Thursday, June 5, 2014

Need for Change

A good friend of mine some years back retired as archdeacon of a diocese in a major Protestant denomination here in the United States.  Among his responsibility as archdeacon had been the pastoral care of the clergy and their families—a pastor to pastors as it were.  And he told me—with some discouragement—that he estimated that about 75% of his clergy were “burned out.”   There were reasons for that.  First of all, the other various helping professions—medicine, counseling, teaching—all experience high burn-out rates.  Secondly, he found that many of his clergy were under-paid and thus had come to under-value themselves and their contribution.  This is a rather “worldly” scale of value, but we must admit that we are not immune to it just because we are in the Church.  Moreover, clergy are considered to be on 24-hour call and it is very difficult to establish good boundaries to protect family life and its demands—or one’s need for personal time for prayer and study—from the demands, legitimate or otherwise, of one’s congregants.  Yet another contribution is that a generation and more ago clergy were highly respected as a profession—today they are not.  This is not just because of the sexual abuse crisis though that has been a factor, but as the standards of professional conduct have risen in the other professions, perhaps they have not risen proportionately in the clergy.   Indeed, in an increasingly secular society, clergy are often looked down as “Mulcahys” –after the good-hearted but buffoon priest from Mash. 
I think the situation is even more complicated for Catholic clergy.  Donald Cozzens in his 2000 book The Changing Face of the Priesthood identifies various pathologies that result from the current structures of rectory living.  Cozzens maintains that the low salary and institutional living to which most priests are subject create an unhealthy psychological dependency on hierarchical authority that retards the personal development of the priest who cannot establish a sense of his own personhood apart from the Institutional Church.  This dependency has left men vulnerable to all sorts of abuses of power that have deeply scarred them.  They have had to live in rectories with rageaholic pastors, be subject to ridiculous curfews, made to feel that they were living in someone else’s (the pastors—or the housekeeper’s) home, not having their privacy respected, and otherwise treated as less than mature adults. This has left those  priests so victimized with anger and depression.  Furthermore, the difficulty in securing a personal residence and economic security for an eventual retirement often makes the future look bleakly like a continuation of a depressing present.    
There are other issues.  Many priests seem to be unable to develop healthy adult-adult relationships.  Mandatory celibacy, if not treated healthily during the formation process of the seminarian and young priest, does seem to retard normal affective development, leading not only to predatory behavior in those so pre-disposed, but to an inability of many otherwise “normal” priests to relate with trust, warmth and appropriate affection to one’s peers.  Note: I am not saying this of all clergy but of those whose spiritual and character formation in the seminary was not healthy.  Unfortunately this was not uncommon and is still not uncommon in many seminaries where formators themselves did not have a healthy psycho-sexual development.  Arrested emotional development is permitted to pass as chastity whereas genuine chastity is love-filled and compassionate. 
In the years before and immediately after World War II the priest was often, along with the doctor and the lawyer, one of the few people in the parish with a college education.   With the GI Bill and the consequent rise of the Catholic population from working class into the professional classes, the priest today is often less educated than his parishioners.  This has not only deprived the priest of that edge over his parishioners, but has made his preaching an opportunity to reveal his ignorance rather than display his erudition.  Too many sermons today are bland at best and often simply inane.  Seminary education has often not progressed enough over the last fifty years to give the priest the secular knowledge he needs to know to converse intelligibly about the faith with his more educated listeners.  This problem is not all one-sided.  The de-emphasis on—and even ignorance of—the liberal arts, and particularly on philosophy and theology, in today’s colleges and universities where his parishioners have been “educated” have made the challenge even greater for the priest to be able to explain the relevance of our Christian faith to contemporary listeners.  I put “educated” in quotes because without philosophy there simply is no education, only ignorance fortified by scientific facts.   In other words, physics without metaphysics builds technocrats, not men and women capable of critical thought.  
Burnout does not mean that a person is totally dysfunctional.  A priest or minister can be “burned out” as they walk through the duties of funerals and visits to the sick and marriage preparation and even the liturgy and preaching.  Burnout does, however, severely diminish the quality of work that a person does and it deprives the person of the enjoyment he or she finds in their work.  What do we do to rescue the clergy from burnout?  As with a physical malady such as cancer or heart disease, there is no one answer that fits all.  Each case is unique and requires and individual analysis and treatment.  For many there is a need for psychological counseling to remedy not only the hurts and disappointments experienced in ministry, but to go back and address the flaws in initial formation.  I think there is invariably a need for good spiritual direction to give them more substantial grounding in the spiritual life than the piety that passes for “priestly spirituality” in many seminaries.  There is a need for most to have a gentle re-introduction to the intellectual life, encouraged to read and discuss current theological works that will stimulate thought and energize the priest once again for mission.   And I think there is a need to re-integrate them into community—both the network of presbyteral friendships but also—and equally as important—into a web of diverse friendships that include Catholic laity, non-Catholics, and non-believers where they can be not just “Father X” but their truest and most authentic selves.  Beneath the priest must be the authentic person.  This has too often been ignored in seminary formation where the concern has been to strip down the individualism of the candidate and replace it with a role-identity that makes him no more than the priest he is ordained to be.  Beneath the collar, under the soutane, is nothingness.  The individual is a priest, and no more and no less.  But such a priest is no longer the person God created him to be and there is no nature left on which grace can build.  We don’t need these cookie cutter priests: we need honest, sincere, mature human persons who can bring their unique gifts to the service of the Gospel.  Jesus, in his paschal mystery did not renounce his distinct humanity but allowed it to be transformed into the Resurrected One.  We in our baptism are called, not to be erased into the image of Christ but to be conformed to the image of Christ.  And so too the priest—to grow into an alter Christus that incorporates that person whom God has created, Christ has redeemed, and the Holy Spirit is sanctifying.  ( By the way—for you silly neo-trads: would you learn the difference between “altar” and “alter” and use each appropriately.  I am tired of seeing your blogs talk about the need to return to only alter boys serving Mass or to hear how the priest is an altar Christus.  Geeze Louise, if you want the Latin to come back please learn it; in the meantime you can consider the female altar servers as alter boys.)    

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