Father Lawrence Porter, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., is chairman and professor of systematic theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
His new book, The Assault on Priesthood: A Biblical and Theological Rejoinder, was recently published by Wipf and Stock in Eugene, Ore.
In the book, Father Porter looks at the problems regarding priests today through the lens of priests depicted in the Bible.
He spoke with the Register about the book, priests today and Pope Benedict XVI.
What inspired you to write The Assault on Priesthood?
It’s evident to me that the Catholic priesthood has been much “put upon” recently. Not only have the sins of a small minority of priests been allowed to cast shame and dishonor on priests in general, but theologians like Hans Kung and writers like Garry Wills have even questioned whether Christian ministry has a priestly character.
My research and teaching experience make me confident that we can mount intelligent and informed responses to radical theological agendas and sweeping moral implications. Priesthood is a category important not just to understand the unique work of Jesus or the priesthood of the faithful, but also that special ministry that makes available to us in most personal terms — sacramentally — what Jesus won for us, namely reconciliation and communion.
Your book uses examples of 10 Jewish — mostly Old Testament — priests to address problems of Catholic priests today. Why do you use people like Aaron, Ezra and Zechariah to talk about contemporary problems for priests?
Well, I have a long history with the Bible. On my father’s side, I come from a long line of Baptist preachers. At home and later in seminary, I became acquainted with biblical portraits of Jewish priests and was struck by the similarities between their lives and ministries and those of Catholic priests today. Rather than being a dead letter, the Old Testament is an enduring source of teaching and revelation for Christians. For these reasons, I wanted to make clear the cogent relevance of those Jewish priests to ministry today.
You’ve been teaching theology in a Catholic seminary since 1988. How do today’s seminarians think about the priesthood, and how are they different from their predecessors?
Right after Vatican II, many priests and seminarians exhibited a questioning, even elastic attitude towards doctrine and liturgy, an eagerness to identify with contemporary trends and issues. Seminarians today are much more respectful and careful of the Church’s doctrinal tradition, eager to learn and defend it. They are shy of liturgical experimentation and critically cautious about contemporary social trends.
Lots of people today would identify sexual abuse as the priesthood problem. Hasn’t clerical sexual misconduct always been an issue?
Of course! In my book, I give an historical survey of sexual problems in the priesthood, starting with allegations of sexual impropriety against some Old Testament priests, the sons of Eli. I then explore implications of first Timothy’s admonition about not accepting “accusations against presbyters unless they are supported by two or three witnesses,” tracing sex scandals in the patristic, medieval and modern Churches. After studying the Dallas Charter, I offer suggestions about how priests should conduct themselves today to insure moral probity in relations with others, especially young people.
Do you think that some quarters of the Church have backpedaled the sex-abuse crisis?
I don’t think that Church leadership has tried to backpedal the issue of sex abuse by priests. Quite the contrary, I think the hierarchy is making a concerted effort to send a powerful signal to priests and laity alike that bishops will in no way tolerate such abuses. The current policy of immediate removal from ministry for a priest with just one accusation sends an effective (if ominous) message to all seminarians and priests.
Some people think priests should stay in the sacristy and celebrate Mass; others want them to be social activists. Tell us what Simon the Just can teach us about this.
Balance is important in life, especially a priest’s life. No Catholic priest should be so involved in social justice that he neglects proper observance of the liturgy; nor should a priest be so wrapped up in the splendor of the liturgy that he forgets about the poor and the common good. Simon the Just maintains an exquisite balance between liturgical splendor and keen social sensibilities that led him to undertake important public-works projects in Jerusalem. But there are examples of priests throughout history who exhibited the same balance.
You hold up Ezra as a “learned, well-educated priest.” Tell us something about the need for priestly erudition and eloquence.
Ezra was an outstanding example of how Israelite priests were never just cultic officiants [whose ministries were exclusively directed to forms of worship]. Every priest was expected to instruct the people (see, e.g., Jeremiah 18:18 and Malachi 2:7). Catholic priests, therefore, also need to say something that not just moves worshippers’ hearts, but informs their minds. Even the Curé of Ars [St. John Vianney] put extraordinary efforts into preparing sermons with substance.
Your critique of Vatican II’s theology of priesthood is that it downplays the priest as a cultic figure while accentuating his service roles. How do you think this has affected priestly identity over the past 50 years?
All commentators on Vatican II have noted how the Council avoided the language of priesthood when referring to ordained ministry, preferring instead terms like “presbyter,” “elder,” a member of the community who exercised oversight. It could be argued that decision has unintentionally led to a de-sacralization of both the Eucharist and ordained ministry, whereby the Eucharist now is seen as more a “fellowship meal” rather than a form of worship, and the ordained minister is now seen not so much as a presiding (elder), but a providing elder who works to create community rather than foster a sense of the sacred.
Do you think that the de-emphasis on priestly cultic identity has impacted the laity, e.g., in confusion, say, over the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist or the Real Presence?
Yes. Once upon a time, keeping silence in Church out of respect for the Blessed Sacrament was a carefully observed rule. But I’ve served in parishes where the accent on “forming community” led to chatter not just in the nave, but in the church itself. It is the priest’s role to create an atmosphere of reverence before the sacred, a feeling for the transcendent.
What might the average layperson do to help re-cultivate healthy priestly identity today?
I don’t know that burden is the laity’s. Priests themselves need to conduct themselves in a way that earns their respect, gains reverence and admiration from their congregations and even outsiders who meet them. There is at times, however, a tendency among the laity to over-criticize priests. Try to support your priest in his positive endeavors, the things you feel he is doing well. Sympathize with him in what are obviously situations he struggles with.
You teach ecclesiology, that is, theology of the Church: What can you say about the somewhat unprecedented abdication of Pope Benedict XVI?
The post-Vatican II papacy sometimes seems to have become like the role of a CEO, acutely involved in the day-to-day operations of a multinational corporation, rather than a patriarchal figure remotely presiding from above. For a century and a half before Benedict XVI, popes were satisfied to remain “a prisoner of the Vatican.”
In contrast, Benedict XVI, during eight years, has made 28 pastoral visits around the world. Instead of relying on theological experts, he personally authored three encyclicals, issued 28 apostolic letters, wrote and delivered approximately 50 homilies each year, 48 Wednesday audience talks and saw to the publication of all those homilies and addresses in books, all the while hosting bishops and heads of state at the Vatican.
No wonder he feels so run down! He has earned his retirement and rest. May God bless him for such good, faithful and ardent service.
John Grondelski writes from Taipei, Taiwan.
To order Father Porter’s book, visit wipfandstock.com or call (541) 344-1528.