Saturday, 26 February 2011

Responding to the priest shortage III: How to get engagement

The Sydney Morning Herald today highlights a new book reporting the results of a survey of priests, and if the Herald report is anything to go by, it will make depressing reading.

A demoralised and demoralising priesthood?

The written survey didn't have that great a response rate - 542 out of  1710 according to the paper.  But still, that is quite a few priests.

And the usual whingeing about not being adequately consulted and so forth aside, the answers are troubling. 

Take these results on doctrinal and discipline questions:

"Only 19.2 per cent thought it sinful for married couples to use birth control.

Almost 70 per cent thought abortion was always a sin but only 40.2 per cent said the same of sex before marriage. More than 70 per cent thought celibacy for priests should be optional and several priests made ''no secret of the fact they were in long-term committed relationships with women''.

Hardly surprising

That many of our priests have absorbed the norms of our secularist culture is totally unsurprising.  That they have a poor view of  their bishops' and Rome's understanding of their problems also highlighted in the article is equally unsurprising.

Both are the result of the pathetically poor, frequently erroneous formation they were mostly given and the lack of any concerted program ongoing continuing education aimed at correcting those failures of formation, all aggravated by the well-documented failures of leadership on the part of our hierarchy.

So how do we turn it around?

First, it has to be said that the priest shortage in my view is only a symptom, not the real problem.

The real problem has been the failure of the Church in Australia and elsewhere to actively take on secularism and its values.

Grappling with secularism

The guiding premise of the 70s and 80s, accepted by liberals and conservatives alike, was that our secularist society offered wonderful opportunities to Christians and for the spread of  Christianity.

It is really only in the last decade that theologians such as Dr Tracey Rowland have convincingly made the case that in fact we live in a society that is deeply hostile to religion, whose very basis is the Enlightenment rejection of the need for God. 

That whereas the heritage of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome in many ways paved the way for the spread of the Gospel in those first centuries, a fair case can be made that our secularist culture has pretty much the opposite impact.

The problem of re-evangelization

This is not, however, the first time the Church has faced this situation.  The dramatic and rapid spread of Islam in the seventh century, for example, saw Christianity all but wiped out in many places.  And in the face of barbarian invaders and many still pagan areas of the West, the collapse of the Roman Empire made preservation  and spread of the Church a battle that was fought country by country, diocese by diocese, parish by parish, monastery by monastery.  The same thing happened after the Reformation, with Catholicism initially wiped out in many places, but slowly clawing its way back through the efforts of religious, priests and the other reformers.

And just as in the past the Church has had to fight for survival, or to reclaim once Christian lands from alien invaders and/or those opposed to the faith, so to, I believe, are we called to fight for our faith now.

Maybe the last remnants of the Christian West overall will fall, either to Islamization or militant secularism or the combination of the two.   Certainly the gay 'marriage' debate in this country, and recent noises from President Obama in the US on this subject don't give much encouragement to optimism.

But just as in the past there will be enclaves that hold on – enclaves that may ultimately provide the starting point to reclaim the world for Christ just as they have so served in the past.

So where do we start?

A lineamenta (working guide) for a future synod on the New Evangelization is apparently going to be released by the Vatican in a week or so.  It will be interesting to see what it canvasses.  But here is my take on the issue.

In the last part of this series on responding to the priest shortage I said the first step was accepting that change – drastic change – is needed. That if we really want more priests, we have to be willing to be courageous, and take on entrenched interests.

Today I want to take this a step further, because I don’t think it is enough to accept that change is needed.

That’s a necessary step to be sure.

But if we are to embark on a program of serious reform, we need to have a clear vision of what it is we are trying to achieve, and how we will know if we are making progress.

What is our real objective?

If you want to engage people on a task, they have to know what it is that they are really meant to be trying to do.  It is not just about activity - how many masses celebrated, how many baptised.  It is certainly not about solving problems of 'structural injustice', or contributing to the debate on issues such as reconciliation, as the supporting essay on the survey of priests in today's SMH implies.

It is about getting people to heaven.

And the biggest reason why priests  - and everyone else - seem demoralised today is that bishops and others, hamstrung by the perceived demands of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue as well as other politically correct constraints, simply haven't been willing to stand up and articulate this.

My view is that we continue to define the problem of the priest shortage far too narrowly.

A lot of dioceses are worrying about how they will provide for the needs of declining numbers of parishioners in some areas, particularly regional towns for example.

But the function of the Church is not just to provide the Eucharist to whoever turns up at mass or some other service.

It is not just about serving the needs of an ever declining number of practicing Catholics.

The Church's mission is to evangelize everyone

Rather, the Church’s mission is to make disciples of everyone: to baptize and teach all what has been handed down from the Apostles.

So let me repeat the critical point: the Church’s mission is to get people to heaven.

For that reason canon law makes it clear that a bishop is responsible for all of the souls in diocese not just the catholic ones.

And a parish priest has a responsibility for all those within his territorial boundaries, not just those who actually front up to mass.

So any reshaping of lay and clerical roles needs to look far beyond the simple demographics of the number of registered parishioners, or number who sit in the pews each week. It has to start from the ongoing mission of the Church to spread the Gospel.

Start by acknowledging how bad things are

There have been a lot of media stories lately of the kind that I would describe as clutching at straws.  You know the kind of thing - vocations are up, young people are engaged, some group of nuns are doing good things.  We should celebrate these successes of course, they are good news.

But we also need to keep them in perspective.  And if we look honestly at the current situation, things look pretty dire. Pew numbers continue to fall; finances follow closely; fewer and fewer are married in the Church, believe what the Church teaches, or practice it - even those such as priests who are responsible for teaching it.

Small successes won't turn this around: we need big change.

So in my view the first thing we have to do is build a vision of what it is we are really trying to achieve as a Church, and get a real, concrete picture of how far short we fall from that vision.  Only then, with the help of God’s grace, can we really start working out how to change things.  Only then can we gain the commitment of priests to the cause of recruiting their successors!

The measures of success and failure

So the first and vital task in my view is to put together some key measures that get at how well we are succeeding – or mostly failing – in that mission.

We have to know and agree on what we are trying to change before we can actually map out a sensible strategy, and even more importantly, get people to engage with it.

How many priests do we need for example, if in order to turn around our catholic schools and turn out young adults who actually go to mass regularly, get married in the Church, and disdain contraception? Quite a few more than we need on current projections I would suggest!

So we need to measure things like:
  • the number of children baptised in a diocese or parish - as a proportion of all children born there, and as proportion of nominal catholics;
  • how many of those children go on to be confirmed;
  • the proportion of high school graduates who are committed catholics attending mass regularly and believing the truths of the faith;
  • how many people convert each year vs how many leave the Church.
We need to develop our key indicators.  We need to identify the gaps in performance.  And then we need to regularly report against them. Publicly.

The answers will not be pretty in the short term.

But I don’t think we should shirk from telling the truth.

Acts as a model for transparency in the Church!

Now some will complain, I imagine that this is all a bit too cold blooded, a bit too 'business oriented' for a Church - that we shouldn't treat religion as if it were a business.

But let's look at Scripture.

One of the great models of performance reporting in my view is the Book of Acts. It would be so easy to reformat and convert those early chapters into modern bureaucratise in annual report form!

There are those repeated summary statements of what the program objectives are and their context, in the form of those sermons and statements by St Peter and others.

And then there is the actual concrete data on the growth of the Church – from the small group gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem; to the 120 or so who elected St Matthias to replace Judas; to the 3000 or so baptized at Pentecost and so on.

Most importantly, it also gives a warts and all portrait of the divisions, faults and weaknesses of those within the infant Church - you know, the kind of problem management that gets hidden in the appendices and airbrushed over as much as possible in a modern report!

That disconcerting honesty is something we need to emulate.

So too is that growth model!

The Apostles knew where they were starting from; described the problems they encountered in getting there; knew what the extent of what more needed to be done. We need to know that too.

As the Church grew, they explored ways of ensuring there were sufficient clergy to serve the needs of the growing numbers, responding to the prompts of the Spirit.

We need to emulate their openness and trust.  And we need to believe, like them, in God.

I mean really believe, in the God who works miracles and pours out his grace.  The God who moves mountains.

Steps in tackling the priest shortage

So the first step in tackling the priest shortage is acknowledging that we need to change.

The second is building the case for that change, and making sure we know exactly what we are trying to achieve.  Being honest about where we are now, and how far short we fall of where we need to be.

The next step, that I'll talk about in the next part, is putting in place the concrete practical measures that help us make that change of heart and mind, that total conversion to mission that God is calling us to.

More soon.


Anonymous said...


And does anyone notice the irony that the 'progressive' bastions in Catholic Education Offices are the least open and accountable about any of this. Trying to find out waht goes on in a secondary RE classroom would defeat the combined forces of the CIA and the old KGB at its height.

A Canberra Observer said...

Terra, you must be worn out from that long post ;-)

Seriously, this tells us that the bishops have been asleep at the wheel for a LONG time, and I suspect most of them still are.

R. J. said...

The Holy Father has made it quite clear on several occasions that what he would wish to see is, in worldly terms, a smaller Church but a better Church. (It might be as well that His Holiness has said this, because even if it is not what he might want, it is most certainly what he is going to get.)

I've said for ages, people who think there's a priest shortage now ain't seen nothin' yet. Supposing we had, mirabile dictu, some latter-day St Pius V who would tell sexually voracious and generally corrupt Australian clergy "Playtime is over, don't let the door hit you all on your way out". How many Australian clergy would survive this clear invitation to go back to the Kings Cross bath-houses and stay there? (Or, at least, to stay there until demographic destiny turns Australia into a formalised Islamic republic, in which case Kings Cross bath-houses might not be quite the fail-safe habitat of yore.) 50%? 20%? Let's just say we'll be bidding goodbye to a fair few familiar clerical faces from the top down.

Kate said...

RJ - Even if he has said that, I don't think it constitutes Magisterial teaching, particularly in the face of his decision to set up a New Evangelization Council and launch a synod on the subject.

And overall the Church is growing -just not in the West!

That said, if your point is that we'd be better off without the outright dissenters and subverters from within, then I tend to agree.

I for one think that bishops need to be stronger about dealing with the dissenters and subverters from within. Warn first, attempt to convert. But if that doesn't work, they do more harm then good.

But I don't think that means we should be ready to give up the game just yet!

Felix said...

Fr Speekman has two good pieces on this:

pray for good bishops:

vocations are like happiness - they come when you get things right!

James Garrity said...

I am really enjoying the series; keep it up!

I do have a question, though. You say that "canon law makes it clear that a bishop is responsible for all of the souls in diocese not just the catholic ones." This would be important, and this is not the first time I heard of this responsibility.

This is the first time I heard it as coming from canon law, so I wonder: where does Canon Law make this clear?

Thanks in advanced.

Kate said...

Thanks James - the most important canon is cl 771 - sub-clause 1 talks about bishops and priests with the care of souls reaching out to the faithful who 'because of the circumstances of their lives, cannot sufficiently avail themselves of the ordinary pastoral care or are even totally deprived of it' (ie the homebound, nursing home residents, the disabled, the lapsed).

Sub-clause 2 says: "They are also to take care that the good news of the Gospel reaches those lviing in their territory who are non-believers, since these too, no less than the faithful, must be included in the care of souls'.