The Problem of the Rigid Seminarian | The "Last
Word" by Diogenes | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Problem of the Rigid Seminarian | The "Last
Word" by Diogenes
In their zeal to find seminarians who arent rigid, the seminary
gatekeepers are weeding out with the positive attribute of tenacity.
Over the past thirty years or so weve often heard concern expressed
by bishops, theologians, seminary rectors, and vocation directors that many
candidates for the priesthood are unsuitable on account of their rigidity.
In these circles it goes without saying that rigid is bad.
But suppose, in place of the word rigidity, we substituted the word
tenacity. Immediately we see that tenacity can be a positive quality,
something martyrs and confessors had, something laudable in any believer
and eminently desirable in a priest.
Whereas rigidity is kind of a directionless term, negatively descriptive
of its subject, tenacity is incomplete until we ask, tenacious of what?
In the context of discipleship, we mean tenacious of principles, values,
standards: in short, the truths of the Faith. So how is that a Catholic
who would have been commended as tenacious before, say, 1945, has come to
be disqualified as rigid?
The kind of officer who excels in wartime often founders in times of peace;
finding himself at a desk, he lacks the suavity, affability, and fondness
for compromise that mark the managerial bureaucrat as promotable. When the
game is no longer victory on the field of battle but cutting deals with
patrons and rivals, the combat veteran turned office hack appears uncouth,
awkward, and sometimes counter-productive in the eyes of his smoother colleagues.
Since the Council, the Catholic clergy in the prosperous West has effectively
transformed itself into a peacetime army, concerned not with fighting threats
to the Church but with making life comfortable and consolidating political
gains. The term rigidity belongs to the negative vocabulary of a
peacetime army, tenacity to the positive vocabulary of a wartime
one. The qualities that made Edmund
Campion a hero in anti-Catholic England would make him a pastoral liability
Or so it may have seemed. Psychoanalyst Karl Stern, a Jewish refugee from
Nazi Germany who converted to Catholicism, remarked how the experience of
the concentration camps falsified many assumptions of pre-war psychology.
Stern says it was the conservative Catholics, the Jehovahs Witnesses,
and the ultra-Orthodox Jews who endured extremes of stress without selling-out,
going mad, or collapsing, whereas the enlightened bourgeois typically lost
all sense of selfhood and integrity in the maelstrom.
Sterns point was that his fellow psychiatrists
didnt realize the extent to which their model of psychological health
was conditioned by the context of peacetime upper-middle class urban life,
so that the types judged by agnostic academics "most likely to succeed"
crumbled disastrously in the camps, while non-adaptive persons, well accustomed
to marginalization through tenaciousdid someone whisper "rigid"?adherence
to principle, maintained their equanimity and character.
The Church in the West has enjoyed a half-century of comparative ease, in
which the agenda has largely been set by professorial Catholic clergymen
who dress, dine, recreate, and vote in ways indistinguishable from their
heathen faculty colleagues, men who have had almost no price to pay for
their highly adaptive Catholicism. Its not surprising that they should
be alarmed by "rigidity" in their juniors. Its not surprising
to read Father Richard McBrien lamenting a survey of seminarians that finds
"many students resist the learning enterprise because it
threatens their preconceived ideas about theology."
Yet, with some few exceptions, its the professoriate, not the students,
that feel threatened, and the source of the threat is not the students
inflexible ideas about theology (indicating rigidity), but their stubborn
adherence to Catholic doctrine (indicating tenacity). These arent
18-year-olds arriving dewy-eyed from a 1950s high school sodality; they
tend to be college grads, sometimes converts, with personal experience of
the false promises of the secular world, who have made an existential alignment
with Catholic teaching. Regardless of theological maturity or naïveté,
they know what theyre saying "No" to.
We have to admit that some seminarians, by temperament, are wrapped too
tight and cant handle conflict. I wouldnt call them rigid, but
brittle. Many are conservatives, but many arent: brittleness is a
characteristic of ones psychological endowment rather than ones
convictions. Few would argue with the contention that brittle candidates
are unsuited for the priesthood. But most of the men disparaged as rigid
earned the label because they refused to join their professors and superiors
in the doctrinal compromises that have guaranteed them such a comfortable
lifeperhaps the most comfortable life any Catholic clergyman has ever
Like the blunt language of the combat vet, the intractability of the doctrinally
tenacious Catholic is both an embarrassment and a threat to the accommodationist.
And just as academic psychiatrists gauged mental health by adaptivity to
their own bourgeois environment, so the seminary gatekeepers have measured
"fitness for ministry" by the standards of success current in
the faculty lounge, the theatre lobby, the embassy reception. Blessed Rupert
Mayer held his own in KZ Sachsenhausen, but he wouldnt go down well
at Georgetown Law.
But were preparing contemporary American men for contemporary American
ministry, someone might object, and Malibu isnt Dachau. True. But
Dachau wasnt Dachau until 1933, just a drowsy Munich suburb. Times
change. And times are changing. Has hatred of Christianity faded in the
last twenty years, or increased? Has the secular world grown fonder of Catholic
doctrine or less so? Are your grandchildren likely to find their faith easier
to live, or more difficult? Having answered these questions, ask yourselves
which quality is more necessary in the priests who will minister to your
grandchildrentolerance or tenacity?
This column originally appeared on Catholic
World News in "Off
Related IgnatiusInsight.com links:
Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Priest, and Death to Sin | Blessed Columba Marmion
Benedict XVI's Rookie Year As
Priest: A Man of Mystery
| Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.,
Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli, Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware | Valerie
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com
e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates
about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!