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Msgr. George A. Kelly



The Good Shepherd labors zealously for his flock in union with the bishop and the pope; the Hired Hand impairs his office and his flock by disrespecting the teaching office of the Church, and by neglecting his priestly responsibility to form his people in “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1,5).

A bishop pastor of a large city parish once instructed a new Chancery official, undoubtedly to help the young man keep his Catholic priorities in order, as follows:

“The linchpin of the Catholic Church is the pastor — the Pope in Rome, the Bishop in his Cathedral, the shepherd of every diocesan parish. On these three rest the well-being and Catholicity of the Church.”


Priests and laity of the World War II generation, as those who had gone before, accepted this proposition as a Catholic given. Especially since historians had attributed the strength of the American Church to the effectiveness of diocesan bishops and parish priests of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Something happened to that concept on the way out of Vatican II, because two years later the new National Conference of Catholic Bishops authorized a study, published as The Catholic Priest in the United States: Historical Investigations, whose index of 900 items totally failed to mention “parish,” “parish priesthood” or “parochial work.”

Ever since, the phrase “Catholic pastor” has become an elusive term. The idea, therefore, deserves another look, not only on behalf of the Church’s mission to God’s people, but for its Catholicity.

The Bishop’s Point

The Catholic pastor — from John Paul II to every would-be imitator of the Curé of Ars — is the central figure in the existence and conduct of the Catholic Church. Any debasement of his status and dignity, including that by a priest himself, jeopardizes the credibility of the Church.

Pope and bishops may contract with other qualified people to teach under Church auspices, to succor the needy, and to manage her temporalities, but the pastor — called simply “the parish priest” in many places — is irreplaceable, without peer. Without him the Church cannot function legitimately or properly.

In a community of truly Catholic faith, the phrase “He is a priest” speaks volumes to believers, and for the man himself. In a godless society (as the Church understands God), the priest is looked upon as just another citizen with a man-made job. Neither is he “sacred,” nor is there a “sacred” for him to represent. At the worst, in the language of a virulent secularist, he is a threat to modern society. John Paul II, in the opening lines of Pastores Dabo Vobis, looks at him differently: “Without priests the Church would not be able to live.”

The Second Vatican Council also reaffirmed the necessity of pastors in Lumen Gentium when the Fathers declared that Christ, the Church’s “Eternal Pastor,” established Peter at “the head of the apostles and set up in him a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion.” (No. 18). Furthermore, bishops are Vicars of Christ in their diocese, and “in virtue of this power bishops have the sacred right and duty before the Lord of legislating for and passing judgment on their subjects, as well as regulating everything that concerns the good order of divine worship and of the apostolate.” (No. 27). Priests, too, “exercise the function of Christ as Pastor and Head in proportion to their share of authority.” (Presbytorum Ordinis, No. 6). The Council spoke of service, consultation, participation, collegiality as elements in the proper exercise of his office, “but all Church documents are careful to protect the authority of the pastor to act motu proprio as necessary in order to teach, to rule, and to sanctify the faithful. The Fathers made clear that a Pope is outside — and not a member of — his College of Cardinals, and the local bishop is independent of his Board of Consultors. Arlington’s Bishop John Keating, in urging parish councils in his diocese, also made the following disclaimer for the pastors: “Pastors have certain responsibilities which are theirs alone. They have duties which must be exercised personally in virtue of the mission which they have from Christ in ordination and from the bishop through their appointment as pastor.”2

The new Canon Law of the Church (1983), implementing Vatican II, specifically states that the faithful “are bound by Christian obedience to follow what the sacred pastors, as representatives of Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or determine as leaders of the Church.” (Cn. 212). Those pastors alone, pope and bishops especially, have “the supreme responsibility to teach, sanctify, and rule the faithful in Christ’s name.” (Cn. 376).


The New Questions


Almost every interested Catholic, beginning with John Paul II, is today talking about the shortage of priests. And about what their absence will do to the future of the Catholic Church. Are there human causes of this crisis? Or, ways to make the priesthood attractive again to young men, as surely it once was?

The pious look upon the shortage as a cross from God. But: How did the American Church fall into this institutional morass?3 Fewer still are willing to probe further: Why should a manly human being aspire to devote his entire life celibately — to a Church role which, throughout the recent years of his boyhood, has been denigrated, deflated, and debunked not only by those who reject the very notion of priests, but within the Catholic sanctuary itself?

Reports of various kinds, including those of ecclesial bodies, attribute this shortfall of priests to the collapse of Catholic discipline before the secular culture. Or to moral failures of one kind or another within the Church. There is truth in these assertions. Yet, historically, confusion or doubt about the faith itself— either Christ’s teaching or the Church’s — is what undermines priestly performance. Many bishops allege today that their serious problems involve priests, not the laity. Furthermore, the believability of the priesthood comes into question whenever questions arise in rectories over what Catholicity — the papacy or the Eucharist — really means. Any overhaul of priestly thinking that excludes Catholic faith and places self-anointed men solely in charge of determining who God is and what he has revealed, or that stresses Christ the Man virtually to the exclusion of Christ the Son of God, or speaks of the Church as People more than as the House of God, or makes the priest more a delegate of the community and less a Vicar of Christ, places the Church in trouble with God and his people. Those popularizing such a new gospel would solve the present priest problem by marrying them off, or by ordaining women, or by creating “lay pastors.” Would these concessions to secularity motivate a potential Isaac Jogues to leave his homeland and to die, if need be, for Christ?

The Way It Was Not Long Ago

No system or organization, even the priesthood, is ever perfect. Still, the American parish may be “the highest achievement of the American priest,” as it had been called in 1905.4

The special bonus of the Catholic system, which continued beyond World War II, was the relative freedom of the pastor to run his own parish. It took a little doing to make it so.5 But by the turn of the 20th century, the pastor was “a little bishop,” whom cardinals treated with respect. For one thing he had stability in office.6 For another bishops depended on pastors for support of diocesan causes. Thirdly, the majority of veteran pastors, as “men of authority,” also commanded large amounts of local loyalty, and bishops, as a rule, had a healthy regard for the pastor’s “ordinary jurisdiction.” Pastors were practically “irremovable,” except for grave cause. (The obvious dysfunctions of any system — incompetent or lazy pastors — reflected not so much on the system as on the bishop’s failure to use his authority to correct or persuade his errant subordinates.)

In important respects, therefore, the office of pastor was insulated from undue harassment or abuse by curates, by religious, or by laity prone to demand what Church law or a pastor’s priorities said they could not have. Brooklyn’s Archbishop Thomas Molloy may have overdone it a bit with his advisory to a disgruntled curate: “The pastor is always right. You’ll be a pastor someday!” The unhappy curate, principal, corporate executive or political “boss” of that day might complain, or move elsewhere, but a pastor’s authority was rarely undermined by his superior.

The underside of this 19th-20th century parochial success, however, was that mega-parishes sometimes became status symbols and sinecures, more than missions. Older priests came to enjoy the benefits of their predecessors’ labors, much the way prelates savored benefices in the late Middle Ages. By the 1950s pastors had ceased giving strict orders to their curates. They might propose tasks, or at times express annoyance, even bark a bit, but by and large “laissez-faire” became the order of the average pastorate. If the nuns did not wish the priests to teach in the school, that was the end of the matter as far as certain pastors were concerned. A handful of responsibilities were still mandatory, and widely respected (e.g., Saturday confessions, rectory duties, parish events) but parish priests were mostly on their own, unless they also had teaching or other assignments. Parishioners came to them (home visitations were a thing of the past), making many rectories busy places. And a function of being a good curate was to protect the pastor from those burdens which transcended administration.

A pastor’s priority, which in 1910 was on “the work to be done,” shifted to what the priests and others felt about the work in the post-World War II era, especially if it seemed mandatory. The lazy priest was far more noticeable in many rectories than violators of the Ten Commandments. A pastor could still effectively ask for the removal of a curate, but he had little influence over how much work the priest actually did in his house. Nonetheless, so many first-rate parish priests were available everywhere that the “good” parishes remained good.

“Laissez-faire” also extended to the bishop’s level. If no one disturbed him, then he disturbed no one. Episcopal visitations became perfunctory, more like social meetings than serious supervisions of pastoral performance. The Superintendent of Schools was a more likely overseer of parochial education than the bishop was of the priestly mission. The system continued to work well because tending to the basics remained an ingrained sacred trust for most priests: a decent worship, sound teaching, dutiful sacramental and social life, exemplary behavior.

From the priests’ point of view, the most noticeable dysfunction amid such ecclesial prosperity was the length of time required for those in large dioceses to become pastors in their own right. In the 19th century, a priest might become the pastor of a small parish in two or three years, and then be transferred to the metropolitan area by the time he was 35. By World War I he might still receive a large city parish in his early 40’s. At World War II time, he would be almost thirty years ordained, or 55 years old, when he was called upon to govern a rural parish. The pastoral care of the faithful sometimes suffered when a curate, who had served a single city neighborhood for twenty or more years, was passed over for succession in the pastorate there, in favor of a stranger, because at 50 he was not old enough to merit the assignment. The over-aged curates of the day were, however, too disciplined to be outraged at the prevailing conditions, or at a bishop who was not creative enough to find adequate remedies for an obvious evil. Their response, too often, was early retirement from hard work. This situation set the stage, after Vatican II, for a revolution in priestly expectations and behavior.

The Diminishing Status of Pastors

Any octogenarian priest who is still interested will find himself in conversation these days with priests a generation younger who do not wish to be pastors, or who already have abandoned the role. If he also moves around the country, he will discover this to be more than a local phenomenon. The United States may be too large for generalizing about the low morale of the clergy, especially when so many young enthusiasts are evident in every diocese. Yet, being “boss” of a parish is not what it used to be, either in its status or in role-playing, a phenomenon new to the 20th century, during which practically all priests, even the incompetents, yearned for the bishop’s call to pastor.

The tendency nowadays to correlate high morale with the ecclesial shift in priestly style and manners, from sacred persons in cassock and Roman collar to “hail-fellows-well-met” in secular clothes, is presumed to enhance self-esteem, allegedly a prized step-stone to a more fulfilled life of Church service. But how is self-esteem an adequate priestly goal when “emptying oneself” (Phil. 2,7) is the New Testament model? Freedom, comfort, and shared authority have been offered, too, as bonuses for the “renewed” priest, but for a pastoral role which of its nature demands duty and sacrifice? Has the reinforcement of new American spirit by new methods of training future priests or updating veterans really worked to the Church’s advantage? Another factor complicating morale has been the rising status of priest-specialists vis-a-vis parish priests out in the field. Once bishops began to feature (and to honor) Chancery officials as the important men in their lives, the pastors (certainly the curates) lost diocesan status. Patrick Cardinal Hayes of New York (1918-1938) made bishops only of active pastors, whereas his successor Francis Cardinal Spellman (1939-1967) mostly promoted Chancery priests. As the Church’s bureaucracies grew, so did the bishop’s reliance on what social scientist Charles Murray calls “the cognitive elites.” After the New Deal, such elites were not without influence on secular politics, but they were counterbalanced by the grass roots wisdom of “party bosses” and district captains, much as — within the Church — seminary professors and chancellors were offset by large numbers of dominant pastors.

Today, the pastor’s likely difficulties (or a priest’s) are his diminished Mass attendance, the rising costs of maintaining Church agencies, the increasing taxation or special collections imposed by diocesan headquarters, the absence of well-trained American priests as curates, the plethora of foreign-born externs who do not intend to establish roots or to Americanize, or the dearth of religious, who once were “the heart” of parish life. The Church has recovered from deprivation and poverty before, and so have disciplined priests of faith, but this time it is not going to be easy.

The more pressing problem is that of the pastor or a priest (in communion with his bishop) who is deeply mired in ambiguity about how far his authority extends to decide the meaning of the word “Catholic;” or to determine, against recalcitrant opposition, how his parochial community should normally worship, believe, or live, or how much support he will receive from his bishop in doing what the Pope says. Challenge to pastoral authority is the order of the present day. The contestation may be expressed in “power-sharing” language, but it really challenges the pastor’s fundamental authority. By training, a Catholic pastor realizes the limits of his authority over unbelievers, non-believers, or recalcitrant sinners, now he must face commonplace doubts about his doctrinal and disciplinary authority over a community that is still described as “the faithful.”7

The Post-Vatican II Revolution

The post-Vatican II decline in priestly/pastoral status began simply enough with theories, proliferated throughout the Church’s infrastructures, that Catholic doctrine had it wrong when it insisted that a priestly hierarchy is the magisterial guarantor of God’s revealed Word, or that Christ appointed bishops as governors of the Church. Catholics were commonly taught during the 1970s, in college or seminary classes, that what the risen Christ likely had in mind as his replacement was a congregation of followers who worshipped God and did good works in his name. Not much more. Certainly not a community with a priestly caste, or a Eucharistic sacrifice, or an ex opere operato sacramental system celebrated only by priests, or moral absolutes taught by them. According to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger this revisionism, viz., that the Catholic Church is largely a human construction, became a dangerous dubium to make its rounds at the parish or school street level.8 A “humanly constructed” Christian community might grow naturally, so the theorizing went, to need supervising “presbyters” (i.e., a Greek word for “old men”), but hardly a divinely sent “Holy Father” in Rome or anywhere else.9

This revolution was justified in the name of Vatican II which supposedly decreed major accommodations to the demands of secular culture, in the hope of an increased influence for the Church over worldly institutions, and the enhancement of the quality of life on earth, particularly that of the poor and the oppressed. Those who feared evil consequences from activating these theories within the Church were called “prophets of doom.” Yet, the results have been a diminution of Catholic faith and piety among large numbers of actual and would-be Catholics, a proliferation of dissent against Catholic Creeds, and a disobedience of Church Laws, to an extent proportionately unknown to America, since the early days of its first bishops.

The American bishops sensed this post-Vatican II threat inherent in the theories going around their dioceses as early as 1974. In preparation for the Third Roman Synod, which resulted a year later in Paul VI’s deservedly famed Evangelii Nuntiandi the NCCB sent its episcopal delegates to Rome with this advisory:

“The emerging question for the Catholic community may well be whether in the future, as in the past, it derives its fundamental beliefs and attitude from the traditional value system of Catholic Christianity or whether its beliefs and attitudes will be drawn more and more from the secularistic, humanistic value system around it.”10

Wrong Practice Makes Malpractice

The failure to perform the duties assigned to, and expected of, a public office is malpractice. A certain amount of it goes on in families everywhere. Determining the degree to which it must be in evidence before it becomes a menace to society, involves human judgment of a non-infallible nature. Still, like so many social conditions that cannot be defined empirically, people know malpractice when they see it. Certainly, the Church of the United States is worse off than it was in 1962, not because of anything the Council Fathers said or wrote, but because their words were misinterpreted and misused and because the authority that belongs to Pope and bishops was equivalently “hijacked” at lower levels. Worse in the process, the public laws of the Church on worship, doctrine, and discipline were violated with impunity.

As events unfolded, however, the local pastor today can do little about these divisions, which appeared almost everywhere, except to exacerbate them, if he was one of those priests inspired or trained to keep “pluralism” alive among Catholics, after the manner of the Church of England. Although such divisions are often presented as mere differences of opinion between “pluralists” (“the best and the brightest”) and “fundamentalists” (“the narrow-minded”), the real issue was, and is, the true meaning of the virtue of faith and its content.11 If something contrary to faith, or at least indeterminate about faith, is taught or done in violation of Canon Law at a neighboring parish or in the next diocese, it is almost impossible to insist on universal Church norms of belief and practice.

To the charge years ago that the Church was undergoing a “crisis of authority,” Jesuit Cardinal Jean Danielou, himself a scholar, responded that the divisions were due rather to the lack of the use of authority by bishops and by Rome. That was his early post-Vatican II judgment. As years went by, the bishops actually allowed their authority to be used to legitimize the status of “pluralists” within the Church. They drew their preferred experts mainly from dissenting professional associations. This not only gave status to dissenters, but it also led to the quarantining of competent “defenders of the faith,” and excluded these latter from having any serious influence on the trend of national decisions by hierarchy.

The faithful pastor at the local level suffered from all of this, notably by loss of authority over clergy who were trained in the new order, and over religious who taught in his schools. This did not happen everywhere at first, nor does it happen everywhere now, but significantly so across the country.

The process of debilitating the pastorate (and the parish priest, too) occurred in many places in three stages:

1.    By Bishops weakening motu proprio their own authority, that of Rome, too, and of every pastor, whose office is only as effective as the Bishop’s.

2.    By secularizing the priestly office.

3.    By feminizing the Church.

1. Weakening Pastoral Authority

The year 1967 was a critical turning point. Cardinal Krol had it right: If bishops, who owned the Catholic University of America, could not terminate the employment of a non-tenured professor of only two years’ apprenticeship, what was the use of being its Board of Trustees? Especially since Trustees at Yale or Harvard were free to do precisely that, without having to explain why they did it. In 1967, however, someone persuaded CUA’s Rector, and others, against their better judgment, that letting Charles Curran’s contract expire would somehow be un-American. Subsequently, Curran found the way to bring the bishops to heel by organizing priests and religious, especially in the Washington, D.C. area, to march on picket lines in protest against the very idea of bishops having anything to say about the Catholic qualifications of a professor. The bishops capitulated.

Cardinal Spellman said he was too old to get into another fight. Archbishop John Dearden, newly elected President of the NCCB, was hardly an influence on behalf of Rome, and his fellow Clevelander and friend, Atlanta’s Archbishop Paul Hallinan, might even be called the main Curran partisan on CUA’s Board. Cardinal Krol himself capitulated to his fellow bishops, wrong-headed though he thought them to be. And Boston’s Richard Cardinal Cushing roared that he did not know why bishops were involved at all, because they knew nothing about running a University. (As if this was the principle under attack from the Curran faction.) Later, Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle summed up the rout with the pithy line: “We ate crow!”

Within weeks of that debacle the forces of autonomy against episcopal hegemony gathered again. This time it was the Jesuit College presidents, and Notre Dame’s President Theodore Hesburgh as their host, at Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin (July 23, 1967), to declare the freedom of Catholic higher education from hierarchy’s oversight. On October 14, 1967 the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters followed suit celebrating a “Charter Day,” whereon they declared that no longer would IHM leadership permit Rome (or the local bishop) to determine “the essentials” of the Church’s religious life. This community paved the way for the breakup of convents and parochial schools all across the country. (When the Congregation for Religious directed the IHMs to observe Roman norms, NCCB president Dearden wrote to Paul VI against the letter’s sternness.) These autonomies of special Catholic interests from papal and episcopal authority are more firmly in place now than they were thirty years ago.

In the years between 1967 and 1982 American Catholics saw the growing use of contraception among Catholics, the explosion of annulments, the wipeout of the Sacrament of Penance, opposition to the General Catechetical Directory (as there later was to the Universal Catechism), studies of both religious life and seminary training which managed to paint an optimistic picture little resembling the reality, and a host of disciplinary problems. Tensions developed early between Rome’s universal norms and Episcopal Conferences which regularly sought leeway in their application (e.g., dispensations or reinterpretations of what was about to be promulgated in the new Code of Canon Law [1983], or in later Apostolic Constitutions like Ex Corde Ecclesiae [1990], even on the English translation [1993] of the new Catechism).

By 1982 the bishops in conference were ready to discuss “The Role of the Bishop in the Contemporary Church,” which they did behind closed doors in Collegeville. The then Archbishop James Hickey favored the consultation process inherent in good government, a judgment with which anyone of sense would agree, but, he also made clear that certain authoritative aspects of the Church were reserved to Bishops alone, such as teaching in Christ’s name. He asserted that those who “teach in the Church’s name” should be accredited by Church authority, as surely as chemistry teachers were by the State. (These were points Paul VI had made earlier.)

However, the prevailing voice of that meeting was John Cardinal Dearden, the founding father of the American post-Vatican II ecclesiastical machinery. Brought back from retirement to give the keynote, the Detroit Archbishop — in contrast to Hickey — stressed almost exclusively the virtues of the “listening” bishop, who shared responsibility and consulted. No reservations were indicated. At one point in the address he jibed at the relationship of Rome with a National Body of Bishops, by recalling Rome’s anxieties about the old NCWC (1919):

“We can smile at the reports drawn up during the stormy days when a small delegation was endeavoring to save the NCWC from suppression. One quotation from a report has these sentences: ‘They (i.e., the Holy See) are always talking about the autonomy of a single bishop. It’s a smoke screen. What they mean is that it is easier to deal with one bishop than with a hierarchy.’”12

Indeed, under Dearden’s administration of the NCCB (1966-1971), which had an anti-Roman flavor characteristic of him, the episcopal “listening” favored the Church’s pluralists, viz., those who held in disfavor many views of Roman authority. Even a bishop-in-the-field could be called “absolutely stupid” by a bishop-bureaucrat if he stood in the way of what became Washington priorities.

To this day official Catholic circles do not correlate the breakup of the Church’s doctrinal unity, or the statistical declines, with policy decisions made between 1966-1971, and reaffirmed thereafter year by year.

The national episcopal machinery was in such a hurry to make changes, some quite dubious from the beginning, and so forcefully, that thirty years later, many individual bishops feel bound to rubber-stamp decisions which make them unhappy. After the November 1966 meeting, for example, Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss of Omaha, discussing liturgical translations, summed up the mood: “We have been fighting about this for several years and arguing and discussing it. We have made our interventions and we tried to got a response. The body of bishops generally wants to finish it and get on with it. So I think this is the reason there has been so little debate.”13 In short, a small committee with “experts” chosen by a few leaders tends to remain in command despite unrest among bishops in the field.

What has this to do with pastors and parish priests? Such episcopal practice, widely publicized, makes it seem that the local pastor, too, is not the final word in his own jurisdiction, especially if he rejects the recommendation of a parochial committee or council which considers itself independent of the pastor in matters of Church governance. The average pastor today deals with priests, religious, and laity who, by what they notice going on at large, no longer think that a cleric, even if he is a Bishop, has any right to require acceptance of what the Church prescribes about First Communion, general absolution, or liturgical norms, or teaches about worthy concelebration or communion, marital responsibility, or “the Catholic conscience.” If some of those who have enjoyed “consultant” status at the national level, say that bishops no longer control the Church’s highways and byways, what makes a parish priest feel important? “Reformers” have come to think that they represent the Holy Spirit refashioning a Church that never should have come to be in the first place.

In some respects, the secular world has succeeded in turning the Church upside down. Ever since the Freudians and Rogerians came to dominate the culture with their stress on the subjective, and to make personal feelings the important elements in the determination of truth, in the formation of character, or of good citizenship, and ever since hierarchical structures came to be looked upon as instruments of oppression, or “guilt machines,” the officers of secular society have courted the unhappy and the discontented more than those seeking only to do what is objectively good. In recent years censure has gone out of favor, unless the wrongdoing offends the secular agenda. This ideology has achieved great influence today on the governance of Catholic institutions, where obedience to Church-Law is not necessarily a high priority, and when the demands of ecclesial authority are deemed to be politically incorrect by secular standards. If many of the best and brightest Americans now eschew vital civic roles because the world in which government officials must function is morally topsy-turvy, it should not be surprising that a pastorate fashioned in the secular mode is not the desirable thing it once was.

2. Secularizing the Priestly Office

“Come Follow Me” was an invitation for The Twelve to undertake Christ’s redemptive mission to God’s people. Their relationship from the beginning was patriarchal/filial, just about what He meant when He spoke of “my” or of “your” heavenly Father. Many latter-day Christians will have none of this traditional understanding of the priesthood, in part because it suggests dependence on the arbitrary will of someone else, or on a lack of self-determination. In their mind it is also opposed to the contemporary plurality of interpretations of God’s alleged Word about ministry. Such views are old news to the Church, although rarely expressed in modern times until the post-World War II period.

By then American priests were enjoying more of life’s comforts than their lay counterparts, more than their predecessors. Not simply because of their “star status” in every neighborhood, but because of improved rectories and a new freedom of operation. (Priests were, however, no more exempt from the crosses of life than others.) Celibacy in those generations was not the cause of crisis the secular world makes it today. Busy priests had little time, then, to feel sorry for themselves, and knew where to go for help, even to the bishop or the vicar general, who were usually solicitous for every priest’s well-being.

Almost without careful estimate of what hasty change could do to the status and mission of parish priests, bishops introduced terms of office, personnel boards, multiple discussion groups, preferential options, salary emoluments, leaves of absence, and so forth. These perquisites were presented as real answers to oft-expressed personal problems (e.g. over faith and/or being under authority), which all people experience at some time or another under any system. Concessions, however, never seemed to help some priests. Almost immediately, curates became harder to handle once they were made “associates” (no matter the age), no longer “assistants.” (In the professional world, an “associate” earns his status over time.) The strange aspect of this “modernization” is that, although these proposals were given by priests’ councils as options, bishops often followed them as bounden duty. One Archbishop, succeeding to a See where “terms of office” did not exist, refused to introduce them because he looked upon the oversight of all diocesan pastoral needs, and of priests especially, as his personal responsibility. Another bishop told his 75-year-old pastors that he would speak with the Pope about compulsory retirement, not adverting to the fact that he, no less than the Pope, need not accept a priest’s compulsory “letter of resignation.” More than a few priests, arriving in the pastor’s chair in their 50’s, were forced out in their 60’s to start all over again, in an entirely new place, denied the opportunity to enjoy the harvest they had sown.

If currying favor with the bishop was the earlier way to gain a good assignment, or to escape an unpleasant one, the new game involved playing the politics of the “Personnel Board,” whose well-intentioned and apostolic-minded members often had their own agendas for the diocese.

While “checks and balances” between centers of political power, or “divided government,” as it is sometimes called, represents enlightened political wisdom, there is no philosophical or ecclesiological principle, let alone empirical evidence, which verifies that a “committee system” is proper for, or superior to, patriarchy (or matriarchy) in the management of a family, or Christ’s Church. A Church that claims that her hierarchy is of divine institution must be careful about a “committee” tampering with a pastor’s office, or his staff, without his knowledge. A “Personnel Committee” which supplies a bishop with information he might not otherwise have, is a procedural improvement. A “Personnel Board,” which manages the bishop’s priest placement process, stands between a pastor and his bishop (or vicar general), after the manner of a corporate enterprise.

At ordination a priest gives himself in “reverence” and “obedience” into the hands of the bishop alone. To obey a bishop is more in accord with that commitment than to obey a Committee or a staff officer who would have a pastor bow to the Chancery’s prudential judgment on free matters. In former days a Chancellor would permit the pastor to decide whether “a suicide” was entitled to Christian burial. A father-son relationship with a bishop may not make priestly morale in a diocese better, but it does maintain a certain sacredness between the two that cannot be realized through a negotiating committee. Nor do we hear that the present abundance of committees raises priestly morale. The contrary seems to be true. Employment practices borrowed from a modified capitalistic enterprise (where making or dividing money is the objective), designed to mute class distinctions, or instill a sense of self-fulfillment in subordinates, and improve corporate productivity, are not exactly what should define the kinship of a father with his son. These devices by themselves are unconnected with “self-sacrifice,” “obedience,” or priestly “mission.” In fact, they more often take away from the priesthood the very qualities required for exercising a sacred vocation properly and for finding satisfaction with it.

3. The Feminization of the Church

One of the more disparaging statements made about religion, even of Catholicity, is that it is mostly a women’s work. It is so by the nature of femininity, some would argue. Cursory observations of Catholic life in many countries of Europe lend prima facie support to this theory. The fact that such an assertion has never been made convincingly about the Church in the United States is testimony to the well-rounded formation of Catholic character here by American bishops and their priests.

Before God, men are no less bound to His worship than women, nor are they less obligated than women to obey His Laws and those of the Church. Neither in the order of grace nor of nature are men dispensed from fulfilling the different roles that God has ordained for them. God shows no partiality here. Radical feminism, whatever its role in reducing sexuality to sex or in weakening the link between womanliness and marriage, or with motherhood, clearly seeks to unseat men as authority figures. The feminist campaign targets are not just fathers of the household, but priests of the Church as well, especially the Holy Father. God as Father of the human family might even be the ultimate object for a fall.

Men and women are often defined today as male and female, without reference to their fatherhood or motherhood; in radical feminist circles marriage is often mentioned without its natural link to parenthood, or even to heterosexuality. Such feminism associates authority with mere power, not with God’s truth or right. Its partisans seek parity of political power with men, perhaps even more power, although domestic and maternal ties will always place limits on the political entanglements of most women. Their irreplaceable motherly presence in society can never find a fitting substitute in males.

Although extreme sexual formulations can hardly be defended within the Church, feminism nonetheless has impacted negatively on the conduct of pastors, even of bishops. By pursuing the ordination of women with social force, in spite of explicit magisterial teaching, its protagonists tend to eviscerate the term “shepherd” of its Christ-like meaning. This destructive privilege was reserved in earlier centuries only to unbelievers, heretics or schismatics.

Today, pastors tiptoe around the feminist issues (so do official documents), by frequently placing unconditioned emphasis on women’s rights without corresponding reference to their Christian duties, and seemingly join the chorus of those who oppose discriminating judgment about sexual roles in the marketplace, in public service, in the worship of God, or even within marriage. Motherhood and fatherhood are rarely discussed in depth. References to the indignities heaped by feminists on manhood or on good men are never heard, while silence over the lack of respect frequently shown to fathers in mother-dominated households, merely reinforces the impression that women per se are victims, and men somewhat unworthy of respect for the role most of them exercise responsibly. A great deal of rhetoric in this vein is sometimes expressed at Bishops’ meetings. The suggestion occasionally appears that women would be more comfortable with the Church if more of their numbers were diocesan pastors, chancellors, or tribunal judges; if hierarchy only reeducated their priests accordingly, or persuaded Rome to overcome its outdated attitudes by conferring priestly jurisdiction on those without holy orders.14 In Catholic circles discussion of this subject turns at times into a rally for a secular political judgment, rather than a search for the correct fulfillment of Christian Revelation.

These thorny issues are not going to be resolved by the Church as long as they remain political; nor as long as the only correct answer seems to be to divide the priesthood in Solomonic fashion between so-called chauvinist men and feminist women; nor as if the absolute demands of God’s word as the Church understands it are not the framework within which sincere believers work out how best to do what God wants them to do. St. Paul, in spite of his dismissal as an authority on matters sexual, speaks more wisely on this subject than his critics. Those who would rewrite Ephesians 5, find it is easy to grant that in modernity, free or not, it is appropriate to remind husbands (as if God is demanding it) to “love your wives” (since men tend to be careless in this regard); but inappropriate to remind wives to “obey” or “be subject” to their husbands in the proper place and time? Good women do this all the time, even as chauvinist ‘Enry ‘Iggins reminded his [My] Fair Lady of her special tendency to “do precisely what she wants!”

The secular world cannot be held to account for its double-standards, or for its hypocrisy, because it no longer believes that words ever mean absolutely what they say (e.g., “until death do us part”), or because ambiguity and equivocation are acceptable, if carried on for a politically correct cause. The Church, however, may not permit her sacred institutions — marriage and the priesthood being only two — to appear as man-made constructs, rather than as the God-given supernatural realities they are. She does not allow this to happen, at least not among her own, when she is sure of herself. In 1930, for example, Pius XI had no trouble articulating the role of fatherhood: “If the husband is the head of the domestic family, then the wife is the heart, and as the first holds the primacy of authority, so the second can and ought to claim the primacy of love.”15

Even when new questions arise about the Sacraments, Church teaching remains constant, however the language or arguments are modified. Canon 521 of the New Code speaks simply: “To assume the office of pastor one must be in the sacred order of the presbyterate.” Canon 517 says such authority can be shared but if, due to the shortage of priests, “the pastoral care of a parish” is entrusted “to some other person,” even a deacon, the bishop is to “appoint a priest endowed with the powers and faculties of a pastor to supervise the pastoral care.”

It is this determination of the Church to hold fast to the revealed realities upon which its very nature and the Word of God is based, which “reformers” seek to erode. “Change the Church’s practice and the Church’s teaching will change,” was a principle of revolution enunciated early by the likes of Hans Kung and Associates. Under this rubric began simulated concelebration of Mass with the non-ordained (or non-Catholic ministers), Eucharistic reception without absolution from mortal sin, general absolution as licit apart from personal confession of sins, declarations of nullity for valid marriages, ambiguous translations of biblical “hard sayings,” secularized religious life, women as administrators of parishes (with a priest as curate), and so forth.

Tearing down the walls around that exclusive “man’s world” in the Church and making the definition of priesthood sexually neutral is the latest assault on Catholic doctrine. Already 80 percent of the laity engaged in Church ministry are women, according to one bishop addressing a national meeting of his peers (1996). How rarely do churchgoers see a man in the role of their parish’s Eucharistic minister? The Catholic Theological Society of America (in a 1996 convention report) deduces that John Paul II’s belated approval of altar girls is a theological harbinger of women priests to come. Is it?

The First World has been moving towards unisex for a half century, and towards a femininized culture in which women will be honored if they are less than truly feminine, or if they limit their motherly role in their daily life. John Paul II warned about the pitfalls of that feminism which encouraged “a renunciation of femininity” or an “imitation of the male role.” Such an ideology may please “iron ladies” who seemingly never appear lovable, but it also repudiates the street wisdom that says that working women prefer men bosses. Apart from the homosexual implications of unisex, a “disorder” of nature ab initio, “women-power” does not necessarily beget “women influence,” especially if “iron ladies” are its chief witnesses. The complimentary masculine/feminine structures of the Judaeo-Christian tradition may have bestowed power on men to wage wars, to levy taxes, and to gain a great deal of attention from history buffs. Still, mothers, the child-bearers, the nurses, the teachers, and the nuns, are the ones who mostly ran the world of the streets, where human beings learned how to be human, a lesson many children no longer learn.

In post-World War II Catholic circles, a man, challenged to prove that he was “the head of the house,” was commonly caricatured as defending his superiority in this way: “I make all the big decisions, she makes the little ones. She determines where we live, where the kids go to school, and what we eat. I decide whether Russia should be allowed into the United Nations, or whether the A.F.L. should merge with the C.I.O.” That crack contained more of the real world than sexists, male or female, would like to admit. The eternal question remains: Does the battle of the sexes really exist? Obviously, from the time of Adam and Eve, with women, usually mothers, winning more often than the radical feminists want youngsters to know. If the children of Catholic immigrants once credited the Church with their social success, chances are that this or that local pastor received honorable mention for the accomplishment. But, more commonly, it was “the nuns” — and mothers in the home — who were the greater influence during husband’s and children’s formative years, a power of women over people more significant than any man’s power over things. (This was so noticeable by 1950 that Philip Wylie made a national reputation decrying the putative ill-effects of “Momism.”)

The Church cannot control the reigning ideologies of the secular order, but by now she ought to know how to handle her own false prophets. If the purpose of temporizing with those Catholics who have a “conscious bias” against the priesthood (John Paul II’s term) is to effectuate their conversion, the effort is failing. New priests are not only fewer, but the morale of the “reformed” clergy has never been lower, if reports of the NCCB (1989) or the National Catholic Educational Association (1990) are correct. Martin Luther denigrated the ruling role of the priest with his line “we are all consecrated priests by baptism,” but the modern issue is whether he, as “the man of the Eucharist” (John Paul II’s term), is Christ’s vicar in the apostolate of redemption and salvation. Even the appearance of compromise over the manhood of the priesthood is bound to raise the next questions: Whether the priesthood has direct connection with Christ; whether Christ is really present in the Church or in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Pastores Dabo Vobis and the Faith Problem

That something should be done about these matters is obvious to John Paul II who, when he wrote Pastores Dabo Vobis in 1992, took note of the depth of the crisis over the priesthood from early Vatican II days, and the marked difference in the kind of priests who were appearing on the scene then, as compared to thirty years earlier. Even though his problems are similar to those of his predecessors from earlier centuries, this pope is not expected to do anything impetuous.

During the 14th century days of Urban VI (1378-1389), the Church was in decline because ecclesiastics had allowed themselves to be held hostage by underlings or politicians. Princes wanted less Church influence on the conduct of States, French Cardinals (and the King) kept the Pope in Avignon and out of Rome for seventy years. Freewheeling clerics, then, fixed their eyes more on money than on souls. University personnel (e.g. Paris’ John Gerson) argued that Christ’s authority was vested in the Church’s people, not in the Pope, and therefore exercisable without necessary reference to the apostolic patrimony. During this so-called “Avignon Captivity,” according to Philip Hughes, hierarchy surrendered their rights and jurisdiction “wholesale,” authority which their predecessors valiantly fought to have recognized in the public arena.16

History never quite repeats itself, of course. Catholic kings are not around anymore to threaten prelates. Only, the officers of the secular State have a grim, if subtle, way of burying the Church behind her own walls, while they reach over bishops to change the minds of people about religion. The modern State is insidiously antithetical to Catholic piety, a virtue that every pastor must cherish. Its “cognitive elites,” including Catholics, are prone nowadays, as they were in the days of imperial Christianity, of Conciliarism, of Protestantism, or of Gallicanism, to propose marriage of the Church to the reigning State, a temptation prelates of old found hard to resist. But as one sage reminded them: “If the Church marries herself to any era, she’ll soon be a widow.” Why? Because she stands outside and above secular culture of any kind, even one of her own making. When certain popes mistakenly thought they should dominate the State because they were Vicars of Christ, their successors felt the force of State power seeking to fit the sacred into its secular mold. Whenever the State trivializes capital sins or makes trivial sins capital, the Church has lost. Masters of secularity think that the idea of sin (an offense against God) is just about as ridiculous as the idea of God becoming man to redeem the world.

What has this to do with pastors? If the decline in congregational faith among Protestants is a paradigm, then it was the “treason of clerics” which brought it about, as Anglican priest-theologian Eric Mascall was wont to say.17 Mascall saw the process at work among Catholics after Vatican II, in the willingness of “enlightened clerics” to spread a view of Christ as one who is not our God nor our teacher, and to explain Christian events rationalistically, as if the explanations provided by the Apostles, Evangelists, Fathers of the Church, or the Magisterium of the Apostolic Successors, were intellectually incompetent. The loss of faith in the real Christ, and in the Church as his real sacramental presence, began in her heartland after the recent Council — within those houses of learning and formation entrusted with the initial and ongoing training of priests and religious. The results of the treason were symbolized almost overnight in little things. Bishops continued to wear cassocks, but many younger priests divested themselves of clerical clothing, almost as rapidly as younger religious women exchanged community garb for secular attire. Then, came the priestly downgrading and the belittling of those pious practices which, while not the necessary effects of faith, do reflect the efforts of earlier priests to keep God’s presence felt in the lives of their faithful: holy water fonts at the entrance to a Catholic home, bowing the head or signing the cross as one passed a Church, blessings of new mothers and their infants, Benediction and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, devotional novenas to Our Lady and the Saints, scapulars, etc. In due course, as these pious practices fell into disuse, there followed Mass without vestments or creeds, Holy Communion to habitual sinners and non-Catholics, dissoluble marriages, and the end of confessional lines, just about the time that large Catholic families disappeared. When the flight of religious from religion began, colleges, too, founded by a saint or a living martyr from one of America’s great communities, muted their Catholic identity. Or, like the twenty in New York, had themselves declared by the State nondenominational and no longer juridically Catholic. These shortfalls were not sanctioned by Vatican II, yet they were frequently claimed as legitimate fruits of the Council, especially the result of the Church’s “openness” to the world on rational terms, and to autonomous decision-making below the level of pastors’ jurisdiction — and, therefore, no need of pastors. Many years ago an obscure academic, reviewing Karl Rahner’s theological superiority over the German bishops, recapped a new elitist view of Catholicity:


Openness means facing the deep religious problems of contemporary life — acknowledging, for example, that it is not easy to say exactly what “God” means today. To say whether the orthodox formulas are not mainly empty and to say precisely when love of neighbor is not sufficient religion. Similarly, we have no adequate ecclesiology for the increasing number who are “selective” in their faith, who cling to some doctrines and reject others. We are already an ecumenical Church, in the sense that we are solidly pluralistic. If we are courageous enough to accept organizational and doctrinal pluralism more forthrightly, letting more ways of following Christ just be and interact, we could really start to think of ourselves as united.18


Most Evangelical Protestants would reject this inane logic, which divests the creeds and Church teaching of meaning, and reduces the sacramental system to a series of empty rituals or superstitious acts. For Catholics who think this way, St. Paul’s “one Faith, one Lord, one Baptism” (Eph. 4:5) no longer endures as a rule of faith. The right of the Church to vivify these three aspects of authentic Christianity — unilaterally through pastors — is denied. The faith-problem transcends any failure in the human governance of Christ’s Church.


In Summary

The critical questions facing all contemporary Catholic pastors are two:

(1) How much of the faith preached by the Vicar of Christ can their parishioners believe, in view of the way bishops or pastors are often contested in their household, or by the quality of parish life they are likely to hand on to their successors if the present divisions continue; (2) How can that discipleship which characterized the American Church through most of the 20th century be restored, that which is consistent with mind of Him who told His first followers, “If you live according to my teaching you are truly my disciples.” (Jn. 8:31).

Doctrinal purity and discipleship go together, injury to one weakens the other, hardly a desirable condition for the Mystical Body of Christ.

Deny it as many may, contradictory pluralism on matters of faith and morals is entrenched in the post-Vatican II Church, and a form of heresy. A kind of Treaty of Westphalia now rules in the United States; the quality of the Catholicity in a given place depending on who is in charge of the local Catholic community. In 1648, after a Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestant princes, Europe’s political leaders decided to give civil legitimacy to the religion professed by the local reigning prince or duke. Cujus regio, ejus religio. Identify the prince of a place, and the people’s religion was officially predetermined. This Solomonic solution was denounced by believing Protestants, while Pope Innocent X (1644-1655) excoriated it as “null, worthless, iniquitous, frivolous and without authority!” Yet Westphalia was nothing more than statutory recognition by politicians of religious pluralism over which popes and bishops no longer had any say. Henceforth, Church membership was to be a private affair, doctrines were of no social significance, and the secular State became, in effect, the arbiter of religion whenever Churches were unwise enough to intrude on the public square.

Princes of the realm no longer exist in the West with power to seize monasteries, or send a bishop to the Tower for head surgery, or imprison a pope. The Church’s privileged place in secular society was lost at Westphalia, but bishops at least were left free to deal with the Church’s own, at least in theory. New “princes” were bound to arise notably in the academy of Germany for the Protestant Church, but also within Catholicity on the Continent. In those years the caretakers of the Church at any given time often lacked the fervor of their Jansenist enemies, or the intellectual/polemical skills of a pagan Voltaire, or the will-to-win of a politically determined Bismarck.

Something of the kind has been going on in the modern Church. A different kind of Catholicity has unfolded in various segments of the Church, depending on who controls a specific place — a pastor, a prior, a college president, and so forth — with bishops no longer having a firm hold on the consciences of Catholics. This veritable revolution in the United States institutionalizes a nominal Catholicity here for the first time, one that has long been a characteristic of “Catholic” countries in Europe.

A social scientist, asked to comment on the present state of the Church, might express surprise that anyone is upset by this turn of events. Changes in types of government and in ruling classes go on all the time, he would say. Vilfred Pareto dubbed this as the “circulation of elites,” a Machiavellian case of “foxes” in a nation’s political structure outsmarting the “lions” in power, or of the latter eventually running over the former. In this theory, revolution was likely to appear at critical points of history, when “the ins” miscalculated the popular support enjoyed by “the unfriendly outs.” The Pareto analysis claims to explain the dissolution of the Roman Empire, why republics replace monarchies, or how democracies end up totalitarian. It suggests, too, that a fox-like “cleverness” in politics, exercised at the right moment, prevails over the sheer “strength” of officeholders, as symbolized by lions, and has a certain relevancy to secular governance, whose main function is to create or maintain order within a country, and to defend people against outside enemies.

The Catholic Church, however, has been created to sustain much more than social peace. She was ordained to instill the Word of God among men, and to engender sanctity at least among her own. Granted that, as a human institution, a certain discipline is necessary in order that this be done effectively, but the message matters for the Church, not the social process. And to protect the gospel and the creed she may call on the disciplinary customs of an age or draw on the wisdom of her own tradition.

Whether secular society likes it or not, or particular Catholics either, Christ’s mission has been entrusted to consecrated priests. John Paul II insists: “Without priests the Church would not be able to live!” In the pursuit of their vocation, therefore, in the Pareto scheme, priests must be both “clever” and “strong.” When they are “foxes” to the exclusion of their “lion-like” qualities, “the message” becomes blurred.

A “Treaty of Westphalia” situation cannot long continue in the United States without the witness of the Catholic Church to Christ’s mission becoming irrelevant to the lives of her own people. Nominal Catholicity will replace the deep Catholic piety of those trained in the unified American Church of the earlier 20th century.

What can Catholics do about this crisis?

Renewing the Pastor’s Role

The renewal of priestly status in the Church, the reaffirmation of the parish priest’s role and authority, and the reversal of the downward trend in seminary enrollments, is a top priority for action by pope and bishops. Part of the process involves scholarly restatements of the Catholic tradition, going back to apostolic times, and orchestrated recalls also of saintly testimony about priests. But re-enhancement of the office in the lives of priests themselves is also essential. The sacredness of the priestly vocation demands it. If a priest is a vicar of Christ, he must learn to think as such.

To reinforce priests in this endeavor, however, structures must be developed, beginning at the seminary level. It is worth recalling that sound doctrinal and moral formation, episcopal supervision, rectory living, and wearing cassocks or Roman collars, for example, only followed long centuries of poor training and unworthy priests.

Some steps to consider:


1. As a beginning, recognition by the American body of bishops that the root of the Church’s priestly crisis is in a widespread loss of faith in the Church’s creedal propositions and, therefore, in the credibility of the Church herself. The surrounding culture, more worldly or earthbound than ever before, is partly to blame, but that hardly excuses the scandals within the Church, sins against the faith being the most notorious. Invitations to sin were first extended to those living a fruitful marriage, only later to those engaged in a self-sacrificing priesthood.

2. The process of recovery from any problematic situation usually originates in the prudent but unapologetic use of their legislative, judicial, and executive authority. Bishops, for example, are not supplicants before civil magistrates, certainly not before their own elites, but vicars of Christ, men who speak in His name and share His authority.

Unequivocable re-affirmations of the doctrinal teachings of Christ and the Church, especially those which are misrepresented in the public forum, or neglected, are appropriate.

In the hostile environment they face, bishops are impelled to dispute, refute, and confront, publicly as necessary, those who lead the faithful astray on matters of doctrine, or threaten the Church’s well-being or reputation by their disobedience, insofar as they are guarantors of what is taught under the auspices of the Church, and in every institution which uses the Cross of Christ as its identifying feature. The Holy See expects the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be the authoritative norm against which worship, teaching, and parish life are to be judged.

Only those who have a measurable record of fidelity to the Church’s teaching office and to her vicars are eligible for appointment to diocesan office, or to become consultors, or be featured or honored by ecclesial authority, with the understanding that these offices or honors are held in trust at the pleasure of the responsible Church authority.

3. The Holy See contributes to this process of rebuilding respect for the Church’s pastors by appointing to episcopal office, or promoting, only those bishops with the demonstrated ability to govern the Church as Canon Law specifies, and their personal history of governance vindicates, and the special needs of the ecclesial situation.

4. The Holy See insists, once universal policy or law is established, that National Conferences of Bishops apply the policy or law, without equivocation, ambiguity, or benign neglect by a diocesan bishop within his own jurisdiction, especially as it applies to the worship of God, the administration of the sacraments, and the Catholic reputation of the Church.

5. The Holy See oversees Roman institutes of learning and of seminary training, so that these remain models for bishops and major superiors of how the Church’s universal norms are to be implemented, and how Catholic institutions are to be managed.

6. Diocesan Ordinaries review all policies and practices already in place to insure that they enhance the sacred status of pastors and of parish priests in general. These priests must be properly trained and supported for the vital roles they play. Any custom that secularizes their divinely conferred status and role should be reversed.


As the abuses of the post-Vatican II years mounted, one American Cardinal had reason to instruct the Apostolic Delegate — “You clean up the mess in Rome, and I’ll clean up my Archdiocese!” Reform, whatever its inspiration, is accomplished only through the proper laws with sensible enforcement of a society’s highest authorities.

The scandals of recent years are due mainly to the fact that those whom Peter and Paul called evildoers have often been indulged or even rewarded, while the faithful sons and daughters have been ignored or discounted. The disorder, most noticeable of all, has been the fraternal relationship that developed between Church bureaucracies and notorious dissenting bodies within religious and academic communities. On the other hand, rarely is an apology tendered for the hurt inflicted by a bishop who removed a good pastor after four decades of service for being strict on decorum during worship, on the theologian forced out of his university tenure for criticizing some of his Community “leadership” (a post he could retain if he left the Order), on the university president forced to retire when dissenters became the dominant force in his Congregation, on the priest who never recovered his parish although the Holy See directed the bishop otherwise, on the theologian denied a seminary post because he was considered a papalist, or a faithful journalist terminated as editor of a diocesan newspaper because a timid bishop caved into pressure from a handful of priests, no less. These are only a few of the wrongs that have been perpetrated on the Church’s faithful by one or another officeholder, with hardly a thought within the community of defending the righteous against the misuse of office by the unrighteous. What was once called “the blackboard jungle syndrome” in major cities came to prevail, once students (some commentators called them hoodlums) took the peaceful management of public education in metropolitan areas away from their teachers and the Municipal Fathers. The office of pastor suffers similarly whenever Catholic antiestablishment figures ignore the legitimate directives of bishops or refuse to obey, or make threats against his governance, or disdain the office publicly even when they do what Church law requires. Once unchallenged or uncorrected, such misconduct radiates throughout a parish or a diocese.

Being a man of authority, or a woman, is as much a matter of presence, as of decision. Great leaders and grand dames exude presence. No one underestimates who they are. At the end of the 19th century, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, still not a Catholic, was so stunned one rainy Sunday by the dignity of Westminster’s Cardinal Henry Edward Manning as he stepped out of his carriage to enter a Church, that he took little note of his finery, only the man. After World War I the British Prime Minister so respected the potential impact of Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix on the Irish Question that he sent two destroyers to remove the prelate from a Cunard liner on his way home to his dying mother in Ireland; the fear was that he might cause more trouble than the Empire cared to face. In the 1930s when Patrick Cardinal Hayes walked down the middle aisle of his Cathedral, the churchgoers automatically fell to their knees to gain the full benefits of his blessing. During the 1940s the publisher of the Philadelphia Enquirer and other journalists treated Dennis Dougherty with the utmost respect because they learned from his posture — and his known way of defending his flock against unfair media treatment — that this Cardinal was not to be taken lightly. These men were the personification of their authority and were respected for their Church role, even by those who did not like them. They knew who they were and so did everyone else. Religious superiors and college presidents bowed in their direction, not the other way around.

Reform, according to the authentic norms of Vatican II, begins when all Catholics, including pastors, recognize that the present crisis begins with lack of supernatural faith in the truths of the Church as expressed in her ordinary teaching, and ends in disobedience of the Pope and the bishops in union with him. Our crisis, therefore, is not one of exhaustion from a frustrating contest between tradition and modernity, liberals and conservatives, Americans and Romans, as it is sometimes made out to be. It results from a lack of virtue within the Catholic community, and perhaps from God’s displeasure.

As long as the crisis continues, it is incumbent on those who have full confidence in the “faith of our fathers” to continue witnessing their faith boldly. By so doing they will suffer, as St. Athanasius did in the 4th century at the hands of Arian confreres, as Thomas More and John Fisher did a millennium later under England’s headhunting Henry VIII, as the Curé of Ars did in post-French Revolution days when bishops seemed more nationalist than Catholic, and as St. Elizabeth Seton did from the Protestant crusade against her newfound faith. Who else will?

Believing Catholics will reject the pessimism of those who think that the battle for the American Church has been lost, or of those who confront the present controversies more in anger than with hope in God’s Providence. The faithful certainly must continue their efforts to regain assent and obedience as attributes of the Church body, until pastors are once more able to teach, rule, and sanctify as Catholic wisdom ordains. Only under those circumstances, and with God’s help, will the Church of the United States have once more the quantity and quality of priests the “faith of our fathers” engendered.

Of course, nothing is perfect within the Body of Christ as long as human beings are part of it. But that does not mean that the Church lacks a sacred nature, its priests too, or that seeking perfection in this life is not her raison d’etre. Henri De Lubac had it right:


The Church which we call our Mother is not some ideal unreal Church but this hierarchical Church itself; not the Church as we might dream her but the Church as she exists in fact, here and now. Thus the obedience which we pledge her in the persons of those who rule cannot be anything but a filial obedience.19


These words are meaningless if the contumaciously disobedient or the scandalous sinners, especially consecrated religious persons, dominate Catholic sanctuaries or the designated halls of learning the faith; and if the faithful, including priests, are left to shift for themselves in their quest for holiness and eternal salvation. The gates of hell are prevailing, at least momentarily, when pastors watch the Church overrun by norms and sanctions invented by the Secular State to keep God in his heaven, and to mute Christ’s presence in the Church’s public square. Since the princes of academe now take pride in their secularity, as the princes of the realm once did, it is incumbent on the Pope with his bishops to restore the priesthood, the pastorate especially, to its full dignity and authority, leaving to practicing Catholics, taught and inspired by such priests, to bear such witness to the faith that the altars and the pulpits of the 21st century will be filled to overflowing with worthy Vicars of Christ.


A Pastor’s Last Hurrah?

The Pope by himself has jurisdiction over the governance of the universal Church, the bishop Ordinary over each diocese, the pastor over the local parish. Every modern document of the Church from Paul VI’s affixed note to Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium to Rome’s 1997 instruction on Diocesan Synods says so, without prejudice to the collegiality of bishops together with the pope, or the importance of consultative bodies in the administration of bishops.

Briefly stated, a single person in the Catholic Church stands in place of Christ — a priest pastor somewhere.

But once that long-standing Catholic truth is stated, we must hasten to admit that, in practice, the notion of “pastor,” as defined, is on its way out of the Catholic lexicon. It is vanishing as surely as the word “father,” the “head of the household,” is fading from American usage. Both terms have become socially unacceptable, as much because of the failure of both pastors and fathers to protect their roles in Church and family, as from theories concocted to undermine or demolish the dominion of one person over another in any society. (De facto, someone is always in command.) The malpractice appears regularly in the unwillingness of “men of authority” to enforce the laws of their society, allowing it to appear that, in the conduct of personal affairs of social concourse, everything is relative. The significance of that “ism” should not be underestimated by any truly Catholic shepherd of souls.

The subversion of the very notion of one person’s authority over another has long been in the making, conceptualized usually by philosophers who resented the Fatherhood of God or the Lordship of Christ.

Today, the sages of secularized Western culture are determined to maintain the present status quo, which they created, one described by Robert Nisbet as representing “the twilight of authority” itself. In present circumstances, the pastorate, like fatherhood, is looked upon as a titular office, a symbol of community, but not as an agency of decision-making or lawmaking, upon which the unity, peace, and Catholicity of the Church depends.

Secular elites are hardly sympathetic either with what may be the most powerful persons in the world, homemaking mothers, living indissolubly in sacramental union with the fathers of their children, fashioning the character of the nation’s next generation. Nor do they cotton to consecrated women working under a pastor as religious mothers to the Church’s future Christ-bearers. Secularists prefer, instead, that women be autonomous of men, in the marketplace, in the public square, or in the trenches, searching preferably for their own individualities, rather than meaningfulness in ties that bind them to their family or to their Church. In their view, togetherness is the result of agreements freely entered with others, and voidable, not a bonding of nature or one demanded by God’s law.

In spite of the disintegration of America’s civil order, and its family life — a byproduct of this secularist philosophy, breaking the moral bond between human freedom to see the truth and responsibility to do the right; the offshoot also of the conviction is that humankind’s only directive power is one growing from consensus among equals — secularism still dominates the thinking of the country’s leading opinion-molders, and pervades the policies of government.

The further the Church walks that secular highway the less will she be Catholic, the more irrelevant will pastors become to the life of the baptized, the fewer will be the manly young men who find the priesthood attractive, and the more will secular idols replace the worship of God the Father, and of Christ in the Eucharist.


Msgr. George A. Kelly, the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, is the author most recently of A Pastor’s Challenge: Parish Leadership in an Age of Division, Doubt and Spiritual Hunger (Our Sunday Visitor Press).

End Notes

1.    See Explanatory Note appended to Lumen Gentium which makes clear that papal collegiality with bishops is not intended to prevent the pope from acting on his own.

2.    Origins, October 11, 1984.

3.    In 1789 there was one priest for every 1,000 Catholics. By 1939 the ratio was down to 1:600. By 1989 it was back up to 1:1,100, without assessment that large numbers of foreign-born extern priests are now serving American Catholics on a month-by-month basis.

4.    John Talbot Smith, The Catholic Church in New York, (Hall and Locke Co., 1905, p. 470).

5.    Peter Guilday, History of the Councils of Baltimore, (Macmillan, 1932, p. 185). Guilday explained the beginnings as follows: “Uniformity of discipline was the principal need of the score of years which followed the (first episcopal) meeting of 1810. It was not easy of attainment for misrule had spread under incompetent leadership in New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. The Church here during the period of its infancy was sadly hampered by the presence of priests who knew not how to obey and laity who were interpreting their share of Catholic life by non-Catholic Church systems.”

6.    Canon 552 of the New Code still looks upon “stability” as normative; “The pastor ought to possess stability in office and therefore he is to be named for an indefinite period of time; the diocesan bishop can name him for a certain period of time only if a decree of the Conference of Bishops has permitted this.”

7.    The doubts and challenges, as well as the factual situations, vary with the personnel and the diocese, priests and religious stonewalling authority more than laity (unless they be academics or teacher representatives), American-born more than foreign-born.

8.    Cf. The Ratzinger Report, (Ignatius Press, 1985, p. 45).

9.    For a simple review of these theories, see Patrick J. Dunn, Priesthood. A Reexamination of the Roman Catholic Theology of the Presbyterate, (Alba House, 1990, pp. 232 ff.).

10.    See Origins, July 4, 1974.

11.    A Religious News Service report Christmas week 1996 has Andrew Greeley still defining the internal schism in these terms. This is precisely how the issues were joined during the “birth control fight.”

12.    Origins, June 15, 1982, p. 119.

13.    Even the attempt to resist the use of the word “presbyter” for “priest” was rejected to avoid prolonging the overall approval process.

14.    See Minutes of NCCB’s Executive Session, June 22, 1996, Portland, Oregon.

15.    Casti Connubii, No. 27.

16.    Seven Popes, all French, lived in this small town — outside of Italy and Rome from 1309-1378.

17.    See E. L. Mascall, Theology and the Gospel of Christ: An Essay in Reorientation, (London, SPCK, 1977).

18.    A book reviewer in America, February 16, 1974, p. 111.

19.    The Splendor of the Church, (Ignatius Press, 1986, p. 265).





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