However grim the present circumstances may seem, many of the pre-requisites for a thoroughgoing revitalization of the priesthood in America are already in place
Catholics have not abandoned their priests in the wake of three months of seemingly-endless reports of scandal. On the contrary, they are rallying to the support of priests, confident that faithful pastors represent the great majority of the Catholic clergy in America.
For twenty-three years now, in his Holy Thursday letters to priests and in numerous other homilies and addresses, Pope John Paul II has been proposing a noble vision of the priest as an icon of Christ in the world. That vision has attracted thousands of young men to the seminaries; it has reinvigorated the ministry of priests who have been ordained for decades; and it gives the Church the theological substance with which to accelerate the reform of its ordained ministry.
The generation of dissent in the theological guild is greying and intellectually sterile, unable to reproduce itself. Younger scholars, more interested in exploring Catholic orthodoxy than in deconstructing it, will increasingly fill seminary faculties and university schools of theology.
Priests formed in the past fifteen years and committed to the heroic model of the priesthood proposed by John Paul II are eager to be catalysts of reform and renewal.
What is needed now are the bishops capable of leading the reform of local presbyterates, diocesan vocations offices, local and regional seminaries. Some of those bishops have already been ordained and are doing heroic work. The question now is, how do we get more of the bishops we need to carry out the reform of the ordained ministry that lay leaders and the Church’s most effective priests are calling for?
Changes are needed in the criteria for appointing bishops and in the process for vetting candidates for the episcopate.
The preference for older candidates for bishops, while understandable, should be re-examined in light of today’s urgent needs. Those most capable of leading the reform of the ministry will often be men in their forties, even late thirties, who are part of the John Paul II generation of Catholic clergy in the United States. Their age should not be held against them as potential bishops, if they have demonstrated effective leadership as pastors of parishes or seminary professors. There is also strong historical precedent for appointing younger men as bishops in times of crisis and needed reform. St. Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop at 32. St. Cyril of Alexandria was a bishop at 36. St Ambrose was 34 when he was ordained bishop of Milan, and St. Augustine was 41 when he became bishop of Hippo. St. Francis de Sales and St. Charles Borromeo, great reformers of the counter-Reformation, were bishops in their mid-thirties.
The Church in the United States has generally been allergic to scholar-bishops. And while the record of some academics-turned-bishops in Europe in the past forty years has been discouraging, there is the powerful counter-example of John Paul II, a true scholar-bishop, to reckon with. In the United States today there are theologians, philosophers, and historians, proven effective as teachers and spiritual directors, who would make excellent bishops. Their doctorates and their scholarly careers should not be considered impediments to episcopal ordination.
The consultation process must also be widened. While bishops and priests will and should always have an important role in proposing and commenting on candidates, mature, knowledgeable, and prudent lay people ought to be consulted far more widely that they are today. Lay people may see things clergy can miss.
Finally, the bishops capable of leading the reform the Church needs will be evangelists and pastors, capable of communicating their passion for Christ to their priests and people. There is, arguably, too much raillery about the Catholic bureaucracy today; many Church bureaucrats are entirely admirable people. Yet eighty years after Max Weber dissected the character of bureaucracies, it should be clear that the typical bureaucratic cast of mind – which emphasizes efficient management and damage-control, and almost always prefers amelioration to necessary confrontation – can be in serious tension with the bishop’s duty to teach, govern, and sanctify.
Apostles, not managers, are what will move the Church from crisis to reform.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.