By Fr. Hans Kung
Is leaving the active ministry a signal for leaving the Church altogether?. The prediction was made some years ago, but now even those who refused at that time to believe it have to admit the fact: the Catholic Church is threatened by a massive exodus of priests from the active ministry.
Petitions to Rome for laicisation are climbing into the thousands, especially from the United States, Holland and the Latin countries, and above all from priests in religious orders. In 1963, there were 167 who left. In 1970, the number was 3,800.
And there are in addition the many who do not bother to ask permission. It is estimated that in the last eight years some 22,000 to 25,000 priests have left — 80 per cent of them ranging in age from 30 to 45.
Even more threatening for the future of the Church, though, is the rapid decline in ordinations, a decline of some 20 to 50 per cent, depending on the region. ( In Germany the number of young men entering the seminary has dropped 42 per cent in the last eight years, and sometimes only a third of those who enter are actually ordained.)
If things continue in this way, many a seminary will be able to close its doors. Then, at least, some bishops and Roman authorities will open their eyes. On December 22, 1970, Pope Paul told the College of Cardinals how much he was distressed by the -statistics of priests and religious leaving; but he did not announce any decisive measures to counteract their departures.
There are various reasons why priests are leaving the active ministry. The law of celibacy is one of the chief of these. It is being maintained with every possible means of moral coercion -against the will of the majority of those concerned. The question here is one not only of "professional interest" but even more of fundamental human rights.
At issue is the welfare of our communities and that Christian freedom which, on this very point. is anchored explicitly in the gospel. It is precisely with respect to the question of celibacy that the coercive measures of a still largely pre-Conciliar, authoritarian Church system become glaringly visible to everyone, and especially aggressive fur priests.
According to the latest surveys, 40 per cent of the young Catholic priests in the United Stales (but only 12 per cent of the Protestant clergy) are giving thought to leaving the ministry, The chief cause is a lack of leadership from those in authority and the slow tempo of change after Vatican II.
In such a state of affairs, a priest may well ask himself: Why not me, Ion? This is especially so when, in addition, lie receives considerable mail urging I to leave. Some of it conies from people outside the Church: they think it is a waste of time and energy to remain in a rigid ecclesiastical system when more could be accomplished outside it.
Other letters come from people inside: they think that radical criticism of conditions and officials In the Church is not consistent with staying
Now it is clear that leaving the active ministry does not necessarily mean leaving the Church. The fact that so many priests are giving up their ministry does mean, however, Thal the very people who are most involved in the Church are dissatisfied with it.
Their leaving the ministry has become the alarm signal, therefore, for a withdrawal at various levels from the Church, the signal for a widespread emigration — interior and sometimes exterior as well — out of the Church.
Along with religious indifference, the chief reason for leaving the Church is repeated annoyance with its system — clericalism, confessional narrow-mindedness, the laws regarding mixed marriage, birth control and divorce. Under these circumstances, one hears that even bishops find it difficult to answer convincingly the question of why they are staying in the Church or ministry.
Heil no longer poses a threat fur one who leaves. Secularisation of modern life and awareness has removed many social pressures for staying. And the age of cultural Christianity seems to have come to an end.
But can a question such as this be answered briefly at all? A book on the Church is a more adequate response. But if the question is posed, then a concise, direct answer is called for, an answer that is personal as well, since obviously the question involves more than theology.
One important reason why many Christians stay in the Church — perhaps up to now the reason for most of them — is the same reason why people stay Jews or Moslems: a man is born into a particularly community; whether he likes it or not, he is formed by it and remains affected by it, either favourably or unfavourably.
It is no little thing fur a man to remain on intimate terms with his fami
ly or to leave it in anger or indifference. For many, at least today, this is still a reason fur staying in the Church and also the active ministry.
They wish to struggle against the rigid ecclesiastical traditions that make being a Christian so difficult, even impossible. But they do not wish to give up being a part of the Church's great Christian tradition that goes back 2,000 years.
These Christians wish to submit Church institutions and constitutions to criticism, whenever people's happiness is sacrificed to them. But they tin not wish to give up that which is necessary in the way of Church institutions and constitutions.
Even a community of faith could not last long without these, and all too many people would be left alone precisely in their most personal problems. These Christians wish to resist Church authorities when they presume to lead the Church with their own ideas instead of with the gospel. But they do not wish to give up the moral authority which the Church can have any time in society when it acts truly like the Church of Christ.
Why am I staying in the Church? Because, in critical loyalty, there is so much in this community and its history tha_L1 can affirm, so much in this community from which, like so many others, I draw life. I am staying in the Church because, along with the other members of this community of faith, we are the Church. (One should not confuse the Church with its apparatus or administrators; nor leave it to them alone to mould the community) I am staying in the Church because, with all the strong objections against it, here I am at home, Here all the great questions are asked: the where and whence, the why and how of man and his world. I could not think of turning my back on the Church any more than, in the political sphere, I could turn my back un democracy, which, in its own way no less than the Church, is being misused and abused.
Of course, there is also the other possibility. And I have good friends who have chosen it. In the light of its decline, some have broken with the Church for the sake of higher values, maybe even for the sake of being more genuinely Christian.
There are individual Christians outside the institutional Churches, perhaps, in short-lived boundarysituations, groups of Christians as well, I respect such a decision and even understand it.
During the present depression in the Catholic Church — following upon the Conciliar euphoria under John mitt — I understand more than ever why people leave. I could certainly give as many reasons for leaving as those who have left.
Jumping ship for some may he an act of honesty, courage, protest, necessity, or simply the inability to take any more. For me personally, though, it would be an act of weakness, failure, capitulation, helped sail it in better days; should I give up the ship in a storm?
Should I leave it to others, with
whom 1 have sailed, to stem the wind, to bail out the water, even to struggle ultimately for survival? I have received too much from this community of faith to he able to leave so easily. I have been too involved in Church reform and renewal to be willing to disappoint those who have been involved with me.
Every day, every hour, the work of Jesus is in truth being accomplished by the witness of ordinary Christians who are making the Church present in the world. And so this would be my decisive answer: I am staying in the Church because 1 have been convinced by Jesus Christ and all that He stands for, and because the Church community, despite all its failures, pleads the cause of Jesus Christ and must continue to do so.
like other Christians, I did nut receive my Christianity from books, not even from the Bible. I received my Christianity from this community of faith, which has managed to make it through these last 2.000 years, which, time and again, one way or another, has managed to call forth faith in Jesus Christ and involvement in his spirit.
This call of the Church is far from ringing true as the undiluted word of God. It Is a very human call, all too
human. Despite the many false tones and distorted actions, though, the message can still be heard.
its opponents point out with justice how often the Church has been in discord with the biblical message it preaches, how often the Church has been a tyrant, a Grand Inquisitor, or a shopkeeper, rather than the representative of the work of Jesus Christ. And yet the message has been heard.
Neither do I wish to give up the greater effectiveness that is possible In the Church. The other alternatives working in another Church or outside a Church — do not convince me. Schism leads only to the isolation of individuals or else to new institutionalising, as the history of ecstatic religious movement has shown.
I cannot take seriously the Christianity of an elite who pretend to be better than everybody else; nor church utopias which imagine ideal communities made out of ideal people. Is it not more exciting, interesting, challenging and, ultimately, also more satisfying and productive to struggle in this concrete Church of men for a "Christianity with a human
facHere at least I know who the opposition is; here there is a constant challenge — to responsibility, to active involvement, to stubborn endurance, to vigilant freedom, to resAisntadnneoewin, with:a:the authority, unity and credibility of this Church have been so deeply shaken because of the evident failure of its leaders; now, when the Church shows itself all the more as weak, wandering and searching for direction; now — rather than in times of triumph — it is easier for me to say: I love this Church for what it is and for what it could be. I love this Church, not as a mother but as a family of faith. It is for the sake of this family that the inst itu lions, constitutions and authorities exist at all. Sometimes one simply has to put up with them.
Where it truly functions as a community of faith, even today, despite all its terrible defects, it is able not only to inflict wounds but also to perform wonders.
This community still can and does perform wonders wherever it not only serves as the place for remembering Jesus (although that alone Is something), but also in word and action truly pleads the cause of Jesus Christ. Quietly, without publicity, through people in the pew rather than through bishops and theologians, this community, with all its faults, is doing the work of Jesus.
Whenever the Church truly pleads the cause of Jesus Christ, whenever it carries out his work, then it stands in service to mankind and becomes credible. Then the Church becomes a place where individual and social needs can be met at a deeper level than today's consumer society can achieve.
Here, with faith in the life of the One who was crucified, that reality can be accomplished which uprooted individuals and a shattered society so desperately need: a radical new humanity, where law and power are not abolished but rather relativised for the welfare of mankind; where guilt is not reckoned up, but endless forgiveness can be found; a humanity where positions are not simply maintained, but unconditional reconciliatice is accomplished; a humanity where the higher justice of love replaces ceaseless squabbles over rights; a humanity where merciless struggles for power are replaced by the peace that exceeds all understanding.
No opium, therefore, which gives hope only in the hereafter. But rather a summons to change the here and now, to change society radically by changing the individuals within it. Whenever the Church, more rightly than wrongly pleads the cause of Jesus Christ in its preaching and active assistance, it brings together rich and poor, men and women, high and low, black and white, the educated and the uneducated, uniting them in the solidarity of love.
Whenever the Church heads the cause of Jesus Christ, it makes initiative and action possible on behalf of freedom and peace in today's world, And perseverance in the struggle for freedom and peace is made possible, even where there is no sight of success, where neither social evolution or the socialistic revolution can overcome the tensions and contradictions of human existence and society.
Pointing to the Cross of the Living Christ — the distinctive characteristic of Christianity — the Church makes it possible fur men nut to despair of justice, freedom and peace, even in the midst of unfathomable injustice, slavery and war. The faith of the Church makes it possible to hope not only when times are hopeful but also when they are hopeless. It makes possible a love that embraces even enemies. It makes it possible for men and society to be humane even when men spread nothing but inhumanity.
No "Hymn to the Church" shoulA be sung here. But it should be pointed out what faith in the Crucified Christ, preached by the Church, can accomplish. For this does not all fall from heaven; it does not happen by accident. It is mutually related and affected by that which takes place in the Church, its preaching and worship, modestly enough, but maybe to day again in greater freedom.
Christianity, when an individual, a family or a community prays from the heart without empty words. It is brought about when Baptism binds a man to Christ, when the Eucharist is celebrated with implications for a community in its everyday life, when a man's guilt is forgiven out of the power of God. It is made possible where service is given to God and men: where the gospel is truly preached and lived through instruction and involvement. dialogue and pastoral care; in short, whenever Jesus is followed and his work taken seriously. In this way the Church can help mankind.
And who should do so ex professor if not the Church? It can help men to, become and to remain more human,, more Christian, more Christ-like. In the light and power of Jesus, it can help men to live and to act, to suffer and to die in a truly human way in the world of today, because they are thoroughly supported by God and are committed to their fellow-men unto the very end.
It depends on the Church how it gets through the present crisis. its programme is a good one. Why am I staying in the Church? Because I draw hope out of faith that, as in the past, the programme, the cause of Jesus himself Is stronger than all the misconduct in the Church. In spite of everything, for the sake of the cause of Christ, it is worthwhile to be Involved in the Church as well as in the active ministry.