the problem of the rigid seminarian

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 23, 2005

Over the past thirty years or so we've often heard concern expressed by bishops, theologians, seminary rectors, and vocation directors that many candidates for the priesthood are unsuitable on account of their "rigidity." In these circles it goes without saying that rigid is bad.

But suppose, in place of the word rigidity, we substituted the word tenacity. Immediately we see that tenacity can be a positive quality, something martyrs and confessors had, something laudable in any believer and eminently desirable in a priest.

Whereas rigidity is kind of a directionless term, negatively descriptive of its subject, tenacity is incomplete until we ask, tenacious of what? In the context of discipleship, we mean tenacious of principles, values, standards: in short, the truths of the Faith. So how is it that a Catholic who would have been commended as tenacious before, say, 1945, has come to be disqualified as rigid?

The kind of officer who excels in wartime often founders in times of peace; finding himself at a desk, he lacks the suavity, affability, and fondness for compromise that mark the managerial bureaucrat as promotable. When the game is no longer victory on the field of battle but cutting deals with patrons and rivals, the combat veteran turned office hack appears uncouth, awkward, and sometimes counter-productive in the eyes of his smoother colleagues. Since the Council, the Catholic clergy in the prosperous West has effectively transformed itself into a peacetime army, concerned not with fighting threats to the Church but with making life comfortable and consolidating political gains. The term "rigidity" belongs to the negative vocabulary of a peacetime army, "tenacity" to the positive vocabulary of a wartime one. The qualities that made Edmund Campion a hero in anti-Catholic England would make him a pastoral liability in Malibu.

Or so it may have seemed. Psychoanalyst Karl Stern, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who converted to Catholicism, remarked how the experience of the concentration camps falsified many assumptions of pre-war psychology. Stern says it was the conservative Catholics, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews who endured extremes of stress without selling-out, going mad, or collapsing, whereas the enlightened bourgeois typically lost all sense of selfhood and integrity in the maelstrom. Stern's point was that his fellow psychiatrists didn't realize the extent to which their model of psychological health was conditioned by the context of peacetime upper-middle class urban life, so that the types judged by agnostic academics "most likely to succeed" crumbled disastrously in the camps, while non-adaptive persons, well accustomed to marginalization through tenacious -- did someone whisper "rigid"? -- adherence to principle, maintained their equanimity and character.

The Church in the West has enjoyed a half-century of comparative ease, in which the agenda has largely been set by professorial Catholic clergy -- men who dress, dine, recreate, and vote in ways indistinguishable from their heathen faculty colleagues, men who have had almost no price to pay for their highly adaptive Catholicism. It's not surprising that they should be alarmed by "rigidity" in their juniors. It's not surprising to read Fr. Richard McBrien lamenting a survey of seminarians that finds "many students resist 'the learning enterprise' because it threatens their 'preconceived ideas about theology.'" Yet, with some few exceptions, it's the professoriate, not the students, that feel threatened, and the source of the threat is not the students' inflexible ideas about theology (indicating rigidity), but their stubborn adherence to Catholic doctrine (indicating tenacity). These aren't 18-year-olds arriving dewy-eyed from a 1950s high school sodality; they tend to be college grads, sometimes converts, with personal experience of the false promises of the secular world, who have made an existential alignment with Catholic teaching. Regardless of theological maturity or naiveté, they know what they're saying No to.

We have to admit that some seminarians, by temperament, are wrapped too tight and can't handle conflict. I wouldn't call them rigid, but brittle. Many are conservatives, but many aren't: brittleness is a characteristic of one's psychological endowment rather than one's convictions. Few would argue with the contention that brittle candidates are unsuited for the priesthood. But most of the men disparaged as rigid earned the label because they refused to join their professors and superiors in the doctrinal compromises that have guaranteed them such a comfortable life -- perhaps the most comfortable life any Catholic clergyman has ever enjoyed. Like the blunt language of the combat vet, the intractability of the doctrinally tenacious Catholic is both an embarrassment and a threat to the accommodationist. And just as academic psychiatrists gauged mental health by adaptivity to their own bourgeois environment, so the seminary gatekeepers have measured "fitness for ministry" by the standards of success current in the faculty lounge, the theatre lobby, the embassy reception. Blessed Rupert Mayer held his own in KZ Sachsenhausen, but he wouldn't go down well at Georgetown Law.

But we're preparing contemporary American men for contemporary American ministry, someone might object, and Malibu isn't Dachau. True. But Dachau wasn't Dachau until 1933, just a drowsy Munich suburb. Times change. And times are changing. Has hatred of Christianity faded in the last twenty years, or increased? Has the secular world grown fonder of Catholic doctrine or less so? Are your grandchildren likely to find their faith easier to live, or more difficult? Having answered these questions, ask yourselves which quality is more necessary in the priests who will minister to your grandchildren -- tolerance, or tenacity?

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  • Posted by: - Oct. 26, 2005 12:23 PM ET USA

    Diamantina: God gets to decide who receives a call to public service in the Church. He then provides them with the means (physical, mental, spiritual, financial, etc.) to accomplish their mission. Persons not qualified or suitable for service in the Church are not barred from serving the Church through penance, prayer and the pursuit of holiness. God is far better served by the lonely prayers of an old lady in a nursing home than He is by most parish busybodies.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 25, 2005 2:43 AM ET USA

    As a brittle person discerning a vocation to consecrated life (as a consecrated virgin? in a secular institute?), which (paid) ministries in the Church *are* suitable for people who are tightly wrapped & find it difficult to handle conflict? One's psychological endowment is mostly beyond one's conscious control (even with good long-term psychotherapy, which is hard to find): brittleness isn't inherently sinful. How can the brittle use their talents to help the Church & earn a living doing so?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2005 1:41 PM ET USA

    Brilliant article. It deserves wider distribution.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2005 10:22 AM ET USA

    Another tactical nuclear strike by General Di! Amen! I think I'm going to translate this one into French. BTW, amen to "Remigius" too.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2005 9:17 AM ET USA

    In the seminary I attended, the 'rigid' had either to go underground or find another seminary/bishop or seek lay employment. Thanks to a good rector(who served in WWII with my godfather)at a second seminary and a very understanding second bishop, I was able to finish and be ordained and joyfully srve our Lord as a priest for 21 years (including service in 2 wars).

  • Posted by: - Oct. 24, 2005 2:49 AM ET USA

    Bl. Rupert Mayer had his own ecclesial strictures, too. Forbidden to preach by the Nazis, he found another willing executioner in the bishop or archbishop of Munich: “Priests are all the same. Threaten them enough with arrest, rattle the keys of the concentration camp; they subside without further ado and shut up”. A more modern version might be "Threaten seminarians and priests with expulsion, rattle keys to the wet bar, and they subside and shut up."

  • Posted by: - Oct. 23, 2005 11:54 PM ET USA

    Bullseye!!! That was one of the best articles you have ever written. It was absent of vitriol or insulting sarcasm, but you nailed the details on the head!!! What great insight you have Diogenes! It helps to clear the mind of clutter, and the heart of cowardice.

  • Posted by: Remigius - Oct. 23, 2005 8:52 PM ET USA

    Uncle Di must have taken an double dose of those vitamins that stimulate thought and brain function, judging by this outstanding reflection. The analysis of the pathology of liberal Catholicism is devastating. I sometimes wonder what St. Ignatius Loyola would do were he to miraculously appear at a gathering of American Jesuits who were discussing a pressing agenda item such as the reasons why gays should be welcomed into the novitiates of the Society of Jesus. We all know he would be aghast.

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Oct. 23, 2005 4:08 PM ET USA

    Amen, Diogenes. "Rigid" was/is the way that some of my brother priests describe me. My response is consistently: either you are orthodox, with the mind & heart of the Church, or you are not. There is no middle ground -- although some claim a middle ground as "centrism," Jesus is clear about what He does with such lukewarmness, such centrist tolerance. Indeed, many priests (McBrien et al) who use the word "rigid" are the ones who rigidly want to go back to stay stuck in the 1960s-early1980s...