JPII priests, secularism & more


Fr. Damian Ference’s article on the challenges of priesthood today (“Why We’re Different,” May 23) is refreshingly free of talk of generation wars, and I am greatly heartened by his upbeat approach to priestly ministry. It is also good to read his recognition of the importance of lay collaboration, though it is a little difficult to reconcile with his wariness of “the spirit of Vatican II.”

But I am frankly alarmed by his statement that “young men are actually drawn to the challenge and sacrifice of the priesthood-to the fact that they may be persecuted, or at least despised, because of their vocation.” Does he not understand that the element of sacrifice and the chance of persecution in today’s priesthood are primarily connected to the celibate way of life-something entirely accidental to priestly ordination itself? Of course, any response to a calling of any kind in the church will involve some sacrificial elements. Lay ministers surely know that some of that sacrifice is shared by their spouse and family. Absent mandatory celibacy, a priest is not laying down a life in the service of God and the church any more than any other committed Christian. The priest is responding to the particular call of God, to a ministry of immense importance to the community of faith. Celibacy aside, there is very little sacrifice involved in priestly ministry that is not also required of the nonordained. To find ordination attractive because of the reality of sacrifice and the possibility of persecution verges on the masochistic.


Fairfield, Conn.


There may be something to what Fr. Damian Ference says. A long article by a thoughtful, honest priest is bound to get something right. But someone should help him out of his habit of generalizing. Social scientists can find trends that seem to distinguish one “generation” from another. But when one gets to know many priests as individuals, the picture becomes wonderfully more complicated.

The more seminarians and priests one befriends, the clearer it becomes that they cannot easily be crammed into generational categories. For example, it is fascinating to discover how one’s peers all seem to be exceptional, not matching any criteria by which “generations” can be identified.

Were I to meet Fr. Ference, I would not be surprised to find him just as unique as the rest of us, and “different” not only from non-JPII priests but from others of his generation. Granted, individuality was frowned on by some seminary faculty, but despite efforts to fit us into a mold, each of us responded in his own way to the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Does Fr. Ference realize that there were seminarians in the 1950s who read Amen, who privately sympathized with the Vernacular Society, and who, like young Joseph Ratzinger, studied Guardini, Rahner, Von Balthasar, and Schnackenberg-along with the Summa? Only with caution can we generalize about generations.


Rockford, Ill.


After reading Fr. Damian Ference’s article, I realized that there is no consensus about how clergy should relate to one another. Diocesan seminarians are often formed and educated outside the church community they will serve. The clergy, apart from providing pastoral supervision, have little or no corporate role in their formation. After imposing hands on the newly ordained, there is no ritual or process of initiation into the presbyterate.

We continue to experience a “Lone Ranger” syndrome at every level. Thanks to Damian Ference for articulating such a neuralgic issue. Now what?


Lower Burrell, Pa.


The review of a major work by a major intellectual in a serious journal of opinion is no place to settle old scores from school days. In his review of Mark C. Taylor’s After God (“The Lord & Taylor,” April 11), Bernard G. Prusak admits that he was “intimidated” by Taylor at Williams College and quickly dropped out of the one Taylor seminar for which he finally dared to register. He faults Taylor’s way of building classroom participation and belittles the man’s popularity with Williams students as a “cult of personality.”

This will not do. The case for Taylor’s pedagogical competence may safely rest on his receipt, in 1995, of the Carnegie Endowment’s national “Professor of the Year” award. More to the point, the strengths or weaknesses of After God are simply not engaged by whiny, school-boy complaints like “he seems to think he has everybody and everything figured out” and grandly insinuating questions like “would he, like Nietzsche, see [John Paul II’s Fides et ratio] as a piece of priestcraft?”

After God, which makes the Protestant Reformation-even, more narrowly, the Lutheran Reformation-the hinge of world history certainly invites a Catholic critique. As a friend of Taylor’s who read and commented on much of the book while it was in progress, I could imagine such a critique as I read. But what Prusak offers in lieu of a true critique is hurt feelings.

Prusak concludes, quoting Taylor: “Since ‘modernity as well as postmodernity is inseparably bound up with Protestantism’...what’s a Catholic who still believes in God to do but watch from the sidelines?” Well, there is quite a lot that an intellectually prepared Catholic presented with this thesis might do besides watch from the sidelines. The trouble is that Prusak isn’t up to doing it. He can only complain about it.

Yes, the rise of secularism has left believers feeling like spectators. I know of no serious student of secularism-including, by the way, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose work Prusak cites with approval-who would claim otherwise.

That widely felt and just as widely resented sentiment is a part of the phenomenon itself, whether or not Luther deserves as much credit for it as Mark Taylor gives him. Taylor’s earlier work has prompted, no surprise, more than one dismissal by a wounded Protestant. But this is where the discussion should begin, not where it should end. The central theses of Taylor’s work are highly debatable. Commonweal could have been a good place to debate them. What a pity that that opportunity has been lost.


Pasadena, Calif.


I am sorry that my whiny review of Taylor’s work hurt the feelings of his friend Jack Miles. If Miles is up for considering substantive criticism of After God, perhaps he should read more than the opening and closing paragraphs of my review.



If Commonweal were to adopt the policy of the National Catholic Reporter, which refuses to accept ads for military chaplains, a policy one of your letter writers recommends (“Conflicting Message,” May 23), I would immediately cancel my subscription. The concept of ideological purity inherent in several of your correspondents’ demands flies in the face of the spiritual and psychological needs of members of the armed forces. On its face, such a view is bigoted, uncharitable, and ultimately un-Christian. “My way or the highway” is not a tenable position, regardless of one’s opinion on the war in Iraq-or any other war, for that matter.


Wallingford, Conn.

Published in the 2008-06-20 issue: 
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