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  • "To Work in the Field of the Lord":Roots of the Crisis in Priestly Identity
  • Leslie Woodcock Tentler

Notwithstanding a ground-breaking 1989 essay by Scott Appleby, the American diocesan clergy remain an under-researched population.1 The neglect has doubtless to do in part with a relative paucity of sources. With the exception of priest personnel files, which are frequently off-limits to researchers or available only for the distant past, diocesan archives almost never house documents pertaining to clerical life in a readily accessible place. One must rummage through the sometimes voluminous papers of local bishops to locate letters from or about parish priests, or search the sometimes equally voluminous parish files. The results of that tedious rummaging, moreover, seldom tell one anything about the inner lives of the parish clergy. Priests wrote to their bishops mainly on business, seldom conveying much in the way of personal information. The strongest emotions tend to center on grievances. If priests exchanged candid letters with confreres and friends, as some must have done, or kept diaries or spiritual journals, few such documents are currently available to researchers.

The diocesan clergy are also a population about which it is not easy to generalize. Their training and career trajectories can and do vary from diocese to diocese. No one doubts, moreover, that dioceses have distinct personalities, which is bound to affect the lived experience of priesthood. But documenting those personalities is much harder than documenting the culture of a circumscribed entity like a religious order, [End Page 1] which presumably helps to explain why the historical literature on the regular clergy is richer than that on their diocesan counterparts.2 Perhaps most important, an all-male celibate clergy is inevitably implicated in the politics of sex and gender. (Think how few women have elected to write about the clergy.) My own generation of historians, I think, shied away from "doing priests" because many of us were suspicious of clerical authority, especially in the realm of sex. Rescuing the laity from anonymity was our grand passion. The recent wave of sex abuse scandals will probably have a more devastating impact, and not only because of the anger it has rightly generated. Haven't the scandals—so unexpected in their breadth, so difficult to explain—robbed us of essential confidence when it comes to engaging the clerical past?

Whatever the barriers to research, however, we need to focus greater attention on the history of the diocesan clergy. Who doubts their centrality to Catholic experience in both a religious and a cultural sense? "Wherever we are, we stand for the Church," Detroit's Cardinal Edward Mooney told an ordination class in 1956.3 Nearly all Catholics would have agreed with him. The need for research is especially great with regard to the twentieth century, about which the least work to date has been done. We need to learn more about the changing circumstances in which priesthood was prepared for and practiced. We must also grapple with the closely related but more elusive question of priestly identity. To what extent was the identity inculcated during seminary years congruent with the realities experienced after ordination? Philadelphia's Cardinal Dennis Dougherty once told his priests that by virtue of their power to confect the sacraments they were "set apart as a privileged portion of God's creation, differing by the seal of holy priesthood from other men, and from angels, being exalted as far above them as our prerogatives transcend heaven and earth."4 How did such rhetoric square with the frequently mundane demands of parish ministry? At what point in the past did the cardinal's theology—separable, to a degree, from his rhetoric—cease to make sense to significant numbers of clergy?

The changing contours of priestly life are discernible in every generation. In this essay, however, I want to look particularly at priests who were ordained in the immediate pre-conciliar period, roughly from 1949 until 1962. They merit attention both for their initial flourishing—seminary enrollments boomed even as new professional options were opening to Catholic youth—and for their encountering an ecclesial revolution while still in positions of relative powerlessness in the institutional Church...


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