12 FEBRUARY 1994, Page 16


Charles Glass argues that the Roman Catholic priesthood is in a state of unprecedented crisis; it may even be dying out

Rome SPARE A THOUGHT for the humble Roman Catholic priest, who may not be with us much longer. His is a life of loneli- ness, from the time he receives the call to the day he dies. If he honours his vows, he will never know the warmth of a woman in his bed and will grow old with neither chil- dren nor grandchildren to console him and to carry on his line.

It is with sadness that I recall the good priests of my youth, whom my mother and the nuns taught me to revere. They bap- tised me, heard my first confessions, gave me the Eucharist, confirmed me in the faith, raised me through a dozen years of Catholic education and offered me solace at the funerals of friends and family. When I read now about mass exodus from the Catholic clergy, about priests buggering choirboys and stealing church funds, I wonder what became of the good fathers of yesteryear and whether, without them, the Catholic Church that many conserva- tive Anglicans believe they are joining can exist much longer.

One, who was the chaplain at my school in Los Angeles, wrote to me a few years ago to say he had left the Jesuit order, taken a job, married and had children. Another, who struggled to teach me Virgil, remains a priest, heads a Jesuit school in Sacramento, California, and organises poor migrant farm workers from Mexico. Many of the Jesuit scholastics who taught us dropped out before their ordinations. The oldest of the priests I knew then has just been ordered to retire.

He wrote to me the other day from Los Gatos, a Jesuit house in the vineyards south of San Francisco. I remember mak- ing retreats in its tranquil hills 25 years ago, when I was first losing my belief in God. A minor accident sent this old Jesuit from the school where he has taught for most of the last 60 years north to conva- lesce and perhaps never to leave. 'I turned eighty on October 30, so [have] an added reason to move. I'm praying for a job can't stand this time on my hands . . . If I can't escape, I'm praying for a heart attack — or a worthy project.' He has been in the Society of Jesus since he was 13 years old. He taught my great-uncles, my father and my uncle, and he saw me through my mother's death when I was 16. He stood by the hospital bed of my uncle Tom, a charmer and gambler with more experi- ence of the turf than the altar, as cancer consumed his body. The Church needs priests like him more than ever, and it is unlikely, in this era, to find them again.

Since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the priesthood has been bleeding men. Pope John XXIII's inten- tion in convening the Council was to open the windows of the Church to the modern world. In the event, the Council opened the doors, and much of the clergy rushed out to sample the pleasures and uncertain- ties of extramural life. Since 1965, more than 110,000 men have abandoned their priestly vows — this, from a pool of priests now numbering about 400,000.

In England and Wales, the number of priests has fallen 10 per cent in six years. The American society of married priests, Corpus, estimates that one third of all ordained priests has taken wives. In South America, thousands of priests marry with- out leaving the Church in defiance of their bishops. In the United States, no pastor lives in one of every ten Catholic parishes, and elsewhere things are worse: of all the parishes in the world, only half have a resi- dent priest. From 1986 to 1991, the number of Catholics increased by about 80 million to 945 million people. But there, are few extra clerics to serve them. In fact, the number of practising priests may have declined, because many of those who quiet- ly drift away without undergoing the lengthy process of laicisation remain on the books. Priests are not being replaced at the rate they leave, retire or die.

`While contemplating the joys of priestly life,' the bishops of Vatican II wrote in Presbyterorum Ordinis in 1965, 'this most holy Synod cannot overlook the difficulties which priests experience in the circum- stances of contemporary life. For it realises how deeply economic and social conditions and even the customs of men are being transformed, and how profoundly scales of value are being changed in the estimation of man.' Attrition is a measure of the degree to which 'the customs of men' have affected the clergy, particularly in the Western world. The air we breathe is more secular, and materialism, often condemned by Pope John Paul II in its communist and capitalist variants, demands that we see ourselves as parts, not of the mystical body of Christ, but of an economic order. The lure of the material world exerts itself on clergy and laity alike; and the desire for sex, while containable within marriage or the confessional for a layman, can be the end of a priest's vocation. Vatican II's decree on priestly formation, Optatam Totius, stated in 1965, 'Let them be warned of the very severe dangers with which their chastity will be confronted in present-day society.'

`As I grow and develop, I will change,' said Michael Hyland, an English priest who left after 12 years in 1980. 'You cannot go from the age of eighteen to thirty-eight or forty without changing. New lights are shed into your life. New experiences will help you understand better the truth about yourself. I don't think truth is cut in stone, hidden in the Catholic Church. I think it's something you learn all your life.' Hyland had recently returned from a conference in Spain of 350 married priests representing thousands more from 27 countries. Most, he said, did not want to leave the Church or abandon their vocation.

There are political aspects to priestly dis- content. Hyland criticised what he called `an increasingly right-wing authoritarian element in the Church'. Many priests and former priests resent the lack of democracy in the Church and find, after years of accepting authority, they can no longer in good conscience honour their vow of obe- dience. A Jesuit in Central America, where death squads stalk his parishioners, finds it difficult to obey a bishop who orders him to refrain from political activity. A parish

priest in New York cannot deny commu- nion to a woman who uses artificial contra- ception. I do not know whether the authority is too oppressive so much as it is

collapsing. The clergy is following the laity in ignoring papal dictates, with a conse- quent decrease in respect for authority that seems both remote and mistaken.

Pressures on the priest are many: he hears our sins; he responds to our spiritual needs in an age when families and commu- nities offer us less; he is the barrier between faith and despair; and he serves, in Oswald Spengler's words, as 'a hand with which even the poorest wretch could grasp God's . . . this visible link with the Infinite'. The Catholic faithful are losing that visible link, and they demand to know what will become of the Catholic Church. It is meant to be the 'one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church', a changeless rock in a turbulent sea. The post-Vatican II Church seems more a ship shifting in the waves, while its helmsman fights the wind, the crew deserts and the passengers fear for their lives.

The Church is attempting so desperately to attract good young men to the priestly ranks that some dioceses in America have resorted to placing adverts on MTV, using techniques similar to the music videos they interrupt. I cannot help but wonder how I would confess to a man who had assumed his priestly vocation in response to an MTV ad; and I fear that enlisting men in this way may lower the image of the priest- hood, making the best people avoid it, when the status of the priest is already falling. Many priests today tell me that young men who might have considered the priesthood a few years ago see it, not as a higher calling, but as a repository of per- verts and criminals.

The denigration of the priesthood is starkest in the United States. Few Ameri- can parents will entrust their young sons to the care of parish priests after witnessing more scandals than a Tory Cabinet pro- vides: more than 500 priests stand accused publicly of sexual attacks on children; 11 Franciscan friars of the Santa Barbara Mission in California have been molesting young boys for 30 years; one Mas- sachusetts priest has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for indecent assault and sodomy with children; another has been condemned by a New Mexico court to 275 years behind bars for molesting little boys; one of many Catholic clinics established for the purpose has treated 137 pae- dophile and ephebophile priests, most of whom have returned to parish life, where they often sin again. Fr Andrew Greeley, a prominent Catholic writer and sociologist, estimates that as many as 4,000 American Catholic priests may have had sexual rela- tions with 100,000 children, mostly boys.

In Ireland, the accounts of Bishop Eamonn Casey's and other clerics' mis- deeds have lowered the prestige of an institution once universally respected. Casey's mistress's claim that her affair with him 'was the most magical thing' and the Church's admission that Casey had paid her $120,000 from Church funds for the son she bore him led to ridicule: 'Use a condom — just in Casey' is one bit of Dublin graffiti, and Ireland's Phoenix mag- azine ran a Private Eye-style cover with a priest asking, 'What are you going to do now, Bishop?' and Casey replying, 'I think I'll take up a missionary position in Latin America.'

In Italy, where proximity to the govern- ment of the Church has made Italian Catholics cynical about their priests, the prestige of the priesthood fell even lower last year than it had during the Banco Ambrosiano scandal in 1982. Two books, Giordani Guerri's lo Ti Assolvo and Pino Nicotri's Tangenti in Confessionale, showed Italian priests to be lecherous, corrupt and ignorant. And it found these vices in, of all places, the confessional. Each author gave false confessions in order to record pas- toral advice: one priest fondles a woman in the confessional in a supposed search for demons; and another tells Nicotri, who has just confessed to accepting graft, 'If you have taken the bribes for the good of the Catholic party, and not for personal profit, I am inclined to think that you have done a good thing.'

When the sacred profession is perceived as perverted in America, louche in Ireland and both corrupt and stupid in Italy, it is a miracle that any conscientious young men join at all. The most fertile recruiting grounds, however, are not in the traditional Catholic lands of Europe and the Americ- as, but in Africa and Asia. More Jesuits are coming from the small Catholic community in India than anywhere else, and young priests from Ghana, the Philippines and Indonesia are helping to bring Christ's message to France and America. The Col- lege of Cardinals is now headed by an African. The time may be coming when the wretched of the earth, the oppressed for- mer colonial converts to Catholicism, will carry Christ's message back. Celestine Uzondu, a young Nigerian priest studying at the Gregorian University in Rome, raised this possibility, 'The evangelists came and evangelised Africa. Now it may be another time, a time for Africans to come over to Europe and evangelise them.' The message may be transformed, perhaps creating a more spiritual Christianity, when it returns from a continent where ancestor worship has been assimilated into the litany of the saints.

The Church in the West is turning as well to older men, widowers and those who have completed their secular careers, much as armaments factories sought women workers during the war. I went to Beda College in Rome one evening to see its senior seminarians, the youngest of whom was 25 and the oldest 67. Most were too old to join any army, but they sang beauti- ful Gregorian vespers and were intellectu- ally and spiritually curious. One was an Englishman who had worked for the Ter- rence Higgins Trust, the others a geologist from Angola, a teacher from Zimbabwe, a signals decoder from Cork who had served with the RAF in Hong Kong. He was 60. The oldest, at 67, was an Australian whose wife had died last year. It was her last wish that he become a priest. They are less like- ly than the young to abandon their vows, to doubt authority and to marry. But there are simply not enough of them, and most will not live long enough.

In an old Roman palazzo near the Vati- can, a dozen Catholic lay ministers, mostly from the United States, are studying theol- ogy. Five years ago, the Church in America had no paid lay ministers and today there are more than 12,000. They cannot per- form the sacramental functions of the priest, but they work as counsellors, administrators, builders, sacristans, preachers, allowing the priest to devote his time to other things. More importantly, they provide emotional support to unmar- ried men, who often feel alienated from the communities they serve.

But Third World priests, older recruits to the clergy and lay ministers will not solve the problem in the long term. According to Fr Edwin O'Brien of the Vatican's North American College, 'I don't think we want that [any emergency solution] to last indefinitely. I think we have to realise that there is a crisis in voca- tions at home and challenge families and challenge men to think about the priest- hood.'

As a solution, many Catholics — in America, 70 per cent — favour rescinding the canon law of 1139 AD that made celibacy a requirement for the priesthood. A married caste of priests was undermin- ing the Church's integrity through nepo- tism and simony, and the Latin Church took this drastic measure to reform itself. However, thousands of married men remain as priests in the Catholic Church. Parish priests in all the non-Latin rites, the so-called Uniate Churches of the Middle East, are married. They are just as Catholic and just as much priests as Pope John Paul II. So too are Protestant mar- ried priests who have converted to Catholi- cism and taken Catholic orders. They say Mass, distribute the sacraments and bury the dead, just as any celibate priest does. A young Catholic considering the priesthood but wanting to marry would be well advised to become an Anglican vicar and convert back afterwards.

Pope John Paul II insists that the justifi- cation for priestly celibacy is theological rather than canonical. Last November, he restated this position: 'Priestly celibacy is not just a legal requirement imposed as a condition for ordination. It is profoundly connected with a man's configuration to Christ, as the good shepherd and spouse of the Church.' While he lives, married men will not be ordained in the Latin Rite, and the possibility of female ordination is not discussed.

It may be necessary for the Church to weather the storm, to endure a generation or two with a shortage of priests, to pre- serve the special nature of the priesthood and its place in Catholic life. There is an idea inherent in Catholic belief that the priest is a man apart, a view expressed by Spengler in The Decline of the West:

Man as peasant or noble turns towards, man as priest turns away from, woman. Aristoc- racy runs the danger of dissipating and los- ing the broad being-stream of public life in the petty channels of minor ancestors and relatives. The true priest, on the other hand, refuses in principle to recognise the private life, sex, family, 'the house'.

The married priesthood has not saved the Church of England from decline, and the introduction of women priests may have hastened the process. But Anglicans should be wary of entering the Roman Church, so many of whose members want to take it along a similar path of moderni- sation. They will wonder, as they attend Mass said in the vernacular to the strains of folk guitars and listen to young priests speaking the modern language of psycho- logical self-doubt, what Catholicism offers that Anglicanism did not.

The Bible Missal written by the monks of St Andrew's Abbey in Bruges, a gift I received when I was confirmed in 1963, says: 'Every generation must have men brave and humble enough to accept the stewardship of the Priesthood of Holy Orders.' We now have a generation where the brave and humble are few and the need of them is great. St Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologica, 'Only God can make a man a priest.' Under man's rules, He is not making enough.