A Threat To Every American Priest
By WILLIAM H. MARSHNER
The Hannan Committee Report
November 2, 1972
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Priestly Life and Ministry, organized to implement the results of the half-million-dollar study of the priesthood, and presided over by Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Means, has completed its initial report, or rather, the initial part of its initial report, which has been sent to each of the Bishops.
Already hailed by Fr. Frank Bonnike, head of the notorious National Federation of Priests’ Councils NFPC), as a model document, the report grew out of the extensive talks with NFPC sympathizers which nowadays re called “consultation.” Msgr. Colin MacDonald, secretary to the ad hoc committee has traveled over one hundred thousand miles in the last year and may easily log as many miles again before the final sections of the report are finished (that is, in six months at the very least).
The part already finished (whose full text has not been made public) covers two areas: “Authority and Its Exercise” and “Evaluation and Priestly Growth.” Both have been cited in earlier studies as requiring urgent attention. Aside from various proposals on these two subjects, the report concretely recommends that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) set up a permanent committee on priestly life and ministry (instead of an ad hoc one). Such a committee would include diocesan and Religious priests as consultants and collaborators and would have at its disposal, according to a further recommendation, a permanent bureau (secretariat) within the NCCB to perform the usual functions (research, implementation, liaison).
At their meeting in Washington November 13th, the Bishops will be asked to vote on these two recommendations (permanent committee and secretariat) and not on anything else in the report. That is very good news for American priests; it means that they have time to organize and fight. For while it is probably true that the Bishops will approve the two recommendations, and that having a permanent committee will do nothing but harm, nevertheless, it seems there will be time to fight the rest of this report, whose content is truly dangerous.
The part on authority and its exercise is dangerous mainly to Bishops. It proposes that Bishops should act as servants, friends, brothers, and “models of reconciliation” (whatever that means) to their priests; but it never mentions the key New Testament role of episcopacy: teacher, lord, corrector of faith in succession to the Apostles. A serious omission.
Then the report talks about the consultative role of priests’ senates and pastoral councils which is certainly something which Bishops should take seriously. But the report goes further: “Only in exceptional circumstances should the judgment of councils and senates, especially those representative of the ordained ministry of the entire People of God in which the Spirit resides, be rejected.” This is a highly dangerous idea, since it seems to imply that ordinarily the Spirit speaks through the whole community (or presbyterate) and only extraordinarily through the Bishop. This is the central idea of “democracy” in the Church, an idea which has already appeared many times before in history (especially at the Jansenist synod of Pistoia). It is the exact reverse of the New Testament model and of the whole experience of the Church.
Of course, it is true that Bishops today have to make all kinds of policy decisions which are not directly related to their Divine mandate and about which many priests or lay people may be better informed. Nevertheless it is simply not theologically sound to suggest that ordinarily the Bishop is wrong when his opinion diverges from that of his advisors. He may be wrong and he may not; the only safe assertion is that in all cases the Bishop should follow his conscience as informed by the universal Magisterium of the Church because he, precisely as Bishop, has a function and a power which no one else in his diocese has.
The unspoken and unanalyzed assumption of the ad hoc committee report, here and in many other passages, is that the pastoral work of each diocese will profit by greater conformity to managerial or governmental models of administration and decision-making. This assumption has been massively criticized in recent months by Cardinal Wright’s Sacred Congregation for the Clergy in its attack on the documents of the Spanish joint assembly of priests and Bishops. (See special pull-out: The Wright Intervention, Part I, Section B: Part II, Chapter 3, Nos. 2 and 4d.)
In another place, the report talks about schemes for the election of Bishops, urging broader consultation than seems to be called for by the Roman norms issued earlier this year. Various pastoral grounds, some of them fairly convincing, are urged for this development; but it is disappointing that the report was not more even-handed. For there is also a powerfully dissuasive argument, namely, that widespread consultation will actually increase polarization since people are bound to become emotionally involved. Already the demand for such consultation, though artificially created, is having a deleterious effect. Like the so- called “revolution of rising expectations,” a process is underway whereby demands are generated which in the nature of things, can never be fully met, thus leaving everyone angered and frustrated over something which, before the “revolution” began, no one cared about.
But these sections of the report relating to Bishops are unlikely ever to be approved, precisely because episcopal freedom of action is at stake. The most serious threat of this report, therefore, lies in what it proposes about the “evaluation” of priests.
Here is how a news release from the National Catholic Office of Information summarizes the evaluation proposals:
“. . . That participation in programs to develop skills in leadership and interpersonal relationships should be required for all priests (my emphasis here and throughout).
“. . . That matters affecting the parochial ministry and in-
terpersonal relationships be considered at regularly scheduled meetings of the staff involved.
“. . . That those to be appraised must be part of such a system from the very beginning and that results should be obtained on the widest possible scale from all those whom the priest serves.
“. . . That professional consultants be made available to dioceses to assist in setting up programs of evaluation and that all dioceses take first steps toward the adoption of a program as soon as possible.”
The picture, then, is that every priest is to be drawn into a time- consuming series of staff bull sessions, self-evaluations, T- groups, and interviews with “professional consultants” (i.e., shrinks). His work is to be routinely scrutinized and criticized by his colleagues and parishioners as well as by professional personality-developers. One wonders where there is a priest, genuinely engaged in parish work, who has the time for impositions of this kind. Who can possibly perform the urgent duties of liturgy, hospital calls, meetings, private devotions, — and still have time for compulsory training in how to get along with other people (as if there really were such training) as well as “routinely scheduled” meetings to yak over everybody else’s personal performance?
This report is a recipe for nightmare. It is a totalitarian vision of pastoral manipulation, proposing to saddle priests with what no other man in any comparable job has to put up with. It is a recipe for bitterness, frustration and, in time, mass flight from a ministry which such suffocating regulations must eventually make intolerable. An altogether analogous criticism of altogether analogous proposals appears in the Wright Intervention, published elsewhere in this issue. (See especially Part I, Section D, and Part II, Chapter 3, No. 3.)