...by Dr John N Collins
Dr John N Collins has been following Tom McMahon's series of commentaries on two models of priesthood with much interest — and has contributed some of his own thoughts in our forum. He was particularly interested on Wednesday last [LINK] when Tom mentioned a book by Richard A. Schoenherr Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church. Dr Collins has himself been a contributor to discussions on the nature of priesthood at an international level and has written two books on the early history of the priesthood in the Church. Dr Collins had written this review back in 2002 around the time Richard Schoenherr's book was published but this is the first time it has been published. While acknowledging the valuable perspectives modern disciplines such as psychology and sociology bring to our understanding of the nature of priesthood, Dr Collins argues we also need to remember the theological dimension.
A Future Church from the Recent Past...
When Richard Schoenherr died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 61 his students in the department of sociology at the University of Wisconsin petitioned to continue their course without their professor. That the university acceded to their request says much about Schoenherr as a person and an educator. In 1969, as a young priest completing a PhD in sociology, Schoenherr had been invited by Andrew Greeley to direct a survey commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops sinto "the satisfactions, dissatisfactions and problems" of the nation's priests.
By the end of 1970 he had his PhD, was newly married, and in the new year was an associate professor of sociology in the University of Wisconsin. But by the time his report was published in 1972 as The Catholic Priest in the United States, the name of Andrew Greeley appeared as author, despite Greeley's own remonstrances. Some of the hierarchy, unhappy to have a married priest researching attitudes to celibacy — among other things — among their clergy, had seen to it that Schoenherr's name did not appear on the cover.
The survey extended to 7000 priests, including active and recently resigned priests, and, according to Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America (who wrote a foreword to Goodbye Father) and Jacqueline Wenger, writing in their own recent survey Evolving Visions of the Priesthood , Schoenherr's survey "remains to this day unsurpassed in scope and thoroughness", serving as "a benchmark for assessing later trends".
The quality of Schoenherr's work led to his engagement ten years later in a larger project on the priest shortage for the USCCB ("almost no one at the USCCB remembered me or my role in 'the Greeley Study', as it was known there. Those who did were prepared to forgive and forget – and so was I.") He worked with co-author Lawrence Young, and in 1993 they published, under a foreboding title, Full Pews and Empty Altars. This report forecast, as he put it later in Goodbye Father, that "By 2005, there will be 40 percent fewer parish priests and 65 percent more church members than there were in 1966."
Just weeks before his death Schoenherr had completed a hefty manuscript of 1200 pages complementing Full Pews and Empty Altars in which he analysed the meaning of such alarming statistics for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Oxford University Press was willing to publish a more reasonably sized volume, a project undertaken after Schoenherr's death by his former student, David Yamane, who cleverly edited the manuscript to 400 pages that OUP published in 2002 under Schoenherr's original title Goodbye Father: The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church.
While Schoenherr was working on this manuscript some earlier bitter recriminations of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles would surely have echoed in his ears. As recalled by a reviewer of Goodbye Father in The New York Times in 2002, the cardinal had charged that "the Catholic Church in our country has been done a great disservice by the Schoenherr report:" since "our future is shaped by God's design for His Church — not by sociologists". The cardinal then countered Schoenherr's projection with his own projection for the number of priests that could be expected to be available in Los Angeles over the ensuing four years. The reviewer, Garry Wills, himself the author of Papal Sins: The Structures of Deceit , took pleasure reporting that "at the end of that period, there were 31 fewer priests in Los Angeles than Schoenhnerr had predicted…. "
The experience of bringing together Full Pews and Empty Altars led Schoenherr to a profound re-thinking of the future of the Roman Catholic Church. In Goodbye Father he gave academic shape to his convictions about an impending historical unfolding of radical developments. One phase in this would be married priests coming onstream within his own generation. (Were he alive in 2012 he would be 77.) A second phase was to be the introduction of women priests, but this was to be a couple of generations away. The second phase would also mark the definitive end of a culture of patriarchy that has dominated and distorted human lives and social institutions for over 5000 years, and nowhere more damagingly than within and through the operations of religious systems.
These developments would not be by way of response to agitation and calls to action, although prophetic voices have already been heard and would increasingly be listened to. The developments would rather be the outcome of sociologically identifiable forces that are already in train. Thus, Schoenherr himself was not so much being prophetic as being attentive to and insightful in reading the signs of the times. His Goodbye Father is a description of baleful patriarchal influences deeply embedded in the institutional forms of Roman Catholicism and of their inevitable clash with more powerful and more rapidly diffused forces originating in the Enlightenment and permeating the modern human consciousness. Significant here are Schoenherr's observations on how 20th century psychologists — Maslow being prominent here — have aroused awareness of human experiences that lie beyond the physical and rational limits allowed play by the Englightenment. This dimension is critical in Schoenherr's construct because it opens the field in which his priesthood effects its business.
Thus Goodbye Father is not just about the fading from the scene of the priest of Going My Way, or of the more substantial types Tim Unsworth wrote about in The Last Priests in America: Conversations with Remarkable Men . It is not about the exasperations and hopes of former priests recorded by David Rice in Shattered Vows  and by Anthony Kowalski in Married Catholic Priests: Their History, Their Journeys, Their Reflections , nor is it about rearguard actions from beyond the pale reported by William Powers in Free Priests , and it has virtually nothing to say about a psycho-sexual disarray exposed by broad media since his death and by Donald Cozzens in The Changing Face of the Priesthood . It does not construct a sociological window into lives and attitudes of priests of the 1990s after the manner of the Hoge and Wenger Evolving Visions of the Priesthood , although it is interesting to note how these two revealed among the younger priests — those of "the Future of the Catholic Church" imagined by Schoenherr — a narrowing focus on cult, an insistence on the priest-lay divide, a strong sense of being an "icon" and of having "a mystical presence" (at the expense, it might even seem, of pastoral involvement), all this based on "a seismic shift ... in ecclesiological viewpoints" from those established after Vatican II. It is precisely the "Father" of such a "Celibate Male Priesthood" that Schoenherr is saying goodbye to.
The non-academic ring to his title belies the depth and detail of the sociological and cultural discourse running through Parts I-V and all fourteen chapters of Goodbye Father. Not a mere plea for a married clergy, nor just an acerbic forecasting of the imminent winding down of an age-old dysfunctional ecclesiastical system, the focus underlying the subtitle The Celibate Male Priesthood and the Future of the Catholic Church is the inevitability of a rescission of the canonical requirement of celibacy with equally inevitable consequences for a fundamental restructuring of the ministerial arrangements in the church. Once parish priests become family men — at least those among them who wish to — the whole of what the sociologist calls the ecology of the church will begin to change. The following extracts [pp. 212-14] set the drift:
A married clergy ... becomes the camel's nose under the patriarchal tent. Why? Because women and children enter the priest's life space. Abstract philosophical and theological arguments about male superiority are weakened by experiential knowledge of gender equality. Taken-for-granted male privilege recedes when seminaries must accommodate the presence of women as students, girlfriends, and fiancées... The myriad forms of accommodating to women and children will themselves weaken patriarchy.... As the married priesthood is routinised, the coalitional forces in favour of gender equality incease their charismatic strength. These forces ... reach a threshold of strength sufficient to create another breakthrough of radical change in the structural form of Catholic ministry. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church opens the priesthod to women within our grandchildren's lifetime.
Schoenherr more or less apologised for closing his study with a few pages in this personalised style, but his scenario is useful in suggesting the kind of outcomes required by his sociology. While the sociology may be strong, to me it would appear to be compromised by his narrow theology of priesthood. In many sections of the book he returns to his underlying perception that the heart of Catholicism is sacrifice, a religious process providing "a corporate group with access to the higher, transrational, or spiritual levels of consciousness". In this process, "the priest, as sacrificer, plays the sine qua non role"[p. 123]. As early as page 6 he asserts, "Sacramental and hierarchic hegemony constitute the essence of priesthood". He makes no apology for this: "sacramentalism and sacerdotalism are the primary elements of Catholic ministry"[p. 51].
One can easily infer from this insistence that Schoenherr was either taking sides in the long drawn-out post-Vatican II debate about the nature of the presbyterate or he was simply overlooking the broader understandings of the presbyterate upon which Vatican II indubitably opened windows. I sense it was the latter. And he appears to have locked himself into this position because the arcane and mythic priesthood was the only instrument known to him by which openings could be made into the theo-sphere (my term, not his) where one might achieve "unitive consciousness with Transcendent, Undivided, Eternal, Universal, Ultimate Being". (Yes, he was interested in Zen.)
Against this, however, an alternative process to which he frequently refers but which he wrongly suspects of being inadequate — and not just because it is Protestant — could equally well have opened up sacramental roles for his presbyter/priest, and this would be the process of proclaiming and encountering the Word of God.
For Schoenherr, sad to say, the Word of God appears to remain little more than "the printed word" instead of that word presented by its master exponent, Paul of Tarsus, as imprinted "on tablets of human hearts" [2 Corinthians 3:3], the very sociological niche where Schoenherr so ardently hoped authentic Catholicism would find its full expression.
Reviewed by Dr John N Collins. Submitted to Catholica 09 Mar 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2012John N Collins