Having the best credentials won’t necessarily make you holy

Having the best credentials in the world for becoming a priest or a prelate does not ensure he is the best man for  the office.

In fact, if I had to choose between someone who has a God-given, supernatural faithor someone with a top notch education at the best Catholic universities without that faith, I would chose the former.  Having all the head-knowledge in the world cannot give someone a living faith, nor is it necessarily a sign of virtue and character.

Ideally, one should not have to choose.   A good, solid education and faith formation coupled with moral, psychological and Holy-Spirit inspired spiritual integrity are what we need in  priests and bishops.

In addition to being surrendered to God’s will, a priest must be a man who could have been (or is) a good husband and father, not someone asexual and oriented towards books or things, or other men, hoping to use the priesthood as a hedge against acting on those inclinations or worse, as a cover for leading a double life.

I have met some very simple, uneducated people who have great wisdom.  I have met pastors on the Protestant side with very little formal education who exhibit the fruits of the Holy Spirit and operate in supernatural gifts that can only come from God.  In fact, it was a simple, charismatic pastor who, through his teaching, and spiritual gifts imparted by the Spirit through his ministry, played a major role in my faith journey in preparing me to become Catholic—-because all true wisdom from God always tends towards unity and communion in Christ, in sharing that one mind that was in Christ Jesus.

The Catholic priests I know in the Ordinariate have that dual combination of holiness and theological depth, even if the education in every instance was not a typical seminary formation in the Anglican or Catholic sense.

As our former bishop once said to me, “Where would we send them?”  He meant that as an indictment of the state of Anglican formation, especially for those who had a Catholic understanding of sacraments.

The recent revelations about Cardinal McCarrick, the Archbishop-emeritus of Washington, also reminded me formation in Catholic seminaries has not always been so great either, even though it’s my understanding  things have improved a lot in North America since the 1980s and 90s.

The McCarrick revelations reminded me of Michael Rose’s 2002 book  Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church  and its stories about how orthodox, masculine candidates  were either pre-screened as unsuitable (too rigid!) for the seminary, or were forced out later by pressure from a lavender mafia.

Part of the journey into the Catholic Church for our former clergy included a detailed description of their spiritual journeys.  It was the authenticity and willingness to suffer for the faith that were convincing for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith of the caliber of men desirous of becoming Catholic priests, even if not all of them had the requisite degrees.

1 thought on “Having the best credentials won’t necessarily make you holy

  1. The comments with respect to spiritual formation hit the proverbial nail on the head. All the book knowledge in the world is worthless if one does not have a personal relationship with the Lord that translates to a life guided by faith here on Earth.

    The allegation — singular — of sexual abuse against Cardinal McCarrick is highly unusual in the fact that there is only ONE accuser. In nearly all cases, the public disclosure of an allegation of sexual abuse against a Catholic cleric has brought forth a chorus of dozens of additional victims saying “Me, too!” That fact, at the very least, calls for a very thorough investigation to find any physical evidence to support the accusation that might still exist. If the alleged incident actually occurred forty or fifty years ago, as indicated in the linked article, it’s very likely that the accuser’s recollection is imperfect and that the incident did not actually happen exactly as the accuser claims to remember it forty or fifty years later. The fact that it would be egregiously unjust to punish a man based upon a victim’s or witness’s flawed memory is precisely the reason why criminal codes have statutes of limitations that bar prosecution of the majority of offenses after too much time has elapsed.

    That said, the association of abuse with liberal elements in the church also is egregiously flawed. The clergy proven to be abusers have spanned the spectrum from radical liberals to hard-core traditionalists, the latter most notoriously including the founder of the personal prelature Opus Dei and his inner circle. In the book People of the Lie, Dr. M. Scott Peck, M. D., points out that the people about whom he is writing — people whose actions and lifestyles are intrinsically oriented toward evil, including sexual abuse — need cover for their actions to avoid prosecution and that the most effective cover is a position that puts them beyond suspicion in the popular mindset. Positions of ecclesial leadership — ordained ministry, choir, teacher of religion, youth group leader, member of the parish council or church board, etc. — generally fall into this category. However, the clericalism that was wide-spread in the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council, and which hard-core traditionalists strive to preserve, provided an additional layer of cover that enabled abusers to shield their actions from public scrutiny. This fact may well explain why sexual abuse by clergy flourished so widely in Ireland: Irish-born clergy are notorious for their staunchly rigid approach to the discipline of the faith.

    With respect to Catholic seminary training, I can only speak to the situation here in the States. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), subsequently reorganized as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), undertook a major study of seminary formation in the 1970’s which concluded that two thirds of the clergy in the United States did not have enough personal and/or spiritual maturity to carry on an effective ministry.

    Let me repeat that, and let it sink in. In the 1970’s, the NCCB’s study determined that two thirds of the Catholic clergy in the United States lacked sufficient personal and/or spiritual maturity to carry on an effective ministry.

    And in my experience, diocesan clergy — who are inevitably engaged in active ministry in parishes, chaplaincies, or other capacities — were far more likely to fall into this category than ordained members of religious orders because the latter received extensive personal and spiritual formation as part of the process of joining the religious order (in the periods of candidacy, postulancy, novitiate, and simple profession) before going on to seminary. The result was ministerial disaster in the overwhelming majority of parishes.

    That study led to a major restructuring of seminary formation throughout the United States by the end of the decade, resulting in a noticeable difference between clergy ordained up to the mid-1970’s and clergy ordained after 1980 or so. Unfortunately, little was done to provide remedial formation for those who were already ordained and gone on to parish ministry. Additionally, those ordained prior to the reforms remained in charge, as pastors in dioceses with larger parishes and as heads of departments in the diocesan administration, because they held seniority over the more competent priests of the next generation. Thus, it has taken forty years to reach a point where most of the poorly formed clergy have reached retirement and the next generation, with better formation, is now in charge.



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