Is the Secular Clergy Inferior?
Thoughts over a Tuna Club Sandwhich.
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5:39 AM 1/10/2014 — Several months ago I plopped myself down on my usual stool at the local diner to self-administer my usual starchy and unhealthy lunch when I noticed on the stool next to me another priest. Having been the local pastor in this burg for over twelve years, I knew he wasn't a local and, since the diner is at something of a cross-road, I surmised he was in transit. Being gregarious in nature, I introduced myself as the pastor of the local Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Church, halfway expecting what usually comes next: an inquiry into what a Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic is. To my delight, he seemed to need no explanation; to my chagrin, he declared in the most portentous of tones, “I'm one of the few people who knows what that means.”
He didn't lie. He did, indeed, know what it meant. Unfortunately, it wasn't all that he knew;—or at least thought he knew—and, more unfortunately still, it seems I had triggered some kind of mental trip-wire, as he proceeded to occupy our time together with a one-sided lesson on everything he knew...not that he wanted me to know these things as well, but that he clearly wanted me to know that he knew them.
One of the things he wanted me to know he knew was the clear inferiority of the secular priesthood. As memory serves, he was on the road because his community had “assigned” him to a sort of vague and roaming ministry of traveling about giving conferences and enabling small groups of Catholics, some connected with parishes, others not, to do equally vague things. I put the word “assigned” in quotes because it was clear from the monolog that it was a ministry that he had thought up and designed himself. In other words, he was writing his own ticket.
Having listened patiently through my tuna club to what great and wonderful things this priest was doing as he went about doing only that which he wanted to do, I managed, somehow, to interject that I was serving as pastor of two parishes, one local and one up in the mountains, trying my best to convince him that I, too, was doing something useful in the Church, even though it wasn't something I had the luxury to choose for myself. I waited for a response. After a pause, the response came, without eye-contact: “The secular priesthood is pretty much dead.”
I don't remember as much from this encounter as I wish I did: I don't, for example, remember to what community he belonged, or even his name; but, that last line is not one that one forgets easily. If I don't remember those details it's probably because I had no desire to remember them. I, after all, am a secular priest. I had dabbled briefly—very briefly—with religious life after high school, but abandoned the idea with my once-idealistic view of the priesthood in taters. It was a secular priest, some years later, who helped me rediscover it and put me back on the track of discerning my true vocation. Now, here I was twenty-six years into my priesthood, shuttling between two parishes with hardly time to relieve myself in between services, routinely breaking all known traffic laws just to get from one far-flung church to another, having to listen to this glittering jewel of priestly fraternity tell me that what I'm doing is a waste of time, while he facilely gallivants around the state doing whatever he wants and—perhaps more importantly—not doing whatever he doesn't want, like taking a parish, for example.
It wasn't the first time that I had encountered this view of the inferiority of the secular priesthood. I first encountered it when I went to the seminary for the second time and a woman in my home parish asked me what order I was joining. “I'm not joining any order,” I informed her. “I'm going to study for the 'diocesan priesthood,'” as it was often called in those days. I'm sure to this day she has no idea what I meant. Indeed, for people who grew up in parishes staffed by religious priests, there is no such thing.
For the record, more than 75% of the world's Catholic priests are secular priests. While I'm told the term “secular” is no longer in fashion, I have never had a problem with it. The term is an old one. It stems from the old nomenclature that delineated between what was called the Regular Clergy and the Secular Clergy. In this usage, the term “regular” did not mean that they were “normal” or had predictable bodily functions; it meant that, as members of a religious society or “religious order,” they lived according to a rule of life, regula in Latin. The number of religious communities is legion: Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, and on and on. The Secular Clergy is, basically, everyone else: priests who do not belong to religious communities, but who are ordained by a bishop to serve a particular diocese, and who do not live according to a religious society's rule. Though not always, the Regular Clergy live together in communities of common life, while the secular priest often lives alone. Regular or religious priests are not permitted to own property, whereas secular priests are. For example, while a religious priest may have the use of a car, technically he cannot own the car; it's owned by his religious community. I had to buy my car, and I have to to make the payments on it, fill it with gas, and see that it's properly insured. From the salary I receive from the parish—which is set by the bishop—I buy my own groceries, toilet paper, underwear, antacids, toothpaste; nothing is provided by the Church. Just like every other man with a job, I get paid, and with what I'm paid I have to buy my own stuff. When a Religious priest retires, he goes to whatever place the religious order has set aside for its retired members; should I survive to reach retirement, I'm on my own with whatever I've managed to save, which isn't going to be much.
Much is often made of the vows taken by members of religious communities, those of poverty, chastity and obedience; and, it's these “evangelical counsels” that are often the chief reason for the misconception that religious priests enjoy a higher degree of spiritual perfection, that they are poor while secular priests live “high off the hog.” Yes, it's true that the religious priest owns nothing in his own name, but I've yet to be in a secular priest's rectory which was as richly appointed as any religious community's priory I've been in. In the Western Church—and mostly in the Eastern Churches in this country—priests are celibate regardless of whether it's called a “vow of chastity” or a “promise of celibacy.” As for obedience, well, my experience in the diner speaks for itself. It is this highly idealistic—and unrealistic—perception of the evangelical counsels that has often led, down through the centuries, to the notion that the secular clergy is somehow inferior: not as educated, not as spiritual, not as committed.
Of course, there are many holy priests among the Regular Clergy; that should go without saying. Unfortunately, in this country at least, I have found them few and far between, as most of the religious priests I've met—at least in my limited experience—do whatever they want, answer to no one and want for nothing, while the secular priests carry the load of baptizing the babies, performing the weddings, anointing the sick and dying, burying the dead, absolving the sins of the fallen, paying the bills, repairing the boiler, and preaching the Gospel day in and day out to the souls entrusted to their care, all the while living hand-to-mouth on those occasions when their parishes can pay their salaries. If only we had mustered the desire to go "all the way" and seek true spiritual perfection in the religious life, instead of settling for a sub-standard vocation like the secular priesthood.
One final note: It is a fact that the larger religious communities have people in Rome assigned full-time to promoting the causes of their members for canonization. No such office exists for secular priests, which is why so few secular priest have been canonized in the last hundred years. Back when I was in the seminary—the “real” seminary—I was exposed to a book called Diocesan Priest Saints. The author, Fr. Ray A. Hutchinson, excluded from his book anyone who became a bishop or who had anything to do with founding or guiding a religious community. How many are there in the Church who would even be surprised to learn that there are any saints in that category?