The Sulpician priest Gerald D. Coleman is to be commended for this volume. In it he shares with the Catholic community at large not only his long-term experiences as a rector, professor and guide for seminary life, but also his keen insights into the practical needs of priestly formation. Catholic men who are thinking about priesthood, as well as those who are the current evaluators of priestly formation, need to consider this volume in depth.
Catholic Priesthood is well organized, beginning with the theology of a vocational call and with the profile of those who are responding to this call today (Chapters 1 and 2). Coleman then moves to the issue of screening those who believe God is calling them (Chapter 3). On this basis, he looks at a broader picture of human formation and human sexuality (Chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7). This lengthy section is clearly the main part of his volume. To all of this he adds appendices of great practical value. These appendices focus on a candidate’s code of ethics, his sexual history and the signs or cautions regarding possible sexual abuse of minors. This is a book not only for those who believe they have been called to the priesthood, but also for those who share in the discerning of such calls, including bishops, seminary faculties and parish lay leaders.
Although Coleman focuses on the diocesan priesthood, his treatment of certain issues can be helpful to those who are connected to religious communities and who also wish to become priests. His focus, moreover, is on priestly life in the United States. This does not mean that his work does not take into consideration priesthood in a worldwide framework, but his goal is to be of assistance to today’s Catholic Church in the United States. Given, however, the number of seminarians today who come from a non-Euro-American culture, it might have helped to flesh out more fully the distinctive issues that a multicultural seminary faces.
Fundamentally, Coleman writes, a priestly vocation is a matter of God’s grace, and the spiritual reality of God’s call is foundational. The Gospels clearly state that Jesus—the model of all ministries—realized that the Father had called him. He was sent by the Father. He came to do the Father’s will. Whenever the grace of God’s call begins to fade in a seminarian’s or ordained minister’s life, then our church has on its hands a “career seminarian” or a “career priest.” These individuals do their requisite work but without the unction of the Spirit. That Coleman begins his volume with “The Call” and “The Response” speaks loud and strong, for these are the precise spiritual places at which every vocation must begin and continue. The call from/response to God is both the beginning and the daily re-beginning of every vocation to priesthood.
In contemporary seminaries, the age issue plays a major role. This means, specifically, that candidates come from educational backgrounds that were not seminary-oriented and they arrive with an abundance of experience in fields other than philosophy and religion. In many instances, priesthood is a second career. Seminary leaders and faculties struggle to adapt their intellectual and formational curricula to this particular age issue, which was not the case in years past. Coleman is extremely helpful in this regard, since he clearly stresses the intellectual, experiential and social maturity of the seminarian today. The former paternalistic approach to seminary training is no longer an option.
The major portion of Catholic Priesthood deals with the issue of human sexuality (Chapters 5, 6, 7). Coleman’s open discussion of the human side of sexuality, and not simply its ethical and sinful side, offers today’s readers a perspective of great importance. The author does not idealize human sexuality (no human being exemplifies an idealized form of sexuality), but presents sexuality as a significant and positive part of human life. He provides a down-to-earth appraisal of human sexuality as it exists in contemporary American life. Sexuality, Coleman writes, contributes enormously to the very integrity of an individual; but at the same time it can disrupt the integrity of one’s humanness, even in disastrous ways. In these chapters, though, Coleman makes only brief mention of the implications of his presentation of human sexuality vis-à-vis priestly celibate life.
Only in Chapter 7 does the author take up in detail the issue of the celibate priesthood. He consistently presents priestly celibacy as a gift from God. The offer of celibacy is, theologically and spiritually, a grace. In responding to this gift of grace, both the seminarian and the priest need to live out his celibacy in an authentic way. While the author’s emphasis on gift and grace is correct, other issues might have been mentioned in this chapter. First of all, Paul VI, citing the Vatican II document Presbyterorum Ordinis, in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus states that celibacy “is not, indeed, demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is evident from the practice of the primitive church and from the tradition of Eastern Churches” [No. 17]. A correct theology of priesthood has no intrinsic connection to celibacy. Second, in the same encyclical, Paul VI refers to priestly celibacy as a “present law” of the church and as “legislation” and “discipline” [Nos. 14, 38]. These passages indicate clearly that priestly celibacy in the Latin church is a discipline and a law. This is repeated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1580).
Paul VI also states clearly that diocesan priestly celibacy is “distinct from that which leads a person to choose celibacy as a state of consecrated life” (No. 15). Somehow, the grounding of priestly celibacy in a discipline and in a law, as also in a form distinct from consecrated life and from the different discipline and law of the Eastern churches, needs to be faced in an honest way. Disciplines and laws can be changed, and seminarians are well aware of this mutability. They are also aware of Paul VI’s clear statement that the theology of priesthood has no essential connection to celibacy.
Generally, authors on priestly celibacy, and Coleman exemplifies this, try to provide a spiritual basis for celibacy, such as its being a gift and a grace. This avoids the issues just mentioned: that priestly celibacy is a law, a discipline of the Latin church, and that a theology of priesthood is not essentially connected to a theology of celibacy. In many ways, this interplay of God’s grace on the one hand and, on the other hand, human laws and discipline, as well as a sound theology of priesthood, has yet to be honestly discussed.
Coleman’s book remains, nonetheless, a major volume on priesthood for today’s American Catholic Church. In many ways it is a “must” read for members of the hierarchy, for lay leaders and for seminarians. Reading and rereading Catholic Priesthood is to experience a moment of special grace for our day and age.