Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Communal Orientation of Priestly Life

It is not uncommon these days to hear a lot of criticisms about the discipline of priestly celibacy.Of course, liberals and anti-Catholics have always condemned the custom, so that is nothing new; rather, I am speaking of individuals within the Catholic Church itself who are increasingly stressing the reformable nature of the discipline and suggesting that there may be good reasons for altering it.

In my opinion this is nothing other than a collapse of Catholic discipline before the force of modernity pushing the artificially contrived "vocations crisis." I am not going to argue that point here. Rather, I want to examine one of the common complaints made against clerical celibacy and draw attention to a point that is very often neglected in contemporary discussions.

This common critique of celibacy is that it is too challenging, too much of a struggle to expect of the priest. As a result, by imposing this on our priests we are setting them up to fail, so the argument runs. I would immediately respond that this need not always be the case; many saints have practiced celibacy and have described it as a precious sweetness. When practiced holistically in union with fervent prayer, apostolic labors, and penitential disciplines, celibacy can be a sweet yoke.

But let us grant the premise for the sake of argument. Celibacy can indeed be a challenge. Being abstinent until I was married at age 20 was very difficult at times, especially in a world when all of my friends were becoming sexually active around age 14. I don't claim it was easy, but I do claim it was worth it. This sort of abstinence is not the same thing as clerical celibacy, but it does give the average lay person an insight into how difficult celibacy can be at times.

Thus, I do not deny that many priests may struggle with fidelity to the practice of celibacy. Even if a priest does not fall into a formal lapse, I can imagine it is a challenge to remain faithful to it in spirit and mind. Living without the caresses and intimacies of a woman can be difficult.

But the real question we should ask is whether fidelity to this discipline is any more difficult now than it used to be?

I contest that it is more difficult, that living celibacy in this culture is more challenging than in prior generations. Of course, moving from a society that glorified celibacy to one that denigrates it is one reason. This is what we all know. The discipline itself has not gotten more difficult, the conditions in which priests are compelled to observe it have. And many priests do in fact report in anonymous surveys that the celibate state is a real challenge for them.

I propose that one of the major reasons there is so much struggle is not because of cultural considerations, but because of the very simple and overlooked problem of living arrangements. The fact of the matter is, the modern priest is more than likely forced to live out his celibate vocation in solitude, whereas his spiritual ancestors centuries or even a few decades ago lived it communally.

Our parish is one of the oldest parishes in the state of Michigan; in fact, the oldest English speaking parish. The rectory our priest lives in dates from the Victorian era and is set up to house four priests. Even though our parish, even now, is out in a rural region, even though it was a mission parish for much of its history, even though it seldom had more than 1,000 active families at any one time, nevertheless, even this parish was staffed with multiple priests for much of its history.

You may have noticed the same thing at other pre-Conciliar rectories - living arrangements in place for multiple priests. In our priest-starved Church, it seems miraculous that seemingly every parish, right down to the most rink-a-dink rural mission, should have more than one priest. Yet this was in fact the case. The priests of yesteryear lived in community. Yes, they observed celibacy, but they were never alone in this. They were always walking the same path with some brothers-in-arms who were fighting the same fight and who could understand them.

Priests, even parish priests, were meant to live in community
, and I think we have forgotten that fact, as we have gotten too used to our single-priest parishes, or even our parishes where a priest visits only occasionally. The fact that we have gotten used to the arrangement does not mean it is normal let alone desirable. The traditional community context of priestly life provides the priest with all the support he needs in living out his vocation. To remove a priest from this communal context and still impose celibacy on him leads to several consequences:

First, there is no support. The priest has nobody on hand who understands his struggles, whether with celibacy or with any other cross of the priestly life. He must drive to another parish to talk to another priest. Thus, the support structure is considerably weakened. A priest in this situation feels his solitude much more profoundly, is more likely to suffer in silence, and is less likely to find a sympathetic pillar of support who truly understands his struggle. And don't tell me that placing newly ordained priests as associate pastors for two year assignments before they take their own parish is sufficient. The support needs to be continuous. Which priest will have a better time, he who returns home in the evening to a rectory with three other priests gathered in the parlor reading, smoking their pipes and encouraging one another, or he who returns home to an empty, desolate house?

Second, a priest living in solitude has much greater oppurtunity for "shenanigans." We will not belabor ourselves here defining "shenanigans", but you can use your imagination. Let's just say that a priest with three other priests living in community with him is less likely to have opportunity for "shenanigans" than a priest who has lived alone for ten years.

Finally, lack of community means no accountability. Who will encourage the weary priest to get up and say the Divine Office? Who will ensure that he says his Rosary every day? Who will be on hand to speak to the bishop if there are any troublesome irregularities noted? If the priest lives alone, then the answer is nobody. There is no other person on hand to hold the priest accountable for his personal conduct and prayer life. If a priest living in community were, for example, to leave off saying the Divine Office entirely, would not his brother priests notice this immediately and be in the right position to correct him? But suppose a priest who lives in solitude gives up saying the Divine Office, perhaps even for many years. Who will notice this? Who will be able to correct him? And if the priest gets used to having no one who holds him accountable, will his lapses not turn into a general pattern of lukewarmness and compromise, and the whole Church suffer as a result?

The benefits are clear, and the practice is hallowed by tradition. But, it might be objected, this all sounds fine and good, but so long as we are not getting vocations, this is all pointless - kind of like explaining to a poor man all the things he could do if only he had a million dollars. Without solving the problem of how to get more priests, discussing about how we would arrange these priests is idle speculation.

True, to some degree. Placing priests in community supports vocations, buttresses vocations, and makes them more fulfilling, but it cannot in itself directly create them. But we traditional-minded Catholics already know the key to vocations; we already know what sorts of communities and dioceses are reaping a rich harvest of vocations. The vocations crisis could be solved tomorrow if our leaders wanted it solved. And as more vocations come in, our bishops need to rediscover the communal orientation of priestly life. It is this communal life which serves as the foremost buttress of clerical celibacy.

We need priests to live together, in a community, as they were meant to. Then celibacy becomes sweeter, vocations more fulfilling, priests in turn become better, and consequently better role models, and thus we reap more vocations, have more priests to live toegther, celibacy becomes still easier, and so on, until our rectories are full again, parishes are being built instead of closed or clustered, and the "earth is filled with the knowledge of God as water fills the seas." (Hab. 2:14).


Philosoraptor said...

Wonderful post. I am in the seminary preparing for the diocesan priesthood in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. I recognized all the previous challenges you mentioned, and though I am committed to joyous celibacy, I am under no illusions as to how difficult it will be.

Magdalen said...

Very, very true. There is one other aspect to this, which I have personally witnessed in my own parish. We have more than one priest here, thanks be to God, but their rectory is a newer construction. To my knowledge, they don't live "in community", even though they share a dwelling. It's as if they all live in apartments, carrying out their own day-to-day affairs almost completely isolated from one another. There doesn't seem to be any personal friction among them; it's just the way things are, and they probably *think* it's better that way. I would be extremely surprised to learn that they all gather at the rectory in a common room for relaxation, etc. Maybe I'm wrong, and they do, but that isn't the impression I get from them. This is only meant as an observation and to add to your points that I think there is a mindset that will need to be re-taught. It isn't simply a matter of too few priests.

Staten Pilgrim said...

Another wise analysis. Thank you for all you do.

Woe is us said...

In times like ours, despite being alone, they should be able to have very close and continous communication with the priests in neighbouring parishes, or connected to their fraternities, etc. I suppose, however, that many are overwhelmed, others don't like each other very much or have much to say to each other because of of inter-ecclesiastical divisions, and a multitude of other reasons. These are complicateed times, indeed.

Boniface said...

An additional thought:

There is a certain synthesis of mind and energy that occurs when people live together that cannot be replicated by just driving around visiting. Compare the difference between just commuting to college versus the friendships that arise between people who dorm together. This communal synthesis can enable the group to do collectively what they could not do individually; this in fact is the premise that military units, such as the Marine Corps, draw upon - communal living breeds a certain kind of strength; "And if a man prevail against one, two shall withstand him: a threefold cord is not easily broken" (Ecc. 4:12). Therefore, I don't think saying, "just drive to talk to another priest" can replicate it.

Also, I agree with the other commenter that a change in thinking is needed as well. Priests have come to think of themselves as on their own.

Anselm said...

Even without solving the vocations crisis, what about all the parish priests of a given region living together in a central location and each driving to his parish for the day's work?

Boniface said...


I think you are right on. Living in common and commuting to parishes is better than living at parishes and commuting to have common time. That's a great idea.

Marco da Vinha said...

This Eastern perspective on priestly celibacy and why making it optional in the West is not a prudent idea is interesting: