Readers may remember my rant-like post a while back lamenting the inadequacies in the current clerical system. While I think there might be a few ideas in there worth considering, the post was very rough and “off the cuff”. It is clear to me that we do need to rethink our current approach, but no solid ideas have yet come forth to reform the system. The revival of the Diaconate in the 1960’s and 70’s was a good thing in concept that has not been fully realized, as deacons are often relegated to little more than the ordinary “extraordinary ministers” liturgically. Without the support of the abrogated minor orders (a true tragedy that should be reversed), the Diaconate has been left unsupported and surrounded by “extraordinary ministers” and a female-inclusive system of altar servers (which, as noted by Leon Podles, does wonders in driving young men from wishing to become priests).
One idea I’ve had is this: Let’s say we ever get the Diaconate to be fully thriving and able to realize its potential to awaken young men’s “vocations” to serve the church. What if we allowed local Diaconates to occasionally select a more senior and capable member from their number to be ordained as a priest (given the bishop’s permission). Some of these men could remain as they are in the world, with whatever job they have, but be full priests sacramentally. This could result in two “castes” of priests: the seminary ones paid by the church and the unpaid ones who could be called upon to give sacraments when the main priests’ hands are full. Like the priests of ancient times, these men would walk in the world, dress as the laity under normal circumstances, and be unrecognizable as priests if met on the street. However, they would be fully capable of all priestly functions.
Before I continue, I want to point out the monumental caveats with this proposal:
- You would need a healthy and well-established Diaconate in place before ever considering this. This has yet to happen as far as I can tell.
- With the current restrictions in the Western Church against married priests, I am not in favor of using this as a workaround to “sneak married priests in”. As long as the restriction persists I am in favor of keeping it and, if it is ever lifted, it should be done in a controlled manner and for the right reasons. Until then, I am in favor of more exceptions being made (like in the case of the Ordinariates or an extremely capable and competent deacon with years of experience).
- Going off the last point, any men who are thus “promoted” should generally be single men or widowers, older and wiser men likely to be respected by the laity (much like St. Joseph, anyone?).
- There must be a competent instruction of these men in matters both liturgical and doctrinal. We can’t pick these men haphazardly and expect good results. Quality must precede quantity (as the “vocation-rich” and “vibrant” 1950’s full of priests who later turned out to be not up to par should have tragically should have demonstrated to us). The foundation mus be firm before the house is built atop it.
- As there could be a proliferation of “impostor priests” (as tragically happened sometimes in some of the more independent and “off the reservation” traditionalist circles in the old days), we must keep track of these men to know who are and who aren’t actually priests.
As I have mentioned before, this idea is still only a hypothesis and based on a number of prerequisites. We must remember that a progressive rushes headlong into half-baked ideas without fully criticizing them and working out the problems with it. He puts all his hope in them and when it fails due to his lack of self-criticism, he must either repent his haste or retreat into self-denial (see also “Cardinal Mahoney”). An ironclad conservative is allergic to anything that may upset the status quo and is afraid of an idea that seeks to disrupt it even as the decrepit order collapses around him. We must avoid either extreme and be willing to try new ideas, but only after we are willing to accept its imperfections and implement it carefully. It is clear something should be done and, in the absence of ideas, I am willing to propose my own though they shall likely fall on deaf ears. They might not even be the right ideas, but I am willing to postulate and give voice to them nevertheless. Maybe someone will come forward with an idea that can counter our current problems, but we will never know unless we begin a discussion that questions the existing system.
Let us neither deny what is broken nor break what is not broken.