Father Thomas White: ‘We Need to Renew the Priesthood’

The Dominican director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum discusses the crisis in the priesthood and the Church with the Register and provides analytical keys drawn on St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought.

Dominican Father Thomas White
Dominican Father Thomas White (photo: Courtesy of the Thomistic Institute, Washington, D.C.)

ROME — On the occasion of the inaugural “Father Val McInnes Chairholder Talk,” which took place in Rome May 10 at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (also known as the Angelicum), Dominican Father Thomas White gave an address on “The Sanctification of the Priesthood and the Church.”

Father White is a professor of theology at the Angelicum and the director of the university’s Thomistic Institute. He was previously on the faculty of the Dominican House of Studies and the director of the Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C. (2008-2018).

Named after the late Dominican Father Val McInnes, the chair created in 2017 goes to a Dominican friar who demonstrates outstanding teaching and theological or philosophical research. The holder of the chair is required to give an annual lecture before alumni and potential benefactors for the Angelicum. Father White is the 2018 chair holder.

The Register interviewed Father White at the time of the Father Val McInnes lecture, discussing his insights about the current state of the Church and its priests — and his participation as a banjo player in the Dominican bluegrass band The Hillbilly Thomists.


“The Sanctification of Priesthood and the Church” is the title of your talk at the Angelicum. How can we concretely address such a topic in our troubled times?

I think there are two fundamental crises that we are facing in the priesthood. I would call one a crisis of confidence in the mediations of the Church. By that I mean a crisis of confidence in the truth about the seven sacraments and the fundamental doctrinal teachings of the Church. The priesthood is fundamentally, in a certain sense, about conveying the grace of Christ that is present in the seven sacraments, or helping to convey that grace, and about communicating the truth of the Gospel. To the extent that there has been a crisis of confidence in those truths of the faith in the modern era, we also then face a crisis of confidence in the institution of the priesthood itself. That crisis of confidence has entered into the priesthood itself in some respects.

The other great crisis we face is a crisis of authentic witness. The priest helps model our response to God or lead us toward God by the life of holiness; therefore, he should live as an authentic witness. And this witness has been compromised, most especially because of the consequences of the sexual revolution, not only outside the Church or in the laity within the Catholic Church, but within the priesthood. So today we are confronting the consequences of such a revolution and of a relaxation of norms with a greater idea of permissiveness than has ever happened in the post-Vatican II era — and it has affected the Church in the priesthood.


Do you agree with Pope Emeritus Benedict’s diagnosis that the origin of the sexual-abuse crisis in the Church is rooted in the sexual revolution?

The sexual revolution changed the acceptability in human society of sexual self-exploration in ways that today affect the lives of many people, including priests. We could mention here the widespread acceptability of contraception and the social changes regarding homosexuality. The statistics of the John Jay Report in the U.S. shows that the crest of cases of pedophilia, the high point of the crisis, occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, which was a time of great social experimentation. So there was a cultural shift.

But there have to be a couple of qualifications. First, the deeper causes of human sin are not the product of one age alone. Behind our human weakness lies the fallen character of human nature on display in every age. Members of the Catholic Church did commit acts of injustice and sexual abuse well before the last few decades. We know, for instance, that there were cases in the 1950s in the U.S.

Second, clericalism is definitely an aspect of the crisis. There is unchastity as a lack of faith, and there is clericalism. We can’t explain the crisis without some references to both of these elements. Because if a priest misuses his power over a person, especially a child, to manipulate circumstances within the context of obtaining sexual pleasure, this manipulation is obviously a spiritual misuse of a superior power. The priest has a superior authority by virtue of his state. Sexual abuse by clergy, then, is a form of clericalism through a lack of chastity — and behind that clericalism there is also a lack of faith.


How can the deep confusion about the Church’s doctrine be addressed in our own moment?

On a practical level, we can speak about three helpful points of orientation. First of all, anyone in the Church should have reference to official teachings in the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992. This work is a statement of faith by the universal Catholic Church, and any effort that seeks to renew the teaching of the truth in the Church needs to refer to that definitive authoritative document. People who wish to transmit the faith need to use the Catechism as a basis for the resolution of disputes or debates about the Church’s authentic witness.

The second thing I would say is that the Church is always, in every age, especially in the time of crisis, renewed most profoundly by a life of holiness and witness to Christ — a renewal born out of love. So today we need to preserve and cultivate spiritual elements of Catholic life that are also oriented toward witness and evangelization.

The third thing I would say is we traditionally do make use of instruments of canon law and discipline with regards to priestly misconduct, and the Church needs to continue to explore ways that we can effectively develop our canonical norms in order to protect all the People of God and civil society from misconduct on the part of priests and bishops, while also encouraging reform of the clergy. And the laity should have some kind of appropriate role in this.


Do you mean that laypeople could help reduce the negative effects of clericalism as part of the current crisis in the Church?

The priestly state is irreplaceable in the Catholic Church. So, to the extent that acrimony and criticism seem to call into question the very wisdom of their being a hierarchy in the Church, then that criticism is unhelpful. And it is the case that when you have episcopal and priestly governance, there will be some cases of all-too-human mismanagement as well as some cases of criminality that should be subject to canonical law and possibly civic penal law. But it is not a matter of clericalism to insist on the mediating role of the priests in the life of the Church with regards to the sacramental mediations, the teaching of faith and the governance of the People of God.

So, the laity, who often are of very goodwill and have sincere devotion to priests, rightly hope for the renewal of the priesthood through sound formation, good discipline and the expectation that priests are good, noble and virtuous people.

We need to renew the priesthood. A lot has been done, but more can be done. Therefore, to the extent that criticism is constructive, such criticism will help renew the priesthood. To the extent that we are questioning the very foundations of episcopal or priestly authority, such criticism is not productive. I think most laypeople are very balanced on this point and speak in ways that denote that clearly.


You joined the Angelicum a year ago, after having been the director of the Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C., for 10 years. To what extent is Thomas Aquinas’ thought still relevant for our time?

I think there is a paradox. Many people in the Church after the Council believed the thought of Aquinas was passé and that it would be a hindrance to our engagement with the world around us. But, actually, we’re seeing the opposite.

In our world today, there is a deep crisis of confidence in the natural power of the human mind to interpret reality objectively and acquire a unified view of the world through an integrated study of the truth. And what young people see is that Aquinas’ thinking is very helpful for understanding the world in an integrated way. He helps us see how the truths of natural science relate to those of philosophy and how those of philosophy relate to the truths of theology. Aquinas helps us attain an integrated view on reality, where science, religion and philosophy are not in competition but are mutually complementary.

Aquinas has a realistic grasp of what the human person is as body and spiritual soul. He avoids either an overly spiritual view of the human being that ignores our body and emotions or overly materialistic view that ignores our spirituality. The balance is very appealing to people today who want to avoid contemporary materialism and also want a spiritual view of men that is not angelic but realistic.


You mentioned in a recent interview that the Thomistic Institute podcasts have had around 1 million listeners over the past four years in the United States. How do you explain such a growing success? Do you notice a similar interest in Europe?

There is a much more overt interest in Thomas Aquinas in the U.S. in the last decade, which is quite striking. And there is clearly more interest in Europe than there was 30 years ago. There has been such a breakdown in the wider culture regarding any consensus of truth, not only in the Church, but in the whole society.

Young people are interested in recovering a sense of foundations and references. So they are often interested in engaging with a deep thinker who puts them in touch with something real, foundational and fundamental. In an age of confusion and anxiety about the truth, he seems like a good referent to engage with.

There is a deep tension in our culture between skepticism derived from strands of modern philosophy and pronounced confidence in modern science. And, actually, in Aquinas you don’t have to choose. Because he is not a philosophical skeptic, he thinks the mind can come to know the nature of things and that the mind allows us to see the philosophical foundations that instill such confidence in modern sciences.

Today in the U.S. and in Europe, many people think religion foments violence and causes people to be irrational and non-scientific. And Aquinas gives you a way to see the harmony not only between science and philosophical realism but also between philosophical realism regarding the ordinary things around us and the belief of the existence of God as a conclusion of philosophical reasoning. This helps us, in turn, to see the deep compatibility between faith and reason, between revelation and philosophical knowledge of God.


His political thought is also strikingly modern …

He clearly articulates principles that one needs to hold if we’re to have a functional political system, including a modern democracy. And first among these principles is his theory of human dignity, the spiritual dignity of the human person, and his concept of human freedom and human agency.

It is beautiful because Aquinas thinks we are both genuinely free agents who live together in common society and that we are made for happiness and moral excellence: We’re not free just according to a libertarian freedom. He also thinks politics must pursue the common good: the flourishing of each of us in social life with one another.

So he has a theory of human rights, but it is imbedded in a deeper theory of the common good, of a shared life of human beings who pursue happiness, moral excellence and cooperation together. For him, rights are not purely relative. They are real and have importance, but they have their deepest meaning in a theory of society in which human love, communion and shared activity are the deepest element. Also, Aquinas sees the human family as the deepest, the most basic cell and foundation of human society.

He also thinks that democratic structures should have a place even within a monarchy, that there should be some representational determination of leadership. And he thinks the state could never replace the Church, that the highest religious and transcendent aim of human existence is denoted by divine Revelation. This religious dimension of culture cannot be replaced by the political aims of the state.

At the same time, he also thinks the Church can’t replace the state. The state has a place and the governor of the state has a place. All that is pretty contemporary.


I’ve been told you are part of a bluegrass band as a banjo player. Is that correct?

I helped start a band called The Hillbilly Thomists, which takes its name from a comment that the American author Flannery O’Connor made in describing herself: She said, “People think I am an Hillbilly Nihilist but I am in fact a Hillbilly Thomist.” She said this in the 1950s. And some of the young Dominicans that joined the order were professional musicians before they entered, and they helped us make an album which appeared on the record charts in the United States, briefly.


What role does music play in your personal and spiritual life?

I think on the deepest level, sacred music (not necessarily bluegrass music) helps us unite different elements of ourselves — our thinking about the world and God. It also helps us unite willingly with God through love, and it helps unite our emotional life with our bodily senses, so that we can orient our thoughts, our hearts and our feelings together simultaneously toward God and the solemnity of sacred worship. For me personally, Gregorian chant remains the greatest vehicle for this.

But in other facets of life, as with Irish folk music or American bluegrass, we also see how cultures produce human expressions of profound rest and celebration of life through the delight of the senses and a human music that is elegant, intelligent, funny or sad and, at any rate, emotionally profound.

Register Europe correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Joseph Cordileone attends the mass and imposition of the Pallium upon the new metropolitan archbishops held by Pope Francis for the Solemnity of Saint Peter and Paul at Vatican Basilica on June 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican.

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A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco has a profound understanding of what the U.S. bishops have called the preeminent issue of our time, and his stand is courageous.