Three Kinds of Priest

In the part of the world where I minister, most of the priests around me were trained in the 1960s or 1970s. The majority of these priests are what I call ‘humanitarians’ (some would call then liberals). Their emphasis is the Second Great Commandment. They are concerned first and foremost for the material and emotional wellbeing of people, and often seem keen to set aside those church rules which make life ‘difficult’ (about such things as remarriage, contraception and priestly celibacy). When a group of them get together, they often say rude things about other priests who seem excessively concerned about such things as good liturgy.

At the start of 2015, I attended the conference of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy in Rome. The key speakers, as advertised, were key Vatican figures with interesting things to say. But the vast majority of priests I networked with at this conference seemed preoccupied with the restoration of the extraordinary form of the liturgy (a.k.a. Tridentine Mass) and how to save the Church from the terrible liberal errors Pope Francis was ‘likely’ to inflict on it around the forthcoming Synod on the Family. This group of clergy (‘conservatives’ or ‘traditionalists’) were just as rude about the liberals as my experience of vice versa. I got a definite sense that this group of priests first and foremost were seeking security of identity, expressed in terms of continuity with the lived experience of the church of the recent past. Any change was a threat not only to practice but to identity.

Some years ago a friend commented that it was easier to get liberals to build a consensus than to get conservatives to do so, because liberals would readily compromise on any solution which was generally good for human beings, while conservatives each had their own highly prized yet subtly different standard for what best expressions of liturgy and doctrine should be.

More recently, I realised there is a third kind of priest – the evangelical, or disciple. This kind of priest is most focussed on what Jesus commanded us to do. Such a priest is not afraid to innovate in those areas where the contemporary church is not currently doing some of the things Jesus commanded – such as evangelising or ministering the healing and prophetic gifts of the Holy Spirit. This is the rarest kind of priest, and I think you will find that they will speak sadly, but not rudely, about their colleagues who have allowed care for other human beings or their own security of identity to come before the First Great Commandment, to love God with all one’s heart, mind and strength.

Of course, anyone who truly loves God must necessarily love their neighbour; but if we are confident that God has said, through the church, that artificial contraception, abortion, euthanasia and direct co-operation with weapons of mass destruction are wrong in all circumstances, we cannot invoke the ‘public good’ defence implicit in the Second Great Commandment, to justify them. Any priest who was sworn the ordination oath of fidelity to celebrate liturgy and teach doctrine according to the norms of the Church is duty bound not to innovate – but that still leaves room to explore the spirit of the law, and does not bind the senior officials of the church from adjusting liturgies and developing doctrines, for they have the authority to do so.

There are not only three kinds of priests, of course. There are three kinds of lay Catholics, three kinds of deacons and three kinds of bishops. I doubt we can have more than one kind of Pope at any one time, though!

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