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Vocation Crisis: The Self-inflicted Wound

By John P. Fraunces 

    How difficult is it to become a priest in the United States today? If one were to judge from the cries and lamentations about the desperate need to fill priestless parishes, it would seem that most dioceses and seminaries would be willing to accept almost any qualified person who applies. However, the problem of maintaining the minimum number of priests to run a diocese is more complicated than the simple equation of supply and demand. One large diocese on the east coast will ordain only eight men in 1997 and two more in 1998, a number far too small to replace those priests who are sick, die or retire in the next two years. Why is this happening? If one were to ask the typical parish priest the reason for the decline in vocations, he would probably point out that Catholic parents, caught up in a materialistic society, no longer encourage their sons to enter the seminary. These parents often depreciate the priesthood by dissenting from the Church’s teachings on contraception, abortion and the ordination of women.
    The laity’s failure to follow Humanae Vitae and to fulfill the duties of their state in life is no doubt the fundamental scandal in the American Church and the root cause of its vocational crisis. The radical downsizing of the Catholic family has left our seminaries empty, and the selfishness of contracepting parents has been passed on to their children. Most Catholics no longer believe that a man’s highest calling is to serve Christ in the sacramental priesthood because it requires the self-giving lifestyle of celibacy. Only when the married laity abandon their false god of sexual autonomy and open their conjugal love to the transmission of life will the Church begin to find a comprehensive and permanent solution to the vocation crisis.
    In addition to the indifference of the laity, the American Church has continued to struggle with various paradigms about the role of the priest in the modern Church and how he is expected to interact with his peers and his parishioners. For example, one seminarian with four years of study was dismissed from his diocese because he had a serious personality conflict with his pastor during a summer assignment, and he was accused of not socializing enough with his peers. The year before, however, this same man had received a glowing recommendation from another pastor who praised his priest-like qualities and his service to the people.
    Later, when he applied to another diocese in Pennsylvania, he was interviewed and investigated by the vocational director for six months. During this time, the vocational director became convinced that this man would make an excellent priest, and he wrote a congratulatory letter to him saying that his Priest Perceiver Interview (PPI) indicated that he had “. . . some very fine talents.” Attached to the letter were the results of the PPI which described this man as having “. . . A tremendous capacity for building positive, personal relationships . . . [for being] a real gift to the people whom your life touches . . . [For] an unusual awareness of God’s presence in your own life and in the lives of others . . . [for] the courage it takes to be a leader, that is the capacity for asking others for commitments . . . [and for a] dedication to the Catholic Church.” But when the diocesan psychologist wrote that he did not think that this man could get along with others, the vocational director changed his opinion without a moment’s hesitation. Despite the fact that two other psychologists on separate occasions had given this man favorable recommendations, he was rejected without being permitted to see the results of the psychological evaluation or the right to a second opinion.
    This not uncommon practice of giving deference to the professional opinions of a diocesan psychologist should raise concerns about the impact of psychology on the process of priestly formation. Perhaps it is time to ask whether the bishops of the United States want to place that kind of veto power in the hands of an inexact science which does not believe in God, Christ, or his Church. Nonetheless, many believe that psychological evaluations are necessary to weed out sexual deviants and others who will one day cause great scandal and expense to their diocese. Unfortunately, psychology does not have the methods available to accurately predict those who will become involved in sexual misconduct. Instead, psychologists too often use their influence to eliminate those men who do not share the ideals of the post-conciliar modernists, radical feminists, and militant homosexuals. Those men who are orthodox in faith and chaste in spirit are cavalierly discarded with “scientific infallibility” because of their “doctrinal rigidity and sexual immaturity.”
    In defense of the two dioceses involved in these cases, it can be argued that personality conflicts are inevitable in every human organization, and the human part of Christ’s Church is no exception. Furthermore, vocation directors must rely on professional expertise (physicians and psychologists) to disqualify those who are physically and mentally unable to perform the duties of a priest. This is true, but in many cases psychologists attempt to impose the values of their science on their selection of seminarians and act as “social change agents” for the Church, especially in matters of sexual morality. One man wrote and said that when he defended himself against the charge of being “homophobic” by referring to the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, the seminary’s psychologist became upset and retorted that the distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior is “laughable.” A short time later the man was dropped in his seventh year of studies because of his “immature, unintegrated sexuality.” What makes this case more unfortunate is that he has been labeled as “damaged goods” and cannot find another diocese to sponsor him, even though the facts of this case are well known and documented in published reports.
    What role do feminists and homosexuals have in the selection of seminarians and the choice of seminaries where these men will study? One orthodox seminarian was told by a prominent female member of his parish that “as a male, he was the enemy of all the women because of the Church’s prohibition against woman’s ordination.” One dismissed seminarian who applied to an east coast diocese that has an acute shortage of priests was told by the bishop that he would not ordain any man who did not believe in the ordination of women. At the New Ways Ministry Conference held in Pittsburgh March 7-9, 1997, Detroit auxiliary bishop, Thomas Gumbleton, told his audience that they should “come out” as homosexual priests . . . from the pulpits of their churches. This call by a bishop shocked and offended many Catholics, and made Bishop Gumbleton an unofficial spokesman for the gay and lesbian groups in the American Church. His speech was not only for a “coming out” about the sexual orientation of these men, but a challenge for them to openly defy the Church’s teaching on homosexuality by their behavior. Speeches like this are widely reported in the secular press and should be of concern to bishops and vocation directors. If the married laity believe that homosexual conduct by priests is being ignored by the bishops, then it is likely that they will actively discourage their sons from entering the seminary, and they may even withdraw their financial support from the Church.
    Even in the seminary, the irrational process of eliminating men from ordination continues. One seminarian was sent by his diocese to a psychologist because he was having academic problems. However, since he had come from a very dysfunctional family, the vocations director also wanted to know if the stress associated with his family relationships was adversely affecting his academic performance. The psychologist met with the seminarian, completed the evaluation and recommended a plan of action to help the man deal with the stress generated by his family and enhance his desire to do academic work. The seminarian was satisfied and the vocation director was relieved because a plan had been made to help this man reach ordination. However, the formation committee chairman was not pleased. Without the knowledge or consent of the vocation director, he telephoned the psychologist to express his surprise and disappointment that the evaluation did not deal with the sexual activity of this man when he was in the military some years before, and that the psychologist did not recommend that he “tell all” to the formation committee. The psychologist was puzzled and told the chairman that the diocese had not informed him that this man’s past sexual activities were a matter of concern.
    The psychologist asked if the seminarian had attempted to act out in a sexual way with anyone and if he adhered to the teachings of the Church regarding sexual morality. The chairman affirmed that the seminarian was orthodox in his behavior and his beliefs, but that one of his peers suspected that he was a homosexual because of what he had said in a homiletic class. The formation committee used the suspicion of another seminarian to launch a full-fledged investigation into the past sex life of this man with the intention of dismissing him if he did not fully cooperate. Fortunately for this man, the vocations director did not concur with the formation committee chairman, and this vocation was not put in jeopardy.
    After Vatican II in a desire to raise the professional standards of the clergy, the American Church adopted the academic model that placed a heavy emphasis on the secular education of seminary faculty and the awarding of civil degrees to its graduates. This made Catholic seminaries subject to the same criteria that govern the undergraduate and graduate programs of other colleges and universities in the United States. However, there seems to have been little thought given to the consequences of using this model.
    The purpose of graduate schools is to maintain and perpetuate the rights and privileges of its graduates by restricting the number of people who are deemed worthy. This is especially true in the professions where the system restricts the supply of qualified individuals in order to increase the prestige and earning power of the few that graduate. Unfortunately, the seminary system in the United States seems to be operated in the same manner. The vocations committee, the formation committee, the faculty, the dean and the rector all can act as a series of interpersonal obstacles to the ordination of a seminarian. The present academic model for seminaries has been very effective in upgrading the academic credentials of its graduates but has failed to provide the laborers needed to work in the Lord’s vineyard. In fact, an argument could be made that the academic model now embraced by the American Church has so restricted the number of active priests that it has become a significant factor in the decline of the number of practicing Catholics over the past thirty years.
    There are of course other secular obstacles that many times must be overcome by the seminarian before he is recommended for ordination. In too many dioceses, an applicant for the seminary must show proper respect and even deference to those in the Church who do not always agree with the Church. Too often seminarians are told that even the dissenters who in previous times would have been called heretics are to be loved and respected for their efforts to “lead the Church into the modern age.” If the man is so naive as to protest that the dissenters are promoting contraception, abortion and euthanasia, married priests, and the ordination of women and homosexuals, he will be eliminated because he is “sexually repressed and doctrinally rigid.” If, however, he appears to be unsure of his Catholic convictions, he will be referred to the diocesan’s consulting psychologist for “growth counseling.” But, if one or two years of psychological counseling on a fee for service basis is not successful in alienating the man from his faith in the Church, he is given a negative recommendation from the psychologist which usually means another dismissal and another lost vocation. One psychologist told a seminarian that his distinction between the goodness of the homosexual person and the sinfulness of homosexual behavior was proof of his homophobia.
    For those men who are exclusively heterosexual in orientation and devoutly orthodox in faith, the difficulty of becoming a priest at the present time must be faced in an objective and dispassionate manner. The most crucial factor in getting ordained is to avoid being dismissed from a seminary or diocese in the first place. Once a man has become rejected or dismissed from a diocese or seminary, he becomes “damaged goods,” and very few dioceses will give him another chance because they don’t want to be seen as taking inferior candidates. This is true even if they know and believe that the dismissal was unjust. Image is very important! Contrary to what most American Catholics may think, seminarians have no rights under Canon law or under the Constitution of the United States. The rationale for this is simple: seminarians have no rights under Canon law because no one has a right to ordination, and the civil courts have not intervened because of the doctrine of the “separation of Church and state.”
    This may seem patently unfair to Americans who are used to a government of checks and balances to provide an equilibrium of power and a right to appeal unjust governmental actions, but fortunately the Catholic Church is not like the government of the United States. Even in its human dimension, the Church is antithetical to democratic institutions, and this is necessary because her authority comes from Christ, not from men. Prospective seminarians should not lose heart on account of the hierarchical organization of the Church. Instead, they should take advantage of the great diversity that exists among the various dioceses in the United States. In this age of turmoil and rebellion within the Church, men who feel called to follow Christ as “alteri Christi” should seek out and find one of the many holy and orthodox bishops who are acting as faithful successors to the Apostles, who are seeking men to ordain for their people. Those who feel called to ordination must begin to think of their vocations in terms of the Universal Church and not merely their own diocese.
    Bishops who want to ordain orthodox, heterosexual and celibate men should say so explicitly in the public forum, not only in their own dioceses but in the regional advertising media. Many young men who have read the “sex scandals” about a few priests are turned off. What they mistakenly see is a tolerance for sexual misconduct. Others have known priests more worldly than the average layman, and this seems to be a greater “turn off” than the statistically miniscule number of “scandals.”
    These bishops must not only proclaim publicly that they want these kinds of men as priests, they must make every effort to insure that their vocations director is completely orthodox, heterosexual and celibate. They must know that the seminaries where their men are trained do not tolerate the homosexual or feminist agendas in their classrooms or in their dormitories. It will take the personal attention of each bishop to protect the vocations that God has seen fit to send him, and in those cases where a man is truly mentally and emotionally incapable of performing the duties of a priest, he should be dismissed with the greatest of charity and encouraged to follow Christ as a layman.
    However, prospective seminarians should realize that the demands placed on bishops often make it impossible for them to personally supervise every important aspect of the selection and training of his future priests. Therefore, it is incumbent upon that man to investigate the performance of the diocese where he wants to serve and the seminary where he will be sent for formation. The more thorough his investigation, the less likely he will face dismissal, and the more likely he will reach ordination. There is an old adage in business that says, “nothing succeeds like success.” If a diocese has been ordaining an adequate number of men to the priesthood, it is a good indication that the bishop has made this a high priority and that he has appointed competent priests to help him. On the other hand, if a diocese is not ordaining an adequate number of men based on its need and population, it may indicate that there is an internal struggle within the clergy regarding their expectations of what a seminarian/priest should be. The same is true of the seminary where the diocese sends their men to be trained. A prospective seminarian should ask his vocation director where he would be sent for his priestly formation and request permission to visit the seminary to see if the seminary is orthodox in its academic and spiritual formation, and if it adheres to the Magisterium. The right choice of diocese and seminary is crucial for any heterosexual and orthodox man who feels called to the priesthood.
    A former seminarian wrote about the pain and anguish he experienced in his efforts to become a priest. This man, now 33 years old wrote: “In my journeys, I have looked upon the faces of kind and loving priests, deacons and bishops . . . because the Lord is present and His glory radiates from their hearts. I have seen compassion no less shown than Jesus Himself as He raised Jairus’ daughter or the son of the widow in Naim. But worst of all things; crueler than death itself, I have seen the corrupt souls and hope-emptied hearts of clergy whose sloth and mediocrity sicken the Spirit of God Himself within the flock they are given to care for, so that the joy of the Lord’s presence has left them as in the days of old when the Presence left a defiled temple. How sad, how truly dead among the dead have these people become. . . . I feel worn from the battle, discarded and emptied out. My faith and life alone belong to Him Who spoke creation into being—and to Him alone do I cry out. But then the Spirit comes to me and lifts my head upward to behold Truth; Truth itself nailed to a cross which now hangs on my wall—dominating my room and looming over my life—the promise of Resurrection hidden well in the lifeless corpse.”
    As the Church approaches her third millennium, there is an air of optimism and renewal that is wonderfully infectious, a new springtime for Christianity. This renewal will certainly involve the entire Church, but especially the priests and bishops who sustain God’s people by Word and Sacrament. They are the lifeblood of the Church. Unfortunately in the past, many who have felt called by God to follow Christ in this special way have too often been under attack by dissidents, feminists, and homosexuals that were aided and abetted by psychologists who saw themselves as “change agents” of the Catholic Church. The renewal of priestly formation should start with this simple question: Could Jesus of Nazareth be ordained a priest for my diocese?

Dr. John P. Fraunces received his Ph.D. in Psychoeducational Processes in 1977 from Temple University. He was the psychologist for the Philadelphia Police Department until 1989 and currently has a private practice in Montgomery County, Pa. He also has written an unpublished manuscript on the life of St. Joan of Arc. His article, “St. Joan of Arc, God’s Faithful Servant,” appeared in the May-June 1996 issue of Soul magazine.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved