Monday, March 1, 2010

Casting a Wide Net on the Net

As you know if you're a regular reader, I don't like Institutionalism or authoritarianism. Especially not in the seminaries. That sort of militaristic resocialization really creeps me out. I think the Panopticon attitude does more harm than good. But my purpose here isn't to rant about that any more than I already have, it is to start discussing what we're going to do about it. However, I do have to contextualize the subject in light of what we've discussed in the past for new readers, and so please bear with me to the end of the post if you've already heard my similar feelings on these matters.

As I've said in the past, I see no reason why seminary life must be a Total Institution. Of course, I see no reason for a lot of the institutional dynamics of the clerical culture, in fact I think they are positively damaging. But, one step at the time.

Over the past few months, I've been in contact with a growing number of young men who respond to the sentiments I expressed in that post on the Institutionalism of Seminaries: "Normal, healthy, independent adult not want to live like they are 10th-grade boarding school students. They do not want to be told 'lights-out,' have a curfew, submit to room searches, nor live under the reign of an either explicit or implicit authoritarianism and fetishization of obedience-for-its-own-sake." At least not 21st-century Americans who have gone to public school, been allowed significant independence by their parents, and lived independently at college, for crying out loud.

And so there is a huge turnover rate at seminaries. Upwards of 50%. While some guys are certainly leaving because they discern they aren't called to celibacy, the other major group, I am convinced, is men who do not so much truly discern that they aren't called to the priesthood or even celibacy...but simply that they can't stand living in the institutional environment of seminary for 5 years. Even if they really are devoted, really would make good priests.

I mean, going to classes, meeting with a vocation/spiritual director or formator is one thing. But being expected to live in a dormitory environment, to not leave campus without permission, to have to show up for all meals on a strict schedule and endure forced socialization, even, at some places still (especially the more "traditional") being told when "bed-time" is?!? Combine that with bad (but mandatory) liturgy, and it's just not an appealing environment. It's, frankly, a pathetically depressing and depressingly pathetic one. Trust me.

Some of those who romanticize these things would say, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen," and that is precisely what people will do if nothing is changed: they'll just stay away. But, those people apparently see the willingness to "submit" to that sort of thing a test of loyalty and an exercise in "obedience" and "docility". It's like the army. Except...priests are not, in general in our world, being expected to march into somewhere and kill and die. They're expected to, at most, say a daily Mass in the morning, go to some meetings, maybe visit the hospital. At that point, the military model becomes just a barrier. What we really need are independent thinkers, creative, innovative leaders. But the current system does not encourage independence or leadership or innovative risk-taking, though it does encourage authoritarianism.

Yet, at a time when there is a vocations shortage, they refuse to experiment with any changes to any of the accidental institutional structures. As if a glitzier advertising campaign can solve the vocations crisis. Or just more prayer (not to downplay the power of prayer, but it can't be quietist: sometimes God is sending you the answer to your problem, but it requires being flexible!) Or, worst of all, some people seem to think that making seminaries even stricter and more rigid is the solution. To increase the surveillance of candidates. To keep them on an even tighter leash.

I'm sorry, but I'm an adult man and an American. I'd be perfectly willing to wear the collar, but I will not wear a leash!

There is this bizarre fear in the clergy of their own men, and what they might do, and so this perceived need to protect them from themselves or heavily monitor them. Of course, that doesn't actually stop any of the funny business. And it scares a lot of guys off. Is it worth it? At a certain point, you can't try to control people.

Yes, priests are entrusted with people's souls, especially if they're pastors, but there is this inordinate fear of letting them off their leashes by the hierarchy. No other profession, even important ones, have that today. Lawyers don't go to boarding school for five years away from the world. Doctors, though medical school can be quite grueling, are allowed to contract independently once they're licensed (which encourages efficiency). Teachers, who we entrust our children too, are not put through the institutionalization that seminarians face either. The Bar or the AMA or the State license lawyers and doctors and teachers, make sure they're trained, and can de-license them if they do something egregious. They don't try to maintain all this control over their lives.

Yet in the clergy there is this fear that "bad things" could happen if they don't hover over their men. But at a certain point, you can only do so much. Interview candidates, have them meet with a formator over the course of their education, do a psychological test and a background check and then...
if you haven't found out anything terrible about the person at that point, you never would have anyway. You've got to let go. I'm reminded of a scene from Finding Nemo, where they're in the mouth of the whale:
Dory: He says, "It's time to let go!". Everything's going to be all right.
: How do you know, how do you know something bad isn't gonna happen?!

: I don't!
You don't. You can never know for sure that something bad isn't going to happen, that a man isn't going to do something stupid. But we trust teachers with our children without having to monitor them in a dormitory for 5 years. There is this fear of simply giving out ordination to "just anyone"...but I think the benefits of being a little less paranoid (and that's what they are) about the whole thing are worth the risks. Especially when so many priests are lazy, or ineffectual, or down right heretical, or even living double lives. But they don't seem to really care about all that. All they care about is avoiding bad press and challenges to their authority.

The fact is, laying your hands on some guy doesn't make you responsible for him forever. The dioceses is liable for things the priest does while "on duty" only. They really don't need to worry about what he might be doing if he goes off campus without permission or doesn't show up for lunch. If he does something bad, they can fire him, they can revoke his faculties or get him laicized, they can end affiliation with him. After that, it's not their problem anymore. To the objection that those men might then go off and say schismatic Masses or something...I have to say merely: that cat is out of the bag. There are 20,000 laicized priests in the United States alone, some of whom are for rent.

Lots of guys I've talked to are very much attracted to the priesthood, are even willing to be celibate, but the idea of being kept on a leash like seminarians entirely repulsive to their sensibilities as independent adult Americans. We've lived on our own, for goodness sake, managed our own lives. Heck, my parents didn't even treat me that strictly when I really was a child. But the current system is absolutely obsessed with that sort of patronizing control over the trivial minutia of people's lives. Can't leave campus without permission!?!? If I wanted to go to prison, I'd commit a crime!!

Someday, we've got to stop making excuses. We need to act on opportunities while they're still here. Earlier I had hinted around about some ideas for remedying this situation and received some very encouraging emails.
We need to tell them they have to stop being a "No Organization" if they want to survive.

So, we're looking for young men who might be willing to approach a bishop with us and tell him where we stand and what we envision. Here's what I imagine.

I see no reason why seminarians have to have this whole boarding school atmosphere. Why couldn't seminary be more like a regular college: people are expected to show up for class and other program commitments, and then get to handle their own free time and living situation. There are lots of good Catholic Universities. Couldn't the priesthood program be simply one more Major or Degree-program at these places? Seminarians could live like other students. Maybe they'd have reserved rooms in a special dorm, though I wouldn't require this; if they wanted to have their own apartment, whatever. They'd go to their theology classes, meet with a formator, be expected to show up for certain retreats or monthly outings with the other seminarians, but otherwise they wouldn't try to micromanage his life.

That's a long-term model. What I imagine could be possible right away is simply to allow some young men, if we petition the bishop and show him there is enough interest, would be simply to allow us to commute. To show up for classes and meetings with the formator, maybe certain Sunday liturgies, but then manage our own lives outside, off-campus, like real adults. Religious are one thing, but secular priests are, well, secular. They're going to live in the world for their whole life, have all that independence and unstructured time. It therefore seems counter-intuitive to me to make them live semi-monastically for 5 years, withdrawn from the world. To be honest, many never seem to readjust to civilian life.

Frankly, I'm not even sure the training program need be so intense. Permanent deacon candidates are able to live their lives, with families and other jobs even, going to seminary programs in the summer, on weekends, at night-school, etc. Permanent deacons can do everything a priest can except instead of saying Mass they can merely lead a communion service, instead of anointing the sick they can merely bring them communion, and instead of absolving they can only spiritually direct. Does it really take all sorts of extra years of theology to read words out loud out of a book, rub some oil on someone, or wave your hand over them?? I doubt it, that's not rocket science.

So, yeah. If anyone else is interested, we're working on getting a group together to approach a bishop and request a more independent formation program something like one of the ideas described above. Maybe it could take the form of a Secular Institute because that seems like the most favorable model for something like this. But the point is to be a group of "freelance priests" at the service of the Church, not burdened by bureaucracy.

Some might take a contract with the diocese after ordination, for service at a parish for a specified length of time. But many others might not be salaried by the dioceses at all (and at that point, especially, if they were volunteers rather than a paid pastor, might not a Permanent Deacon's level of training be enough?) Many might simply work some other job in the world, pray their breviary during the day, say a morning Mass somewhere, and volunteer to fill in for a Sunday Mass at an under-staffed local parish on Sundays (the Old Mass, I'd hope). I don't know the canonical barriers to all this, but couldn't a priest simply "retire" immediately upon ordination, and yet still take another job?

Such a model might be good for everyone. It could be a shot-in-the-arm for an understaffed dioceses to have even just 10 more men, if only for Sundays, especially if they didn't have to salary them. And a way to spread the Old Rite, volunteering to do it at parishes where the pastor doesn't want to learn it himself. In reality, I bet that once the idea was approved, you'd get tons of men attracted to it who aren't comfortable with the "mainstream" seminary Institutional dynamics.

Please, contact me if you're interested in such a model or send this post to any young men you know who might be interested. No commitment or anything, we're just trying to get a "show of hands" for initial exploration. Thanks!!


Christopher said...

I do think you have identified the biggest problem with the seminary system (having been in seminary and hoping to return in about a year). I also think that in the next 10 years there will be a growing gap between seminary education and the growing new forms of college education (non-traditional, online, and misc. formats).

However, I would suggest that you not tie those astute observations to the freelance priest concept (something that is unworkable and will be seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the bishop).

A Sinner said...

So you're saying that we should seek an "independent" seminary formation, but then settle after being ordained for being a salaried, full-time pastor? Possibly.

It's certainly something to think about: abstracting the training part from the lifestyle part. As it is really the training that gets repels most of the guys I've talked to; once they're ordained, diocesan priests do get to live relatively independent lives like any other adults. It's the seminary part that is freaky.

But I just think they're really two sides of the same coin; the "authority" they're always guarding so jealously (though they never actually USE that authority for anything good anymore) manifested in both the Institutionalized seminary structure, and in this idea of a diocesan monopoly on the priesthood.

The thing about "challenging the bishop's authority" was exactly the complaint that the Monastic and then the Mendicant movements got...that they were going to have a "parallel" church doing their own thing taking away "authority" (which almost always means only: Money) from the diocesan clergy.

However, it didn't work out that way. Monastics and Mendicants doing their own apostolate outside salaried parish assignments...worked out just fine. Because the bishops and Pope still had ultimate oversight.

As I said, the bishop would still ultimately be able to revoke faculties or suspend priests for egregious things. The point would be to allow people to volunteer as priests as they were able, even while working another job.

I mean, after the powers-that-be license you for Law or Medicine or Teaching...they don't positively REQUIRE you to practice, nor tell you where to practice when you do decide to. That's not their concern, why should it be the bishops'? They should take a lesson from the business world; that model simply isn't efficient, nor a recipe for internal self-critique and competition within the organization. It leads instead to stagnation and mediocrity.

And you know there are priests out there who, essentially, live that lifestyle. Look at Fr Z. While he's doing his "studies"...he pretty much has the run of the World to travel, set up speaking engagements, own a farm, etc. There are plenty of priests who have "retired" quite young on their own savings and then basically just get to volunteer when and where they choose.

I'm willing to try, at least. If we find enough men, I'd try approaching at least a few bishops (anyone have any leads on who might be sympathetic?) before conceding the "freelance" half of it in favor of just the "independent/commuter seminary" half...

It's just odd that they would positively DEMAND to salary you. If I'm willing to say Masses for FREE before work in the morning AND support myself with my own job...I don't see, at that point, why they care.

Except, as I suspect, they fear it exposes them as useless. As having an incredibly cushy position. I mean, if volunteers could handle everything...then what justification would there be for their cushy full-time paid position?

And, frankly, volunteers COULD handle everything if they'd lower the barriers to entry. I mean, heck, as I was saying...lay and diaconal volunteers ALREADY handle everything these days in many parishes. Except saying Mass, anointing the sick, and absolving. Holding those three things (which arent exactly rocket science) "hostage" so that they can justify a salaried the height of corruption.

Christopher said...

There is a very real issue with the theology of the priesthood you are proposing. The diocesan priesthood flows from and is united inseparably with the office and ministry of the bishop.

The call to priesthood is a call to live as a groom to the Church, not a hired hand. I do take note of cases like Fr Z's. While I agree with much of what he writes, I have no understanding of that sort of life as a fulfilling the ministry of the priesthood.

I highly recommend "A Priest is not his own" by Fulton Sheen, or if you're really up to the challenge "Dignity and Duties of the Priest" by Liguori.

As far as the seminary, I started outlining the case that changes could be made at CAF

A Sinner said...

I just don't buy that post-Tridentine "theology" of the priesthood, however.

Because that's just not how it worked in the early Church. In the Early Church, the bishop was probably the only "full-time" position. The simple presbyters...were volunteers, who worked other jobs during the week and probably only said Mass on Sundays.

That "theology" (it's really no such thing) of the Priesthood...turns the priest into a Pseudo-Religious. But he's not. Secular priests are NOT Religious.

This whole "groom of the Church" thing, though a nice idea and true in some sense, also is the product (and a reinforcing cause) of this clericalist notion that the priesthood exists as an end-in-itself, for it's own self-perpetuating sake.

It doesn't. The priesthood exists to dispense the sacraments to the People of God. To sanctify them through the sacramental ministry. That's it. If it is accomplishing THAT goal, it has met its end, and everything else is accidental.

This whole "mysticism of the priesthood-as-such" was (is?) maybe helpful for priests in a clericalist culture. But it must not be dogmatized, for it is the product of that same clericalist ecclesiastical culture that put the priest on a pedestal. Since the abuse crisis, those days MUST be over, those wide-eyed notions MUST be dismissed.

That same culture that made it so that the laity existed only to support the clergy. When really, the clergy exist ONLY for the sake of the laity.

And I find it hard to believe that with all the lazy, lackluster, frankly downright defective priests...somehow energetic young men willing to volunteer for priestly duties AND support themselves with their own jobs...are somehow bad.

Christopher said...

Okay, this is going to be a bit rough, but here goes:

The theology of the priesthood, as defined (but certainly not created, its roots are both patristic and Scriptural) at Trent and elaborated upon at the Second Vatican Council, links the priesthood inseparably with the bishop, both exist for the care of souls. To be a priest is to be a shepherd. (among the ECF Tertullian and Cyprian are notable for the clear reliance of the priest on the bishop)

The development of the discipline of the priesthood reached a certain maturity beginning in the 2nd - 3rd century, not as I had originally said here the monastic era which flourished beginning in the 5th century. The discipline of the priesthood, however, continued to develop. The rise of the monasteries began the differentiation between the religious and clerical states, which grew until the Gregorian reforms and from the rise of the University to the Reformation.

With the decline of the Roman civilization (and education), the clergy assumed an unnatural position as the professional class. This was extraneous to the vocation of the priesthood and often conflicted (in part leading to the investiture controversy). With the rise of the universities, the problem compounded, as the graduates of the university were largely ordained without regard to need or the service of the Church. This unusual situation contributed to the grave excesses, abuses, and immorality amongst the clergy prior to the 'Reformation'.

Trent and the Counter-reformation imposed a rigidity to the entire Church that perhaps over compensated for the abuses immediately prior (as seen in the freezing of liturgical development and the rigidity of the seminary system).

The problem with the position taken by 'A Sinner' and Newborn is that ignores the theology of the priesthood from the Fathers through the 2nd Vatican Council, including a broader identification of the priest with Christ (that in particular goes back to Paul).

As much as I wish there were more that I could agree with here, the constant teaching of the Church is clear. The restoration of the minor orders (or the practice of duly instituted lay ministries) Certainly is a laudable reform. The hiring of permanent deacons as the diocesan clergy they are (for purposes of temporal administration, for example) could certainly also be done.

But this project of priests as sacrament machines... If we can ignore Ecumenical Councils than perhaps you are on to something, otherwise it is merely an antiquarianism.

As to the Carmelites, I do not believe that the secular priesthood is rightly fully separated from religious life. The priest is called to something altogether distinct from the lay state, and blurring that line (as so often done leading up to and since VII) is of no benefit to the secular priests or the Church. The "Fr O'Malley"'s are not an improvement over the "Fr Fitzgibbon"'s, as Bing would have us believe. There is a necessity of care of self that needs to be developed (that the over regimentation of the seminary undermines), but the identity of the priest has been fractured.

Likewise I would venture (perhaps a bit too boldly) to say that the need for the distinction between the priesthood and religious vocation has been exacerbated by the truly novel ordination of the majority of religious (this began prior to the latest council, IIRC). The decimation of the lay monks has contributed to the dissolution of monasteries (broadly among the Cistercians, I know for a fact).

A Sinner said...

I think this claim of "constant teaching of the church" is elevating discipline to the level of doctrine. I mean, you yourself have just described a DEVELOPMENT in practice. If an earlier practice happened, it means it is not impossible that it could be returned to, is not heretical. You may find the earlier practice to be an "abuse" or "unusual situation"...I won't say it didn't have it's own pitfalls, but I am unwilling to dismiss it so quickly in favor of the current, which I hardly think is some sort of dogmatically required ideal or natural outcome of the essence of the priesthood.

Kelly said...

I know fellow who is now a Deacon. He had been a seminarian some years ago, did not go on for ordination but rather had a family. Only many years later did he ended up becoming a Deacon. Anyway, he was telling me about some of the rididly uptight stuff they had to put up with in the 1960s.

He didn't really have a problem with any of it mind you, and he seemed to have enjoyed his seminary experience. But I thought it was all a bit extreme and suggested something along the lines you proposed---i.e. not much more than a "priest formation" program at a university, with the students and seminarians together either in the ordinary university dorm or getting their own apartments nearby, etc..

But he said that the priesthood is not like training for a job, or doing a function. That is is not so much what you do as who you are. That it is called priestly "formation" rather than "training" because they are trying to form you as a *person* rather than just showing you how to wave your hands over people or rub oil on them.

Sounds nice, but I'm really not sure I understand what he is getting at. He does tend to be kind of mysterious at times.

Any idea what he is getting on about?

A Sinner said...

You do hear a lot of vague stuff like that, and I think a lot of it is clericalist mumbo-jumbo.

Indeed, the priesthood is not a "job"...hence why, frankly, I'd feel uncomfortable being paid for it, having it be my "career". I'd rather volunteer for priestly duties, and then work another job to support myself; having it be their source of income seems almost sort of parasitic.

Indeed, the priesthood isn't just something you do, but more something you "are"...and people opposing a less strict model will always point that out. But what they can never satisfactorily explain is what exactly is the connection between that fact...and the creepy Institutional Re-Socialization they put seminarians through.

I mean, the diaconate is something you "are" rather than "do" also...and yet permanent deacon candidates are given a lot more independence.

I see little evidence that the seminary process is producing all sorts of Saints or anything like that.

Christopher said...


I am not going to continue to argue this with you, because your mind is clearly made up.

However, in your zeal to avoid clericalism, make sure you don't fall into anti-clericalism.

Kelly, there are a college programs that do operate exactly like that. Many, unfortunately trade orthodoxy for "freedom". I was in FUS's program (the founder of that program also founded Ave's) which was solid academically and outstanding spiritually, but lacking in any real pastoral or human formation. In that case there was insufficient separation between the Pre-The program and the general student body, and lack of freedom for the program to help us establish appropriate boundaries.

I know some other places have a separate dorm for the seminary students, which would be a benefit.

Personally, I am a fan of houses of formation in the parishes, doing studies at the seminary. Will I be allowed to do this when/if I reenter the seminary? No. If I do become a priest would I be better able to make the case for it going forward. Yes.

My last word on the subject: it is always easier to encourage reforms from within than to push them from without.

A Sinner said...

"in that case there was insufficient separation between the Pre-The program and the general student body"

I don't see why there need be any. Isolating priests or trying to distance them socially from "normal people" a big part of the problem, I think. In any other committed relationship, if your partner tried to do that, it would be a red-flag of serious problems. I don't see why just because your partner is an Institution in this makes it any better.

There is nothing about living in a highly isolated and artificially rigid environment that prepares anyone for living in the real world, because the real world is totally different than that.

"My last word on the subject: it is always easier to encourage reforms from within than to push them from without."

I'm not sure that's true. They won't see any need to change the system if people keep showing themselves willing to put up with it. It's only if people say, "If things don't change, then that's not where I'm called" that they will be forced to reform the status quo.

You can't say both "We won't negotiate" AND "We need you". If you "needed" men, you'd be willing to negotiate. And I think when things get desperate enough, they will.