An Open Letter to Catholic Priests
“‘WHAT use are we?’ For several years many Catholic priests have been asking themselves that question, and now it is also tormenting many Protestant ministers.”—Le Monde, May 3, 1973.
Are you assailed by such doubts about your usefulness as a priest? Do you feel out of touch with the people, their problems and their needs? Do you feel the urge to take up part-time secular work and to be a part-time priest, or even to get a full-time job, so as to live with and like the people, with a view to evangelizing them “from within”? Are you skeptical about the need for priestly celibacy?
It would seem that many of you are, for hundreds of priests are leaving the ministry every year. Moreover, these are not all young, newly ordained priests who have quit the priesthood to get married. Each year, a number of veteran priests leave the ministry.
For example, in 1971, out of the total number of nearly 200 priests who went back to civil life in France, 50 percent had been ordained for over ten years. These were no youngsters, unable to keep their vow of celibacy. They were mature men who had plenty of time to reflect before giving up their vocation.
What led these priests to make such a drastic decision? Do you feel tempted to imitate them?
A Future in the Priesthood for You?
You became a priest doubtless out of a sincere desire to serve God and your fellowmen. You were willing to go to great personal sacrifice for this ideal. It became your life’s vocation. But nowadays you hear prominent men within your own church express doubts about the future of the priesthood and even of the Roman Catholic Church.
In a well-documented report on the priestly ministry, Msgr. François Frétellière, auxiliary bishop of Bordeaux, France, stated: “We have spoken of a dead end. Let us admit that, in the present state of things, the [Catholic] Church does not appear to be very attractive. The number of young men and women willing to devote themselves entirely to its service diminishes from year to year . . . For many of our contemporaries, the Church, such as it lives at present, does not represent a beacon of light and hope in today’s world.”
Could that be one of the reasons for your feeling frustrated? Can a priest be expected to carry on day after day, month after month and year after year, in a church that is no longer sure of its message for mankind, a church that “does not represent a beacon of light and hope”? Is it any wonder that so many of you are arriving at the conclusion that the priesthood holds no future as far as carrying out a useful Christian ministry is concerned?
That this is no artificial problem is confirmed by the bishop of Orléans, France, who made the following frank remarks: “We must admit that for a growing number of priests, a certain way of living the ministry is valueless today. We must listen to these priests when they tell us seriously and sincerely that their duties no longer have any meaning for them. . . . With their duties called in question, with the end of a certain state of mind and with the very great difficulties encountered in trying to create new types of ministries within the present pastoral framework, we are better able to understand why young priests are abandoning the priesthood; it is simply because they feel they are on a dead-end street.”
Judging by the thousand or more letters received by the bishop of Orléans after his statement on the priesthood was made public, a great many of you Catholic priests are extremely discouraged. Most of these letters came from priests who approved of Bishop Riobé’s analysis of the present-day Catholic priesthood. Many of them expressed their bitterness and confusion as they labor on, “chained to the corpses of their parishes,” as one put it.
Is that the way you feel? Are you wondering of what use you are? Do your duties as a priest ‘no longer have any meaning for you’? Do you have the feeling that you “are on a dead-end street”?
Why the Situation Has Developed
The traditional Catholic concept of the priestly ministry is at least partly to blame for the present crisis within the priesthood. The classic Roman belief is based on a hierarchical priestly system, and on an impassable barrier between clergy and laity that is made even greater by the unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy.
However, in recent years Catholic theologians have expressed doubts about the accuracy of this traditional view of the Christian ministry. French Dominican theologian Hervé-Marie Legrand writes: “The word hierarchy is not to be found in the Bible.” “The dividing up of the ministries between clergy and laity . . . has no foundation in dogma.” “The connection between the ministry and celibacy is peculiar to the Latin Church, not the Catholic [Universal] Church.”—Vocation, October 1973.
A Memoir published in Germany on the basis of reports by a group of renowned Catholic theologians, including Hans Küng, develops the following points: “1. Apostolic Succession should not be viewed as indispensable to a valid ministry; 2. To assign a sacramental nature to ordination is a question of phraseology; 3. Church ministries can be pursued either full time or part time; 4. They can be pursued on a temporary or a permanent basis; 5. They can be pursued by either men or women, married or single.”—La Croix (The Cross), February 8, 1973.
Whether these points be right or wrong, the very fact that they have been published by erudite Catholic theologians proves that Roman doctrine on the priestly ministry is neither unquestionable nor unquestioned. The ecclesiastical quarterly Vocation observes: “There is no doubt that the present doctrinal uncertainty with regard to the priestly ministry has also become one of the causes of the crisis, because of its psychological effects, both individually and collectively.”
If the very concept of the ministry you are pursuing is uncertain and admittedly “not to be found in the Bible,” is it any wonder that so many of you have doubts about your vocation, and that so few youths are drawn to the priesthood these days?
Priests Realize Something Is Wrong
Both priests and prelates are increasingly aware that there is something wrong with the Catholic priesthood. This problem was one of the two main themes of the 1972 Plenary Assembly of French bishops, held in Lourdes. Yet religious news commentator Henri Fesquet felt obliged to write: “The debate on the priestly ministry fell flat . . . the bishops were paralyzed for fear of damaging the idea of the priesthood as defined [not by the Bible, but] by the Council of Trent, the Second Vatican Council and the Roman Synod held in 1971.”
Under the heading “Failure of the Debate on Tomorrow’s Priesthood,” Fesquet also wrote: “Little wonder that the seminaries are becoming empty when practically no one seems to be capable of explaining exactly what a priest is and what use he is.”—Le Monde, November 1, 1972; October 29-30, 1972.
In the following year the situation did not improve, in fact some two thousand priests gave up and returned to civil life. Just before the 1973 Plenary Assembly of French bishops convened, the same religious news commentator raised the following questions:
“Has the bishops’ mentality evolved over the past year? . . . Are the bishops willing to draw the necessary conclusions from the undeniable failure of the present [Church] institutions? . . . It cannot be denied that until Rome decides to ordain married men . . . it is difficult to see how the present situation can be unfrozen.”—Le Monde, November 2, 1973.
Cardinal Marty, archbishop of Paris, stated: “It is now, not in twenty years’ time, that we must succeed in truthfully defining the priest’s ministry.”
Yet no new definition was forthcoming, and this assembly of bishops ended with an official statement that was variously qualified as “cryptic,” “negative,” “regrettable” and as a “confession of helplessness.” No wonder a Jesuit monthly admitted that “many priests appear to be discouraged, dispirited,” and that Msgr. Raymond Bouchex, auxiliary bishop of Aix-en-Provence, went so far as to speak of “priests, a number of whom no longer know what use they are, wondering if they are not the last of a race and if the [Catholic] Church is not headed for a dead end.”—Etudes, January 1974.
In a more positive vein, theologian Legrand wrote: “We have seen the serious disadvantages of the unwise use of the priesthood-laity arrangement. This being so, what great disadvantage would there be in abandoning this theological concept of the ministry, and in reverting to the New Testament concept?”
Finding a Truly Satisfying Solution
This suggestion may remind you that the decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, states that priests should above all “teach . . . the Word of God,” and that it is essential for all priests to “always collaborate in the work of the truth.” You may also know that French Catholic philosopher Jean Guitton once stated: “We should be totally willing to abandon our religion if it turns out to be anything but the truth.”
So if you undertook the priesthood out of a sincere desire to serve God and man, and if at present you feel frustrated and at a dead end, why not examine Catholic doctrine on the priesthood and on many other points, in the light of the Word of God, the Holy Bible? In order to ‘revert to the New Testament concept’ of the Christian ministry, you must first impartially study the Christian Greek Scriptures, noting how the early Christians were organized, and carried out their ministry.
Similarly, to be a true “minister of the Word of God,” you need to teach only doctrines that are in harmony with the inspired “Word,” as recorded in the entire Bible. Make an honest study of what the Holy Scriptures teach about such subjects as “The Human Soul,” “Purgatory,” “Hell,” “The Trinity,” “Mary Worship,” “Priestly Celibacy,” and others. After such an open-minded examination, should you discover that Catholic doctrine on these points “turns out to be anything but the truth,” will you be ‘totally willing to abandon your religion’ and indeed all forms of false religion, collectively symbolized in the Bible as “Babylon the Great”?—Rev. 18:1-8.
If so, you will resemble the numerous Jewish priests who, after Pentecost of 33 C.E., realizing that Judaism was heading for a dead end, left it and became Christians. The Bible relates: “The word of the Lord continued to spread: the number of disciples in Jerusalem was greatly increased, and a large group of priests made their submission to the faith.”—Acts 6:7, Jerusalem Bible.
This took great humility on their part. Doubtless they were very well-educated men, highly trained in the Jews’ traditions. Yet they had to be humble enough to learn the truths of Christianity from what their hierarchical superiors considered to be “uneducated laymen.”—Acts 4:13, Je.
You too have spent years studying ancient languages, philosophy, church history, patrology, liturgics and, to some extent, the Holy Scriptures. This higher education may have given you a feeling of intellectual superiority, a feeling that has become very characteristic of the clergy, both Protestant and Catholic. So the big question for you is: Will you be humble enough to allow Bible-trained Christians, considered by church prelates to be “uneducated laymen,” to help you to discover in the Scriptures the truths of real Christianity? (Jas. 4:4-10) Will you be willing to follow the example of the “large group of priests” who, in the apostles’ day, “made their submission to the faith”?
You might feel tempted to quit the ministry altogether and to seek satisfaction by taking up some form of secular work. But would that really solve your problem? After having devoted so many years to endeavoring to serve God as a priest, is a secular job really going to fill the gap?
Why not, therefore, learn how one can become a true Christian minister, whether married or single? So doing, you will no longer have any doubts about your usefulness. Far from feeling out of touch with the people, their problems and their needs, you will be in direct contact with them as you learn to preach the good news of God’s kingdom according to the time-tested methods of Christ and his apostles. (Matt. 9:35-38; 10:7-14; Acts 5:42) This will bring you real satisfaction, and will fulfill the heartfelt desire you had when you undertook the priesthood, which was to serve God and man faithfully.
Out of a sincere desire to help you, may we suggest that you call the local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, or that you write to the editors of Awake!