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USCCB debate on priest formation plan was part of broader pushback

Before the U.S. bishops passed on Friday a new plan for priestly formation in the country, a handful of prelates stood to oppose the use of language around priestly identity contained in the text. 

Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix lamented the notion of spiritual fatherhood among priests during June 16 comments at the spring plenary assembly of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Credit: USCCB.

While some bishops said the text might encourage clericalism, the bishop who oversaw its passage said the document actually emphasizes the role of laity in the formation of priests. 

And while the document passed overwhelmingly, opposition raised from the floor over spiritual fatherhood was not only pushback to the “Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests.” 

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The “Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests” is a text of nearly 170 pages, aimed at offering priests an approach to ongoing human, intellectual, pastoral, and spiritual formation during the course of their ministry. 

The text, which follows a number of Vatican directives on formation and priesthood and has not yet been published, is an update to a 2001 document of that same title

But Bishop Earl Boyea, chair of the USCCB’s committee on clergy and consecrated life, told The Pillar June 15 that while “the 2001 document was really directed to bishops and directors of programs, this one is more directed as a guide to individual priests as the protagonists of their own formation.”

Boyea said the emphasis of the text was to urge that priests experience ongoing formation through deeper and more authentic relationships with fellow priests and with laity. 

Priests, Boyea said, “need to let themselves be formed by the laity, they need to let themselves be formed by their brother priests, and they need to let themselves be formed by their bishop.”

Acknowledging reports of declining morale among priests, Boyea said the document aims at helping priests to “overcome the isolation they feel.”

“The best way to do that is for a bishop to get his priests to collaborate with one another,” he added. “The bishop can’t be there with all of his priests all of the time. But the priests can learn to be more responsible for one another, and to collaborate with one another better, and with laity.”

“The idea is: Can you invite some laity into your environment to kind of take some responsibility for you? Can the priest develop relationships with laity and have some laity who are very honest with him?”

“That’s not easy,” Boyea acknowledged, “but it’s really what has to happen. In many ways, diocesan priests are trained to be ‘Lone Rangers.’ So it’s got be a primary role of the bishop to encourage that the priest has these other people in his life who are taking responsibility for helping him to grow — brother priests, and then lay people who are really honest with him.”


But while Boyea argued that the “The Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests”  was focused on building communion between priests and laity, other bishops saw the text very differently.

When bishops debated the document on June 8, several bishops argued the text represented an outdated and clerical approach to priesthood, with an overemphasis on the notion of spiritual fatherhood. 

Bishop Stephen Biegler of Cheynne rose amid debate June 16 to lament that the text’s chapter on priestly identity did not reference Presbyteroum ordinis, the Second Vatican Council’s degree on priesthood.

“I think the document should be enriched by some more of the images from Presbyterorum ordinis in the section on priestly identity. Presbyterorum ordinis isn’t even mentioned in that section,” Biegler said.

“Although there is mention given to the identity of the priest in the identity of Christ, Head and Shepherd, [a principal image in Presbyterorum ordinis], the primary image [in the bishops’ text] is that of the priest as a spiritual father.”

Biegler called for a waiting period before the document’s passage, so that “the section on priestly identity could be looked at carefully alongside Presbyterorum ordinis and the images for priesthood there. I’m just concerned that the primary image [of priest] as spiritual father needs to be enriched by the other images of priesthood that are presented [in Vatican II].”

The Wyoming bishop did not specify which images of priesthood he’d hoped to see from Vatican II; Biegler declined The Pillar’s request for an interview on that point.

Instead, he specified in floor remarks that in his view, the text was lacking a sense of the priest in solidarity with the broader Body of Christ — the same sense which Boyea had told The Pillar was its fundamental emphasis. 

But from Biegler’s point of view, that sense was lacking.

“What I find lacking is a communal relationship with the body of Christ, that puts us in solidarity with one another as brother and sister … in my reading of Presbyterorum ordinis, that’s reflected by the priest as a brother in the midst of the people. There is also the image of a priest set apart, but always in the midst of the brothers, in the midst of the family of faith,” the bishop said.

Biegler, in addition to Bishop Robert Coerver of Lubbock, urged that bishops reject the text, and vote on it again after more work could be done on the text.

“There’s some enrichment that could be done here, so I would encourage more time for this document,” Biegler said.

After Biegler spoke, Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix weighed in to support Biegler’s concerns about the notion of spiritual fatherhood.

“I have not read the document myself,” Dolan explained before he began. 

“But regarding the language used regarding the priest as father … we had a more recent incident, and I’m hearing this come up a little more often than I would hope, but priests often refer to themselves as spiritual fathers, and unfortunately some of our young laity glom onto that and priest who may have a narcissistic tendency accept that, and then enjoy that kind of title, so we had to send a fellow for some help, because he had seven spiritual daughters.”

“So I’m just very concerned about the language we used, especially as we see some of our guys coming out of the seminary with a sense of hubris,” the bishop added.

Dolan declined The Pillar’s request for an interview to elucidate his concerns regarding the notion of spiritual fatherhood. 

Eventually, Bishop Juan Betencourt, auxiliary of Hartford, stood up to back the document, explaining that the notion of spiritual fatherhood is a central image of priestly identify is drawn from Vatican documents, including the 2016 “Ratio fundamentalisfrom the Congregation for Clergy.

The same theme is present in the USCCB’s Program for Priestly Formation, and in Pastores dabo vobis, a 1992 apostolic exhortation by Pope St. John Paul II on the priesthood. 

“The theme of spiritual fatherhood is very present in the new ratio, in the PPF, and the [Vatican] Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests,” Betencourt, a member of the USCCB’s clergy committee, emphasized.

“This document is a guide,” the bishop stressed. “The document is not an exposition on the meaning and identity of the priesthood. It’s not a theological treatise on the priesthood…It’s not going to cover every single aspect, but it is pretty thorough.” 

Betencourt emphasized that mental health experts, seminary rectors and formators, and others involved in priestly formation had worked with theologians to develop a practical text, drawn from the Church’s teachings on the subject.

After other bishops spoke to affirm the notion of spiritual fatherhood or express support for the document, it passed the assembly, by a vote of 144 to 24.

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After the vote, some bishops told The Pillar they understood the point that Dolan had seemed to make — that the notion of spiritual fatherhood could be abused without proper formation.

But other bishops said the document’s pushback had been part of a long-standing effort from some bishops to shape a theology of the priesthood focused more on community, and less on sacerdotal authority.

Before the spring meeting last week, several sources told The Pillar that the “Basic Plan for the Ongoing Formation of Priests” had already faced criticism from some bishops — most notably Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago — and that its vote had been delayed by at least one meeting of bishops, among calls for rewrites.

Among the complaints, sources said, is that a cadre bishops felt the text relied too heavily on Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II’s vision of the priesthood, and did not adequately incorporate work from Pope Francis on the subject. Sources said the floor debate last week was an outgrowth of that issue.

In comments to The Pillar, Boyea acknowledged pushback ahead of the meeting, but said that in his view, the drafting bishops drew from the Church’s magisterium, without trying to focus on one pope over another.

“You know, there were bishops who wanted more quotations from Pope Francis. We tried to incorporate some of those in there — his homilies for Chrism Masses have been helpful — but fundamentally, the Directory and then the new Ratio fundamentalis were mostly put together in the time period of Benedict to Francis. And then Pastores dabo vobis, how can we do without that, it’s just a continuing document.” 

“So that’s really what guides us, right? We have to use the documents of the Church.” 

While bishops disagreed about the substance of the text, several of them with otherwise conflicting opinions lamented the length of document — a draft provided to bishops includes more than 300 paragraphs.

Several bishops, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, a supporter of the document, acknowledged in their remarks that the text was “too long.”

Boyea acknowledged the criticism. 

“There’s going to be priests who will pay no attention to it,” he told The Pillar.

But the bishop said that because the document will be emailed to priests electronically, rather than printed, he has has some hope that priests will be more likely to peruse it. 

And he said that he hopes transitional deacons in his own diocese, Lansing, will “use this in dialogue with their mentor or pastor.” 

Boyea said the text may prove to be a “great tool” during the “vocational synthesis stage” of the newest addition to the Program of Priestly Formation, in which transitional deacons are expected to have more immediate formation in their parishes. 

“Now that’s going to be several years down the road yet before we actually implement the vocational synthesis, but I think this would be a great tool for that.”

Boyea added that in his view, priests should take seriously their obligation to grow in ministry, and in personal and spiritual development.

“We’re saying to the priests: ‘you’ve gotta take charge of this.’ And, frankly, that’s true for any professional. I don’t care who they are. Any professional has to have a progam by which he seeks to undergo development. That’s his job. And so that should be true for priests.”

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