By Russell Shaw
Speaking to 800 priests at the shrine of Fatima in Portugal, the cardinal who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy recently leveled criticism at priests for whom the priesthood has become “a kind of ecclesiastical profession which they carry out as civil servants.” Having only news reports to go on, I strongly suspect Cardinal Claudio Hummes said more than just that. I certainly hope so, because, although the comment contains much truth, it is seriously inadequate as it stands. In this current Year for Priests it’s important to point out why.
My biggest objection to the remark as reported concerns the slighting use of the expression “ecclesiastical profession.” What I suspect the cardinal meant — and what’s true enough — is that the priesthood isn’t just one more job alongside others. In making this perfectly reasonable point, however, it’s a mistake to say or imply that there’s something intrinsically wrong with, or at least inferior about, professions and jobs in general.
The Christian ideal of work is to do one’s job, whatever it may be, for the glory of God and the service of other human beings. Many people in many lines of work try to do exactly that each day. There is every reason for priests to try to do it, too. Looking down our noses at the notion of “profession” isn’t helpful to that.
Nor is it helpful to suggest that there’s something wrong with having priests approach their work with a professional attitude. To be professional means doing one’s best to meet high standards of excellence in one’s work. People who aren’t professional are prepared to settle for sloppy, careless, just-getting-by performance. Surely this is not what we want of our priests.
I also take exception to the slap at priests who function as “civil servants” in the Church. Over the years I’ve encountered many of these men in chancery offices, national organizations, the Holy See, and other settings, and — making allowance for the occasional time-server — I’ve found many to be admirable priests whose administrative tasks are as much an expression of their priestly commitment as preparing a homily or teaching a catechism class.
True, priests in this situation often feel a need for some form of directly pastoral work on the side — to keep their hand in, as it were — and I admire them for that. But this is not a reflection on their office work as such.
Around the time Cardinal Hummes made his remarks, Pope Benedict XVI also spoke to a group of Brazilian bishops about the priesthood. In this case, I have the advantage of having the full text of the pope’s remarks, and I find them notably more nuanced and helpful than the snippets attributed to the cardinal.
The pope’s central statement was this: “The role of the priest is essential and irreplaceable for the proclamation of the word and for the celebration of the sacraments.” That was said in the context of a discourse touching on questions raised about lay and clergy roles in the changing circumstances of today’s Church, including the shortage of priests in some places.
Against this background, Benedict insisted, there is need for a “harmonious, correct and clear deepening of the relationship between the common priesthood [the baptismal priesthood or priesthood of the faithful] and the ministerial [ordained] priesthood.” The more aware lay people become of their responsibilities in the Church, he said, “the more clearly stand out the priest’s identity and his irreplaceable role.”
Here’s a challenge and an opportunity for us all.