Priests: A Calling in Crisis


"The stereotype [of priests as pedophiles] probably frustrates many men in black, and at least one cleric is fighting back. Andrew Greeley, the popular novelist, nonfiction writer, and sociologist, tries to set the record straight in Priests: A Calling in Crisis."—Publishers Weekly

"I cannot imagine a more thorough critique of the stereotypes clouding intelligent discussion of the Roman Catholic priesthood—or a more unsparing assessment of the priesthood's real problems. As blunt as ever, Father Greeley backs his strong views with the best available data. The future of American Catholicism depends on its willingness to confront findings like these."—Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America

An excerpt from
A Calling in Crisis
Andrew M. Greeley

Chapter 9: Policy Implications

It is expected of someone who writes about a social problem that he make policy recommendations for dealing with the problem. I will respond to this expectation, so long as it is understood that my recommendations are my own reflections on the data and do not flow logically from the data. Also, I want it understood that I do not deceive myself that anyone—priest, bishop, curialist—will take them seriously.

Homosexual Priests

There is nothing in this book that justifies the hysteria among some Catholics on the subject of homosexual priests. Nor is there anything that will persuade the Vatican that homosexuals should not be banned from seminaries and the priesthood. The fury of the homophobia in the Church will not yield to data. It would be a wise policy for church leaders to tone down the hysteria and leave homosexual priests alone, so long as they avoid the gay “scene” and the gay “lifestyle.” Yet perhaps priests who are homosexual should avoid blatant manifestations of homosexual friendship groups, which create the impression of homosexual subcultures. On the other hand, they are entitled to have friends who share similar problems.


Patently, most men who leave the priesthood do not leave because of celibacy. They must also dislike the work of the priest to the extent that they say they would not choose again to be a priest. Despite the happiness and maturity of most celibate priests, few of them are willing to speak out in its defense. Hence there is little resistance to the constant propaganda that celibates are inadequate human beings and that celibacy causes child abuse. The proper response to these attacks would have to come from priests themselves and especially from the organized priest groups such as the National Federation of Priests’ Councils. Yet these groups are committed to the abolition of the celibacy rule and apparently think that to defend celibacy would be to insult those who have left the active ministry. If priests are unwilling to defend their collective reputation, then there is no reason to think that anyone else will.

Vocations to the Priesthood

There seems to be broad agreement among priests that the ordination of married men is the only solution for the shortage of priests. There is no evidence to support this confidence, nothing to prove that there are thousands of married men who would be qualified to be priests if only they could bring their wives along. Indeed, one must wonder about the man who is ready to bring his wife and children into such a dysfunctional institution as the Catholic Church in the United States is today. Moreover, is it really true that celibacy is what is keeping young men away from seminaries? Everyone seems to believe that this is true, so there is no ground for seeking proof. Yet, in principle, another explanation might be possible. Perhaps young men are not seeking out the priesthood because no one is trying to recruit them.

In the Knights of Columbus study of Catholic young people made in the late 1970s, my colleagues and I discovered that nine out of ten of our male respondents who expressed some interest in the priesthood had never been approached by any priest on the subject. If only a small proportion of those young men had become priests, there would be no priest shortage today. But why, if priests are so happy and so satisfied in the priesthood, if celibacy is not a serious problem for most of them, and if even those who would like to marry remain in the priesthood because they like it even more than they think they would like marriage, are priests so reluctant to engage in vocational recruiting?

The answer to that question, it appears to me, is to be found in a problem that social scientists call pluralistic ignorance. Most priests as individuals are happy as priests, but they do not think others are happy. As individuals they do not find celibacy a serious personal problem. But most priests (it would appear) believe that the majority of their fellow priests are unhappy because for them celibacy is a serious personal problem. The reason is that at most gatherings of priests the lowest common denominator of envy, misery, and mediocrity tends to dominate the conversation. Hence the astonishment among many priests at the findings I reported from the first Los Angeles Times study. Astonishment and blunt denial.

Priests tell me that they simply will not try to recruit young men into a group where morale is so low and where there is so much dissatisfaction unless and until the Church changes the celibacy rule. In effect they are engaging in a game of chicken with the Vatican, defying the Holy See to change the celibacy rule or run out of priests—behavior that, for whatever my opinion might be worth, is immature and self-defeating. As we say in Chicago, go fight city hall!

The vocation crisis may be a matter of smoke and mirrors. But the smoke and mirrors have a very real consequence—an ever-increasing shortage of priests. Whence the destructive smoke and mirrors? I suggest that they come from the loud attacks on the current condition of the priesthood by a small minority of former priests, by the tiny minority of active priests who are unhappy, and by the anger of some members of the lay elite. Those who are happy in the priesthood and those who understand and apparently embrace celibacy have been intimidated into silence by the anticelibacy crusade. They are afraid to say publicly that they find the priesthood better than they expected because they might hurt the feelings of their former colleagues and have their masculinity or humanity questioned by an articulate minority of resigned priests and by lay elite who perceive celibacy as an attack on the equal virtue of married sexuality.

On this subject, doubtless some religion teachers, vocation directors, and retreat masters preached not so long ago that abstinence is something intrinsically superior to sexual experience. But I doubt that most priests believe that. Even in the reactionary seminary I attended (twenty-five years ahead of its time, it was said, because it responded to the problems of 1850 with the answers of 1875), this notion was not part of the ethos. Perhaps the vehemence of the anticelibacy among some laypeople is a result of their anger at the way the Church has meddled in their sexual lives, a valid anger no doubt, but aimed at the wrong target, because since 1965 the celibate parish clergy has been on their side.

However, I do not blame the vocation shortage on the anticelibacy ideology and its assault on those who remain in the priesthood and who dare to defend celibacy. Laypeople have reason to be angry even if they choose the wrong target. Former priests who have suffered have the right to speak out about their sufferings and attack what they think was the cause of their suffering.

The real cause of the vocation shortage is the reticence of those who are happy in the priesthood and not excessively burdened by celibacy. They may complain about the shortage of priests, but they are not ready yet to do battle with the anticelibacy ideologues, to recruit young men to what is a happy and satisfying life. Nor are they ready to speak, individually or collectively, about the joys of being a priest, joys about which there can be no doubt after studying the results of the two Times studies.

If the celibacy rule is abolished, fine. But let it be abolished for good reasons—that it is right and proper and good for married men to be in the priesthood, not because celibacy has driven out of the priesthood most of those who have left and not because celibacy as such is the cause of the vocation crisis. These two reasons are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Moreover, they are false prophecies and those who proclaim them false prophets.

I have advocated for three decades the establishment of a Priest Corps, something like the Peace Corps—a group of young men who are willing to commit themselves to a limited term of service to the Church in the priesthood, say five or ten years, renewable. If they like being priests—and the evidence in these studies suggests that they would— then they may want to stay. If not, then they are free to go, with gratitude and respect. The merit of this modest proposal is that it makes a virtue out of present necessity. Men now do feel free to leave the priesthood if they are not happy in it. Unfortunately their treatment by the Church is disgraceful. My Priest Corps scheme would merely require that the Church treat them honorably and that there would be periodic moments when they could review and renew their commitment. Theologically, they might still be priests and even be called on occasionally to exercise ministry. In practice they would be men who serve generously for a time and go on to other careers.

The ideologues on both sides of the celibacy debate dismiss this proposal as a “compromise.” The Church must either defend celibacy in “this time of testing” or abolish it entirely. We must not tolerate experiments with some kind of “middle way.”

In the first hundred years of the priesthood in Chicago, the average age of a priest at the time of his death was thirty-six. For most of human history most men (priests or not) were dead by the time they were forty. Now the majority of priests live to their golden jubilee. This demographic revolution transforms completely the ambience of priestly commitment. If a man approaching the age of forty cannot stand teenagers, grows weary of the bedlam of the rectory office, finds most other priests insufferable, and would like to take unto his bed a wife and to begin a family of his own, what useful purpose for the man or for the priesthood or for the Church is served by trying to prevent his departure? What good does it do to force a deeply unhappy man to stay in the priesthood?

As for the young man who might like to be a priest but finds celibacy a daunting prospect and has heard all the anticelibacy diatribes, could one not say to him, “Give it a try till you’re thirty-five or forty, and if you want to reconsider then, it would be fine with us.”

Would it not be better to experiment with such a program before attempting to reverse a thousand years or so of history?

Recently Ordained Priests

There can be no objection to a newer cohort of priests that does not accept the conventional wisdom of its predecessors. However, one can and should object to those in the newer cohort who are inflexibly resistant to the acquisition of any new knowledge and who have made up their mind what kind of priest they’re going to be even before they arrive at the seminary. Not all of the younger priests are of that sort, but some apparently are. Seminary authorities should hesitate before recommending the ordination of such a man, as hesitant as they would be about the ordination of someone who frequents gay bars or who shows sign of being a child abuser. The Church always needs new men with vigor and zeal and new ideas. But the Church no more needs a subculture that demands lay submissiveness and seeks comfort and security from clerical status than it needs a subculture that is openly and flagrantly gay.

Priestly Service and Clerical Culture

The findings reported in this study about the inadequacies of priestly service and negativity of clergy reaction to their laity are arguably the most serious problems that the priesthood faces. How can mature men, happy in their priestly commitment and determined to remain in the priesthood, be sloppy in their professional activities and dismissively contemptuous of their laity? The protective structures of the clerical caste must be broken open, and authentic and honest communication between the laity and their clergy must begin. It is intolerably tragic that a cultural system should block the effective ministry of men who have given up much to be priests.

What is to be done?

The seminaries must face the fact that they are not turning out well-trained professional clergy. They must realize that preaching is creative work and that some element of creativity should be required as a condition for ordination. No one should be ordained who has not done some kind of creative exercise—a short story, a cycle of poems, an art or photo exhibit.

Bishops must realize that it is idle to babble about evangelization when those in the neighborhoods who are supposed to evangelize do not, on the average and with some happy exceptions, do a very good job at it.

The priest organizations around the country, both local and national, should realize that their membership has a serious image problem and undertake programs to improve it. Maybe the National Federation of Priests’ Councils will even fund a study by Dean Hoge of preaching and preparation of homilies—including a study of the reactions of parishioners.

Individual priests should consider mailing the NORC questionnaire on ministerial service (see chapter 6) to their parish list. They might establish parish oversight committees to challenge priests on the quality of their service, not unlike the national oversight committee headed by Justice Anne Burke to make sure the sexual abuse rules are enforced. They might also think about reading a little more, too. It’s hard to write a decent sermon when you have not had a new idea in ten years.

Is it possible to do research on the qualities that make for good preaching and good ministerial service? It is possible but complicated and expensive. Nonetheless, one cannot escape the harsh fact that, as a ministerial profession, the priesthood has very serious problems. They are not new. They did not develop yesterday or last year or even with the Second Vatican Council (which gets blamed for everything these days). They will not go away tomorrow or the next day. However, the laity, who pay the bills, have a right to high-quality priestly service, in strict commutative justice with the obligation to restitution. Somehow priests must come to see that there is no substitute for excellence.

At every step in the training and the ongoing education of the clergy, in every planning committee, and at every meeting, retreat, prayer day for priests, the laity should be present, not to fight, not to demand, not to seize power, but to communicate, respectfully but honestly. The clergy as a collectivity and priests as individuals may pretend that the problems are not there, but the ocean is washing over the beaches in whose sands they have buried their heads. Clerical culture and its blind loyalty to the guys is in the final analysis the cause of the abuse scandal, not homosexuality or celibacy.

Finally, priests must assume responsibility for responding to the anger of the laity because of the sexual abuse scandal. It is not permissible for them to wash their hands of it. They must not content themselves with blaming bishops, the media, and the laity for the decline in church attendance and contributions. Much of the anger is also the result of their inadequate professional service, their cruelty in denying the sacraments, and their insensitivity to parishioners, especially, as they see it, to women parishioners.

It would be useful (and perhaps necessary) for priests’ groups to take out ads in the papers saying in effect, “You think you’re angry? We’re angry too and angry at ourselves because we weren’t alert enough to stop the abuse. You can count on us. We’re not going to let it happen any more. And we’re going to improve our preaching and our liturgy and make our rectories user friendly.”

Such a declaration would begin to weaken the walls of clerical culture that stand behind the rectory door.

Bishops and the Year of the Pedophile

Even as the Year of the Pedophile came to an end, one heard stories of bishops that still don’t get it. In some dioceses eager-beaver bishops on the make shamelessly violated the due process rights of priests. In other dioceses bishops still contended that the Dallas norms are to be enforced at the discretion of the bishop—which means that the bishop can play the same old game he has always played. The lay oversight board enacted at Dallas, men and women, it would seem, of great ability and forcefulness, have their work cut out for them.

Other bishops (especially some young auxiliaries on the make) have urged that there be a plenary council, a national meeting of bishops to legislate on matters of importance for the whole Church. While others would be able to attend the council, they would be named by the bishops, and the bishops would dominate it. The proposals for such a meeting (which would turn into yet another media circus) are that it concentrate on the authority of the bishop and on sound Catholic doctrine—the latter of which means sexual teaching. Such an assembly, those who propose it claim, would restore confidence in the leadership of the Church and create a sense of equanimity among the faithful.

One wonders how those who support such a scheme can possibly be so insensitive. A group of men whose behavior has stirred up the outrage of the Catholic laity propose to gather together, legislate for the laity on sex, and by so doing restore their credibility. One imagines a meeting of the Congress of the Confederate States of America in 1870 to legislate again for the southern states on the restoration of slavery. Before they try any further quests for power, bishops have to satisfy the laity that they have learned the lessons of the Year of the Pedophile and merit their confidence. That will be a long and difficult process because of the deep and abiding anger of the laity. The bishops who call for a restoration of trust (which means the laity must trust them again) are still caught up in the clerical culture’s denial. Despite convincing evidence of decline in church attendance and financial contributions, they think that it is still business as usual in American Catholicism, that they can still make demands and the laity will respond. They have yet to understand the lessons of the Year of the Pedophile, chief of which is that bishops must be open, sensitive, and responsive to their laity. If they still don’t comprehend this truth, it is unlikely they ever will.

The best policy strategy for bishops in these times consists of humility, silence, caution, and a determination to listen and learn. They should acknowledge that they made a terrible mistake in covering up sexual abuse by priests and then reassigning the abusers. They must admit to themselves that these mistakes have stirred up a firestorm of lay fury. They should try to understand the nature of that fury through focus groups and high-quality annual surveys of their people. They must admit to themselves that they don’t know what’s going on among the laity and that they need to learn. Many American bishops, it is to be feared, are constitutionally incapable of such humility.

They must also lead their priests in efforts to take off the blinders of clerical culture and to improve the quality of their ministerial service, especially in homilies and liturgy and kindness to the laity at the door and on the phone line (in both parish and chancery office). They should try to say yes whenever they can, instead of no whenever they think they can get away with it. Such efforts, an absolutely essential precondition for the restoration of confidence, will require both hard work and persistence.

There are some American bishops who, like the auxiliary quoted in the epigraph of this book, realize that they are in an epochal crisis, the worst in the history of the American church. Moreover, they also realize that this crisis is now an essential part of the transition after the Second Vatican Council. These men display a powerful sense of urgency and a realization that the Church is continuing to implode. The rules have changed. The same games can’t be played any more. Arrogance doesn’t work. Authentic humility is the only possible mode of response.

Many other bishops are clueless. They see no need to change their styles. They continue to act like men who have all the answers when they don’t even know the questions. They do not realize how foolish they seem and how much they embarrass their laity when they appear on TV and exude the same old self-satisfied, triumphalist complacency.

Moreover their media relations apparatus, both local and national, is unspeakably bad. If the media got most of the sexual abuse story wrong, the reason in substantial part is that most official spokespersons and media directors inside the hierarchy are obstructionist and obscurantist careerists. They appear more interested in the protection of bishops from contact with journalists than in the facilitation of the journalists’ work and in the admonishment of bishops when they make fools of themselves. Inability to hire competent, honest professionals to intervene between them and the media is a luxury bishops can no longer afford. It may be satisfying, but it is not helpful, to blame the media for the Church’s problems.

Bishops may not want competent media advisers (preferably women and Jewish) around them, but it’s high time they begin to understand that they must have them. Everyone in the business of communicating with the public— and bishops are certainly in that business—needs to pay someone to tell them when they have made a fool of themselves and that they should never again say something as dumb as they’ve just said. A man who is unwilling to take the risk of hearing that every day should resign and go to a monastery to spend his life in prayer and pious works.

Policy Changes for the Holy See

The leadership in the Vatican should realize that its easy, one-sentence analyses of the Church in the United States are self-deceptive and self-destructive. There are close to seventy-five million Catholics in this country, most of them loyal and dedicated Catholics. Most have lost their confidence in church leadership. If this confidence is to be restored, the process must begin now. It must involve the appointment of bishops who are in touch with their priests and laypeople, who know what’s happening, and who can inspire confidence in the faithful.

Unfortunately the Vatican does not choose bishops for these qualities, though in some cases, I suspect more or less by accident, intelligent, able, and perceptive men do wear the sacred purple. More often, however, episcopal appointments are the result of a mix of cronyism and silent incompetence disguised as virtue. The Church entered the Year of the Pedophile with the average ability of the bench of bishops at perhaps an all-time low. The appointments during the year did not seem to reflect an awareness of what was happening. Either in years to come the Vatican will give up its proclivity to appoint men who are docile and diffident and make no waves, or the Church in the United States may eventually go the way the Church in Holland did.

The Vatican is for the most part made up of priests. Hence it is as subject to the infections of the same denial virus as every other level of clergy. The lower clergy describe their people in clichés, bishops respond to their clergy with clichés of their own, the Vatican appoints bishops according to guidelines that are thick with clichés. The lines of communication within the Church are stuffed with clichés. At no level does anyone listen. No one has any idea what’s actually happening. Hence phenomena like the Year of the Pedophile.

In the short run I anticipate a reaction to 2002 like that to the birth-control encyclical—a decline in church attendance and a decline in financial contributions but no mass exodus from Catholicism. Catholics, even very angry Catholics, still like being Catholic.

This prognosis is a best-case scenario. In the worst case, the Catholic Church in the United States may suffer the fate of St. Augustine’s diocese of Hippo in North Africa. It may go down the drain, but not because of attacking infidels, not because of celibacy or homosexuality or sexual abuse, not because of secularism and materialism, but because of incompetence, stupidity, and clerical culture—all enemies from within.

The cure? Clergy at all levels from the pope down to the lowliest parish curate must be quiet and listen. And listen. And listen.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 118-131 of Priests: A Calling in Crisis by Andrew M. Greeley, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2004 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Andrew M. Greeley
Priests: A Calling in Crisis
©2004, 166 pages, 6 line drawings, 10 tables
Cloth $19.00 ISBN: 0-226-30644-5
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