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Priests: A Calling in Crisis, by Andrew M. Greeley

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Priests: A Calling in Crisis

Priests: A Calling in Crisis, by Andrew M. Greeley

The year 2002 was one of profound crisis and crisis management for the Roman Catholic Church in America. This was the year that the stories of priests sexually abusing children — and the church hierarchy covering up for them — really broke out into the open and captivated the media’s attention. What, though, were the causes of the abuse? Should things be changed to eliminate homosexuality, as the conservatives say, or to eliminate celibacy, as the liberals say?


Title: Priests: A Calling in Crisis
Author: Andrew M. Greeley
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0226306445

•  Equally critical of both liberals and conservatives

•  None

•  Analysis of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal
•  Argues against both conservative and liberal critics of the priesthood
•  Defends priesthood and priests


Book Review

There are a lot of different opinions out there about how to reform and improve the priesthood, with the elimination of homosexuality and celibacy being two of the most popular. In reality, though, it seems unlikely that either are good answers to what is going on — at least, if one looks at the sociological data about Catholic priests. That’s what Andrew M. Greeley, himself a Catholic priest as well as a professor of social sciences, has done in his book Priests: A Calling in Crisis. He minces no words in his sharp criticism of both liberals and conservatives.

As to liberal critics, Greeley argues that the statistical data demonstrates that priests aren’t particularly worse off for being celibate.

They don’t suffer psychologically or emotionally because they don’t have intimate, sexual relationships with women. He doesn’t argue that celibacy must necessarily remain, and in fact acknowledges that there may be very good reasons for and consequences to allowing married men into the priesthood. His point, however, is that there is no good data to support the claims that celibacy causes priests to be psychological wrecks and that this, in turn, increases the likelihood of committing sexual abuse:

    “Patently, most men who leave the priesthood do not leave because of celibacy. They must also dislike the work of the priest to the extent that they say they would not choose again to be a priest. ...If the celibacy rule is abolished, fine. But let it be abolished for good reasons—that it is right and proper and good for married men to be in the priesthood, not because celibacy has driven out of the priesthood most of those who have left and not because celibacy as such is the cause of the vocation crisis. These two reasons are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Moreover, they are false prophecies and those who proclaim them false prophets.“

This does not mean that priests are always happy, however:

    “Most priests as individuals are happy as priests, but they do not think others are happy. As individuals they do not find celibacy a serious personal problem. But most priests (it would appear) believe that the majority of their fellow priests are unhappy because for them celibacy is a serious personal problem. The reason is that at most gatherings of priests the lowest common denominator of envy, misery, and mediocrity tends to dominate the conversation. Hence the astonishment among many priests at the findings I reported from the first Los Angeles Times study. Astonishment and blunt denial.”

At the same time, Greeley is just as critical of conservatives who think that getting rid of all the homosexuals will save the priesthood (he finds that only about 16% of priests are gay — higher than in the general population, but hardly an overwhelming number):

    “There is nothing in this book that justifies the hysteria among some Catholics on the subject of homosexual priests.“
Priests: A Calling in Crisis

Priests: A Calling in Crisis, by Andrew M. Greeley

    “Nor is there anything that will persuade the Vatican that homosexuals should not be banned from seminaries and the priesthood. The fury of the homophobia in the Church will not yield to data. It would be a wise policy for church leaders to tone down the hysteria and leave homosexual priests alone...“

According to Greeley, the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is not the result of any particular problem with priests; instead it is a problem with humans generally. The real problem within the Catholic Church lies with the efforts to keep the problems quiet and, later, the efforts to lay the blame on gay priests.

Quite a lot has been written on the problems that have been plaguing the Catholic Church and Catholic priests, so what makes this one so interesting? Most of the books on this subject have been written from a very partisan perspective and typically with an ideological axe to grind. Greeley, however, criticizes both liberals and conservatives. Greeley makes a good case for why both sides have made mistakes and that both sides have used the abuse crisis to advance their own agendas. Greeley certainly isn’t an independent observer, but he does a good job at being even-handed in this comments.

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