Yet There Is Movement: From September 21, 1996

All of my priestly life I have reflected, taught, and written on the question: What kind of morality and moral theology are needed for the church? My view of the moral quest was always influenced by, and understood within, the larger framework of another fundamental question: What kind of church is needed in our present and future world? Inseparable from these two fundamental queries was a third question: What kind of minister is needed for our church and world?

Because I have been happily and wholeheartedly a priest for 56 years and because, for most of that time, I have taught priests and seminarians, I was morally driven to address the kind of priest Jesus might have envisioned for the church in her mission to embody and proclaim the saving power of God in our world.


In a very real and substantial way, I had to face and undergo major changes in priestly formation over the years at the same time that I was assisting others to do the same. In the process, it was imperative that I rethink the image of priesthood for our times. Thus, as I near the end of my life, it seems appropriate that I attempt to give witness to, and share my life experience with, my priestly peers and future priests, as well as with all Christians who minister to the church and the world.

During the Second Vatican Council, bishops--and their advisors, who were mostly priests--were very much aware that priests expected a clear and meaningful word on their life and ministry in the midst of a changing world and a changing church. Only at the very end, on Dec. 7, 1965, after a period of serious gestational stress, did the council Fathers approve such a decree on the ministry and the life of priests.

Initial Efforts

Earlier in October of 1964, the 17th project on the priesthood was proposed to the general assembly and had received heavy criticism. On behalf of West German bishops, Cardinal Julius Dopfner of Munich offered the most serious objection. The text was judged to be thoroughly outside the historical experience of priests and lay people, reflecting as it did a typical unhistorical (timeless) theology and spirituality. The immediate reaction of the great majority of bishops made it perfectly clear that this was the documents most vulnerable point.

In haste, a completely new text was drawn up. Truthfully, the commission made every effort to encompass the joys, hopes, sorrows, and anxieties of todays world which priests had shared with them. However, 30 years after the council, it must be acknowledged that those who drafted and approved the text were not fully aware of how deep the crisis was, and of the degree of change that would impact on cultures and societies today, as well as those of the future. A realistic prognosis was still lacking, and the churchs sensitivity still needed to grow, even under the duress of much pain and turmoil.

Despite this, it is worthwhile to give considerable attention to this important decree, for in it are found these several significant and relevant points: Priests cannot really serve people unless they are totally familiar with their life conditions, which as a consequence means that priests are meant to live amid the people entrusted to them (Par. 3). Great emphasis is given to the task of helping people grow toward fuller maturity (Par. 6). And could we not explicitly say that this point implies the acknowledgment and fostering of the virtue of critique? Another important focus is that priests should give particular preference to the suffering, sick and poor. Nor should it be overlooked that the decree clearly emphasized the building up of Christian community around the centrality of the Eucharist (Par. 8).

Even though the council did not neglect to point out the phenomenon of rapid acceleration of historical processes, how could the council Fathers not have anticipated the most pressing consequences of this phenomenon--for example, the problems surrounding pluralism and reconciliation--in full acknowledgment of cultural diversity? The decree rightly underlines the importance of a spirit of poverty among priests, but why, then, was it not said that bishops should themselves be moving examples of poverty and simplicity of life? The text also offered rich inspiration for a priestly spirituality as an expression of fraternal solidarity. Last but not least, an explicit appeal was made to priests to conscientiously assess themselves in the light of those adaptations required for living close to people (par. 22).

Was the Council Responsible for the Serious Crisis Facing the Priesthood?

First of all, what exactly do we mean by the word "crisis"? A distinction must be made between crisis as a manifestation of decadence, and crisis as a sign of growth (or an opportunity that allows for new growth).

Ten years after the Second Vatican Council, a Spanish-born priest who had served in Latin America wrote, under my direction, a doctoral dissertation on the undeniable crisis in priestly life. He concluded that this crisis could very well turn out to be a crisis of growth, if priestly formation and spirituality are understood and developed within the framework of the councils "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modem World." He also concluded that one of the major reasons for the seriousness of the crisis was precisely that this form of spiritual renewal was frequently neglected, if not explicitly rejected.

The dynamic acceleration of history in our age is unquestionably enormous and unique. Most church authorities are ill-prepared spiritually and theologically to fully realize the depth and strength of this challenge facing the church today. It is especially those promoters of the "restoration" movement, forever harking back to antiquity and blaming the council for this crisis and unrest, who are unable, if not unwilling, to realize and address the threat and opportunity presented in our rapidly changing history. They remain impregnated with, and ossified by, a timeless, classicist philosophy and theology that render all things changeless. They appear unable or unwilling to shift from a moralistic paradigm of obedience to an ethic of responsibility and co-responsibility. This lack of preparedness is even more visible in their clinging to centralism that overdoses on control in direct opposition to a genuine and more humane collegiality and subsidiarity. In an age of accelerated historical development and change, the trend and temptation to restore centralism and all systems of control may well be a major cause for completely missing or blocking opportunities to respond to ecumenism and global diversity through inculturation.

Those who should be giving an encouraging green light to promoting the shift to this new paradigm are instead putting the brakes on it. An obvious symbol of this aspect of the crisis is the cruel reality that even moderately dynamic bishops are regularly and punctually replaced when they have reached the age of retirement, while vigorous "brakemen" remain in office much longer. Bishops pioneering a contemporary outlook run the risk of being removed, while those lagging behind remain entrenched. While nostalgia for "the good old days" was far less dangerous in a more static era, todays yearning to turn the clock back may ultimately lead stragglers to suffer the fate of Lots wife and risk becoming pillars of salt.

Focusing on Encouraging Examples

Given the present state of the church, like Galileo, we can trustfully say, E pur si muove (Yet there is movement). I could very easily write a well-documented book in support of my findings. As a German priest, I have chosen to refer to the letter of the German bishops to priests entitled "On the Priestly Ministry" (Sept. 24, 1992). The document is a superb example of the paradigm shift taking place in our age.

With astonishing frankness and newness, the German bishops addressed the present crisis in the priesthood and invited its members as brothers, first and foremost, to open their eyes to positive opportunities, rather than wasting their best energies on useless moaning and groaning about how bad things are. Implied, of course, was that the darker sides of the priesthood--and the real dangers to it--should be neither minimized nor overlooked. Above all, it is a matter of priority, since the Christian spirit never points to the victory of evil first, and then only grudgingly turns to acceptance of the fact that God plays a role in sometimes granting victory to the good.

As bishops of the universal church, the German leaders invited their fellow priests to develop a worldwide outlook, since the present crisis (hopefully a crisis of growth) is related to the deep transformation of cultures, societies, the sciences and, not least, the vision of the cosmos--the entire created world. Consequently, the relationship between church and world can never again be the same. The era of Christendom has unequivocally and irretrievably passed away.

Priests stand uniquely in the midst of this crisis that for many is a crisis of faith. What does it really mean to abide in faith? In life and ministry, priests in particular (though vowed religious men and women and the whole people of God as well) are confronted with many paralyzing forms of polarization in the church. On this point, the German bishops, with unwavering honesty, spoke about problems caused by current official Roman teachings on several aspects of sexual morality and marriage: teachings that are either simply overlooked or explicitly rejected by a great number of believers. As a consequence, two loyalties are in conflict. On the one hand, most priests have deep feelings of loyalty for the magisterium and the pope; and on the other hand, they intend to be faithful to the whole people of God. How are we to reconcile these opposites in terms of consciences and in pastoral teaching and practice? Who in this case suffers more than priests and pastoral associates?

This polarization is particularly painful for older priests whose formation has been substantially pre-conciliar. Not infrequently, the depth of this crisis even approaches the level of an identity crisis.

The German bishops letter offers these challenging words, in full realization of the problem: "The pastor bears with great suffering the final responsibility for the parish. But often he comes to see that many times lay people are more competent." The process of learning cooperation with lay people and younger priests is indeed not easy for all involved.

In confronting the problem of celibacy, the bishops are equally forthright when they ask: "Is the lifestyle marked by celibacy so important as to allow postponing what belongs to the very heart of pastoral ministry, at least as it has been conceived up until now?"

The bishops touch upon a number of problems in facing the question as to how the present crisis in the priesthood "coincides with the future image of the church." In pondering the dynamics of our most recent history, the bishops conclude that now and in the future, even more than in the past, priestly vocations need to be understood and fostered in a dynamic way: "In the course of the years we have to truly become what we already are." Implied in this axiom is a challenging truth. A static vision of the priestly calling is deadly. They add further: "In this regard as in many others, we have to learn to accept and develop an approximate and gradual maturation." The dynamics of growth must increasingly characterize and be evident in priestly life, coupled with the courage to live a fully transparent life in face of the community--regardless of personal shortcomings.

Conscientiously accepting our human imperfections and limitations can become an act of praise for Gods generosity and patience. Simultaneously, this acceptance can be a remedy against the temptation to take ourselves too seriously.

In the vision of the German bishops, the present situation is both an invitation and a timely opportunity for priests, in solidarity with each other, to get on the road and place themselves in the midst of human need and affliction. In my opinion, this new tone and spirit is poignantly revealed in their compassionate and timely directive: "At this point, we remind ourselves of our solidarity with those of our peers who, frequently under tragic circumstances, have left the ministry. In no way may we abandon them" (p. 30). Indeed the entire letter glows with the spirit of the Gospel and strengthens our hope for the future of the church and the future of her priesthood.

The same pastoral tone of frankness and openness shines forth in the pastoral letter of Bishops Lehman of Mainz, Saier of Freiburg, and Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart on pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics--including the admission of these Catholics to the Eucharist in accordance with wise principles of discernment. Even after the disappointing response from the Vatican congregation on doctrine, these three bishops, in a spirit of nonviolence, maintain their spirit of candor and sincerity.

Only in mutual solidarity and trust between bishops and priests can the present and undeniable crisis be overcome, for what unites them is their shared love and pastoral care.

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