Why I Left the Priesthood: Pt. 2 Intellectual Influences

I didn’t have much of an intellectual life when I was in the seminary. True, I studied hard and got good grades. I learned what I was expected to know on tests. But the intellectual curiosity just wasn’t there. Why should it have been? As Catholics we had the whole truth; there was nothing new to learn. There was no salvation outside the Church. The pope, at least, knew all the answers. There was no need to think much, except to “defend the faith.” 

Beyond that, thinking critically wasn’t much encouraged at all. In fact, from my high school seminary days till half-way through the major seminary (when I was about 23) a palpable anti-intellectualism pervaded the curriculum. For instance, I remember being taught in my first or second year as a philosophy major that Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” We never read Descartes, nor anybody of much consequence as far as “the world” was concerned, apart from snippets in the various manuals – and then only as parts of refutations. These quotes, followed quickly by rebuttal, did after all give the distinct impression that Descartes, Kant, Marx, Freud – not to mention the “Modernists” and Protestants in general – were clueless. So why be concerned about them or their writings?

In 1962, of course, things started to change, when John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. I was a senior in college then. And some of our professors started encouraging us to actually read books, and to discover what was happening in the world. I resisted. I had well internalized the passivity which the seminary curriculum had encouraged in terms of not thinking for myself, at least theologically.

I had the good fortune, however, of having classmates and friends who were less gullible than me. They were excited by the prospect of the Council. After a bit of a struggle, one of them even got our library to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter. In class and outside, others voiced criticisms of a whole host of things I considered sacred. I remember, for instance, a spirited seminary-wide discussion about the worth of continuing to regard The Imitation of Christ as a source of spiritual wisdom. I resisted that too. I remember writing something “learned” defending The Imitation’s author, Thomas a Kempis.

A series of lectures put together by the Paulist Fathers in downtown Boston was especially instrumental challenging my defensiveness. First of all it was a relief to be outside the seminary walls to attend the series. Most importantly though John L. McKenzie, Harvey Cox, Andrew Greeley and others gave powerful lectures as part of the program. Particularly memorable for me, however, was a talk by Barnabas Ahern. As a scripture scholar, he spoke of the human Jesus, and of the way the Gospels had gradually elevated the historical Jesus almost beyond recognition.

Our faith, Ahern reminded us, is that Jesus was a divine person who is fully God and fully human. We believe the first part with all our hearts, he said, but pay only lip service to the second. Ahern’s words made such profound impression on me that the next day I wrote out from memory virtually everything that he had said. His approach showed me what demythologizing in its best sense is all about. I resolved that I wanted to think and speak that way. That represented a tiny step towards adopting as my own a motto suggested to me by one of my mentors years later in Rome: “No more bullshit.”  

Eamonn O’Doherty, one of my scripture professors in the major seminary also moved me in that direction. The beginning of the Council coincided with my class’ entry into our four-year theology program in Milton. Central to it all was Eamonn’s introduction to modern scripture scholarship. Eamonn insisted on dealing exclusively with primary sources. His own notes and lectures provided the commentary. His approach was contextual. And with that I was introduced to genuine critical thinking for the first time. In Eamonn’s class (unlike Moral Theology of all places), questions were encouraged. I especially remember two colleagues (both a couple of years ahead of me) raising many questions I found interesting. Even more intriguing was the fact that they could actually ask them.

I wondered what they were reading. One of them gave me a list of three books – two by Hans Kung. Meanwhile our Liturgy professor acquainted us with Edward Schillebeeckx, and had us read Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Soon I was delving into James Kavanaugh’s A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. I was on my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but even before my ordination, I was starting my exit from the priesthood. I was beginning to recognize that what I was aspiring to – its rationale, its way of life, its theological justification – just couldn’t stand up to the evidence, not scriptural, nor historical nor theological.

By the time ordination came, I was secretly hoping I’d be sent to do graduate work instead of to the “foreign missions.” I wanted to know more. So I was delighted when my first appointment was to Rome and the Academia Alfonsiana to “do” Moral Theology. Evidently, my superiors planned for me to teach in the seminary following my years in Rome. (My intellectual development there however soon had them rethinking that idea.)

I knew Bernard Haring, the great Catholic moral theologian, taught at the Alfonsiana, and looked forward to studying under him. However, before beginning that three-year program, I had to get a degree in Systematic Theology. (Even after four years of theology in Milton, we had no corresponding degree to show for it.) So I enrolled in the Benedictine Atheneum Anselmianum.

Rome was still electric in the aftermath of Vatican II. After each day’s lectures at the Anselmo, I remember coming home on fire. I really admired Swiss Professor Magnus Lohrer. I can still see him smiling enthusiastically as he explained some fine point of the Council, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth – in Latin. Raphael Schulte wasn’t far behind in my estimation. Their excitement about theology, their engagement with the world, their scholarship shook my world and drove me to make up for all that “lost time” at Milton. I read voraciously – everything I could by Rahner, along with books by Congar, Schillebeeckx, Dewart, Cox, Tillich, Moltmann, and (later) by liberation theologians, especially Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica. Meal times in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste were spent in hot debate. I remember those discussions so well: liberals versus conservatives – and all the time enduring our rector’s dark scowls.

It was at this point that news started trickling in about seminary colleagues who were leaving the priesthood. The huge post-conciliar exodus from the priesthood had begun. Table talk on Corso Trieste refocused to that topic. Was the priesthood really forever? And what about celibacy? By now everyone knew that renunciation of marriage was quite late coming along as a requisite for ordination. Its imposition and defence had a lot to do with protecting church property from the heirs of priests. Besides all of that, Vatican II had changed the very ideas of priesthood and church. The priesthood of the faithful had been emphasized. And the church itself was primarily understood as a People of God, not as a top-down clerical hierarchy. Clerics were less important. So, what harm if ordained priests realized all of that and acted accordingly?

Such insights and insistent questions spilled over into the General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban, which I attended in Ireland in the early ‘70s. There I and an Irish and Australian colleague were specially elected “youth” delegates – even though all of us were over 30. Because we were such youngsters, we had voice at the Chapter, but no vote. I remember being disappointed, but not surprised at how closed older delegates tended to be to new ideas expressed not only by the three of us (who were literally “back benchers” in the Chapter hall), but to those expressed by forward-looking priests I had come to admire.

We were impatient for change, and for addressing big questions such as the purpose of missionary activity in an ecumenical world, and even priestly celibacy. Lack of serious response had an alienating effect, at least on me. Additionally, personal observation of the way my order worked, of its members’ basic fear of change, of stonewalling, machismo, and denial intensified the impression that those in charge didn’t really know what they were talking about.

But then, of course, alienation of youth was a “sign of the times” in the early ‘70s. Estrangement of young priests from church structures was part of all that.

It was also part of my story.

 Next Week: Personal Steps away from the Priesthood

Why I Left the Priesthood: Part One

At least before all the scandals hit, I had always admitted quite freely and with a certain sense of pride that I had been a priest “in a former life.” I suppose that’s because as a Catholic born before the Second Vatican Council, some positive residuals still lurked in my mind around the ideas of priesthood and church. It’s also because I still sincerely value the training, education, spiritual focus, lasting friendships, and tradition of hospitality that I inherited from my 20 years of formal association with the Society of St. Columban (the organization of priests to which I belonged). Besides, people in the contexts where I’ve worked since then –   mostly at Berea College in Central Kentucky, or in our local St. Clare’s church (where I had also served as a priest in that “former life”) – seemed to appreciate my previous incarnation. So when they’d ask me why I left the priesthood, I used to say,

I don’t think I’ve ever left the priesthood, or even could. They always told us “once a priest, always a priest;” and I think that’s true. The priesthood isn’t something “they” confer on a person. It’s an acknowledgement of an identity, a “character” that no one and no decision by me or by “them” can remove. I, and so many of my colleagues in the seminary, had a priestly character from the beginning, and ordination simply amounted to its acknowledgement and confirmation by the church. So I still think of myself as a priest. It’s true, the sacramental dimension is missing. But apart from that, as a teacher of theology and director of a Peace and Social Justice Studies program, I’m pretty much doing the same work I did before I left the canonical priesthood. I’m still a priest.

 That’s what I used to say. I don’t any longer like that answer. Its approach to the priesthood was too exceptional, setting me and my friends apart from others in a way I’ve come to see as self-serving. None of us was at all that unique. We were pretty much ordinary, working class kids, who escaped factory work (or truck driving, or delivery routes, or the policeman’s beat) to become the first in our families to get a college education. We joined a highly exclusive club that put us on a pedestal from the beginning, and gave us an exaggerated opinion of our own importance. Before we were 30 or had done really anything at all, we were among the most honoured and important people in our communities. That sort of unmerited aura and especially the accompanying expectations eventually drove me from the priesthood as I once knew it. 

Still there was truth in my statement about priestly character. There was indeed something special about me and those who came with me through the seminary. But the specialness belonged not to me or to them uniquely. What my words unwittingly expressed was an intuition about the nature of being human. The intuition is that everyone has that priestly character I was referring to. Luther, I think, (with his dependence on Augustine) was gesturing towards something like that. Though he didn’t say it as clearly as mystics like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross – or as Hindus or Buddhists do – he was referring to the spark of the divine (the indwelling Spirit) deep within everyone. Awareness of its presence simply dawns on certain people earlier than on others. For some, it never reaches consciousness at all. It happened to dawn on me (more or less) quite early, but not in the way it has over the past decade or so. To get there I had to do a lot of growing, sometimes painful, but often delightful.  The growth was intellectual, personal, and spiritual. Each step moved me further and further from the priesthood as I imagined it for myself and experienced it in others before ordination.

(Next Monday: Intellectual Steps away from the Priesthood)