A publication of Sacred Heart University
This Is Not Fine
Renew the Church according to the Spirit of the Gospel

It’s Time to Imagine a New Model

It would appear that the Catholic church is entering into a period of acute contraction at the same time as the current Bishop of Rome is calling for expansion. Why the rupture or wide disjunction?

Pope Francis’s radical—and it is radical, hence the aggressive resistance—call for a church of the peripheries, a church of the poor, is a significant departure from earlier ecclesiologies that privileged, or at least prioritized, pastoral and doctrinal issues differently.

Francis is fearless; many of his bishops, North American specifically, are fearful. Francis welcomes dispossession; most of his NA hierarchy resist any form of disempowerment. Francis exudes joy even amidst his tendency to remonstrate and his episcopal colleagues this side Atlantic recoil anxiously.

Part of the problem—the major part in my view—is the quality of our spiritual leadership and the appalling dearth of visionary thinking around our understanding of priestly ministry. If the priesthood is in turmoil, and only the most intractable of obscurantists could think otherwise, then we need to collectively think of new ways of resuscitating a credible and meaningful presbyterate. Relying on a nostalgic recovery of an older and now much discredited model shaped more by Bing Crosby than by reality will do us no favors, and yet that is precisely what appears afoot in too many dioceses.

In diocese after diocese in Canada and in the United States, I am told that the local hierarchy is hellbent on restoring some clear distinctions in liturgical behavior that underscore the special dignity of the priesthood, curtails behavior by the laity that is judged an encroachment on clerical prerogatives and reasserts the unique caste that is the priestly calling.  Eucharistic ministers must have their responsibilities more clearly delineated; permanent deacons must be publicly differentiated from priests and transitional deacons in dress and function; the laity must know its place and the priesthood’s ontological status must be vigorously reinstated.

This is all a form of madness. The way forward is not the way backward. Unlike Canute, we cannot instruct the waves to behavior untowardly. What we need to do is imagine a new model predicated not on recovery but discovery, a model that allows us to conceive a way out of the quagmire in which we find ourselves. And a quagmire we are in.

Everyone from Pope Francis to the most conservative of Curial prelates agrees that clericalism is a curse—a toxin that we must evacuate from our system. But different definitions of clericalism abound, and efforts to dilute its specific meaning by extending its compass to broadly encompass everyone trivializes the problem and prevents us from addressing the crisis at hand.

Be sure: clericalism is about clerics. The priesthood is in disarray  because of priests. We are caught in an ecclesiastical earthquake because of priestly misdeeds. They, not the laity, are the problem and once so identified we can begin a strategy of redress and reformation. We need our priests and our spiritual leaders, and either eliminating them or restoring the ancien regime are not options.

Why not revisit the suppressed Priest Worker Movement of 1940s France? Why not incorporate the non-stipendary arrangement of Anglican priests?  Why not distinguish between career and vocation?  Why not imagine priestly ministry outside decaying parochial structures?  Why not envision the abolition of seminaries—the seed ground of clericalism—and their replacement with schools of divinity?

When we have begun the process of reforming an atrophying system, introducing a more humane formation program and taking seriously the papal call for a revitalized priesthood, then and only then, should we think of expanded ministries, the ordination of women to the diaconate and presbyterate and creative but organically conservative—not traditionalist—iterations of a vital and credible priesthood. 

Clericalism is in its death throes. Its revival is a marker of enervating fear in a time that calls for evangelizing urgency. We must begin by rooting out the things that restrict the life of the Spirit.

Time for expansion. Contraction is a knee-jerk response unworthy of the People of God.

Michael W. Higgins is the distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.


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David Laroche

Very well stated blog! Good post that points in a positive direction.
Seminaries could be replaced with Schools of Theology rather than divinity with possible formation programs for those seeking ministerial positions... love this idea.
Schools of Theology would hopefully foster greater theological training.
M.Div within a school of Theology makes more sense, a la model of University of St Michael’s College in Toronto School of Theology in University of Toronto.
Better courses available, wider world view.

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