Catholics brainstorming

George Weigel (who I assume is “Xavier Rynne II”) has kept his head better than most these days.  The Letters from the Vatican are interesting for gathering the suggestions of comparatively sober-minded laity.  Let’s look at letter #5.

First, Mary Rice Hassan voices the usual conservative complaint.  The Church is only concerned about minors rather than a general crackdown on clerical sexual activity.

Like a laser beam focused on a single tumor, the Vatican has stubbornly insisted that clergy sexual abuse of minors is a stand-alone problem, and it has been the only topic under discussion at this week’s abuse summit. But metastatic cancer has never been cured by targeting just one tumor. This arbitrary line-drawing relegates everything but the abuse of minors to the perimeter—the sexual abuse of seminarians, vulnerable adults (with impaired reason), religious sisters, and adult women, as well as the problem of clergy “consensual” sexual activity with adults…

One glaring exemplar of the Vatican’s wrong-headed approach is Theodore McCarrick. In 2017, the allegation that McCarrick had abused a minor finally triggered the right alarm bells at the Vatican. Because the identity of the victim—a minor—finally fell within the Vatican’s carefully circumscribed boundaries, it was time for resolute action.

This should be more widely known.  We are supposed to be ashamed of the Church ignoring rumors of McCarrick having sex with adults.  Conservatives seem to want to define all sex with a priest as “abuse”.  Literally, this is true, in the same sense that moralists used to council against “self-abuse”, but this is not how the public will understand it.  Are priests raping adults more often than a suitable control group.  (Of course the number of such incidents is, and will always be, greater than zero; there are a billion Catholics.)  A priest who breaks his vow of celibacy by having consensual sex with an adult will pay a personal spiritual price, but must all the Church suffer scandal, financial ruination, and loss of personnel?  If two gay priests have sex with each other, have they both abused each other?  At some point, we must rediscover the art of hypocrisy.

Skipping to the end, Andrea Picciotti-Bayer suggests large-scale monitoring of priests to catch them before they abuse.

So, what are the “red flags” that might lead a man to become an “at-risk” priest?

Personality traits that may not be significant enough to disqualify a man from the priesthood cannot be ignored post-ordination.  Does he show signs of a personality disorder, or behaviors like impulsivity or haughtiness that close him off from obedience and fraternal correction?  Does he struggle with untreated depression?  In his childhood and youth, did he suffer abuse (sexual or otherwise)?

Since ordination, has a priest lived a spirit of prudence and sobriety?  Are there any allegations of financial impropriety?  Are there any known external behaviors contrary to priestly chastity?  Have there been complaints about boundary issues?

riests are susceptible to our modern plague of pornography and the harm it can do to their own vocation.  Does a priest consciously guard his eyes?  Are there indications—say, an Internet browsing history—of pornography use?

The McCarrick case has shed harsh light on how a clerical “double life” is lived, and how inconsistent it is, or should be, with the priesthood.  Does a priest inform his pastor/parochial vicar or secretary (his closest collaborators) of his whereabouts?  Does he have healthy friendships with happily married practicing Catholics?  Does he have healthy friendships with other well-formed priests?

Finally, is a priest serious about his interior life?  Is he actively living a pious life?  Does he go to confession regularly?…

It almost sounds as if for every priest a parish must support, it will have to support another person to spy on the priest to monitor his whereabouts, internet browsing history, prayer habits, friendships, etc, etc.  Setting sacramental theology aside, wouldn’t it just be easier if we could have the person monitoring the priest just do the priest’s job instead?  What parish would want to be burdened with such a uniquely dangerous person as these priests who, alone among the whole congregation, requires constant surveillance?  Priests are liabilities.  Wouldn’t it be better if we could just have fewer of them?

Unofficially, this seems to be the position the Church is evolving toward.  Consider Rev. Brett Brannan’s contribution on today’s seminary policies.

Today’s application process is rigorous, thorough, and usually takes several months to complete.  Most dioceses require a complete physical examination, a thorough psychological exam including psychosexual development and sexual history, a lengthy autobiography, letters of recommendation, fingerprinting and a criminal background check, a credit check, and both academic transcripts and sacramental records.  Vocation directors have also become much more discriminating in both the psychological tests that are used and in the mental health professionals they choose to do the psychological examination of a potential candidate. The psychologist needs to be a man of faith who understands the unique stresses of the Catholic priesthood and knows the kind of candidate for which bishops and vocation directors are searching.  Thanks to all of this, the final dossier given to the local bishop is usually several inches thick.

And let’s keep in mind that this lengthy process leads only to a man being accepted by his diocese to begin priestly formation.  The seminary to which he is sent will have its own admissions process, usually requiring similar information and more.  Vocation directors today know that just because they’ve accepted a man as a diocesan candidate for the priesthood does not mean that a seminary will accept him.  And after a man has been accepted by both diocese and seminary, priestly formation continues for six to seven years.

I like to say to men discerning the priesthood that seminary requires about seven thousand hours of prayer before ordination….

Vocation directors in 2019 are entirely aware of the damage that has been caused, and is caused, by bad priests.  As my predecessor in the office said when I became vocation director in the diocese of Savannah: “My greatest gift to the priesthood in this diocese is not who I got in, but who I kept out.”  Priest vocation directors are gatekeepers, and they acutely feel the pressure caused by the abuse scandals.

There is much more about the rigors of priestly formation.  It’s quite impressive.  It’s also remarkable that there are men who would be willing to undergo such a long, exhausting, intrusive, and uncertain process for the chance to work for a dying organization.  Unsurprisingly, Father Brannon is eager to make the process even more rigorous.  One suspects that the real goal is not better priests but fewer priests.  Fewer priests, fewer legal liabilities, fewer people requiring expensive surveillance.

10 Responses

  1. Seven thousand hours of prayer! That’s nearly four hours a day for five years. I guess that puts my minute of mumbling in perspective.

  2. It’s also remarkable that there are men who would be willing to undergo such a long, exhausting, intrusive, and uncertain process for the chance to work for a dying organization.

    It’s almost as if they have hope that it isn’t a dying organization. Fools, eh Denethor?

  3. You know, you don’t have to be this way about the Church. After all, it’s not healthy for the tribe to hear such dour prognostications about its future. As I’ve heard Bob Newhart say somewhere, “Stop it.”

  4. I second buckyinky here. Bonald, I have been with you 100% in your break with conservative Catholicism. It is actually remarkable how in sync some of us have been on it. I will back you fully on that.

    But you keep dropping these blackpills, which are poison for the morale of the tribe.

  5. Calvinist here, considering RCIA for many reasons, the most important of which is the Church’s claim to be the actual church Jesus founded, heirs to the authority given by Christ to the apostles. But *this* is a “dying organization.” Too negative?

  6. I keep hoping someone will talk me out of it.

  7. Hello okuin12345,

    Most Catholics would say that no matter how bad the situation of the Church, it can’t be called “dying” because it will never actually be allowed to die. Logically (as a Calvinist, I know you appreciate logic), the attributes “is the Church founded by Christ”, “has only true doctrines and valid sacraments”, and “will not be allowed by God to perish” are independent. Any could be true without the others being true. The first seems to me an indisputable historical fact. The second I also believe–not that I’ve studied every interdenominational doctrinal quarrel, but that I am convinced of key distinctive Catholic doctrines such as the sacrificial character of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage, and so I am willing to trust the Church on the rest. The third is the one that I find hardest to believe, because things have looked so bleak for so long. That shouldn’t affect our allegiance to the Church, since a cause remains just and true even if it is lost. But I will admit that my recurring feeling that we have been abandoned by God isn’t good for me. I admire other Catholics for their trust that He’s going to get us out of this somehow. For a sense of healthy Catholic spirituality, I would turn to them.

  8. Bonald, one of the things I find unattractive about Reformed Protestant amillenialism is its pessimism (I call it “pessimillenialism”). It just seems off to think that God would allow His Body to die on earth, in history.
    Also, while browsing various Catholic apologetic podcasts/videos, I’ve often heard proscriptions against making “arguments from numbers.” I appreciate the humility behind that. But as I am in a sliver of Christianity that is both serious and tiny, I find the numbers argument to be very compelling.
    But lastly, your recent posts against “conservative” Catholicism included the premise that the Church’s flawed priests are leading us into spiritual warfare – and you’re a soldier. After all, one of the many reasons I’m seriously considering RCIA (in the face of opposition from those closest to me) is your Preliminaries to Catholicism.
    I hope this helps a little.

  9. okuin:

    Bonald is not clear what he means when says “the Catholic church could die”. There’s three possible things he might mean by this, I think (1) church membership could fall to levels below what it was during the first century (there being one Catholic in the world who’s the Pope by default or whatever); (2) the church could ordain female priests and bishops, thus invalidating the Church’s Holy Orders from that point on, breaking apostolic succession and rending sacraments from Catholic priests invalid; or (3) similarly, the church could openly and, claiming infallibility on the point, deny some core teaching such as the Trinity or the Real Presence.

    (1) is unlikely for obvious reasons, no matter how bad charts detailing the declining size of the church are. (2) and (3) are unlikely because the structure of the church. Protestant churches either are controlled by liberal European governments, and go bad that way (Anglicans and the other state churches); or have a non-episcopal polity where laypeople can vote on doctrine, who then vote for gay marriage or whatever. Meanwhile, the right-wing of a protestant church always has the option to schism if things go bad in the mainline organization (compare Continuing Anglicanism to sedevacantism). There is no equivalent to the idea of the Magistrieum or a visible church that one must remain loyal to.

    So the Catholic Church might go pretty left, but not left enough so that anyone with basic Catholic views would be forced to conclude that the Church’s sacraments are invalid. It can’t, in other words, go to the extremes that the mainline and state Protestant churches have. Rather, the modus operandi of the Catholic left has been to undermine orthopraxy, while keeping doctrinal statements vague enough to maintain plausible deniability. Even a more liberal Pope like Pope Francis has to manage a big tent (note his outreach to the SSPX, who themselves do not deny the validity of the mainstream church’s sacraments). More than a few times I’ve attended Novus Ordo masses where the homily focused on the absolute importance of the doctrine of the Real Presence, or the existence of a celibate male priesthood (orthodoxy), only to have the eucharist distributed by 12 laypeople, mostly women, with a ukele and piano playing the background (heteropraxy). This isn’t great but its far from an actual doomsday scenario (a pope coming out as a Zwinglian who also ordains female priests). [I should add here that I don’t accuse Pope Francis of being this].

    Note that the Catholic prohibition of contraception, for good or ill, remains “on the books”. It is frequently undermined or ignored, perhaps 2% of Catholics actually follow it, but its still there. Utterly unthinkable in a protestant church.

  10. okuin12345 and dpmonahan,

    You both make good points with which I agree. Small doesn’t necessarily mean pure. And, in any case, the Catholic Church is not meant to be a spiritual elite. It is meant to be the bearer of God to the mass of men.

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