The priesthood: one layman's view

The priesthood: one layman's view

B.A. Santamaria

This article is the text of an address which Mr. B.A. Santamaria delivered to the annual conference of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy at Corpus Christi Seminary, Clayton, on 29 August 1991.

For sound statistical, as well as other, reasons, most of us are animated by a sense that something has gone wrong with the direction of the Church since the end of the Second Vatican Council; and that its present depressing condition is due in part to theological modernism, a false ecumenical ecclesiology, liturgical scandals, and what Cardinal Ratzinger not so long ago called the "catechetical disaster" of the past twenty years.

Those who are prepared to admit the existence of these problems generally attribute them to factors which developed after the Second Vatican Council. The late Dom Aelred Graham, O.S.B., who was no theological "conservative", in a long-forgotten article published in The Catholic Mind (May 1966) - what was only a few months after the conclusion of the Council - had the honesty to point out that some of the factors originated from the many cross-plays which occurred within the Council itself.

In my view all of those causes played their part: but I doubt whether they go to the heart of the problem. I am inclined to think that the central problem lies in the "cultural revolution", an event which did not occur in China - where it was formally proclaimed by Mao Tsetung - but which did occur in the West at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. This has had a profound effect on all Western religious beliefs, not excluding Catholicism.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics published a slim volume entitled Religion in Australia, which presented the most accurate statistical report available of the state of formal religious adherence in Australia at the time of the 1986 census.

Catholicism, with 4 million adherents, now embraced 26% of the population, and, for the first time in the history of Australia, had become numerically the largest denomination. Anglicans constituted 23.9%. The most significant figures, however, were those which related to two different, associated, but not identical, categories: "No Religion" and "Not Stated." Nearly two million people stated positively that they had no religion at all; which means that 12.7% had declared themselves to be atheists or agnostics. A slightly lower percentage were recorded as religion "Not Stated" (11.9%).

Although no one can be certain as to how far the views of those two groups coincide, the two categories are generally regarded as extensively overlapping. It is reasonable to interpret the second category as largely embracing people who, while unprepared to think about religion sufficiently to affirm or deny, nevertheless did not consider it of such significance that it demanded affirmation or denial. If this is so, something between 22% and 25% of the Australian people have no specific religious beliefs whatsoever. Less than half may have some vague intimations of the existence of a God, but that is not sufficient to constitute "religion." The percentage approaches the number of Anglicans and is slightly less than the number of Catholics.

What is most significant is that it is this segment of Australia's population which is growing most rapidly of all. In 1966, the two categories - taken together - totalled only 11 %; in 1971,13%; in 1976, 20%; in 1981, 22%; in 1986, somewhere between 22% and 25%. One may safely presume that since the 1986 Census this percentage has grown, although a more definite judgement awaits the publication of the results of the 1991 Census.

The "quantum leap" occurred between 1966 (11%) and 1976 (20%), which was when the beliefs - or lack of them - of the generation of the late '50s and early '60s began to register.

At least two explanations of this phenomenon have been published. Dr G. Bailey, Chairman of the Division of Religious Studies at La Trobe University (Victoria), claimed that members of the two census categories of "no religion" and, no religion stated," while indicating various levels of disbelief in supernatural religion, might nevertheless possess a surrogate religion. He wrote of

"the widespread acceptance of the materialist, individualist world view with its emphasis on greed and enterprise and its implicit goal of salvation through material possessions and material security.

"If not a true religion, this worldwide view with its attendant institutions, is certainly a surrogate religion ...

"The pre-eminent influence of this surrogate religion in contemporary Australian life cannot be underestimated, a fact which suggests that it would be misleading to rely substantially upon census figures to derive a picture of Australian religiosity."

Generation of "nihilists"

A somewhat different definition was given some years ago by the late Professor Manning Clark: "Previous generations," he said, "have held firm beliefs, whether they were religious beliefs or just the hope of better things from humanity, but this generation are 'nihilists'."

That is, they believe in nothing at all.

My own view is that, in general, Clark's is the more accurate analysis, although Dr Bailey's description does accurately depict the attitude of the "yuppies" who have become increasingly numerous and visible.

Professor Clark's "nihilists" - those who deny the existence of religious or even moral standards - may be classified as either active or passive.

The influence of the active nihilists - many in high positions in political, business, artistic and, above all, educational life - over the rapidly-growing proportion of those whose lack of belief is merely passive, largely explains the disastrous transformation of the attitudes, laws and customs relating to the family, to business and to politics ever since the Whitlam era.

If the slightly older and apparently successful teach the young that there are no fixed religious or moral standards, their actions will inevitably come to reflect what they have been taught, especially when the financial, the sexual and other attractions of the consumer society are so widely propagated. These underlying attitudes explain the financial excesses of the '80s as much as they do the '60s sexual revolution.

The 1986 Census figures, and the underlying attitudes, lead me to suggest that the progressive dissolution of Catholic belief and practice, while profoundly influenced by it, is not merely a matter of the Vatican Council, or its aftermath. It is not, for instance, merely the result of the abandonment of the Latin Mass, although the influence of that display of authoritarianism - which conflicted with the injunctions of the Council - cannot be dismissed. It is the result of a long process of secularisation which began with the Renaissance and has at last moved down from the intelligentsia to the masses.

It is, in fact, what Dostoievsky called the "permissibility of everything", which found an early expression in this century in the code and conduct of the Bloomsbury Set, which distinguishes the latter part of the twentieth century from any which has preceded it since the end of the Roman Empire.

In short, something decisive has happened to the Church in the countries of Western European culture in the past 20 years, itself the product of factors which go back several centuries. If this is so, the resultant task is more complex and more difficult than simply redressing the problems which arose after Vatican II.

However improbable the task may humanly seem to be, the responsibility of those who accept the Catholic Faith as true is to work in different ways to hold the present ground, to turn the tide, and to re-convert the world. Such an objective demands, however, a different mentality from that which is propagated in so many schools and institutes of missionary sociology. In many of these, apparently, the prevailing "culture" has moved from an attitude of respect towards all serious religious beliefs, through religious pluralism - which may be interpreted as a requirement that the law should not discriminate against, let alone persecute, the adherents of such religions - to acceptance of a totally different proposition - that all religions represent merely different ways through which human beings find their way to the same God. The latter attitude, of course, removes any argument for religious conversion.

In his recent encyclical Redemptoris Missio or, in its English translation, "The Permanent Value of the Church's Missionary Mandate," Pope John Paul confronted these misrepresentations of the Church's position:

"As a result of the changes which have taken place in modern times and the spread of new theological ideas," he writes, "some people wonder: Is missionary work among non-Christians still relevant? Has it not been replaced by inter-religious dialogue? Is not human development an adequate goal of the Church's mission? Does not respect for conscience and for freedom exclude all efforts at conversion? Is it not possible to attain salvation in any religion? Why then should there be missionary activity?

"The temptation today," he adds, "is to reduce Christianity to merely human wisdom, a pseudo science of well-being. In our heavily secularised world 'a gradual secularisation of salvation' has taken place so that people strive for the good of man, but man is truncated, reduced to his merely horizontal dimension."

If re-conversion is to be the mission of the committed Catholic, is every person's role the same? Are the roles of priest and layman - to grasp at one central issue only - the same?

Well, some appear to hold that they are and that the personnel are inter-changeable.

Visible demoralisation

Some years ago the Pontifical Commission for the Laity selected a group of priests and laymen who met in Rome to discuss the Document on the Laity, which was to be considered by the International Synod of Bishops in 1987. Reports in the English Catholic press observed that this ad hoc assembly criticised the document on the grounds that it actually drew a distinction between the apostolate of the clergy and that of the laity within the Church.

If such a view was, in fact, expressed - and there is a good deal of collateral evidence that it is widely held, especially by those influenced by Schillebeeckx's view of the priesthood - it is little wonder that serious problems have arisen, in particular, the visible demoralisation of large sections of the priesthood resulting from the loss of a clear sense of identity; and the drying up of vocations to an institution which does not clearly involve functions distinct from those which can be performed by the laity.

There is a fundamental distinction between the priestly apostolate and the lay apostolate, even if both are projected to the same end: the building of the Kingdom. The priest is a priest; not a layman. The layman is a layman; not a priest. That this is so ought to be evident from the powers which attach to the ordained priest.

The priest has the power to offer Mass; to consecrate the Sacred Species thereby effecting a transformation of substance; to administer the Sacraments, to preach the Gospel, to undertake the cure of souls. I have none of these powers. If I claim to have, I have departed from reality and become either a fool or a fraud.

The vocation of the laity, on the other hand, is the apostolate of the temporal order: the apostolate of ideas and institutions. The layman's task is to understand the teachings of the Gospel (as interpreted authoritatively by Pope, Council and Bishop); to break the teaching down into relevant social and political principles, to break these down further into specific programs and policies, and thereupon to propose the latter within the realms of politics, economics, industry, agriculture, teaching, media, universities. That, as I understand it, is the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council in the relevant part of Lumen Gentium and in the Decree on the Laity.

It was the unique contribution to Catholic thought of Daniel Mannix long before Vatican II. I can well remember the uncharacteristically lengthy dissertation on that particular question which, without a single note, he put before the Episcopal Committee in 1953. It was a teaching to which he remained uniquely faithful, not without sacrifice, until his death. Even more important, it is a doctrine based on common sense.

The Church from its very beginnings has been hierarchical and sacerdotal. That order of things was fully established for the entire Church before the days of St Irenaeus (c.140-c.202). In the Eastern Church, it was fully established in the time of Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c.107). There have always been clearly defined roles for Pope, Council, Bishops, priests, laity.

The opposite position is congregationalist, or presbyterian - the belief that power is conferred not from above but from below, by the assembly, or the congregation. Even if one were concerned with pragmatism rather than truth, to move from the first view to the second would be self-defeating. The Catholic Church may or may not be in process of some form of dissolution. The Protestant Churches already are.

Newman's whole life, until the moment of his conversion, was a quest to discover which was the Church of the Fathers. He found it to be the Catholic Church, precisely because it held stubbornly to this reality. Those who hold the congregationalist view of ecclesiology are not Catholics in the sense that Newman was. If there is some other sense, I, at least, am unaware of it.

Regrettably, in some cases, their strategy is clearly to disguise this truth. One section knows that once they openly leave the Catholic Church on this or other grounds their influence with the media is gone. Others, in more sinister fashion remain within, determined to change the Church, theologically, liturgically, catechetically, but above all by substituting the congregational for the hierarchical principle. They adopt the well-known strategy of the Trojan Horse seeking to take the building, not by means of frontal attack, but from within.

It is a matter of regret, even if it is understandable, that those who alone have the power to define who is and who is not a Catholic, for tactical reasons, refrain from doing so. Perhaps these tactics will ultimately prove correct. To date they seem to have merely compounded the problem.

You will have noticed that I draw a clear line of distinction between the function of the priest and that of the layman.

When I first decided, against my better judgement, to attempt to put together a biography of Archbishop Mannix, he himself helped to provide some primary sources by discussing his attitudes to critical questions of Church organisation and policy. It was generally at night. I would go home and write down what he had said at once. There was at least one discussion of his view of the priesthood, some three or four years before the end, of which I have a written record.

The single most important task of the bishop, he said, was to maintain a high standard in the priesthood. His reason: that it was the priest who, for good or evil, established and maintained the Catholic family's image of the Church.

The ordinary Catholic, he said, would never see the Pope. He might once or twice, in his life, on a great occasion, see a cardinal. He would have a distant knowledge of his own bishop, depending on the size of the diocese, the frequency of confirmations within the parish, and of the occasions on which the bishop might attend a public function. His view of the bishop and of the bishop's spiritual, moral and temporal significance, would inevitably colour his view of the Church. Yet, whatever the theological theories, it would be the priest who would be the most persistent religious influence in his life.

The reason was fairly obvious. It would be the priest who would be with him - even before he was conscious of his presence - when he was baptised; when over six or seven years, he went to his parish school; when he married; when his children followed in his train; when he needed help and advice with many family problems; when he was sick; when he died.

A bishop should sacrifice everything, if need be, to improve the moral and intellectual level of the priesthood. He could do this most effectively before ordination by insisting that only those of the highest quality should be permitted to continue their seminary studies. After ordination, however, the keynote in dealing with difficult cases would be gentleness and understanding, since a bishop had no alternative to making the best of the human material at his disposal. The priest's vows were for life, so that bishop and priest were "stuck" with each other.

The priest was thus the essential link between the faithful and the Church. If the priesthood was of generally low calibre; without devotion to its task; without dedication and, therefore, unable to defend the daily material interests of a predominantly working-class people at home and in the countries of immigration, against those who had traditionally abused and exploited them; with a low level of sanctity; ill-educated and therefore unable to defend both the principles and practices of the Catholic Faith, especially at a time when modernism was to threaten the very foundations of that Faith; then it was not merely the priesthood which would be of low repute among the people, it would be the Church itself.

It is noticeable that Archbishop Mannix did not even discuss the possibility that seminary training would be deficient in ordinary Catholic teaching and discipline.

Nor did it ever occur to him to discuss a totally different problem: how through a new set of liturgical practices, a priest could come to lose the sense of his own identity which most regard as one of the most critical problems of the present moment. The point I wish to make in this regard is delicate, and I hope not to be misunderstood.

We live in an extraordinary moment in which, to an increasing extent, partly as a result of new theories of ecclesiastical education, priest and laity have criss-crossed each other's respective roles. The laity, women as well as men, have progressively invaded the sanctuary, which was once the priest's domain; while many priests and religious, in their increasingly frequent interventions in questions of the temporal order, often of a technical nature, have invaded the laity's domain. It is doubtful whether we have gained much by substituting, in both roles, amateurism for professionalism.

The issue of "identity" appears to one layman at least, to be critical to two questions: the nature of the priesthood; the number of vocations. It is from this standpoint that one looks at many of the liturgical innovations of recent times which involve the activity of the laity in the sanctuary.

It would be foolish to believe that there is anything intrinsically wrong, in itself, with lay men and women reading parts of the ordinary of the Mass, or with the use of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, men or women; or with the use of altar girls. What concerns one is not the individual activities, but the entire process, since the principle of the slippery slope so obviously applies. However unwittingly, the growth in these practices diminishes the role of the priest in the sanctuary, andobscures the difference in respective roles of priest and layman. The process simply comes to its logical conclusion when, as is apparently proposed in one diocese, parish priests will be appointed for a six-year term. The most permanent institution in the parish will then become the pastoral council; de facto the priest will no longer be "father" to the parish, but a salaried employee. This is not Catholicism. It is Presbyterianism or Congregationalism.

Apart from being simply one of the current faddish ways of thumbing one's nose at the Pope, the problem arising from the use of altar girls is not the thing in itself, but what it suggests in terms of the ultimate evolution of the role of women at the altar.

Liturgical "evolution"

I recently attended morning Mass in a quite orthodox parish, in which it was announced that, as Father was ill, the lady who wrote the announcement had been asked to distribute Holy Communion. Her interpretation of her function was to read out - with the single exception of the words of consecration - all of the words of the Mass, and then to distribute Holy Communion. The procedure excited no comment. I wondered what would have happened among these daily Mass-goers if she had gone through the words of consecration as well. I suspect, nothing. The laity are by now so thoroughly confused as a result of the process of liturgical "evolution", that they would not have known what to do, wondering, perhaps, whether the use of the words of consecration by an unordained person was not simply another of "the changes."

What is at stake, in the totality of this process, guided by the rules of the slippery slope, is not merely the deministerialisation of the priesthood, but the de-sacralisation of the Eucharist.

Until the question of identity is tackled, by firmly protecting the external marks and practices which signify identity, I doubt whether we will begin to solve the problem of vocations. There are many other aspects of this problem, of course, but judging from remarks attributed, in the media, to students on the eve of ordination, it would appear that many have, to say the least, a confused attitude to the nature of the vocation they are assuming.

It may be worth a brief reflection on the only relevant parallel to the general crisis that afflicts Western civilisation as a whole - the crisis of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD.

The year 410 saw the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth. In 476 the last Roman Emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, was killed at the Battle of Ravenna. As a mark of the general conviction that the Western empire was finished, Romulus Augustulus was not replaced.

During that period of 60 years, Rome's ancient civilisation, which had lasted the better part of a thousand years, came visibly and rapidly to its end. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Constantine established his capital at Byzantium and continued the Roman tradition, although large parts of the Near East soon ceased to be characteristically Western and Christian and ultimately became quasi-Oriental and Islamic.

How did men and women react?

The vast majority were apparently no more profoundly concerned with political or cultural decline than are their present equivalents; that is, until they and their families were directly or personally affected. They went on as usual. The best looked after their families; grasping what material satisfactions they could; some of them suffering and dying as the barbarian raids bit deeper into the old Roman heartlands; adapting themselves to the enormous destruction of material wealth which the invasions brought about, as their own conditions of life sank progressively and inevitably into the abyss, which led to Diocletian's last, failed, attempt to reorganise the empire.

The worst - composed predominantly of the corrupt upper classes including a substantial proportion of the intelligentsia - grasped frantically for the remaining positions of power and sought solace in the dubious satisfactions of their own sexual perversions, almost in anticipation of the same disgusting satisfactions pursued by today's avant garde.

The Christians had been assaulted with the ten general persecutions but had somehow survived. J.R. Clover attributes this to the fact that "they out-thought, out-worked, out-fought their enemies." In the first four General Councils, they had - admittedly belatedly - overcome the internal attacks on Christian orthodoxy by Arianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism and the other great heresies. The historic Creeds provided both a summation and a secure foundation for Christian belief. After the Edict of Constantine they had looked for a new era of toleration and progress. Instead they found the structures of civilisation itself crumbling around them, as the imperial power collapsed through external attack and internal anarchy.

As the lights went out during the course of the fifth century, the noblest spirits understood exactly what was happening, refused to abandon themselves to despair, preferring to devote themselves not to restoring what could not be restored, but rather to building what had to be freshly built.

When he received the news of the Sack of Rome, St Jerome is reported to have given expression to his despair by beating his head against the stone walls of his monk's cell in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, he continued with his life's work - the translation of the Scriptures into Latin - refusing to compromise with the temptation that since everything was finished, further effort was useless.

Philosophical genius

In the midst of the disaster he simply went on translating. The Vulgate - the Latin translation of the Scriptures - proclaimed the Word of God to men of a culture different from that of Christ's despised fishermen, and thereby helped to preserve and extend Christianity. Despite the violence of his nature, by observing the canons of Latin scholarship, Jerome helped to preserve the Greek and Latin tradition of learning for subsequent generations. And yet at no time could he honestly have said that there was any real hope that what he was doing would have any practical effect on the surrounding ruin.

Nor, for that matter, could the slightly younger Augustine. Having tasted the fleshpots, he had been converted and emerged as the great philosophical genius of his age. Although personally convinced that the old civilised worldly order had come irretrievably to an end, three years after the sack of Rome Augustine began his masterpiece, the City of God, which he finished fourteen years later, in 427.

The City of God laid down the basic social and political principles on which the structures of medieval Christendom were built. These were to become ideological foundations of the civilisation which was to express itself in the great cathedrals of Notre Dame, of Rheims and Chartres, the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and Bologna.

In the total destruction of the times, could anyone really have said that his enormous production of books and articles would even outlive his lifetime? Yet, even as he lay dying in the year 430 in his small African cathedral town of Hippo, with the Vandals besieging its very walls, Augustine was still working on a refutation of the writings of Julian of Eclanum.

Benedict of Nursia was probably born around 480, fifty years after Augustine died, and only four years after the last Western Roman Emperor was killed in that thicket outside Ravenna.

The significance of the unprecedented destruction of wealth which the barbarian invasions had involved was now clear to all. Benedict was not a theoretician, not a politician, not an economist, not a philosopher, as Augustine had been. He was a practical ascetic.

Oblivious apparently to the hopelessness of the situation around him, he devoted himself to systematising the foundations of Western monasticism. He made the monasteries not only centres of prayer, but of agriculture and of village life. He devised the harmonious co-operation between work and prayer prescribed in the Benedictine motto Ora et labora (pray and work) not as the grand panacea of a dying civilisation, but as a sensible pattern for daily living in a world bereft of rhyme or reason. The journalist-historian, Patrick O'Donovan, has called Benedict's achievement the most revolutionary in the history of Europe.

"If one had to choose one figure for Europe or the Western world," wrote O'Donovan, "if one wanted to find the person who most shaped its glory - it would not be Caesar, or the Emperor Charles IV or Napoleon or Metternich or the Duke of Wellington. They presided over its agonies. The man, under God, who did the most for its serenities was Benedict of Nursia ... Quite simply, he was the founder of Western monasticism. And if that seems a small claim in a world that reveres the ruins of monastic houses and yet tends to dismiss the monks that once worked and prayed in such places as romantic or irrelevant, Benedict did as much as any Pope or king or poet to restore a foundation for civilisation after the slow decline and death of the Roman Empire."

Asked to account for the ultimate triumph of Christendom, Henri Pirenne, among the greatest historians of medieval civilisation, attributed it to "the triumph of the spirit over the senses, of blind conviction over patent fact ... a Christian philosophy of history profound and cogent."

Pirenne, of course, was writing about a universal civilisation, while I concern myself only with the situation of a small provincial backwater called Australia. The stage is different, but the necessary principles - intelligence and courage - remain the same.

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