The problem with ordaining Viri Probati, ‘men of proven virtue’

shaping the assembly

It seems that every few months we begin talking again about the chronic shortage of presbyters in the many parts of the Catholic world today. Then someone suggests the ordination of suitable married men, Viri Probati.

But after some discussion, a solidly based argument (not based on dubious notions of ritual purity) is presented: how could these married men learn all that a presbyter needs to know in a short time?

Then it is decided that, no, the problem is too big to be overcome and so it is best to shelve that whole idea. TINA rules – There Is No Alternative to the status quo!

Even those bishops who are prepared to grant that it would be pastorally beneficial to change the Latin Church’s discipline of mandatory celibacy and ordain “up-right married men” (viri probati), seem stunned into silence by “the insuperable problem” of training such men.

Ordaining viri probati might solve a practical shortage, but could they be trained?

The Catholic priest, so the argument goes, is a highly trained professional – and well-matched to the laity’s needs. So, first of all, how could one get the equivalent without taking the vir probatus away from his family and work for six or seven years of training in a seminary?

Secondly, it is argued that prior to the Tridentine seminary we had a poorly educated clergy and this led to abuses, and, eventually, the Reformation. So, by contrast, a long “formation” ensures avoiding abuses, ecclesial contentment and orthodoxy.

And, thirdly, the re-emergence of permanent deacons has often been unsuccessful, and this is usually seen as resulting from poor training: presbyters would pose even greater problems.

Reality Check

One assumption in these arguments is that the 6-7 year seminary model is not only fit for purpose, but is a measure for all other ministerial training.

Does our experience bear this out?

First, the fact that dioceses struggle to provide on-going formation to priests is an admission that the seminary is not the be-all-and-end-all. There is also a growing awareness that the demands of preaching and presiding call for skills never imagined in a world of “getting Mass” and “Father knows best”.

Any group of Catholics will bear this out: the role of preacher/teacher is seen as one where many clergy fail. Coupled with this is the demand to provide ministry in complex situations that cannot be foreseen in seminary: thus, learning new skills is an on-going and necessary process.

Second, in any practical situation the amount of training that can be given before actual engagement is very limited. You only know what you need to know after you are on the job.

Seminaries seek to address this with pastoral experiences, but many priests only find out that they should have studied more Old Testament, for instance, when it comes home to them that people hear these readings, ask questions, and they have not “bothered” with what then seemed irrelevant.

This is exacerbated when seminarians are mainly ordination-focused and view their training (particularly the “academic” part) merely as the obstacle course prior to the bishop laying his hands on their heads. As I have often heard: “When you have a stole on you, none of this will matter!”

Thirdly, while there has been some re-thinking about seminaries since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the traditional length of training was determined simply by the need to keep young men in college until ordination age.

While the years of “philosophy” used to be seen as offering a broad intellectual training (it included natural philosophy: i.e. science), they now focus on philosophy as an adjunct to theology.

The seminary, moreover, emerged within the Renaissance model of the mind as an empty vessel to be filled: control the inputs, and one might produce the perfect actor. It is an idea seen in the very name seminarium (L. seed plot). But reality, as we continue to learn painfully, is a little more complex than that!

Lastly, given that entry to a seminary involves willingness to become a celibate presbyter, there is a limited pool of candidates.

If they would take on “the demands of the priesthood”, then intellectual curiosity, the ability to learn and willingness to engage in professional training often took second place.

Seminaries are not ideal. They are just one solution, in one situation. And they produce very mixed results.

An educated clergy

Seminaries are excellent for forming a group with a clear corporate sense and esprit de corps: a clergy.

It has often been noted that while universities speak of “education” (focusing on developing the individual’s talent), seminaries – along with military academies – speak of “formation”: learning to think with the group, act together and become familiar with the group’s standard procedures and goals.

There is a direct link between seminaries and clericalism – and, as such, we have been badly served by the current system. Indeed, seminaries allow students to imagine that serving the group to which they belong – the clergy – is equivalent to serving the Church.

Faced with constant references to “seminary experience” or “deep formation” that one hears as objections to the viri probati solution, one wonders if there is not some deep-seated fear that such non-seminary training might undermine the “club experience” of the clerical world.

There is often a refusal to admit that the much-vaunted seminary system has left so many clergy poorly formed and professionally under-skilled. One wonders if it is a smokescreen from a deeper, perhaps unconscious, attachment to ‘the corps’ that pushes the notion of the minister (one who is there to serve his sisters and brothers) into the background.

Experiential learning

One of the quiet educational revolutions of the past fifty years has been our growing understanding of how adults learn: andragogy as distinct from pedagogy.

With this has come a range of teaching techniques that are appropriate for those who have learned how to learn, who learn within the context of their lives and learn because they know why they want to learn.

To engage in a learning experience with adults, aged 30 and over, is very different from lecturing young people whose brains (up to roughly age 25) are still developing and for whom “life” is still a future adventure. The volunteer adult learner knows how he or she learns, owns the learning and is aware that learning does not stop when the course is completed.

Because teaching adults is a distinct activity, we have evolved the knowhow to do this without long periods of institutional residence. Just observe the success of variations of the Open University around the world. Adults may not absorb “formation”, but that may result simply in being less recognizable as clergy rather than deficient as ministers.

“I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22, 27). This needs to be our guide, rather than the idea of the sacerdotal professional who possesses sacral powers.

If an aspect of the probatio of these married men is that they have learned to learn, and know that learning is a life-long challenge, then the biggest hurdle in their training is already overcome. Such men may be less docile as clerics within Church structures but may be more flexible as focal points among the People of God as we make our pilgrim way to unknown futures.

We do not know if the Catholic Church will finally grasp this problem. In the aftermath of this coronavirus crisis, many new pastoral strategies will have to be explored.

But we do know that following the Amazon Synod there was a retreat from the obvious – that is, opting for viri probati.

However, we already have the knowhow to skill such men for service.

Additional reading

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