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  • The Lives of Priests
  • John C. Seitz15

One of the lamentations that inevitably and justifiably arises when instances of clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up are exposed is some version of the question “what kind of person could do such a thing?!” There is more than mourning and protest in this question; there is also deep historical wisdom in it. In this brief essay, I want to suggest different ways that the question “what kind of person?” can become a spur to a specific line of historical inquiry, one that includes studies of sexual abuse and cover-up (which will continue to call out for historical investigation), but also reaches beyond that topic and into other questions about the Catholic past. No longer rhetorical lament or protest, and no longer the sole province of psychologists, the question in historians’ hands can be literal and specific: how are priestly lives made and unmade in particular places and times? The crisis – which brought Catholic clerics to our attention in a particularly intense way – alerts us to certain gaps in our understanding, in particular about the everyday lives and the emotional and moral worlds of parish priests. For sure priests have been in our histories, but they have been there with less texture and full humanity than ideal. This has been a gap in some of my own scholarship, and so I feel this challenge acutely. In addition to scores of priestly biographies and autobiographies, Leslie Tentler, James Fisher, Michael Pasquier and others have produced recent cultural and social histories of priests. These stand as refreshing exceptions to a tendency toward flattening or even ignoring priests, especially priests’ daily lives.16

In part with the inspiration (and also heeding the warnings) of these scholarly forerunners, the crisis has prompted me to turn my [End Page 18] attention to priests, and in particular the contexts and contours of their “formation.” Over the past few years I have been spending much of my research time (such as it is) with priests and former priests from the Archdiocese of Boston. My conversations with these men, all of whom were in the seminary during the mid-twentieth century, have pressed upon me the urgency of moving from the simple observation (which has not always been as obvious as it might seem) that “priests are people” toward a posture of historical responsiveness to that affirmation. That means discovering what priestly personhood looked like in different places and times.

There will be several challenges along the way. Perhaps the most serious difficulty has to do with sources and methods. Archives orient us quite often toward institutional and away from personal narratives. They offer wonderful avenues for “following the money” but frequently only rough side roads and dead ends in the pursuit of stories about everyday life and the emotional contours of priestly experience. And our discipline too may unwittingly discourage us from braving those rough historical paths: as an editor of a book series on Catholic practice in the U.S. I have learned that biographies – one kind of writing that might help us see the textures of everyday priestly experience – are a tough sell.

I agree that narrow biographies are not the answer, but I am enthusiastic about the possibility of works that combine intimate portraits of priests with broader attentiveness to the social, theological, and cultural forces that produce the emotional communities in which priests of various eras and geographies have traveled. The idea of discerning and mapping “emotional communities,” a phrase I borrow from medieval historian Barbara Rosenswein, strikes the right balance between intimate personal stories that can shed light on things like desire, joy, fear, love, and anger and inquiries into the ways the various worlds people live in both shape and respond to those feelings.17 This may mean more focused studies precede broader synthetic evaluations. We may need to find ways creatively to pair less traditional historical sources – novels, spaces, objects – with more traditional sources such as parish records and diocesan correspondence. We may also want to open the pathway to more creative uses of comparison: can conversations and ethnography with contemporary priests shed light on the history of the priesthood...


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pp. 18-23
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