Recently, on America magazine’s website, I posted a response to the letters to the editor, online comments, and critical blogs that defended certain aspects of a particular clerical lifestyle. One of the things I mentioned was that while a lot of the loudest public voices had reacted defensively to my October column in America, I received dozens of private messages from lay women and men, priests, seminarians, diocesan employees, and others whose personal experiences resonated with the piece. This week Professor Pat McNamara wrote an essay about his personal experience of the culture of clericalism at a major US seminary, which has circulated privately on Facebook and elsewhere. After reading his reflection, I asked Prof. McNamara if he would be willing to share this as a guest post on my blog. He graciously agreed to share it more widely. I believe this reflection offers another important perspective that has not yet been made as public as the defensive voices. I also know, from personal correspondence and discussion with other seminary professors (both lay and ordained), that Prof. McNamara’s experience is, unfortunately, not an anomaly but an all-too familiar reality. I am grateful to him for speaking up about this complicated and unsettling topic.
Reflections of a Seminary Educator
By Pat McNamara
Fr. Dan Horan’s recent piece in America magazine, “Lead Us Not into Clericalism” (October 21, 2013), is still generating controversy. While it’s got some people on the defensive, usually those who’ve long deemed themselves “John Paul II priests,” it’s got many more (lay and clergy) saying “amen.” Father Dan writes about a growing phenomenon of what he calls the “unapproachable or pretentious character of so many of the newly ordained”:
They appear to be more concerned about titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all.
Noting Pope Francis’s comments about clericalism, Father Dan writes that the pontiff’s words are a call for clergy “to remember that their baptism is what matters most.” Sadly, for many, it’s not, and judging from the quality of the men getting ordained today, it’s only going to get worse, not better.
For two years, I served on the faculty of a major seminary, where I got to see clericalism both in its early and its full-blown stages of development. To the students I was clearly an anomaly, if not an oddity. They always addressed me politely as “Doctor,” but there was an underlying element of condescension, as if I were the seminary’s lay mascot. “Oh, you’re so good, Doctor,” one twenty-five year old cooingly said to me. (I half expected him to pat me on the head and send me on my way!)
As a married layperson, I was something of an anomaly on the faculty. In many ways, I felt like an ecclesiastical version of “The Help,” and often was made to feel like an intruder. One priest on the faculty refused to acknowledge me, let alone talk to me, and would sneeringly groan and glare upon passing me in the hallway. My relationship with the clergy was always very formal. Not once in two years did a priest say to me, “Hi, I’m Mike,” or “I’m Bill.” It was always “Father,” even in private. Correct ecclesiastical protocol was truly observed at all times. I was clearly unwelcome in the faculty lounge or dining room.
As far as the seminarians go, cassocks and capes, birettas, collars up to their earlobes, round Roman hats were the norm. It was like every day was a clerical version of Halloween. When they left the grounds, which they rarely did, some students adopted fedoras and double-breasted suits as if to emphasize their antiquarianism. A few even smoked pipes or expensive English cigarettes, with silver cases to prove it. (Many had a expressed preference for rare Scotches.) All this was done, clearly, to emphasize their uniqueness. (One seminarian had a picture of himself on Facebook with cloak and walking stick.) Truth be told, while the faculty may have done little to encourage all this, they also did little to discourage it.
From what I could see, these men had little interaction with laypeople people of any kind outside the seminary, except to teach catechism or visit a nursing home once in a while. (Working in shelter homes or soup kitchens were neither an option nor an interest.) During the time of Hurricane Sandy, the seminarians stayed comfortably ensconced on the seminary grounds, which the facilities management staff cleaned up. The reason, I was told, was that there was no gas for the cars (although the seminary grounds have their own gas station).
Frankly, it was pretty weird, and truth be told, more than a little unhealthy.
This particular seminary, which once produced some of the country’s finest theologians and biblical scholars, is not today what you would call a hotbed of intellectual fervor. When I asked students what books they were reading, the answer was that most of them simply didn’t read. (That phenomenon, of course, is not exclusive to seminarians, as any professional educator will attest.) Those who did prided themselves on ornate leather breviaries, handsomely bound and archaic devotional works (usually from Tan Books).
Nobody ever mentioned reading the Bible, either Old or New Testaments. (On one quiz, a faculty member asked his class of fifteen to list the Ten Commandments. Half of them got it right.) Nobody ever mentioned reading the documents of Vatican II, although a few did have nice copies of the Catechism of the Council of Trent. To the best of my knowledge, no course of any kind was offered on Vatican II.
Nor was anything offered on the theology of the laity, or the lay vocation. (Lay students taking courses at night are banned from the seminary building proper, and have little if any interaction with the seminarians.) One would think that this might help, given the fact that these are a priest’s main clientele. Yet for four years, these men spend the majority of their time on the grounds of a seminary, with little pastoral practice, except for a few weeks in the summer. (Some dioceses used to have a pastoral year, but have now done away with this. Why is not exactly clear.)
If priests are supposed to exercise leadership roles in the Church, the unspoken truth is that pitifully few of our future clergy have any kind of leadership skills. (There are some rare exceptions, usually men who spent some time in the business world or the military. But these are all too rare.) Many are only comfortable with children and/or old ladies, in other words “the churched,” not with their own peers or the “unchurched,”whom they simply write off. I suspect that many would be clinically diagnosed as introverts, while many others, to put it plainly, are just lacking in social skills.
Many of these same young men will soon be proclaiming from the pulpits the “New Evangelization,” a catchphrase invented by the late John Paul II, a man many of them idolize. But how are they going to share the Good News when they’re afraid to stretch themselves out to others, when they can’t talk to any not completely on the same wave-length? The days of standing on your ecclesiastical office are long gone. What about reaching out to people where they’re at, with compassionate solidarity and without fear of personal rejection. No wonder so many churches today are little more than a sea of white hair!
If nothing else, Pope Francis has reminded us that it’s possible to be more Catholic than Christian, and that we need to reverse that trend. Otherwise, we’re left with a Catholic version of fundamentalism that focuses on one’s own personal piety and ignores one’s apostolic obligations to love fearlessly, boldly and without exception. At its core, Christianity is a religion of action. As a Jesuit friend of mine put it, “It’s one thing to talk about social justice. It’s another thing to get off your ass and do something about it.”
In other words, what you have been given, you’re supposed to pay forward; or, as Jesus put it, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The nature of God is love, and the nature of love is to give itself freely. After all, what good is it if you only love the people who love you? Yet for many, that is the nature of clerical life today.
Seminaries need to have more of a sense of that apostolic urgency, to remind their students that they’re not there for their own personal piety, that they’re ordained to be servants, not Civil War reenactors. Bishops and seminary administrators need to face this problem more directly. Otherwise, the phenomenon of clericalism is only going to get worse. The time for circling wagons is over.
Pat McNamara earned a Ph.D. in Church History from the Catholic University of America. He is the author of three books on American Catholic History and currently teaches at St. Francis College (NY). He is the author of “McNamara’s Blog” on Patheos.