A Reply to Fr. Longenecker

Challenge accepted.

The basic thesis offered by Longenecker is that prevalence of birth control is the reason why there is a lack of vocations to the Catholic priesthood (the focus here appears to be on the guys, as opposed to women's vocations).  First, he says:

[I]f a family has ten kids it is more likely that they are going to be happy for a few of them to pursue the priesthood or religious life. Mothers will quite happily send a few off to the seminary or monastery. If she has ten she can spare a few.

I have called out before the way that conservative Catholicism instrumentalizes, and thus dehumanizes, children, but I can't recalling seeing it expressed this transparently.  The casual assertion that children are some sort of currency that parents can assign to various roles (with no consideration for the desires of the boy in question) is appalling.  The old custom that the 2nd son was earmarked for service in the Church (without regard to what, you know, the particular 2nd son had to say about the matter) is generally viewed as an oppressive and antiquated relic of a more authoritarian time.  But, apparently not to Longenecker, who sees the life path of people as something that can be dictated from on high by parents, or the culture or the Church, or whatever.  [It is worth noting my experience, admittedly anecdotal, is that the track record of priests who were pushed into becoming priests because of parental or family pressures is very bad, for both the priests and for the people they serve.]

It is especially appalling in a context where we are talking about a life path that, in theory, is grounded in an unmerited call from God.  If only people who truly have a vocation from God should become priests, then the notion that a mother can "send off" a child or children to seminary is nonsensical--God decides who gets to be a priest, not a mother.  Clearly, though, Longenecker views the notion of a true vocation as pious pablum--good for inspiring a person to continue on the path, but easily ignored in favor of the needs of getting more bodies into the priesthood by hook or by crook.

I suspect that Longenecker will suggest that I am reading too much in to a throwaway line.  But I think lines like this represent a Freudian slip for conservatives Catholics, revealing that procreation is the goal of the exercise, not the valuation of any individual person who comes into being as a result of that procreation.  It's a scratching off of the veneer, revealing the fertility cult that lurks underneath.

Not content to toss out the idea of a genuine vocation as the basis for priesthood, Longenecker then goes after the altruistic motives for becoming a priest:

Before the invention and acceptance of artificial contraception a young man considering the priesthood would look around and weigh up his option.

Let’s say he lived in Philadelphia in the 1950s. He came from an Italian American family. He sees his Dad, his uncles, his grandfather. They are working class. They sweat in dangerous jobs  to support their large families. They come home to a little house full of kids. Its a good life, but its a hard life.

The priest, on the other hand, doesn’t have his own wife and family, but he’s in Philadelphia. He gets sent to St Anthony of Padua parish. He’s surrounded by a big extended Italian family. He has status. He’s the priest. He gets an education. Maybe he travels to Rome. He lives in a big house with maybe three or four other priests. They have a  nice Italian mama who cooks and cleans and looks after them.

What I find most striking about Longenecker's oeuvre is that he takes positions that are usually set up as straw men by people who have an ax to grind against the Catholic Church and adopts them as his own on behalf of the Catholic Church (here's a good example).  The idea that Catholic priests decide to become priests because they want (or wanted) an educated, relatively soft life of high social status is usually used as a cudgel to assert that the Catholic priesthood is a decadent institution obsessed with worldly pursuits.  The standard response for someone trying to defend the Catholic Church is to say "no, no, you have it totally wrong--Catholic priests by and large are priests because they want to serve God and God's people."  Longenecker, curiously, just takes it as a given: "nope, people become priests, or at least did, because they want to be big shots in the community, have someone to cook for them, and not have to deal with the hassles of a family."

To be clear, I think Longenecker is right that many priests in the 50s became priests for precisely the reasons he sets forth.  But that's not OK.  The idea that you should become a priest because it is a "good deal" is impossible to square with the idea that the priest is a self-sacrificing servant to the community.  And the notion that the solution to the problem of the lack of vocations to the priesthood is to contrive culturally to make married life less attractive, and thus priesthood relatively more attractive, is the definition of cynicism.

Which leads directly into Longenecker's profound cynicism about marriage and families.  The logic Longenecker uses, as I understand it, is as follows:

  1. Women now generally work out of the home, and are able to do so in large measure because of the possibility of birth control;
  2. This means that families have more resources;
  3. Which means that, as compared to a single-earner father of previous generations, the man in the relationship doesn't have to work as hard;
  4. Which means that being married and raising a family is more desirable visa ve becoming a priest.
Let's put aside the fact this equation completely ignores and devalues those two income families that are struggling to raise however many kids they have, a reality which is becoming all to common as income inequality in our society rises unchecked.  Assuming Longenecker's premises, this is probably the best argument that exists for why birth control is a good thing.  Families that are not coming close to the survival line is a good thing.  Fathers having more time and mental energy to do things other than work to provide for their family, including time to spend with their children, is a good thing.

Instead of celebrating this outcome on its own terms, Longenecker calls for creating essentially artificial scarcity.  If you take away birth control, you will have more kids; if you have more kids, the mom with be forced to stay home; if the mom stays home, the overall resources in the family will go down; if the overall resources in the family go down, the father will have to work harder and have a less pleasant life; if the father has a less pleasant life, there is a greater chance one of his sons will decide to avoid the path Dad took and become a priest.  The happiness of families is being intentionally and artificially sacrificed for the purpose of contriving to end up with more priests.  

Keep in mind, also, that when we talk about "resources" in the context of family life, we are not only talking about monetary resources, but also emotional resources and the resource of time.  I am convinced that there is an inflection point with large families where the ability of parents to effective care for and nurture any one child in the family decreases as the number of children increases.  And I say this as a person from a family of four kids where my parents undertook yeoman's efforts to walk the knife's edge of that line.  So we are not just talking about parents having money to throw around, but the ability of parents to actually grow and nurture the children they have, to make them feel like they are people who matter and not cogs in some family machine.

Nope, no good, says Longenecker.  Make them think family life is hard and impersonal, and maybe they will decide to ditch the whole thing and become priests. This is cynical to its core, caring nothing for the human status of families and their relationships and well-being, but only ginning up more numbers to add to the Annuario Pontificio.

Finally, Longenecker ends with a declaration that people will soon see through the "lie" of birth control.  What lie is that?  The lie that birth control allows for families to have more resources (both monetary and non-monetary) for the benefit of their kids?  Because Longenecker concedes this and identifies it as a problem.  Maybe there are good arguments to be had for why birth control is a lie--I have yet to hear them, in all of the years of Catholic rhetoric on the subject I have been exposed to--but I suppose it is possible.  But it is certainly not to be found here.

If the sales pitch for opposition to artificial birth control is "you should avoid it because it will make your family life better, disincentivize you from pushing your kids into becoming priests whether they want to or not, and make family life not sufficiently unattractive to your kids that they will decide to forgo it for themselves," then should be no surprise to anyone why the position has found little purchase with the vast majority of Catholics.  And to sign on for that pitch, heedless of the costs to actual families in the process, to get a few more priests (whether or not they have true vocations) is monstrous.

Behold the unfettered cynicism of the Catholic right.


Carl said…
Michael, I appreciate where you are coming from, but I think you might be over-emphasizing a few of the Father's points.

First, let me say that my personal choices are not in line with Father's. I have two kids, and barring an Act of God, I will not have more. My wife and I did not make that decision from an economic standpoint but from, as you point out, resource scarcity in the areas of time and emotional attention or whatever.

In other words, I like spending time with my wife and my two kids. Add more kids, and I have less time for my wife and my first two kids.

Interestingly, I am quite familiar with Humanae Vitae. And on a macro-level, I find it convincing. I think it does make a compelling case that birth control devalues human life. However, on a micro-level, I find the options it presents to people to be ridiculous.

My reading of Father Longenecker's piece did not make me think that he is advocating for parents to choose for some of their children to choose a vocation regardless of what the child wants. It's more of a numbers game.

The numbers game - If a mother has one son, she might care about that son meeting a nice lady and making a nice life together. If that one son instead wants to become a priest, she might be a bit more hesitant about that since she is not only "losing" her son to the priesthood but also "losing" all of those future grandkids who will run around calling her Nana. It's not that she will yell and scream at him to not become a priest (though she might). It's that she might be more cool to the idea than if she has four sons. If son #4 wants to be a priest, she might be sad at "losing" her son to the priesthood, but she can at least console herself with the thought that her first three sons are married and producing grandkids.

Father's argument about married life being easier than it was in the past is interesting. We could probably tear that argument apart from 1,000 different directions. However, I will say that my life as a married man is quite easy. I don't have 10 kids. I have a physically easy job, and I work in public education (so I am at work much less than other people). My wife has stayed home with our kids, but she also runs a very successful business from home. So the "ease" of my married life has as much to do with my getting married to an awesome person as it does to these large-scale societal factors that we are discussing. I know married men with two kids who are worked to death because our culture presents an unlimited number of luxuries to consume.

As a 17-year-old, I did consider joining the priesthood. And I will say that many of the reasons were the "wrong" ones. However, I will also say that many people become teachers (remember, I work in public education) for the "wrong" reasons. That doesn't mean that they aren't good teachers.

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