek ordination. The greater wonder is how so many priests have managed to remain faithful to their vows and serve Christ and their parishioners with devotion.

In the course of less than a century, the view of the priesthood among many laypeople went from “Father knows everything” to “Father knows nothing” to “All that Father thinks he knows isn’t so.” Now, irony of ironies, it has gotten back close to where it started.

Today, Father is supposed to know how even a small number of priests could have sinned against innocent children in ways that recall Jesus’ warning, “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt 18:6 and Luke 17:2) He is supposed to know, as well, how members of the hierarchy could be so irresponsible, indeed shameless, as to hide the vile crimes by reassigning the criminals. Also, to know how the prelates could have let the pedophilia situation deteriorate so far that they had to pay, in legal settlements, hundreds of millions of dollars that had been donated by the laity to do God’s work. And to know how the same prelates could have allowed the seminaries—the very training ground for the custodians of the Sacraments—to be corrupted by clerical enemies of the Gospel.

To expect faithful parish priests to be able to answer these questions is to add unnecessary intellectual, emotional, and spiritual burdens to those who are already overburdened. What, after all, can they say other than “the perpetrators of all those deeds are sinners, like the rest of us,” and “I feel exactly the same sadness and anger that you do,” and perhaps refer us to Matt 23: 1-12 for reflection.

Rather than ask our parish priests such questions, we should simply give thanks to God that they and others like them are still faithfully performing God’s work among us. And while we are at it, we should express our thanks to the priests themselves.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved