take five

By Diogenes (articles ) | Aug 31, 2006

The USCCB has promulgated the fifth edition of its Program for Priestly Formation, duly approved on a five year basis by the Holy See and prefaced by a statement from the CMSM in conventional 1980s Microspeak ("quality training and education for the ordained ministry...").

We meet therein several regrettably familiar Sister Sharonisms. "Diverse," for example, is still used to mean non-Irish ("an increasing number of priestly vocations now come from diverse and sometimes dysfunctional family situations" ... "Applicants from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds should be given every encouragement"), and the word "mission" is still understood as an elusive existential quest.

On the Fire Island front, the bishops punt on first down (the H-word does not appear at all) and shank the ball into the stands: "With regard to the admission of candidates with same-sex experiences and/or inclinations, the guidelines provided by the Holy See must be followed" (56). That's as close as they get to naming the elephant in the sacristy, and the bashfulness about American implementation is -- to put it mildly -- uncharacteristic. There are one or two other places where an Andrew Sullivan sulkiness peeps through, as in their enigmatic definition of "a free person" as "a person who is free to be who he is in God's design" (76, emphasis original). An inadvertent equivocation? Not likely.

Sexual squishiness apart, there are a lot of good things in this document. It says, almost without apology, that priests have "a specific vocation to holiness in virtue of their new consecration" (22). It mentions asceticism or ascetical practices seven times, positively, with clear emphasis, and lists as the requisite skills for living chastely: "ascetical practices, prudent self-mastery, and paths of self-knowledge, such as a regular personal inventory and the examination of conscience" (80). True, the document elsewhere speaks of "acceptance and valuing of one's sexuality" -- but these are bishops after all, and the phrase comes watermarked into their stationery. There is also a straightforward and repeated insistence on the simplicity of a priest's personal life; this too is a welcome emphasis.

No one believes that the Program of Priestly Formation -- any more than Ex Corde Ecclesiae or the catechetical directory -- will cause an unwilling bishop to act against his own inclinations. It's a lever without a fulcrum. But if we forebear to parse it lawyer-wise, and read it instead as an emblem of personal sympathies -- more in the manner of a t-shirt or a neck tattoo -- it has much to commend it. It wants to present the Church with a priest who is holy, chaste, austere, orthodox, and acquainted with mortification. The human values ("a good communicator, someone who listens well ...") also find a mention, but take their proper subordinate place in the grand scheme. Perhaps unique among documents generated by the Bishops' Conference, it puts primary stress on the priest's relationship to God.

Yet I think what will most strike any fair-minded reader of this document is the absence of swagger. Gone is that tone of bumptious self-confidence. Gone are the contempt for the Fathers and the insinuation, since we have the experts on our payroll, that nothing written prior to 1970 is worth reading. Perhaps this is the effect of the committee chairman, Bishop Olmsted, but I'd like to believe that the new and gratifying modesty extends to his brother bishops as well. These are men who can congratulate themselves -- every six months, and from the heart -- on having stayed out of jail, and it may be that the new scale of accomplishment is not without impact.

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  • Posted by: - Sep. 01, 2006 3:49 PM ET USA

    Getting immediate and widespread compliance on this issue will be a miracle in itself -much like getting the Jesuits to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 01, 2006 10:25 AM ET USA

    In addition to clauses 22,56,76, & 80, I'd recommend dog-earing the pages for frequent reference to clauses 100, 110, & 280 as well.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 01, 2006 5:19 AM ET USA

    Wonder what would happen if the Vow of Celibacy was replaced with a Vow of Chastity for all ordained priests? WWJD?

  • Posted by: - Aug. 31, 2006 8:15 PM ET USA

    Granted, most USCCB docs do read like UN docs, but I think this one is different. Given that Bp Olmsted was its main author, it says good things consistently, not like most others that might say something good because the editor was looking the other way. Implementation is a different issue, as Diogenes said. But at least they've written one that's decent, and for that we should be thankful.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 31, 2006 4:28 PM ET USA

    "Full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

  • Posted by: Ignacio177 - Aug. 31, 2006 1:54 PM ET USA

    Don't USCCB documents read a lot like UN documents. Draw your own conclusions.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 31, 2006 12:29 PM ET USA

    One more piece of evidence that the USCCB is a non-starter. I read where Cardinal Bertone indicated that Pope Benedict is rethinking the efficacy of national episcopal conferences. I hope it's near the top of his list.