A Divided Priesthood?

Saturday May 13, 2006

April 27, 2006

Sociologist identifies factors contributing to divided priesthood
National Federation of Priests’ Councils conference focuses on healing divisions.

Although I think Davidson is a bit optimistic, I do believe his insights provide a bit of wisdom for many ‘Catholics in the pew’ searching for a healthy dialogue with their pastors.

By Julie Carroll
The Catholic Spirit

A priest shortage is one of the main factors contributing to a growing divide among U.S. priests, according to a noted sociologist.

James Davidson, a Purdue University researcher who studies the sociology of religion, spoke to about 45 priests at the National Federation of Priests’ Councils conference in Minneapolis April 24.

In his talks on “Understanding Divisions, Building Community,” Davidson asked the priests to identify particular challenges within the priesthood that obstruct their ministries. Responses included a widening cultural and political divide, power struggles among fellow priests and between priests and bishops, and differing models of priesthood.

Davidson defined two opposing models of priesthood: cultic, which sees the priesthood as above the laity, and servant-leader, which involves more of a team approach with the laity.

“That’s where I hear the greatest clash,” he said.

Several priests in the room spoke about how declining vocations to the priesthood have changed the relationship between priests and bishops. Priests today challenge their bishops more, said one participant.

Others focused on generational differences. Younger priests who were trained at more conservative seminaries often wrangle with more liberal priests trained around the time of the Second Vatican Council, participants said.

Generations ago, the church was more homogeneous, Davidson said. Today, however, priests often reflect the growing diversity of the culture that surrounds them. The priest shortage has contributed to this phenomenon by isolating priests from one another, leaving them more susceptible to cultural influences, Davidson added.

“Your support group becomes your parish,” one priest said.

Relationships between priests and their bishops are also strained, participants said. Some bishops’ poor handling of sex abuse cases has led to a “low point” in the degree of trust priests have for their bishops, one priest said.

After the conference, Davidson spoke with The Catholic Spirit further about his work. The edited interview follows.

Are clergy more or less divided than they were a generation ago? Why?

I would say more divided.

There have been significant changes in the church itself, some of those emanating from Vatican II, which proposed a number of new ideas and ways of thinking about church. Vatican II transformed the way in which some people think about church, and other people reacted to that by saying those ideas aren’t right, so there became something of a liberal-conservative split among priests in response to Vatican II.

But it’s not just the council. The church’s place in American society has changed dramatically. A generation or two ago, Catholics were a working-class people with limited resources. Now Catholic people are much more prosperous, much more highly involved in the society as a whole, less dependent on the church, and so their understanding of church has changed, and their expectations of priests have changed. That’s contributing to the fact that fewer Catholics are even choosing a life in the priesthood.

What are the top issues you see dividing American priests?

Some of the differences of most interest to the priests are that priests have different understandings of priesthood and how the priesthood is to relate to the bishops on the one hand, and to the lay people on the other.

There are some priests who tend to prefer a model of priesthood that involves teamwork and collaboration with lay people and with bishops. They think in sort of a horizontal model of a team of people playing together on a level playing field. There are other priests who think more vertically about the authority relationship between themselves and their bishop and see themselves as being of a status that’s higher than that of the laity. So they don’t think so much in terms of teamwork as they think in terms of authority and accountability.

We heard also [at the National Federation of Priests’ Councils conference] that the issues go beyond the church itself and understandings of priesthood, but reach out into even the impact of church morality on our public and political life. So there are sharper divisions nowadays among priests around partisan politics and the importance of issues such as abortion on the one hand and the death penalty on the other.

What specifically would you recommend for healing those divisions?

The solutions are going to vary from diocese to diocese and parish to parish depending upon a variety of circumstances. There’s no set number of things that is going to work everywhere. But four models or frameworks offer different solutions or emphases:

The structural model says that if we want to heal the divisions between priests, one of the things we need to do is address the whole issue of authority in the priesthood and clarify the role that priests play relative to the bishop and relative to the laity. The clarification of roles and expectations is one of the ways to get beyond some of the confusion and some of the conflict that has grown up in the midst of the changes we’ve been talking about.

The human resource model suggests that if we’re going to get over some of the divisions, we have to address the needs of individual priests and understand them as human beings — not just men who are in ministry, but as people who have different talents, different ambitions, different skills to bring to the church. Rather than judging one another in terms of their differences relative to other generations or other ideologies, all we have to do is take one another seriously as individuals and come to know them as human beings and as independent people, and we’ll find out that we can bridge some of the differences that might otherwise look like they’re insurmountable.

The political model . . . says that one of the things we have to do is identify some common goals rather than focus entirely on the political differences between people who want money or power in the church for their own unique and political reasons. They have to identify some common goal that they share, and they can bridge some of the gaps that otherwise might seem like they would be too wide.

The last model is the symbolic model. We have to make sure that the language we use and the stories we tell are inclusive and that they legitimate the divisions, the differences, between priests so that certain life histories are not being left out of the rituals, the liturgies and the music that we sing and that we participate in on the weekends.

So we have to affirm and validate each other, but we’ve got to focus on the common ground that we share and not get so preoccupied with some of our differences that we lose track of the fact that we’re all members of one Catholic family, and we’re working toward the salvation of all of our souls, including the laity.

Do divisions in the priesthood affect the laity? How, specifically?

On the one hand, Catholic people in the pews are pleased with their local priests, their local pastors. They feel that they’re doing a good job, and they’re not upset or angry at them. They feel like they’re dedicating their lives to the church, and they respect them for that.

On the other hand, they know there are these sort of generational differences among priests. They know there are some priests who are more liberal and some who are more conservative, and I think they are nervous about what’s going to happen if they find some priests being too rigid and too doctrinaire and not being able to tolerate and pastor people who have a wide variety of experiences as lay people. They’re concerned about that.

They’re concerned about the shortage of priests and wonder if there are going to be enough priests to have the sacraments that they have grown accustomed to.

Can you suggest some specific techniques for building community among a divided clergy?

If you were to ask me for one thing I would do, I would say you start out among the laity and ask them to rate things that are important.

There are a lot of things that all laity, regardless of their liberal or conservative leanings, agree on. They agree that the incarnation is an essential truth of the Catholic tradition. They believe in the resurrection, and understanding that helps to make you a good Catholic. That Jesus is really present in the Eucharist and other sacraments. They believe that Mary is the Mother of God and you can’t be a good Catholic without that. They believe that if you’re going to be a Catholic, you’ve got to be concerned for the poor and people who are not as fortunate as you are. All of those are common, core beliefs for the laity.

Then they decide that a number of other things are less important, somewhat more optional — that you can be a good Catholic but perhaps disagree on the issue of whether or not the church should be supporting [marriage] unions the way it has, or whether or not we need celibacy for priests. It doesn’t seem to be as important as the resurrection. Or the idea that the death penalty may be something that you might disagree with the church on, but that is not as central to the faith as believing that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God.

So people have a hierarchy of truths, some of which they agree on and then some things where they feel they have a right to differ.

Priests are much the same way, in that they have hierarchies of truth. There are some things that are central to the faith and other things that are not. If I were going to bring the priests together, I would remind them of the things that they agree on and challenge them to recognize the core teachings of the church, the core truths that are central to their ministry, and then ask them to identify the things that are more optional to them — more a matter of rules and regulations that apply at a certain period of time in the history of the church but maybe not at other times.

If you did that, I think you would find that the arguments are not over core teachings. They are over the more optional or temporal issues. I think that would help them go a long way to say, “You know something, we may disagree on certain specific issues having to do with ministry, but by God, we agree on resurrection, we agree on incarnation, and we are brothers after all. It’s just that we sit in different pews.”

Davidson’s latest book is “Catholicism in Motion: The Church in American Society” (Liguori Publications).

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