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Married Priests? “Viri probati” and other challenges.
Yesterday, Crux and others shared news that Pope Francis, in an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, had indicated openness to ordaining married men in the Latin Church. It is not the first time. Twenty, thirty years ago, one could safely bet that the world’s bishops supported the idea, but it was the pope who was opposed; now it seems to be the other way around.
However, as you read the comments available from today’s article (so far, only portions of the interview are available) it does not sound all that “open” after all. There are some serious red flags already flying. At first glance, fully anticipating more clarity from the full interview, I have three questions:
- Who are these “viri probati”?
- What would be the effect on the diaconate?
- Why would “isolated communities” be better for married priests, or, why would it be difficult to “find what to do with them”?
Who are these “viri probati”?
Viri probati is a red herring. Not that I have anything against the ordination of “proven men”, of course. However, all the ordained, not just the married ordained, should be “proven” or “tested” before ordination. To raise this ambiguous phrase exclusively in the discussion of ordaining married men, either to the diaconate or the presbyterate in the Latin Church, is potentially distracting from more serious issues.
The standard should be the same for married and celibate men, in terms of formation and education, character and ability. It is unethical and unnecessary to set a higher bar for married clergy than for celibate clergy – or for that matter, to set a higher age limit.
Who is “proven”? This phrase floats around with virtually no formal definition or context. If the practice of the diaconate is any indication, many bishops seem to think that it means retired volunteers without formal ministry formation or experience. That the “proof” is in a life of being a happily married faithful Catholic in a secular vocation. This is good, but it is insufficient, and better “proof” of being an active lay person in the Church than an ordained minister.
If we are to turn to “proven men” we must think of the same people that the Council Fathers thought of as “already exercising diaconal ministry” (AG 16) as the first candidates for ordination to the diaconate. We ought to consider those men “already exercising presbyteral ministry” as candidates for the presbyterate.
Look first to the lay ecclesial ministers, catechists, chaplains, pastoral workers, lay theologians who have committed their lives in service to the Church, whose vocation is already clearly ecclesial, rather than secular. They have already given years to the education, formation, and experience we want in our priests and deacons. Most often, they have done so at considerable expense and sacrifice to themselves and their families – usually, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth, compared to “traditional” seminarians, who have been sponsored by the diocese throughout formation. These are your “proven men”.
What of the effect on the diaconate?
Because of the accidents of history and the slow, and often piecemeal, approach to reform and development in the Church, there can be no doubt that several men called to be presbyters have been ordained deacons because, and often for no other reason than, they are married. Similarly, there are men in the presbyterate who really ought to be deacons, but as celibates, were pressured into the presbyterate.
I have long been convinced that we need more married presbyters and more celibate deacons. It is an error to believe that celibacy defines the presbyterate or marriage the diaconate. In their ancient roots, if anything, the reverse was more likely to be true. One’s vocation to ministry, and one’s vocation to relationship, are two distinct questions.
Whenever discussion turns to the topic of restoring the discipline of a married clergy in the Latin Church, I envision disaster for the diaconate, if it is handled badly. We are only part-way through the process of restoring the diaconate as a proper order of ministry, full and equal to the presbyterate, of a lower “rank” than the bishop.
As long as we still have transitional deacons, and the question of women in the diaconate is unsettled, we have not yet completed this process. As long as people still define the diaconate more sociologically – as a band-aid solution for a lack of priests, as a retiree’s volunteer ministry, as the holding place for married clergy – rather than a vocation and ecclesiologically essential order in and of itself, we are still a work in progress on the diaconate. Simply waking up tomorrow to a a married presbyterate would lead to an exodus from one order to the other without the balance going the other way.
Though, perhaps this should be encouraged – a discernment of orders without the distraction of the celibacy/marriage dichotomy. Say, a ten year open period where anyone previously ordained to one order could ‘relocate’ to the other, if it fit more their calling.
This would necessitate making clear what belongs to the deacon as the first assistants to the bishop: the diocesan curia, the deaneries, the diplomatic and ecumenical work, responsibility for personnel and finance, assisting in the governance of the church. The presbyterate is primarily an advisory group to the bishop, the local church’s ‘council of elders’. In short, deacons extend the bishop’s ministry (diakonia), as the presbyter extends the bishop’s priesthood, as cultic leader and presider at Eucharist.
Related to this is the age of ordination. Canon law currently suggests that celibate candidates can be ordained at 25 while married candidates at 35 (CIC §1031). Recent discussion on raising the minimum age of presbyteral ordination to 27 have been entirely too modest. This double standard should end – a single, common minimum age for both orders and both states of life. All candidates, whether married or celibate, for deacon or priest, should be at least 35 years of age.
As a seminary professor in Rome for the last few years, and from several years of working on lay ecclesial and diaconal formation, I have come to know a variety of candidates for ministry. In my experience, there is really no such thing as a “late” vocation, but I have witnessed many premature ordinations.
Many of these prematurely ordained presbyters end up leaving, and/or doing great damage to the local church, not having been “proven” in any real way. This older minimum age would allow a testing period as lay ecclesial ministers, and/or in a secular vocation. I do not think anyone should be ordained who has not put in at least five years of pastoral ministry in some context. It would also allow for discernment between vocation to each order in its own right and on its own merit, questions of marriage/celibacy aside.
Isolated communities? Really?
It is not clear if this is a response to a question, or part of a larger comment. But it raises the spectre of a kind of ‘clericalism within clericalism’. What possible reason is there for restricting the ministry of married clergy other than an elitism of the celibates?
I can think of two good ones:
1) that more stable positions (such as parish pastor) would be a better fit to married clergy than more itinerant positions (such as missionary or diplomat) which might better suit a celibate. Many of the former are more presbyteral, as well, while the later tend to be diaconal, which is worth considering.
2) In those areas where persecution is a real threat – and here I think danger of a martyr’s death – there is perhaps more freedom in a celibate clergy. But this is not the case in many parts of the world.
Perhaps in some communities or cultures a transition period will be necessary. I remember meeting a Filipino priest here in Rome who had never heard of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and had no idea there were married Catholic priests anywhere in the communion. He assumed all such were Anglican or Protestant. Or an American who was shocked at seeing her parish deacon, still vested, give his wife a chaste kiss after mass. These things have to be normalized, with charity and intentionality. That can take a little time, but not really that much.
There is no reason to suggest that married clergy would only be useful in “isolated communities” but it is not clear yet if that is entirely what the Holy Father said or meant. He could have meant that this is one obvious example of need – in many parts of the world the Eucharist is not a daily or weekly liturgy, but monthly or quarterly, for no other reason than a shortage of presbyters. In such ‘isolated communities’ more priests, married or celibate, would be a great service to the local church.
In most cases, there is no compelling reason to make such a distinction, between how and where a celibate or married priest might serve, and no burden or barrier should be placed without grave reason (cf. Acts 15:28).
Finally, two other possible considerations, as long as we are rethinking the discipline of our ordained ministers.
First, the Latin Church does not share the Eastern tradition of restricting the episcopate to the monastic (and therefore celibate) clergy. While there is wisdom in this discipline, there is also wisdom in the Western tradition of married bishops, who are called from, and in service to, the diocesan churches. Perhaps that is for later consideration, but we must face these questions with a full awareness of our own tradition.
Second, since Nicaea, the Catholic/Orthodox Church has allowed ordination of married men but not marriage of ordained men. Yet there are apostolic churches that allowed marriage after ordination (e.g., The Assyrian Church of the East). This is also the almost universal practice of the other churches and ecclesial communities of the Western tradition.
At the time this disciplinary compromise was reached, the normal age for marriage was as early as 12-14. Ordination might come a decade later, and life expectancy for those who had lived long enough to get married was about 45. It was obvious that questions of marriage would be settled before questions of ministry.
Today, the reverse is true. In many contemporary cultures, one is expected to have completed education and established a career before entering into marriage. Following the logic that gave us the ancient discipline, it would almost make more sense today to forbid marriage before ordination! At least, we should reconsider this ancient discipline in light of the same sociological factors that inspired it.
All of these questions need to be considered for their ecumenical impact, too, and the wisdom of experience from both East and West should be part of our discernment in revisiting these ancient disciplinary questions.
If nothing else, we can be grateful for a bishop of Rome willing to entertain the question, no matter the result.
Theology of the Laity – According to a Seminarian
Recently, I met with a visiting friend (who happens to be a canon lawyer) and we decided to sit in on Rome’s Theology on Tap, offered by some of the seminarians of the North American College to some of the study abroad programs that they work with for their “apostolates” (volunteer service giving them practice in some forms of ministry).
It is an interesting experience, to a professor of both U.S. undergrads and seminarians in Rome, because although neither the seminarians nor most of the undergrads present are in my classes, it still felt a little like I was listening to an oral presentation by one student that needed grading. I could not help myself.
The topic was “The Laity”. In fairness, my seat was in the back, so there were times it was hard to catch everything. But these are the points I heard:
- The Church teaches that priesthood and religious life (no mention of diaconate) are objectively a higher state than the laity. Subjectively, however, the universal call to holiness is equal for everyone in the Church.
- There is a difference between ministry and service. [Could not hear the definition]. Ministry is exercised only by the ordained. Lay people can only offer service. When you hear people talk about liturgical “ministry”, like a lector, this is really a service.
- The Lay Vocations are Marriage and Consecrated Life. Just as priests are committed to the Church, consecrated are committed to their communities, and married people are committed to each other.
- The Mission of the laity is exactly the mission of the whole church: Evangelization.
- [Missed something] You have the duty to correct your priests, professors, other leaders if you hear something wrong.
My canonist friend and I come from different cultures of Catholicism, but both have an ecclesial vocation, as lay people, in ministry and service to the Church. And while we had different objections to some of the points, we were in accord that, unfortunately, not everything represented well the Church’s teaching. The Church itself, of course, is not always consistently clear on this topic, which occasionally adds to the confusion.
First, he’s right on his penultimate point about the mission of the laity, which is the mission fo the Church. The laity are the vanguard of the Church’s mission, the clergy and other ecclesial ministers are there for support and leadership, but it is the laity whose first role is to go out into the world and get the real work of the Church done.
The final point might have been a reference to canon 212, by which all the faithful have the right, and are even obligated, to make their needs and concerns known to the Church according to their expertise. Consider this an exercise thereof to avoid similar mistakes by others.
Now the problematic points.Taken with a grain of salt, as i said, there was occasional cross-noise, so if i missed any clarifying comments or explanations to the points, the fault is mine.
The Church itself does not make use of this “objective”/”subjective” distinction in terms of a person’s state. All are equal in baptism. All are equally called to holiness, as he pointed out. Where there might be some confusion is in distinguishing the ways we participate in the One Priesthood of Christ. All who are Initiated (Baptized, Confirmed, Eucharist-ed) have a share in Christ’s priesthood. This is the universal priesthood, the priesthood of all believers. As priests, we are still equal. Lumen Gentium 10 says that these two kinds of participation in Christ’s priesthood “differ from one another in essence and not only in degree.” This seems to lend credence to the idea that one is higher. Avery Dulles, however, repeatedly pointed out it was better understood as “differing from one another in essence and not in degree,” that is, that they are different kinds of participation, but one is not higher than the other. Plus, we have only to look at scripture to see Jesus’ idea of leaders clamoring for a “higher status” – and it is not well received. Those called to leadership are called as servants.
Which goes to the distinction between ministry and service. As I missed something, its entirely possible he hit something right on, but the follow up was insufficient. The two words, in a Christian context, are both translations of diakonia. All ministry is service. Fair enough to say that not all service is ministry, but the distinction is not about ordained and lay, but about the nature of the service. Rather like the distinction between skills and charisms, wherein the later are always for the building up of the Body of Christ. Possible confusion comes from an infamous interdicasterial instruction that attempted to limit the term “ministry” to the ordained back in 1997, wherein this dichotomy was presented – yet every pope since (John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) have referred to lay ministry, as have most bishops conferences and other documents of the curia.
Finally on vocations. Put simply, everyone has a vocation. There are hardly only two options for lay people, and in fact, the two mentioned were only one kind of vocation – relationship – which is also called a state of life. Everyone also has a vocation to ministry/mission and to spirituality, at least. Some of the faithful are called to marriage, consecrated life, celibacy or single life. Some of the faithful are called to serve the church’s mission in the world, some as ecclesial ministers. Some of the former take vows, some enter into a sacramental relationship, though not all. Some of the later are ordained, though not all. Not all celibates are priests, not all priests are celibate. Not all lay people are married, and not all married people are lay. When talking vocations, it is confusing to try and force the square peg of relationship into the round hole of ministry.
But, that is one of the services offered by seminary, correction to mistaken ideas about the people you are called to serve.
On Priestly Celibacy and the Diaconate
This has been on my mind since the first minor flurry of stories about Pope Francis’ openness to discussion on the topic, based on the recounting of a single remark shared by Bishop Erwin Krautler of the Territorial Prelature of Xingu, Brazil. So, it is a lot of musing, but enough to get some conversations started, I hope.
First, an aside about numbers. Most accounts, like the RNS article linked above, cite 27 priests serving 700,000 Catholics, meaning a ratio of 1:25,925, a staggering reality if accurate.
However, I am not sure where these numbers come from. According to the Annuario Pontificio 2012, there are only 250,000 Catholics there, being served by 27 priests (about half diocesan and half religious), and according to Catholic-hierarchy.org, there are 320,000 Catholics (but only as of 2004). This means a ration of either 1:8620 (AP) or 1:13,333 (CH).
Still a staggering reality when you consider as frame of reference the following: The Archdiocese of Seattle, my home diocese, currently lists 122 active diocesan priests, 87 religious priests, and 31 externs borrowed from other dioceses serving a Catholic population of 974,000. This makes a priest to Catholic ratio of 1:4058 (the US average is just under 1:2000).
The Vicariate of Rome, my current diocese, has nearly 11,000 priests and bishops present, counting religious, externs, and curial staff. They are at least sacramentally available to the 2.5 million Catholics here. This makes a ratio of 1:234.
(Since priests were the subject of the article, I have left out deacons, catechists, and lay ecclesial ministers, as well as non-clerical religious, though not to discount their great service to the Church, to be sure!)
Even with the most conservative estimate of Xingu, the priests there are stretched more than twice as thin as their Seattle counterparts and 36x the scope of their Roman brethren.
What has really been on my mind, though, and again in the light of Pope Francis’ comments yesterday that the ‘door is always open’ to this change in discipline, is the effect that a sudden shift in allowing for a married presbyterate would have on the diaconate.
Some refreshers on basic points of the general discussion:
- We are only talking about diocesan (sometimes called secular) clergy, not religious. The latter would remain celibate under their vow of chastity, but diocesan clergy do not take such vows.
- We already have some married Catholic priests. Almost all of the Eastern Catholic Churches allow for both married and monastic clergy, and even in the Latin Church (i.e., Roman Catholic Church) we have married priests who were ordained as Anglicans or Lutherans, later came into full communion, and have been incorporated into Catholic holy orders.
- We do have celibate deacons, though not many. I have long held we need more celibate deacons and more married priests in the west, for various reasons.
- Most likely we would be talking about admitting married men to orders, rather than allowing priests to marry after ordination. This is the ancient tradition of the Church, east and west, since the Council of Nicaea when it was offered as a compromise between some who wanted celibacy as the norm, and others who thought it should not matter whether marriage or orders come first. We still have both extreme practices present in the Church today, however, so it is not impossible that we should choose a different practice. Unlikely, but possible.
- The Latin Church has maintained celibacy as a norm for its diocesan clergy since about the 12th century, though historians argue whether it was universally enforced until as late as the 16th. There are rituals as late as the 13th allowing for a place in procession for the bishop’s wife.
- Technically, it is currently the norm for all diocesan clergy, and any exceptions, including married deacons, are exceptions. Which begs the question, if it is so easy to make these exceptions for deacons, why not for priests?
- The Byzantine tradition has long held that bishops come from the monastic (celibate) clergy, whereas the Latin tradition has long held that bishops come from the diocesan clergy – which means we had married bishops when we had married priests and deacons. Given the situation with the Anglican Ordinariate, there seems to be a reluctance to return to this tradition, but as it was part of our Roman patrimony for a millennium, it seems it should be at least considered.
- Finally, it is not actually clerical, or priestly, celibacy per se that is at issue, but the idea of requiring celibacy of those to be ordained. There will always be room in the church for celibate deacons, presbyters, and bishops, and these charisms will always be honored. As it should be.
With all that in mind, I finally get to my point.
Let us imagine, unlikely though it may be, that tomorrow Pope Francis announces we will no longer require celibacy of our candidates for orders – whether deacon, presbyter, or bishop. The most immediate effect and response of the faithful, and the press, will be about the change in the discipline of priestly celibacy.
If it is done that directly, it would be disastrous for the diaconate. Many men, I have no doubt, have been ordained to the diaconate simply because they or their bishops saw no alternative for someone called to both marriage and ordained ministry. Many may in fact be called to the presbyterate instead, and given the opportunity, ‘jump ship’ from one order to the other.
One can likewise imagine there are many currently in the presbyterate who are actually called to the diaconate, but they or their bishop saw no reason for not ordaining them to the presbyterate because they were called to celibacy as well. I have heard many a bishop say something along the lines of, ‘why be ordained a celibate deacon? If you can be a priest, we need that more!’
Without completing the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal order, and a better understanding of both orders separated out from the question of marriage/celibacy, what will happen is a return to the ‘omnivorous priesthood’ and an ecclesiology of only one super-ministry. Rather than a plethora of gifts and ministries as envisioned in the Scriptures, lived in the early church, and tantalizingly promised at Vatican II, everyone would flock to the presbyterate and we would have set back some aspects of ecclesiological reform half a century.
Rather than simply a change to the discipline of clerical celibacy, what is needed is a comprehensive reform of ministry in the Church. Tomorrow Pope Francis could say, instead, ‘Let’s open the conversation. Over the next three years, we will look at the diaconate and the presbyterate, lay ecclesial ministry and the episcopate, and we will consider the question of celibacy in this context. At the end of this study period, a synod on ministry.’
What I would hope to come out of this would be first a separation of two distinct vocational questions that have for too long been intertwined: ecclesial ministry on one hand and relationships on the other. We have been mixing apples and oranges for too long, but priesthood or diaconate is an apple questions, and marriage or celibacy is an orange question.
The deacons, traditionally, are the strong right arm of the bishop. Make it clear that deanery, diocesan, and diplomatic tasks (and the Roman curia for that matter) are diaconal offices. In need, a qualified lay person could step in, or rarely a presbyter, but these are normatively for deacons. This also makes it obvious why we need more celibate deacons, such as in the case of the papal diplomatic corps. They tend to be younger and more itinerant, needed wherever the bishop sends them.
Presbyters are traditionally parish pastors and advisors of, rather than assistants to, the bishop. As the deacon is sent by the bishop, the pastor ought to be chosen from and by the people he serves.. He should be a shepherd who smells like his sheep, right? How exactly this looks can take various forms, to be sure the bishop cannot be excluded, but the balance of ministerial relationships should show clearly that the presbyter is more advisor to the bishop and minister among the people he is called to serve, and the deacon is the agent of the bishop. At least one should not be ordained until there is an office to which he is called which requires his ordination This also makes it obvious why presbyters can, and often are in other churches, married. They tend to be more stable and older.
The minimum age for ordination should be the same for both orders, regardless of marriage or celibacy, and in general one can imagine that deacons would be younger than presbyters. Let the elders be older, indeed!
Some deacons may even find, later in life, reason or office to transition to the presbyterate, but otherwise there should be no such thing as a transitional diaconate. Candidates for both orders should spend at least five years, perhaps more, in lay ecclesial ministry, before being ordained, as long as this does not reduce lay ministry to a transitional step only, as a similar move did to the diaconate all those centuries ago!
Bishops could be chosen from either order, and be either married or celibate. Indeed, celibacy should be rejoined with the rest of the monastic ideal, and there should be no such thing as a celibate without a community. It need not be a community of other permanent celibates or of other clergy – there are some great examples, such as the Emmanuel Community in France, who have found ways for celibate priests to live in an intentional Christian community that includes young single people, deacons, lay ecclesial ministers, etc.
Bottom line, if it is just a conversation about priesthood, as much as mandatory celibacy needs to be discussed openly and without taboo, it is not enough. It must be a holistic discussion about ministry, and the diaconate has a special place in this conversation given its recent history and current experience. We have such a deep and broad Tradition from which to draw, why would we not dive in to find ancient practices to suggest modern solutions?
St. Thomas Aquinas
Today is the feast of San Tommaso d’Aquino, patron of my current university, of academics and theologians everywhere. Unfortunately, as I was trying to beat a cold, I was unable to get to the celebration of our Patronal Feast at the Angelicum this morning, with Archbishop Agustin DiNoia, OP, but a friar friend has put some photos up on the university blog, so check them out!
I have never claimed to be a Thomist per se, for as one of my first university philosophy professors said, “If you are going to be a Thomist, you have to be a damn good one.” I am fascinated by the Angelic Doctor, but I see him as one (important) contributor to the Catholic, Christian theological tradition, rather than devoting all of my studies to him and his works, which is what it would take to be a “damn good” Thomist.
Truth be told, though, even that would not be enough – I am not convinced Thomas would approve of such narrowed focus! He was, after all, the Great Synthesizer, and did not hesitate to use a variety of Christian sources, as well as Jewish, Muslim and pagan ones.
When I was an undergraduate, I had a friend who was studying medieval philosophy, almost exclusively with the late Ralph McInerny – who is a Thomist. He and I would have many long debates some of which revolved around the maxim of the Papal Theologian: “Never mix philosophy and theology, because philosophy always wins!” My friend felt that, as a medieval philosophy with a particular focus, he was therefore an adept theologian. As a theologian with a much broader view of Tradition, I often had to remind him that this was not the case! No matter how profound and how great the tradition, no one theologian encompasses the whole of Catholic theology, much less the attendant pastoral, liturgical, historical and other issues that interact with theology in the lived experience of the Church.
I have always had a great affinity for Thomas, first as a theologian, and in more recent years as a patron for “new” vocations, such as lay ecclesial ministry.
As a theologian and student, his peers dubbed him the “Dumb Ox” – dumb as in mute – to which Albertus Magnus supposedly retorted, “That ‘dumb ox’ will one day fill the world with his bellowing!” Thomas was no quick wit. He would not have made it as official Catholic commentator on Fox News or CNN. He was big, slow to move and slow to speak, and as with any good introvert, would fix you with a stare in response to unexpected questions that probably left less astute contemporaries wondering if he really was all that bright. He is an inspiration to any systemitizing introvert who has been caught in the spotlight by “think out loud” extravert peers!
As a candidate for patron of “new” vocations, consider his story:
According to his father, the Count of Aquino, Thomas was going to be groomed as the Abbot of Montecassino, an old, established, and wealthy Benedictine Abbey not too far from Rome. This was the normal sort of ecclesial vocation of his era – monastic life. It was how you served the church successfully. It was expected. It was “just the way things were done”. You want to serve the church? Fine, join the monastery.
But he would have none of it. At 19 he ran off to join some newfangled wannabes who were kind of like monks, but not really monks – and I doubt the real monastics would have been too happy if you called these mendicant friars “monks”! They had only been around for 40 years. They did not spend their time at the monastery but wandered around the countryside preaching, teaching, and doing God-only-knows what else that was properly the ministry of monks and diocesan clergy.
This was not right!! How dare they? So, his family did the only respectable thing to do – they arranged for him to be rescued from this cult, threw him in a locked room and commenced a serious deprogramming effort.
A year later, he remained committed to his vocation. He was called to serve the church, clearly, just not in the way that his parents and grandparents generations took for granted. It looked a little different. The charism was a little different. New terminology had to be used to explain it. There were bishops who did not support it. People worried about the confusion of identity of traditional monastic life – of monks and nuns – with this itinerant innovation of mendicant life – these friars. Even a few years later, after being ordained in this “new order”, he spent time writing defense of the vocation he was living. Some critics argued that real ministers would be spending their time in prayer and sacramental service, not defending and defining a “new” vocation!
The parallels to the present age, to lay ecclesial ministry and even to the restoration of a real diaconate, are overwhelming! (Though, I admit I am not aware of any pastoral associate being kidnapped by family to consider the diocesan presbyterate or religious life instead.) We are 50 years into the present form of lay ecclesial ministry in the U.S., and it never ceases to amaze me how much suspicion, ignorance, misunderstanding and outright vitriol is out there. I completely understand this minister’s plea, “Don’t dis lay ecclesial ministry!”
St. Thomas Aquinas, patron of “new” vocations, pray for us!
Theologian of the Papal Household
His study has a view of a small courtyard where the papal guillotine once stood, and where a pillar likely used for the flogging of heretics and criminals can still be seen. The corridor leading from his office is lined with Roman tombstones, and the Swiss Guard are omnipresent with full regalia and halberds. Once known as the Master of the Sacred Palace, the Theologian of the Papal Household has four large paintings in his room each depicting miniature portraits of his nearly 100 predecessors (all Dominicans), starting with St. Dominic himself.
Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP was appointed in December of 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI, and is just beginning his fifth of a five-year term of office. A Polish Dominican born and raised in London, he describes himself as a true “prisoner of the Vatican”, albeit in a gilded cage. Outspoken, jovial, and unafraid to tell it how it is, Fr. Giertych shared with the lay centre residents his thoughts on Thomas, on theology and philosophy, the vocation of the laity, the challenge of contemporary religious life, contemporary challenges arising from the “crisis of 1968” (not Vatican II, note) including relativism, and the practical life of a Vatican officer.
One might be inclined to ask, “Why does the pope need a theologian?” especially a pope like Benedict, the first theologian to be elected pope in a couple centuries. Traditionally, there were three duties ascribed to the office: Offering theological instruction to the papal court (back when most of the court were not monsignori with doctorates in theology, philosophy, or canon law), reviewing any theological books published in Rome, and vetting the papal addresses (especially important at a time when most popes were politicians, warriors, or, worse, nobility).
Now, this means reviewing the drafts of papal allocutions drafted by the staff of Vatican speech writers, though he is neither the first nor the last word on the matter. And, Fr. Wojtech points out, his role is to examine theological content and look for phrases that could be misunderstood, especially by mass media – not to judge the prudence of an address (questions around Regensburg were raised). The most interesting papal addresses are the ones he does not see – those that the pope prepares personally: in Benedict’s case, his encyclicals, major homilies, and annual advent address to the Roman Curia. Given how much is written for the pope, it is like having a graduate seminar with Professor Ratzinger almost every day – even if the personal meetings are less often.
Occasionally the various dicasteries in the curia ask him for theological input on a document, and he serves as consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In one of the oldest continuously operating bureaucracies on the planet, he’s one man serving in an office consisting of only himself. It can be hard to tell what effect his work is having without the constant interaction of peers. This touches on one of the challenges for a friar used to life in community, used to working and living in constant contact and consultation with other people, now working in a more solitary position.
He did get invited to lunch with the pope, once. It is fairly common knowledge that Pope Benedict normally prefers to eat alone or with the sisters who prepare his meals – understandable for an introvert in an intensely public office! However, when a film crew came in to film a “day in the life of the pope” for international TV consumption, it happened that the Holy Father would be seen having a ‘working lunch’ with three members of the papal family, including, as it happens, Fr. Giertych. (“A great, open conversation. We three had wine, while the pope had juice”) As it was viewed around the world, some cardinals expressed how lucky our Friar Preacher was – even they had never had lunch with the pope!
“Never mix theology and philosophy, because philosophy always wins.” Despite the irony of such a statement from a Thomist, or perhaps because of it, this comment alone sparked a conversation that continued with some of us well after Fr. Wojciech left for the evening. While philosophy – in the broad sense of all the ‘sciences’ and other disciplines – can serve the church and our study of theology, they should never be confused as if they are theology, or as if the revelation of the Word should be judged according to the criterion of philosophy, politics, or social sciences. When this happens you end up getting the problems that, for him, have stemmed especially from 1968, and include the identification of the faith with one political party (‘as a good Catholic you must vote for candidate X or party Y’), the revision of the life of faith to fit in with what people expect from other fields, and end up with relativism (‘there may be a Truth, but we can’t know the Truth, so you have your truth and I have my truth’).
The conversation got really interesting as we delved into the vocation, identity, and relationships of the laity, clergy, and religious. Religious should be visible in the world, and laity should be “discreet” (leaven in the world, to use another phrase) – and we have had trouble with religious being more like laity and laity being more like religious. Specifcally, he noted some religious orders without habits of any kind (“it doesn’t matter what kind: a modern habit or a medieval habit or a 19th century habit”) living in apartments where you can hardly find them, or some of the lay movements whose first order of business seems to be deciding what kind of habit to design – and the more medieval the better!
When I asked about lay people serving in ministry positions, his response was about people wanting to be the lector all the time, or spend all their time helping at the church because something is amiss in their real life or they do not understand that the primary lay ministry is in the world, not collecting money at mass or something, “don’t spend your life holding on to the sacristy door”. But what about lay people serving the church in a paid, full time manner? Even the Roman curia has lay ministers in its employ?
“Well, of course the church will always need administrative personnel, computer technicians, finance experts, people to manage the facilities – especially in places where the church is burdened with such institutions as schools and hospitals”. Pastors should not be “running the plant”, but should be engaged in sacramental and pastoral ministry. But even this was more about ‘secular’ jobs that one could do for the church or for another entity, not so much ecclesial vocations; we tried a different track: We are here in Rome, studying at pontifical universities, to get ecclesiastical degrees – what would he expect for us to do with them?
“We have a saying in Poland: man cannot live on theology alone!” As a lay person you should be thinking of making a living, to support a family, you cannot do this with a theology degree. You cannot come from a degree and demand a job from the bishop – he may not have the money. [Can you imagine anyone demanding a job from a bishop???] We need the people (mentioned above) to be theologically trained, but it should be a secondary to your primary education. He shared his experience fromPoland, where a degree is a civil, legal contract – maybe in that system there is a “demand” to be employed in the field. But he wondered most people studying in Poland for theology degrees should have instead been studying harder subjects like medicine or law, but admitted that each country is different: “We have 100 friars living at the monastery in Krakow, 14 masses a day, confessions with two-hour waiting lines” and no experience of a non-ordained person devoting their life to the church outside of a religious community.
“I’d rather see thirty ‘normal’ people give one hour a week, than to pay one person for thirty hours a week, if that person does not have the best formation…” But, he admits he may be wrong as he quoted the Dominican Cardinal Yves Congar, who wrote after being dragged to Rome to be questioned in the 1950’s, wrote in his journals “I may be getting the answers wrong, but these are real questions – and that’s what enervates these people here in Rome!” He was asking questions about the laity and ministry and looking to scripture and the patristic sources for answers. We have to keep asking these real questions, even if it takes time to get the right answers; that is better than ignoring the problems!