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By Conrad W Baars, MD

Everyone agrees that there exists a crisis n the priesthood. Not everyone realizes that this crisis, as the title of this paper suggests, amounts to an illness, severe in some, moderate to slight in others.

It is the purpose of this paper to go beyond some of the recent excellent sociological and psychological studies by priest-researchers, and confirm their findings by exposing the root causes of this illness in the priesthood, and for that matter, also in our society. It will be shown that it is the Church herself, hierarchy and priests alike, who must be the primary physician to heal the sick, prevent the illness, and check its contagion, assisted in various ways by medical experts in this particular area of pathology.

For reasons to be explained later the Church cannot permit herself to be tardy in this matter and allow the secular sciences to assume a role that is uniquely the Church’s. If ever, it is now that the Church must lead and guide, not passively wait and trail behind the sciences who are just beginning to comprehend what in truth has been the church’s most precious possession from the beginning.

Throughout the ages it has been not so much the Church as a whole, but rather a relatively few of her members, her most sainted, yet at the same time her most truly human members who, precisely because they were so human in the best sense of the word, were able to live the words of Christ, “I came to bring you life, that you may have it more abundantly.” Francis of Assisi, Damian the Leper, John XXIII and Mother Teresa are some of those fully grown persons capable of giving abundant life to others! But in our day the People of God, priests included, suffer so acutely in their need for identity, self-worth, self-love and being loved that the Church must learn the live-giving “secret” of a Francis, a Damien, a John and a Teresa, and share it with all. Now, not later!

In their study, “Some factors associated with voluntary withdrawal from the Catholic priesthood” Father Schallert and Miss Kelley state, “… the drop-out priest is not the only priest who feels strange or foreign in the Catholic Church today. Nor is his alienation qualitatively or quantitatively very much different from the ‘stay-in’ priest. They define the sense of alienation apparently experienced by a very large number of priests as a “sense of powerlessness, normlessness, meaninglessness, self estrangement and isolation.” They conclude their study: “Far more research is needed before the phenomenon of clerical drop-out is completely understood.

In the summary report of the NCCB Ad Hoc Committee for the Study on Priestly Life and Ministry, one reads, “The underdeveloped, emotionally immature priests represents a large segment of American priests and … reflect the fact that a great many American males are also underdeveloped.” The authors describe the manifestations of this incomplete personal development as “distant, unrewarding relationships and uneasiness about intimacy with as result few close friends; difficulty with one’s own personal identity; non-integrated psychosexual identity; and lack of self-confidence.”

Both studies confirm what my colleague from the Netherlands Dr. Anna Terruwe and I have observed in our clinical psychiatric practices of a total of forty years and approximately 15,000 patients – 10% of whom were priests and religious – and what we have been able to narrow down to one specific area namely, non-affirmation.

This is not to say that all priests with psychological problems are non-affirmed. Some priests are afflicted with another type of emotional illness, a repressive neurosis. In general, we estimate that 10-15% of all priests in Western Europe and North American are mature; 20-25% have serious psychiatric difficulties, especially in the form of neuroses and chronic alcoholism, or a combination of both; and 60-70% suffer from a degree of emotional immaturity which does not prevent them from exercising their priestly function, but precludes them from being happy men and effective priests whose fundamental role is to bring the joy of Christ’s love and to be the appointed affirmers of men.

We have been advised by Vatican observers of the crisis in the entire World Church that there is a remarkable agreement between their statistics and our percentages. The latter also seem to correspond to the findings reported to the above-mentioned Ad Hoc Committee” “Developed men—small in number, developing men—sizable group; underdeveloped men—large segment; maldeveloped—very few in number.”

It is my intention to present the results of our clinical observations in respect to the causes, treatment and prevention of emotional immaturity and illness in priests, by reproducing in somewhat revised form the paper, “Human growth in the priesthood,” which Dr Terruwe and I had the privilege of presenting in Rome, Italy, at a meeting sponsored by members of the 1971 Synod of bishops. We also discussed this paper in person with other members of the Synod who could not attend this presentation, and had it distributed in English and French to every Synod participant. Since our paper was addressed to all bishops of the World Church, through this present article we hope to bring to the attention of all bishops, religious superiors, vocational directors, rectors of seminaries, moral theologians and all those concerned with the selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood and with the welfare of all priests now afflicted with mental and emotional problems.

At the end of this paper the reader will find an addendum of ten practical recommendations composed at the request of members of the synod.

The Synod’s discussion paper on “The Priestly Ministry” rightly objects to an uncritical acceptance of just any school of just any school of psychology. It is with this in mind that efforts to reconcile the data of faith and anthropology are to be made. Inasmuch as the sensus fidei, according to Lumen Gentium No. 13 includes the testimony of laymen who through their experience have learned to give new interpretations of established facts, the discussion paper, in order to be an exhaustive study and inquiry, should not have been composed only by the theologians. After all, the discussion paper deals with the ‘ministry of the priest who is a man, and therefore should concern itself with the entire human person of the priest. The bonum naturale in the past not always taken very seriously in ecclesiastical circles, deserves the fullest attention of the bishops who have the first and final word on the priestly ministry. “Secularization” should no longer be considered identical with “desacralization”! Moreover, it should be mentioned that His Holiness Paul VI, showed his deep personal interest in our scientific data by discussing them in person with Dr Terruwe in the summer of 1969.

As psychiatrists sharing the bishop’s concern with the happiness of priests and all men, we shall present our views on the priest’s loss of identity, his doubts about the value of the celibate state, his reasons for leaving the priesthood, and the advisability of the Church changing her approach and services to mankind, to modern man who phenomenologically has changed so much in the twentieth century, and whose emotional and spiritual growth to maturity have not kept pace with his physical and intellectual growth. We believe that his retarded and distorted emotional life is directly responsible for his spiritual aridity and indifference.

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© Copyright 2003 Internations' Justice Federation