semantics and the soft sciences

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Feb 03, 2004

In the current America, Sr. Katarina Schuth reviews Evolving Visions of the Priesthood, a new book by sociologists Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger, who report on a survey of American priests conducted in 2001 and who "communicate and interpret extensive data about generational changes in the priesthood and the impact of those changes on the church in the United States." Schuth writes:

The findings confirm what most observant Catholics have known for some time: newer priests (45 and younger) hold a significantly different ecclesiology from that of their older counterparts (46 to 65), but somewhat similar to those over 65. The self-identity of newer priests correlates with "the cultic model of priest loyal to John Paul II, the doctrinal teaching of the Church, and a hierarchical model of governance." The older servant-leader model priests are "more democratic, more supportive of lay ministry in the Church, and more conflicted concerning the pastoral application of church teaching, such as the prohibition of artificial birth control."

In rough terms the picture seems accurate. Yet it's both vexing and amusing to note how the descriptive terms have been ideologically pre-loaded by the authors. On one hand we have "cultic model" priests, and on the other hand "servant-leader model" priests. One might justifiably use either term, but they don't belong to the same descriptive axis. And "cultic" is one of those words which, as Flannery O'Connor says, have "a private meaning and a public odor."

Joseph Sobran once asked how our political perspective might change if the media, instead of labeling the scandal of the month "Korea-gate," called it "Korea-quiddick" instead. You can steal a lot of bases, he pointed out, by your choice of words.

Suppose a conservative sociologist presented exactly the same data as Hoge and Wenger, but referred to the "sacramental model" of ministry for the under-45s in contrast to the "stewardess model" for the 46-to-65s? Or perhaps the "prayer-and-penance model" for the former versus the "bourbon-and-boys model" for the latter? Might not the editors of America register some hesitations as to the author's objectivity and scientific detachment?

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