One of my Catholic friends in Tokyo once told me that he had an idea about how to solve the priest shortage. Couldn’t we program robots to do much of the work priests do? A robot could say mass and hand out communion, for example. This would reduce the workload for our overworked priests.
My Catholic friend may simply have been influenced by the animist Japanese culture around him. Most Americans are fairly certain that robots are machines without any kind of personal spiritual life. In Japan, though, many people believe that robots can have spirits. So, perhaps a sterile robot machine priest is not exactly what my friend was envisioning.
However I think there is another reason why this idea did not seem too far-fetched to my friend, a man who had spent his entire life as a Roman Catholic. Most lay Catholics only interact with priests in relatively formulaic situations. In the US, there is approximately one priest for more than 500 mass-attending Catholics. (https://www.usccb.org/offices/public-affairs/clergy-and-religious) The sheer numbers make it obvious few can have any regular interaction with a priest other than the 10 seconds a week it takes to receive communion. It would be impossible for everyone to make a frequent confession. The practical reality is that priests are not spiritual guides for most people. They conduct the liturgy. They say certain words and do certain actions.
In addition, we are constantly presented with examples of atrocious behavior on the part of even our bishops. Yet we are told that their sins do not impact the validity of our rituals and sacraments at all. The mass is still legitimate even if it is said by an unrepentant sinner. A person who makes a good confession to a priest who is in a state of mortal sin still made a good confession. For many people this seems to mean that the “formulas” are what matter, not the spiritual life of the priest himself. It must seem like the only thing that matters is if the priest says the right words and does the right things-in robotic fashion- while conducting liturgies.
This is a tricky theological topic over which blood has been shed in the past. Of course I am grateful that I do not need to personally assess the spiritual life of every priest I take communion from. That would be impossible and intrusive. I am glad that I can be confident that absolution during confession is not contingent upon the state of the priest’s soul. Insisting upon spiritual purity in our priests could easily lead to fanaticism, as it did with the Donatists in the early 4th century. (learn about donatism here: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/donatism) To insist that the men administering our sacraments must be perfect would be to ignore the importance and reality of their humanity. Our priests are living, breathing human beings.
However there is a difference in insisting on the absolute purity of our religious leaders and expecting a certain level of fitness for real pastoral work. It is a matter of common sense that our religious leaders should make an effort to practice what they preach, that they should be men who strive to live good lives, and that they should be people worthy of spending time with.
For many people the reason for this topic of conversation is obvious. If you have been following the news, it will be clear that large numbers of our clerics, including and especially our bishops, would not pass common sense tests of their suitability as pastors.
Take Monsignor Burrill a high-ranking administrator for the USCCB. He recently resigned after The Pillar ran a story about how his cell phone data showed frequent use of the Grindr app over the course of several year. The data also showed that the cell phone was taken to gay bars and private residences while the app was used. (https://www.pillarcatholic.com/p/pillar-investigates-usccb-gen-sec)
For a moment, let us consider the Grindr app. It is a hookup app used to connect people with the intention of finding a partner for a one-night stand. Many gay men consider it dangerous and dehumanizing. (I won’t post a reference. They are easy to find with basic internet searches.) Gay or straight, this kind of activity is anathema to healthy spiritual life. We simply should not use other people for sex, and we should not let ourselves be used.
Now let us ask some common sense questions. Does it seem like Monsignor Burrill practices what he preaches? I am not asking if he struggles with sinful tendencies. We all do. Rather I am asking if it seems reasonable that he was making a sincere effort to live according to the very creed he represents.
Finally, would Monsignor Burrill be the kind of a man you would invite into your home? Would you want your children to develop a relationship with this man, or at least would you feel safe around him? If you had a vulnerable gay teenage son, would you choose Monsignor Burrill as a good role model?
I cannot know everything about this man, but the things I know would deter me from choosing him as a pastor for me and my family if I had the choice. In fact, if I did have a vulnerable gay teenage son, I would go out of my way to prevent contact between him and Monsignor Burrill.
No one is demanding perfection. We are all sinners. Priests sin. If they repent and make an effort to do better, then that is all that matters. However we the laity should ask basic common sense questions about our own pastors. This is not a violation of their privacy. We have an obligation to look after ourselves and our families. We should be paying attention. This is all the more true when we cannot count on the bishops to have our best interest in mind. (One has to question: wasn’t Monsignor Burrill vetted before he was given such a high position with the USCCB?)
Obviously Monsignor Burrill is just one of many recent examples of priest and bishops whose behavior should be disqualifying for pastoral work. If it matters that our priests are living breathing human beings and fellow Christians, then their inner spiritual lives and wellbeing should matter to us, too. They are not robots.