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London's Catholic Herald of 13 April 2001 included both a feature article and a short report on English seminaries. The excellent feature (which read more like a Christian Order expose), concerned the dire state of the Venerable English College in Rome. It revealed the alienation and loss of a new generation of orthodox students due to the flaired-trouser liberalism still espoused by ageing hippies who run the College. The article included these quotes from the Rector, Monsignor Toffolo:

  • "You have to be realistic about what you are training people for. We are training priests to work in a pastoral situation in England and Wales… the need for Latin liturgy is very small in the Church in England and Wales."
  • "Since Vatican II the areas which have been more specifically developed are the pastoral training - trying to give people experience and develop their skills pastorally - and human formation."
  • "We don't want people becoming priests because they want to dress up and say the liturgy - although of course saying the liturgy is an element of it - but because they have a genuine concern to mix with the people of God."

Some past students, who only made it to ordination by hiding their orthodoxy, added these observations:

  • "You'd be hard pressed looking through our notes from our spiritual conferences to find anything about the concept of living a sacramental life. It was all psycho-babble, constantly the emphasis was on doing rather than praying."
  • "If you're setting up parish councils and parish dances, the idea seems to be that you're automatically a good priest, but the fact that you may have falling Mass attendance and that Catholics are neglecting confession doesn't seem to be as important."

The brief report elsewhere in the same edition concerned the appointment of Fr Paul McGinn as the new rector of "the troubled Allen Hall seminary in west London." His "first task," claimed the Herald, "will be to restore morale at the seminary." Commented Fr McGinn: "I'm a pastoral priest. That's my expertise. That's my background."

The "pastoral" theme connecting these two items may have escaped the notice of the casual Herald reader. Yet a deeper understanding of the roots and motivations underlying this modern obsession with what Msgr. Toffolo termed "the pastoral priesthood," is a major key to comprehending the clerical crisis since the Council. The following article will enlighten readers in this regard and cause them to ponder, among other things, whether a 'pastoral strategy' for restoring failed seminaries is not merely pouring petrol on the priestly pyre.

Christian Order



It is obvious to all that in the thirty-five years since the Second Vatican Council serious confusion has arisen in Christendom--even to the point of the collapse of the very life of the Church. This confusion, the loss of the sense of Catholic identity, has brought with it a disregard for the moral life, a lack of interest in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and a mass exodus from the priesthood - fifty thousand during the fifteen years (1963-78) of the glorious reign of His Holiness Paul VI. Only a few nations seemed to have any kind of immunity to the problem. The greatest example is of course Poland, whose Catholic identity was maintained largely because of its importance in resisting the communist government, which was controlled by the Soviet Union.

Serious Catholics cannot help but wonder what caused this confusion. Did it arise simply because the work of the Council has been widely misunderstood? Can the present malady be explained by saying that the end of the Counter-Reformation Church created a vacuum which was quickly filled by the secular pressures of post-modern culture?

Or, on the other hand, were certain essential changes made to the Church during and after the Second Vatican Council which in turn seriously undermined the very essence of Catholic life? For example, did the Council make any important change to the life and obligations of priests which radically altered the very nature of the Catholic priesthood?

A good place to begin examining these questions is the new Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983 by Pope John Paul II. Particular attention should be given to Canon 276. This canon directly addresses the question of how Catholic priests are to pursue holiness. It lists: First, the obligation to "faithfully and untiringly . . . fulfill the duties of pastoral ministry"; second, the obligation to Sacred Scripture and the celebration of the Eucharist; and third, reading the breviary.

One supposes that this canon, which refers to all priests - not merely those ordained for a diocese, is a faithful reflection of the Vatican II document on the priesthood, Presbyterorum Ordinis. (If not, why is it in the Code?) To anyone who has been a practicing Catholic, however, canon 276 sets forth a strange priority of obligations. For years Catholics (including priests) have been taught that because the Eucharist is the centre of the Church the obligation to celebrate Mass was far and away the most important in priestly life. In fact, this principle was often demonstrated by the famous example that a priest will still celebrate Mass even though there is no one else in attendance.

Consequently, it is no exaggeration to say that canon 276 (and its theological foundation) undermines the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Catholic priest. (A recent incident is evidence that this has really happened. During a visit to Texas, I tried to attend daily Mass but discovered that the nearest church, which seemed to be a rather large parish, only had Mass on Sunday. Later I wrote the bishop of the diocese, who forwarded my letter to the pastor. In the pastor's reply he explained that there is no daily Mass because "our people simply do not come". He is of course quite correct in thinking that the Eucharist is offered for the people, but he is mistaken when he thinks that "our people" refers only to those who might be in attendance. In fact, the Eucharistic celebration, which makes present Christ the Head of the Body the Church [Col 1:12-20], also in some way makes present all the members of the Church. Thus the Eucharist is celebrated for all the people, whether present or not, whether living or dead).

Further, the obligation of all priests to pastoral duties also undermines the life of any priest living the contemplative life. Although the canon refers to all priests (not merely diocesan), one wonders how it can be applied to the many priests living the Carthusian, Trappist, or Camaldolese life. In fact, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to see how monks can be said to have any priestly obligation to pastoral ministry. It would also not be exaggeration to say that the Vatican II theology of the priesthood, which makes pastoral obligations intrinsic to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, undermines the life of the monk-priest.

This approach seems little else than an attempted synthesis between the Catholic diocesan priesthood and the Lutheran ministry. Further, it is a change so radical that it can safely be said that the Catholic priesthood has been turned upside-down.

Before the Council the worship of God was at the centre of the priestly life (and the Church). Although the work done by priests in parishes is extremely important, the monastic priest was considered to be living closer to this centre because his life was more concentrated on prayer. Consequently, if a diocesan priest decided that he was being called to join the Carthusians or Trappists, he was considered to be moving to a life which more strictly obligated to holiness. According to Vatican II theology of the priesthood, however, he would seem to be abandoning those pastoral duties which are the primary obligation to anyone who has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The significance of such a change cannot be minimized. But: Why was the justification for such a change? Why was such a drastic inversion made to the very nature of the priesthood?

Sacerdos and Presbyter

On October 24, 1995, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a speech given on the 30th anniversary of Presbyterorum Ordinis, said that Vatican II attempted to broaden the classical image of the priesthood and to satisfy the demands proposed by the Reformation, by critical exegesis, and by modern life. Certainly, during his tenure as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Divine Faith Cardinal Ratzinger has made good use of his uncommon intellectual gifts as an heroic defender of faith and morals. It is hard to keep from wondering, however, whether there actually was a broadening of the image of the priesthood.

From the reading of Canon 276 it seems more likely that the Council, in its ecumenical zeal, embraced the Protestant idea of ministry but unfortunately loosened its grasp of the core of the Catholic priesthood. The consequence was that Vatican II produced a document which at its core is little else than a warmed-over version of the Protestant ministry.

The justification for this radical re-orientation of the priestly life was supposedly based in a better understanding of the life of the New Testament presbyter. These presbyteroi were the first priests (other than bishops) and were heavily involved in pastoral work. The pastoral life of the presbyter was then placed in contrast to that of the hiereus, which is the Greek word for the priest of the Old Testament. The duties of these hiereis did not extend beyond the sanctuary. They were only responsible for the sacred rites of Israel.

As the argument goes, the Latin sacerdos was said to be the equivalent of the Greek hiereus because the etymology of both indicated an obligation to sacred rites. It was then argued that the very nature of the Catholic sacerdos and his duties toward sacred rites were therefore in opposition to the pastoral life of the presbyter of the New Testament. Consequently, the theology of the priesthood during and after Vatican II claimed to be more in tune with what is actually the case in the New Testament.

A closer consideration of the New Testament, however, brings this new theology of the priesthood into question. There are three points to be made which indicate that the desire to re-orient the life of the priest by emphasizing pastoral duties is based on an incomplete, distorted exegesis of the New Testament presbyteroi.

  1. Any serious attempt at the rediscovery of the New Testament presbyteroi must begin by taking seriously the fact that the word means elders. These presbyteroi were given pastoral and doctrinal responsibilities because they were men of age and experience. For hundreds of years, however, the practice of the Roman Catholic Church has been to ordain young men to the priesthood - men who in no way could be thought of as elders. The same is true for Lutheran ministers. By and large, only certain Protestant sects have consistently attempted to preserve the role of Church elders, and these elders have no sacramental function.
  2. It quite obviously follows that if someone wants to use the New Testament to insist that pastoral responsibilities (as well as preaching and teaching) are intrinsic to the Catholic priesthood, then (also following the New Testament) he also must insist on a return to the practice of only ordaining older men, i.e. elders.

  3. Despite the fact that devotion to preaching and teaching is a very, very important apostolate, nevertheless, not all of the presbyteroi in the early Church were involved in preaching and teaching. This is evident in 1 Timothy 5:17, in which reference is made to those presbyteroi who work in preaching and teaching.
  4. The Greek hiereus is NOT the equivalent of the Latin sacerdos. Although both refer to someone responsible for sacred rites, the meaning of sacerdos has been enriched by 2,000 years of the lived priesthood. Thus sacerdos refers not only to the presbyter of the early Church but also to the monk-priests of the early middle ages (e.g. Benedictines, Cistercians, Carthusians, and Camaldolese), the priest-professors of the great Cathedral schools, the mendicant preachers (and Dominican intellectuals) who emerged in the thirteenth century, the great Jesuit missionaries and university professors, as well as all those who have toiled in the parish life.

Thus sacerdos and presbyter should not be placed in opposition because they are not mutually exclusive. All the aforementioned priests are considered sacerdotes because the life and duties of a sacerdos stand at the core of the life of every presbyter. Accordingly, the celebration of the Eucharist - not pastoral ministry -must be said to have primacy in the life of every priest. This is true whether he is newly ordained or retired, whether he is the pastor of a large parish, a hermit living in a cave, or a university professor teaching chemistry. All the other aspects of his life flow into and out of his relationship with the Eucharist.

The claim that the Vatican II theology of the priesthood is a return to the presbyteroi of the primitive Church is therefore without solid Scriptural foundation. It would seem that this theology, enthusiastic in its ecumenical embrace of the Protestant concept of ministry, is in fact not very compatible with the very Catholic concept of the priest living the monastic life. As such it appears to be more a product of an ecumenical ideology than any serious attempt at a more thorough understanding of the Catholic priesthood. The hostility to the priest living the monastic life, which is implicit in Canon 276, is therefore not surprising. In fact, it mirrors the hostility of Protestantism toward monasticism.

The liturgical changes, which were introduced over thirty years ago, can now be seen as part of a larger picture. It is no secret that vernacular liturgy, the concept of Eucharist-as-meal (implicit in the mass of Paul VI), and the use of a table in the sanctuary (rather than an altar) were applauded by most Protestant sects. In fact, these liturgical changes were the companion of very serious changes to the Catholic priesthood - all under the influence of Protestant theology.


During the past twenty years it is amazing how often Vatican II has been defended by prefacing every remark with the phrase It was never the intention of the Council that . . . but perhaps this is proof enough that the documents lack clarity and are the product of theological sleight-of-hand too slick for its own good. In fact, over 25 years after the close of Vatican II, two Cardinals with reputations as progressives - Franz Konig of Austria and Vincente Enrique y Taroncon of Spain - both said in separate interviews published in Italian magazines that the Vatican II document on liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) is not really very good.

It is hard to miss the irony. For years the documents of Vatican II were praised as if they had dropped down from heaven.  Finally, two progressive Cardinals (one of whom is said to have been very influential in the election of John Paul II) admit that, well, maybe there are some problems in the document on the liturgy.

How long do we need to wait until influential members of the Church hierarchy finally speak up about the other documents and admit that they are also flawed - including Presbyterorum Ordinis?


Dr. Brown holds Baccalaureate, Licentiate, and Doctoral degrees in Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome (the Angelicum), where his graduate concentration was in Thomistic studies. His doctoral thesis concerned the anomaly of human death and its relation to Original Sin. Almost 30 years ago he and three friends (all graduates of the University of Kansas), searching for a monastery that had preserved Gregorian Chant, discovered the Abbey of Fontgombault in central France. In September of 1999 the Latin Benedictine Office returned to the United States when Fontgombault established a foundation in Oklahoma. Email: