I have heard the church compared to a dysfunctional family a lot lately. Problems get swept under the rug, silence is ordered from on high, appearances are maintained even when the truth is painfully obvious to everyone. Crisis can make a family stronger, but only if it first acknowledges the crisis. In this case, there have been many attempts to single out the root cause of the crisis: pedophilia, ephebophilia, celibacy, homosexuality, all-male priesthood, a church hierarchy out of touch and answerable to no one. Whatever else happens, I think Catholics ought to seize the opportunity to re-examine what priesthood is specifically, to pose the question, do we want priests to be set apart from us or one of us?
At about the time I was born, my oldest brother, then 13, moved away to a distant part of the country to spend the next four years in a pre-seminary in a cloistered dormitory. Consequently, I grew up believing that young men who felt “called” were to trade a normal life for a life devoted to God, a devotion different in degree and kind from the “ordinary” life of a layperson. I visited him once in the seminary a few months before he decided to leave. I remember feeling awe at the quiet of the place, almost literally expecting to see a sacred glow around every man I saw. What I found, though, was a group of guys with long hair who had a rock-and-roll band, played practical jokes, cursed, snuck out after curfew and laughed a lot. In short, they were not different from other 21-year-olds.
Even after losing that unrealistic boyhood image of priests as a higher order of being, the priesthood remained the Mother of all Vocations in my mind. For many Catholics, priesthood has always represented a life given to intimacy with God. By extension, therefore, knowing priests (socially, for example) meant getting just a little bit closer to knowing God. Though this is less true nowadays, it used to be that there was a certain cachet attached to having the parish priest over for Sunday dinner. He was not just another friend; he was “a man of the cloth,” a phrase that bespeaks the sense of the priest as being materially different from everyone else—a frail human like the rest of us (he ate food, took the bus, got colds), but nonetheless made of different stuff.
No small reason for this was the sacraments. Only the priest can consecrate hosts, hear confessions, anoint the sick, perform marriage and holy orders. Clearly the priesthood is not better than other vocations; we all always knew this. Yet clearly the priesthood was set apart from other vocations more profoundly than a surgeon or astrophysicist is set apart, even though their skills are likewise unique. Because a priest’s job is directly involved with bringing God into our lives—and because he chose priesthood over family—his identity seems quite naturally a notch or two above the fray. It is not about prestige; it’s about salvation.
Recent revelations, however, have made what once seemed so natural appear not only untenable but also unfair. To expect a priest to remain true to his vows seems, on the face of it, perfectly reasonable. After all, he is a man not of simple flesh, but of “the cloth.” For my whole life I felt no doubt or compunction about holding all the priests I knew and called friend to a higher standard of behavior than I held myself—because he had taken vows that I had not, because he had committed himself to God and I had not. This double standard was so indoctrinated in my belief system, so enmeshed in my being, that it was beyond question. Even until very recently—a few months ago—I hardly questioned this in any significant way. I expected and wanted priests to be just like me, except better in every way that mattered—holier, more devoted, truer. I expected—haven’t we all?—priests to be simultaneously one of us and set apart from us, as if “us” were a meaningful category for lay Catholics.
Our understanding of the priesthood needs to change, which is different from saying that we need to lower our expectations of priests. The survival of us all—and by “us” I mean all Catholics, priests and laity alike—depends upon such a reorientation of understanding. Hard questions need to be asked, but this time with the expectation that hard answers must be embraced. Old images will have to be let go: the image of the priest who is always available, whose entire life is consumed in serving his flock, who is free of all ties to family or self, whose personal life is magically purged of pathology and vice. A priest must always be one whose life and routine are structured in such a way as to honor and nurture prayer. He cannot be a human doing—a grand administrator of sacraments, a Sunday glad-hander, an interpreter of Scripture.
For too long we have expected our priests to be different, only to discover that their principal difference from us is that they have had to keep their frailty secret. Though we might not admit it, deep down we do not really allow priests to be in mufti: their identity is collared—circumscribed by duty—as if they are never truly off duty like the rest of us.
Let’s face it: priests are in the world and products of it. Priesthood must come to be seen no longer as a higher calling for extraordinary men, but as a special calling for ordinary beings.