The data in the Rev. Andrew Greeley’s paper, "Rating the Clergy" (Am., 5/7), came as no surprise to many of us. His proposed solution, however, did give me pause. In paraphrase, Father Greeley makes four suggestions for improving the situation:
1. Seminaries should realize their failure to turn out well-trained professional clergy and, in particular, should make creative preaching a condition for ordination.
2. Bishops must realize that presently most priests are not effective in evangelization.
3. Priest organizations should realize that their membership has a serious image problem.
4. Individual priests, before protesting Father Greeley’s data on low rating, should submit the National Opinion Research Center questionnaire to their parishioners (and should do more reading, incidentally).
Although these suggestions certainly have merit, in my judgment they miss the mark of the very practical aspect of the low rating. The scenario, as I see it, after 13 years on the faculty of a major seminary, is as follows.
Given the dearth of vocations in society at large, and given no present viable alternatives to a celibate male clergy, the bishops are desperate for priests. Therefore they send to the seminaries men of varying ages and backgrounds, a number of whom are not qualified to assume the leadership role of priesthood. In response, seminaries, in order to cope with the high cost of running such institutions, accept as students men who, in Father Greeley’s day, would have received no consideration whatsoever as candidates for priesthood. To illustrate this point, a former seminary rector and professor attests that, whereas in his own seminary class there were 14 or 15 A students, there was only one A student in the last class he taught.
In their evaluation of seminarians, seminary faculties may or may not recommend men for ordination. Some bishops honor these recommendations chapter and verse. Other bishops prefer to ignore negative evaluations and assign men to different seminaries. Still others sit idly by while the rejected men seek sponsorship by alternate dioceses. In consequence, both bishops and seminaries determine the caliber of the priest pool. And even though many persons, especially vocation directors, are involved in the formation and evaluation of a given seminarian, it is the bishop who gives the final word on admission into the seminary, advancement to diaconate and ordination to priesthood.
A specific item on which surveys have rated clergy is the ministry of preaching. In this category, sad to say, Roman Catholic clergy rate 50 percent lower than their Protestant counterparts. Here again, in my judgment, bishops play a key role. Priests should be able to look to them as models of the preaching they advocate. And the opportunities for bishops’ modeling are many—at festive eucharistic liturgies, for example, like ordinations, confirmations and dedications. Having been present at many such celebrations, though, I suggest—with all due respect—that bishops follow the lead of the late Bishop Ott.
A number of years ago, I am told, Bishop Ott enrolled in a workshop for priests of his diocese (Baton Rouge) and, as homilist, allowed himself to be critiqued publicly. In this matter of quality preaching, other bishops, like Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., have sponsored programs for their priests. A frequent director of or consultant to these programs, incidentally, is Walter Burghardt, S.J., who is a paragon of creative preaching and the author of at least eight books on the subject.
Obviously, both bishops and seminaries are pivotal in raising the caliber of the priest pool, and for this they should be accountable to their priests and to parishioners as well. Priests themselves also bear responsibility for quality preaching, and they should be accountable to bishops and parishioners for their performance. Until there are more priests like one in our locale who consistently, cogently and creatively preaches the word, Roman Catholic clergymen are apt to fall further behind their Protestant counterparts in the rating.
In his proposed remedy for the low rating of Roman Catholic clergy, Father Greeley assigned roles to bishops and seminaries. But parishioners, too, have their role to play. To endure pabulum-preaching, gender discrimination and lackluster liturgies without protest is more often apathy than virtue. If parishioners are reluctant to complain to pastors and assistants, they can have recourse today to parish councils and vicariate delegates (and to the vicar himself).
When all is said and done, remedying the present situation of the Roman Catholic clergy involves at least four agents: bishops, seminaries, priests themselves and parishioners. May they all face the situation without flinching and collaborate strategically to improve it. Notwithstanding the Greeley data (see page 7 of his article), there are many capable, sincere and dedicated priests serving the people of God. Perhaps concerted vocational efforts like those of the dioceses of Joliet, Rockford and Bridgeport (reported by Bishop Roger Schwietz, "Recruiting Vocations," Am., 7/2) will effect an increase in the numbers of well qualified clergymen. They in turn should afford the companionship and support that their clerical confreres consistently seek and need.