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Decline and fall of the Catholic priesthood

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 Contents - Sep 1988AD2000 September 1988 - Buy a copy now
'Putting the essence of the Faith in doubt' (Jean Guitton) - B.A. Santamaria
Decline and fall of the Catholic priesthood - Gary Scarrabelotti

Mr Jones or Sister Marjourey come round to your sick bed. No amount of theologising on the subject of ministry can put Mr Jones or Sister Marjourey in persona Christi. And this is what I, at least, want on my sick bed: the person of Christ acting through the ordained priest.

Thanks to the power of the grace received at Ordination - if the doctrines once communicated to us retain their pristine validity - a man becomes something more than himself. Christ takes possession of him. So much so that when the priest gives Communion it is not the man who gives it but Christ. It is as if Our Lord stooped down from the Cross and said "I give you my flesh to eat and my blood to drink".

The spread of the so-called "special ministries" is not a sign of Christian flourishing but of a general crisis in priestly identity. Properly known as "extraordinary ministries", and intended to fulfil an emergency role when priests are in short supply, these "extraordinary" ministers have become "ordinary". They now form what they ought not: a normal part of the routine operations of the typical parish. Sometimes this is genuinely the result of an increase in the burden of priestly work. Sometimes it isn't so much that as a general loss of confidence in the priesthood itself.

Binding power

In proportion as priests lose sight of their sacrificial and sacramental roles they lose faith in the power of divine grace to bind together the people of God into a mystical community. As their sense of the Mystical Body grows weaker, they have seized on the sociological body with something approaching desperation.

To hold together this community of clay, a new kind of bricks and mortar has had to be fashioned. In order to bind together priests and people in this entirely social phenomenon, a new kind of sociological bond has had to be forged. Its name is "co-option".

By means of "co-option" all becomes one and one becomes all. The differences between priests and people are abolished by a fusion of clergy with laity. Rejecting the separation into which they were ordained, the clergy put aside the outward symbols of their inward differences from laymen in the order of grace. On with the secular clothing; on with the mannerisms of popular secular culture. From out of the man with power to dispense divine grace a TV compere (or advertising agent) is turned. Between such a man and the rest of us, there can be no gulf. The powers of such a man cannot be held in awe.

The process of "co-option", however, is two-way. Not only must the clergy be laicised but also the laity must be clericalised. Thus the lay people must assume "special ministries", and by this means, it is imagined, the unwanted metaphysical differences between priest and laymen can be glossed over.

In this "democratised" Church, the model priest is one who casts off the sacerdotal identity in order, like a chameleon, to blend into the world. The model layman undergoes a form of multi-skilling and busies himself with the affairs of the altar to leave the world behind. The exchange becomes complete. The new pinnacles of Catholic achievement, unity and community, are reached by obliterating distinctions in the order of grace.

Today's Catholic churches are gradually witnessing the rise of a new elite class, the laioclercs - no longer layman or cleric.

Under the new "community" orientation imparted by the laioclercs, the life of the Catholic parish begins to turn upon a human axis. As the world of the supernatural becomes almost inconceivable, the parish thus stricken collapses inward.

"Thank you for our wonderful celebration!" the parish priest enthuses at the Ite missa est - as if what had been accomplished were all of our own devising. It might be small, but this new model Catholic community is auto sufficient - and consequently trivial. Majesty and solemnity have no place here. Symbol has been driven out by the torrent of banal speech. Silence is forbidden. Mystery is not allowed to work its hidden influence. With the dieback of the priesthood in our parishes the liturgy of the Catholic Church has been transposed into a mind-numbing act of entertainment, something which could not have been better contrived in the studios of the media networks.

Under this worldly influence the work of priests in the parish no longer seems much concerned with the direction of souls or with the forming of saints. Priests appear to have no special mission here. Today the job is to facilitate happiness: to get the people feeling good about themselves.

Education versus instinct

There are younger clergy who are orthodox by instinct but bereft of Catholic intellectual formation. They have been trained in seminaries where the professors are proud to acknowledge that they are in the business of moulding a new kind of Church. There are older priests who, hearts heavy with reservation, are driven along by the momentum of fashion and by human respect. There are the ruling cliques, men out of sympathy with the Pope and the model of priesthood he represents, to whom the running of the dioceses has been given over with the blessing of the bishops.

Finally, beyond the circle of the laioclercs, there are the rest of us: the laity, the new untouchables. Forget all that stuff about "penetration of the milieu". You've got it wrong. The whole business has been completely misunderstood until now: the world can only be changed when the milieu penetrates us.

The grotesque world of the modern Catholic parish could, however, simply disappear overnight. After all, no contrivance of the human memory can erase from the very being of priests the agency of divine action which was put there by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. If priests dared to recall that by their ordination their very natures had been changed, empowering them to do supernatural work, then a revolution would be set in motion.

And if, at the end of the day, priestly numbers should prove insufficient to undertake their divine mission, then there is a miraculously simple way to make up the numbers - prayer: that the "Lord of the harvest will send labourers into the vineyard."

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 1 No 6 (September 1988), p. 11

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