Models of Vocation
James Davidson and Dean Hoge have an essay in this week’s
Commonweal entitled “Mind the Gap.” It highlights an emerging gap between the
ways that clergy and laity understand their respective roles in the Church.
The core of this gap is a disjunction between two models of
priesthood. The first is a “servant-leader”
model where priests work in a collaborative fashion with laity. The “cultic” model, by contrast, emphasizes
the priest “as a man set apart” and sees the laity having a more limited role.
Although I’m generally a fan of both Davidson and Hoge’s
work, I don’t find the distinction between the “servant-leader” and the “cultic”
models to be helpful. Adopting this
framework is as likely to exacerbate the tensions they identify as to resolve
First of all, the terminology is problematic. In particular, the use of the word “cultic” as
an apparent synonym for “authoritarian” carries the implicit suggestion that it
is wrong for priests to place great emphasis on their liturgical
responsibilities. This is hardly the
teaching of Vatican II, which argued famously that the liturgy was the “summit”
and “fount” of Christian life and that “no other action of the Church can equal
its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”
Secondly, the authors deduce the existence of this “cultic”
mindset by the response of priests to statements that are theologically ambiguous. Davidson and Hoge are concerned, for example,
that younger priests respond in the affirmative when asked whether “ordination
confers on the priest a new status or permanent character which makes him
essentially different from the laity.”
While more redolent of scholastic terminology than I might prefer, this
statement is not at variance with
what the Church teaches about the priesthood (see CCC 1547). So why should affirming it be considered
evidence of a “cultic” mindset?
Thirdly, the classification of priests according to these
two models reinforces a simplistic narrative of how the priesthood is changing:
where once we had (good) “Vatican II” priests, we now have (bad) “John Paul II”
priests. I, too, am concerned about
seminarians who seem to know nothing more of the Catholic tradition than what
they have read in the Catechism. On the
other hand, would it be offensive to suggest that there are at least some
laypeople whose ecclesiology owes less to Vatican II and more to a vague
congregationalism absorbed from the surrounding culture?
I am not blind to the problems that Davidson and Hoge want
to highlight. Priests who cannot build
strong collaborative working relationships with lay staff and volunteers will
do enormous damage to the Church. In my
experience, however, petty ecclesiastical tyrants are no longer solely a clerical
There’s no question that the emerging generation of priests
is different in many ways from those who came before them. That’s true of the laity, too, by the
way. The potential for conflict is
real. Sociology can help us understand
and reduce those conflicts, but not if we insist on stuffing people into the
tired old “liberal” and “conservative” boxes.
We need a broader set of categories.
Mary Ann Reese, the coordinator of Young Adult Ministry for the
Archdiocese of Cincinnati, wrote an article for
in 2003 where she developed eight different categories to help her understand
the diversity of the young people she was encountering. What struck me about her approach was that
she seemed sincerely interested in getting inside the heads of these kids and
understanding their various points of view.
We need more of this kind of thinking. We need diverse models of lay and priestly
ministry that can help the emerging generation of clergy and laity to better
understand each other and their respective vocations. Models that emphasize—and even
exacerbate—polarization are not going to get the job done.