Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Newman's Model

A reader recently suggested to me this article, which contains a vision of priestly formation ascribed to the soon-to-be-Blessed Cardinal Newman with unfortunately no particular reference to follow back to its specific source.

Still, it is a powerful vision indeed, first contrasted with what exists now:
The screening process for vocations rarely involves laypeople, including women, with appropriate expertise. The well-regulated seminary routine, with its devotional preoccupations and pleasant, totally supervised community life, is an unrealistic preparation for the unsupervised life of gregarious solitude experienced by many parish priests who live alone without the support of a significant relationship. The formation of mature and lasting relationships, known as "particular friendships", is actively discouraged in the seminary...

...Catholic clericalism, however, has traditionally involved the cauterising of permanent emotional ties, thereby contributing to the crisis that led to defecting and defective priests...

In Newman's view, formation for the priesthood should be done on the job, in parishes, rather than in an enclosed monastic hothouse. His idea of a priestly lifestyle could not be more different from the outlandish asceticism of John Mary Vianney, or the exalted notion of John Paul II and Benedict. A priest's pastoral life, according to Newman, should be one of normal domesticity; he should eat well, take frequent holidays, enjoy his wine and nurture many friendships, with both women and men. Newman confessed that he would have achieved nothing without Ambrose, who died 15 years ahead of him. "I was his first and last," he said of his friend.

Such an example of priestly life is far from Benedict's ideal of a celibate ascetic. But then, Newman had scant regard for the opinion of popes. He had seen the tawdry spectacle of Pius IX's eccentricities and court of sycophants...

...As he once wrote of ageing popes: "He becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it."

Newman's legacy hardly sits comfortably with the conservatism of Pope Benedict. It is entirely possible, in fact, that his beatification signals an attempt to sanitise his legacy rather than adopt those aspects that are critical of Rome, which he once compared to a swamp. Just a month ago Benedict cited Newman, without proper quotation, as an enemy to all Catholic dissidents; but no one was more critical than Newman of the Vatican, wrongful assumptions about papal infallibility, and Rome's over-centralisation.

And I think this explains a lot:

Benedict...continues to think of the abuse as a spiritual lapse, rather than a psychological, social and criminal problem. Priestly paedophile abuse, in his view, is a failure of priesthood, a failure of holiness, asceticism and piety. It is a great sin rather than a great crime.

The article also has this little anecdote which goes right to heart of what I feel about creepy seminarians and priests:

One summer afternoon in the late 1990s, my wife and I were by an Italian poolside in the Alban Hills, south of Rome. We watched a group of touring British choirboys, aged ten to 13, relaxing in the water after performing a sung Mass at St Peter's Basilica. Frolicking with them was Joe Jordan, a seminarian who had accompanied them, uninvited, from Rome. After watching his behaviour, involving boisterous tickling and handy-horseplay, my wife, who was a teacher in London schools for 14 years, said: "That young man has a problem: I wouldn't let him near a child unsupervised."

The following year Jordan was ordained a priest and appointed to a parish in Wales. In 2000 he was sentenced at Cardiff Crown Court to eight years' imprisonment for sexual abuse of minors in Doncaster and Barry, near Cardiff. When I asked Jordan's seminary rector why it had taken my wife a few minutes to identify what he and his colleagues failed to recognise over a period of five years, he said: "Oh, Joe was a devout man. There was no indication of any kind of problem." Jordan's hidden problem was not only his own, and that of the boys he abused, but a problem with recruitment, screening and formation of Catholic priests the world over. Now it is a problem of the Pope's.

People need to learn to trust their instincts more and vague theory less. The current system is like a recipe for freaks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I have always had ambivalent thoughts about Newman. In particular, I think his development of doctrine ideas border on theological Hegelianism (“all that is real is rational, all that is rational is real”, etc.) And quite frankly, I have a “love/hate” relationship with clericalism. I don’t think that Newman’s idea of priestly formation as highlighted in this article is very realistic. The Catholic priesthood will always be a lonely life. I was a seminarian and lived for prolonged periods in religious houses, so I can vouch for that. However, I do think that priests need to live in a communal life, as the priests of the SSPX do. That usually prevents a lot of shenanigans, but not all. But it is also not realistic considering the declining number of priests.

Nevertheless, I think that Newman’s other ideas, on the primacy of conscience and his critique of centralized Roman bureaucracy, are under-appreciated. Indeed, Newman did have a bad reputation with people at home and abroad. I don’t think Cardinal Manning was too fond of him, for example. Some thought that he was a residual Protestant, and suspected that he would backslide into the C of E at some point. But his toast to conscience first and his muted opposition to the definition of Papal infallibility appeal to me greatly. I do feel, however, that in our context, such things only lead to the bland secularized agnosticism that we see everywhere both inside and outside the Church. “Loyal opposition” is thus no longer possible; those who would toast to conscience first would barely sign on the dotted line to such doctrines as the Virgin Birth and the Trinity. (Maybe Newman’s “development of doctrine” has something to do with this.) That, I feel, is why religious discourse has become so partisan that it is borderline ridiculous. Either you are with the Pope 100% or you are no better than an agnostic or a heathen. I carry on, though.