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The Gift of the Priestly Vocation: The importance of countercultural formation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 09, 2016

As we reported on December 7th, the Congregation for the Clergy issued a new outline of proper formation for the priesthood, a framework for more detailed plans to be developed in the various countries around the world. It is symptomatic of the problems facing the Church today that our headline emphasized the problem of homosexuality: Vatican confirms ban on homosexual candidates for priesthood.

The document itself has a broader and more positive title: The Gift of the Priestly Vocation. I skimmed through the text today. As would be expected, it is a good overview of the nature and process of priestly formation. But for most Catholics, there is no real reason to read it. Everything you would expect is there—but in general terms, to be concretized at the local level.

In this generalized and comprehensive context, the problem of homosexuality really is the most striking topic covered—clearly the most controversial hot-button issue. For anyone who wants to see the exact wording, it is covered in three numbered paragraphs (199-201), taking up about one page, under the category of “Dismissal” from priestly formation. The whole document, printed on standard paper from the link above, is 86 pages long, so this treatment is consistent with the broad purposes of the text.

Traces of Pope Francis

I found two other things interesting. One is how rapidly Church documents take on the expressions and concerns of the current pope. Thus one of the broad introductory paragraphs reads as follows:

The fundamental idea is that Seminaries should form missionary disciples who are “in love” with the Master, shepherds “with the smell of the sheep”, who live in their midst to bring the mercy of God to them. [Part 3 of the Introduction]

Another example is found in the subsection on “Means of Formation”, which is section “e” in Part III (“The Foundations of Formation”). All of a sudden everything is referred to in terms of “accompaniment”. Thus section e.1. is “Personal Accompaniment”, section e.2. is “Community Accompaniment”. Obviously there is nothing at all wrong with this, but it is, after all, “Francis-speak”; the ecclesiastical dynamics are interesting!

The only other factor I found particularly striking—both in its reflection of Pope Francis and its potential as a distraction—is the treatment of Catholic social doctrine in paragraph 172 in the section on Theological Studies. Obviously, “a sufficient number of lectures should be dedicated to teaching the Social Doctrine of the Church”, but there is also a significant problem to be guarded against here.

Church leaders in our time very often confuse Catholic social teaching with the policies of liberal-secularist political parties, as if adherence to Catholic social teaching consists in high-sounding phrases about cultural diversity and care for the poor. Not uncommonly, even policies which contradict the natural law (which tend to be justified by references to openness, inclusion and love) are promoted in the name of Catholic social teaching. It is essential to remember that Catholic social teaching is, in fact, derived from the natural law, and must always be in accord with it.

Counter-cultural formation?

In this same section, we also find the issue of environmentalism. This is worth a little more thought:

For some time now, experts and researchers, active in different fields of study, have turned their attention to the emerging planetary crisis, which is reflected strongly in the current Magisterium regarding the “ecological question”. Protecting the environment and caring for our common home—the Earth—belong fully to the Christian outlook on man and reality…. Therefore, it will be necessary for future priests to be highly sensitive to this theme and, through the requisite Magisterial and theological guidance, helped to “acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face”. This must then be applied to their future priestly ministry, making them promoters of an appropriate care for everything connected to the protection of creation. [172]

In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis articulated a beautifully Christian understanding of Creation and stewardship which all Catholics should embrace wholeheartedly, lest they too fall captive to the technocratic instrumentalization of Creation—including our own bodies!—which plagues the modern world.

But these values do not need to be tied—and in fact should not be tied—to particular alarms which so often owe as much to politics and public funding as anything else. The Catholic ought to receive all Creation as a gift, and understand what it means to be a good steward, but the Catholic understanding seldom leads down the path chosen by secular environmentalists. Moreover, the Church has no competence in scientific questions. Therefore, to push priests in a particular direction on this would require either that she arbitrarily back some scientific conclusions against others, or that she demand of her priests the necessary expertise to evaluate the various claims and counter-claims.

Such pressures carry grave dangers, which we have already observed all-too frequently in practice: First, the failure to prioritize the spiritual and salvific mission of the priest in favor of popular causes which are usually quite worldly; second, the failure to ensure that priests understand that they cannot confuse Christian virtue with popular movements, for it is not for the priest to attempt to seize the moral high ground the way politicians do.

For example, it is not for the priest to fail to recognize that sexual license and the breakdown of the family do far more damage than mistaken environmental attitudes can ever do, even if specific arguments about the environment could achieve the certainty of the moral law. Priests need to be signs of contradiction. One of the first rules of priestly service to the Good is that if the dominant culture is fixated on something, then that something, however valid, is not the message that the world most needs to hear.

In all, I have no real quarrel with the general list of topics covered in The Gift of the Priestly Vocation. As I said, it is comprehensive, generalized, and unsurprising. With such guidelines, the devil is always in the details. But I have come away from the text with a warning in mind:

Authentic priestly formation will always be counter-cultural in very important ways. This should flow naturally and normally from formation in Christ. But, somehow, it remains a principle too often honored in the breach, and a principle too often ignored in the spiritual life. This too must be addressed in the preparation of future priests for fruitful ministry.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: susana8577 - Dec. 10, 2016 2:33 PM ET USA

    Excellent! Especially: "Such pressures carry grave dangers[....] First, the failure to prioritize the spiritual and salvific mission of the priest in favor of popular causes which are usually quite worldly; second, the failure to ensure that priests understand that they cannot confuse Christian virtue with popular movements, for it is not for the priest to attempt to seize the moral high ground the way politicians do." Thank you!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 09, 2016 8:15 PM ET USA

    It took me years to earn a Ph.D. in atmospheric science. Likewise for my FSSP pastor, who has a Ph.D. in physics. Yet neither of us has the time nor interest to waste on the political football that currently goes by the name "climate change." In the 1960s it was "global cooling" and a polluted Lake Erie. Well, nature's God fixed the problem of global cooling, and God's creatures fixed the problem of Lake Erie. As a "man-made disaster," the nuclear meltdown at 3-mile Island caused no deaths.