Friday, April 13, 2012

What the numbers do not tell us

There is a piece in today's Wall Street Journal written by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White entitled "Traditional Catholicism is Winning." Almost eight years into religious life, I think their final paragraph captures well the reasons I decided not to pursue medical school, or law school, and entered into the service of the Church in 2004, a mere two years after the disastrous revelations of sexual abuse that made national headlines in 2002. The young women and men offering themselves as candidates to religious life and the priesthood:
...are attracted to the philosophy, the art, the literature and the theology that make Catholicism countercultural. They are drawn to the beauty of the liturgy and the church's commitment to the dignity of the individual. They want to be contributors to that commitment—alongside faithful and courageous bishops who ask them to make sacrifices. It is time for Catholics to celebrate their arrival.
 I think this is generally spot-on. Speaking from my own experience, I know that it is important to me that my superiors know that I am not afraid to be asked to do things. I have likes and preferences, to be sure, but I want to be sent "to the frontiers of the Church" to spread the Gospel. When asked to sacrifice "for God's greater glory" I will always respond as generously as possible.

This concluding paragraph notwithstanding, however, there is something about this piece that leaves me feeling cold.

That 467 men were ordained last year to the priesthood is an encouraging number. Certainly, it is better than the 442 ordained in 2001, although I suspect no one would deny that +5.66% change over ten years is sufficient either to replace those who die/retire/leave or to augment the standing number of overworked clergy. I mention only to say that while an uptick in the number of priests is a good trend, we have an awful long way to go before we can say that a certain blend of Catholicism is winning. Indeed, I find it singularly unhelpful to encourage polarization between "liberal/conservative" Catholics. Such labels simply make it easier to dismiss one another and does nothing to bring persons of differing viewpoints to communion.

This leads me to another point. We can have rectories bursting with newly-minted clergy, but will this bring people back to the pews? Will this re-invigorate a Church that alternately appears totally out of touch with culture or narrowly obsessed with a certain issue, generally something to do with sex or sexuality? Will those candidates for the priesthood who are drawn to dioceses which are "unambiguous and allow for a minimum of dissent about the male, celibate priesthood" necessarily translate into men whose preaching  ministry will comfort the afflicted and enkindle greater love and passion in the pews? They may be ordained, they may have all of the right answers, but does that mean they can serve?

Let me be clear. I do not consider myself radically progressive. I regard many of the misinterpretations of Vatican II with dismay and I generally conceive of 1970's liturgical and ecclesial culture and its ongoing residue as a many-headed hydra whose heads need to be severed, the stumps cauterized, and a sword plunged deep into its heart. I enjoy reading and studying doctrinal statements and I am ardently pro-life, from conception to natural death. I am unswerving in my belief in the dignity of every human life and I think that the most under-utilized resource in the Church is our rich heritage of social teaching.

I say this because I find myself very much out of step with this generation's newly ordained. I find them knowledgeable of the liturgy, publicly pious but not especially prayerful, glad to quote from encyclicals but relatively out of touch with contemporary cultural trends.

Here's an experience I had of this difference. I was asked to give a talk in a diocese on "Belief in God Today." I introduced myself to the new associate pastor, 27 years of age, with a handshake and "Hi, I'm Ryan Duns." I was in my collar and a suit. "Hi Ryan, Father Aloysius. Nice to meet you." Now, I was in religious formation when he was still doing keg stands in college. So I called him "Aloysius" and was quickly corrected with a, "Father Aloysius." I smiled, corrected myself, and told him that henceforth he could call me "Mr. Duns" if we were keeping to formalities.

I wish I could say this was an isolated instance but, unfortunately, in the three dioceses I've lived in and where I've gotten to know seminarians, clericalism is on the ise.

What the numbers do not tell us is whether underneath the incense, the liturgical correctness, the fastidious adherence to orthodox teaching, and the appropriate vestments, there beats a pastoral heart. Are these newly ordained willing to listen to the troubles of regular women and men who struggle each day to find God in their lives, who live amidst ambiguities and concerns and doubts that the clergy seldom concern themselves with? These newly ordained may be  attracted to, and wish to preach, a "forthright defense of the faith and doctrine" yet will they remember that that the questions burning in human hearts seldom find an answer in a quote from the Catechism?

Personally, I look at faith and life in the Church through a modified quote taken from Auntie Mame: "The Church is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" There is much to feast on in our tradition. The joy and excitement of being part of a living faith should be a reason for exuberance and outreach, rather than entrenchment and divisiveness. The faithful remaining in the pews must welcome the newly ordained and they must encourage them in their vocations. They must be willing to be challenged to grow in their own faith and to consider that the new generation may have good things to share. So, too, must the newly ordained be willing to learn from previous generations, be willing to understand where others come from, and listen to the voices of those who have left the Church and find new and creative ways to invite them home.

If the clerical culture wins out, though, I fear that we could have overflowing altars and empty pews. One can prepare the incense, prime the choir, and ready the altar...but if the faithful are not invited and their dignity as authentic seekers is not recognized, the famine of faith will only continue to grow. Are the heirs to Peter willing to feed Jesus Christ's sheep or will they focus more on being celibate than being joyful, more on doctrine than on dining at the Feast of the Lamb?
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