Last October I was privileged to participate in The Catholic Project’s panel discussion “Shepherds of a Wounded Flock: How Our Priests See the Crisis.” The event highlighted one group often unmentioned in the fallout from abuse scandals: priests. Not the abuser priests, of course, but the faithful priests — those who continue to labor in the vineyard, in the midst of the world’s scorn and the faithful’s justified anger. These men are at the point of the spear, continuing the Church’s work in the midst of a cynical and scornful public.
All members of the Church suffer from scandal. But these priests experience a deeper shame, pain and anger than others in the mystical body of Christ for the simple reason that they have a closer relationship to the abusers and enablers. It is their brother priests (and bishops) who abused the faithful, betrayed the Church, and left them to clean up the mess. They have to fight the discouragement of knowing that their work for the Gospel has been undermined by the very men who should have supported them. They suffer the added fear that they themselves might be falsely accused and perhaps go unsupported.
The suffering of these priests and their need for encouragement is central to Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s new book You Shall Be a Blessing: Twelve Letters on the Priesthood.
The former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith intends the book not just for priests but for “everyone who loves the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For that reason, he chose the literary genre of the letter, which “allows the personal and the factual to be more easily combined.”
Each chapter/letter is addressed to “Confreres” (“brother priests” is a clumsy phrase in English, but it does not convey the intended personal tone) and “Fellow Christians.”
In fact, throughout the book the cardinal only occasionally speaks in a personal voice. Every so often he sets aside the theologian’s reserve and speaks bluntly about the current state of affairs. (About the Church’s detractors: “Any ignoramus can irritate us with scandals from the Church’s history, even if all he can do is just repeat a few catchphrases about them.” About bourgeois priests: “Some are no longer to be recognized by their clerical dress but rather by their markedly tasteless clothes and poor social skills.”)
In the main, however, he is not given to a casual, personal tone (“paraenetic admonishments,” for example, which means “moral correction,” is not quite a household phrase).
At the heart of the book is this: “Priests deserve clear words of encouragement from the superior and supreme ecclesiastical authority.” They do not benefit from the “paternalism and public reprimand” they sometimes receive. Cardinal Müller clearly intends to provide this encouragement, but in his own way. His real interest is the theology of the priesthood. Indeed, he seems incapable of not putting out into the theological deep — which is not such a bad trait. In fact, we could use more of it.
What Cardinal Müller provides is a distinctly theological encouragement. His former colleague Cardinal Robert Sarah has spoken about the identity crisis in the priesthood. Cardinal Müller shares that insight and provides a much-needed confirmation of the priest’s identity, of what the priesthood is. Others might prefer psychological, sociological or procedural insights meant to console or encourage. But they do little to improve priestly morale because they fail to touch on the priesthood itself.
Cardinal Müller returns to the fonts of the priesthood, to its theological and dogmatic foundations, the surest source for true consolation and strengthening. The anti-dogmatic mindset so prevalent in the Church today lacks the strength to respond to the scandals and to encourage priests.
The Catholic priesthood is a theological reality. Like everything else, it has psychological, sociological and institutional dimensions. But it is ultimately a reality that comes from God, not man, and is ordered toward God, not the world. Its crisis requires a theological response.
Getting this right is important for the entire Church. Confusion about the priesthood is not an isolated issue, neatly contained in one area of the Church. As Cardinal Müller puts it, “the sacramentality of the Church is present in a condensed form in the sacramental priesthood.” This means that an error about the priesthood signals an error about the Church; to neglect the dogmatic truth about the priesthood means to forget the truth about the Church. The identity crisis in the priesthood signals a deeper, broader confusion about the Church herself and, of course, about Christ.
To correct this, the cardinal provides a welcome and strong voice against today’s anti-dogmatism. He speaks of the “right to dogmatic truth and moral clarity.” When “the dogmatic rug is pulled from under the feet of the priesthood, the ethics and spirituality of this ministry hangs in the air.” As such, Cardinal Müller spends a significant amount of time reviewing the Council of Trent’s teaching on the priesthood. Now, this might seem like a distraction, given all that’s transpired since then. But if you want solid theological grounding for the priesthood, Trent is the place to find it. It was at that council, in response to the Reformation’s rejection of the priesthood, that the Church most clearly articulated what the priesthood is.
Perhaps Trent’s most important teaching on the priesthood is its rejection of Martin Luther’s reduction of the priest to a “functionary.” In fact, ordination impresses an indelible mark on a man. It confers a sacra potestas (sacred power) by which he can offer the Sacrifice of the Mass and forgive sins.
The priest is set apart from others precisely so that he can be for others. Without a sense of this difference, a priest loses his way — and takes the faithful with him. This occurs most obviously and most often in the liturgy. Without a sense of this difference, of his sacra potestas, the priest becomes just a delegate, facilitator or prayer leader. The Mass loses its vertical dimension and becomes an earthbound reality. He begins to think that it is his … and that kind of thinking begins to infect his entire view of the priesthood.
In the absence of dogma real clericalism sneaks in. There is no longer any check on the priest. It is the supernatural origin and end of the priesthood that keeps a man from seeing it as his own possession or privilege. Priests have been set aside and entrusted with a great dignity for the good of others.
Without knowledge and a lived sense of this service, a priest will quite naturally come to see his own place as a worldly reality and thus he will act like a worldling. It is the Church’s enduring dogma that provides a way out of our confusion and real consolation for priests and laity alike.
Father Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.