Thursday, November 10, 2011

Happy But Disgruntled

I read two articles about priests recently and thought them at odds with each other. 

The first article was a review of Why Priests Are Happy by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti,  the  results of  the data collected from two surveys (the first done in 2004, the second in 2009) concerning the psychological and spiritual health of priests. 

The second article was titled "Push For Reform Grows in Austria," a report about the Austrian Priests' Initiative's "Appeal to Disobedience," pledging to challenge the Vatican's stand on such issues as ordination of married men, ordination of women, and giving communion to everyone who approaches the altar in good faith. 

Rossetti is a clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at the Catholic University of America. He concludes that priests as a whole are highly satisfied with their lives. 

Among Rossetti's findings are these statistics: 92.4% of priests are happy overall being priests; 88.8% have good morale; 76.6% have a good relationship with their bishop; 75.1% say celibacy has been a personal grace; 82.1% would choose to remain celibate if priests were allowed to marry. 

Two areas of concern, Rossetti said, are that priests have excessive workloads and that divisions over political and social issues may pose a threat to priests' sense of unity. 

The Austrian Priests' Initiative was founded in 2006 by Msgr. Helmut Schuller, former vicar general of the Archdiocese of Vienna and a well-known media personality in Austria. He is currently a parish priest in a small town north of Vienna. 

About 400 priests acknowledge membership in the API, roughly one in ten active priests in Austria. They are calling for reform in several areas of the Church's teaching and practice. Questioned about their pledge to be disobedient, spokespeople for the group reply that there is a higher obedience to conscience and to God. 

API members (plus some 12,000 lay Catholics who support the initiative) think that Rome is backtracking on the reforms and direction set by the Second Vatican Council. When members met with Cardinal Christoph Schőnborn of Vienna, the prelate countered their appeal to disobedience with an appeal for unity. Austrian media reported that Schőnborn told the leaders that anyone who thinks Rome is on a wrong track must leave the Catholic Church. 

A spokesman for the Archdiocese told Catholic News Service, however, that the situation is not as dramatic as the Austrian media make it seem. 

My initial response to these two stories was confusion. How can priests be so happy (the Rossetti study was American) and yet so upset with the Vatican (the API is European). 

Does the Rosssetti study reflect the smoke-screen of the dysfunctional family which to all appearances is happy and well-adjusted, but behind closed doors is miserable and broken?  Are priests reluctant to tell the truth about their feelings and experiences lest they scandalize the laity? Would they answer what they thought they should say rather than what they personally hold? 

Are the priests of the Austrian initiative unhappy rebels, self-centered pastors, pathetic examples of vocations gone bad? Are they reneging on their ordination promise of obedience to the bishop? If they misinterpret the role of the hierarchy, or their personal obligation to obey their own consciences, is the same thing true about the priests expressing similar concerns in Ireland, Germany and the United States? 

While I initially thought the two articles (and the two groups of priests) to be completely at odds with each other, I'm not so sure they are really polar opposites. 

Could a man be perfectly happy being a priest, and still be upset with the direction he sees the Church is going? Could a cleric recognize that one answer to the priest shortage is allowing older married men to say Mass and still have good morale? Could a priest think celibacy is a grace for him and still support ordaining married men? 

As psychologists and spiritual writers frequently note, people need not operate solely in a binary system of either/or. Dualism can give way, especially as we get older, to a unitive system, a non-dualistic mind of both/and. 

Episcopal priest/teacher Cynthia Bourgeault, PhD, has been encouraging people to develop non-dual thinking as a way of understanding the teachings of Jesus. She sees that mindset in the beatitudes, e.g., "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God." Blessedness and poverty seem dualities incompatible with one another, but Jesus sees it differently.

She advises her students to let the heart be an organ of spiritual perception. "The heart," she explains, "can pick up subtle signals from all levels of reality, not just from what's happening in the rational...When the heart-awareness becomes fully formed within a person, he or she will be operating out of non-dual consciousness." 

If I understand Bourgeault correctly there need not be a great disconnect in a priest happy with his priesthood but upset with the way the Church is going. 

I believe that to be the case among my priest friends and acquaintances. Even if they grumble about the new translation in the Roman Missal and think the Vatican is backtracking on Vatican II, it doesn't mean they are unhappy being priests. In fact, it may mean they take both vocation and Church very seriously.

No comments:

Post a Comment