Pastors are not Interchangeable Parts

A few weeks ago I came upon the odd fact that, before and during World War II, the Royal Navy built battleships with 14-inch main battery guns, whereas Britain’s principal naval rivals, Germany and Japan, were building ships with 15- and 18-inch main batteries; moreover, the RN’s chief ally, the United States, had been building battleships mounting 16-inch guns for decades. When I queried a friend with long military and government experience about this curiosity, he sent a suggestive answer:

“Given the cultures and the times, I’d guess that after the bureaucracy-committee-administration reached a decision, change would have been virtually impossible, and they would keep cranking out anything in its original configuration because you could never get agreement on change, absent a crisis. [It] took a lot of losses in bombing raids to spur the U.S. Army Air Corps to improve bomber protection and work on increasing fighter escort range—‘the bomber will always get through’ was the bumper sticker that sold airpower … and bumper sticker gospel is very hard to displace.”

PFAnd so, by way of Robin Hood’s barn and a cautionary tale about self-serving bureaucracies, we come to Pope Francis’s repeated criticism of a “self-referential” Church, the pope’s strictures against clerical ambition and careerism, and clergy personnel policy in too many dioceses.

Priests’ councils and clergy personnel boards were set up after Vatican II to give operational meaning to the Council’s teaching that priests form a kind of presbyteral college around the local bishop and share with him in the governance of the diocese; such bodies were also intended to provide some protection for priests against the whims and crotchets of arbitrary or authoritarian bishops. Both were laudable goals. Yet when you try to fit those goals into the mind-set of institutional-maintenance Catholicism (Pope Francis’s “self-referential” Church), the result, too often, is to intensify, not diminish, clerical careerism and ambition.

That is surely what’s happening when priests’ councils or clergy personnel boards, composed of priests working under the bishop, treat parishes as square holes into which pastors are fitted like interchangeable pegs. There are “good parishes” and “tough parishes;” good parishes are given out as rewards; tough parishes are assigned as a matter of sharing burdens within a presbyterate (or worse, as warnings or punishments); and all of this happens according to a fixed time-table in which pastors have specific terms of office.

It may seem like diocesan collegiality in action. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything farther removed from the New Evangelization.

As I wrote in “Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church,” building the Church of the New Evangelization takes time and patience in a parish setting. The time involved will vary from situation to situation, and it certainly can’t be measured in unrenewable terms of office for pastors. Moreover, once Evangelical Catholicism has taken hold in a parish—the Gospel is being preached with conviction, the liturgy is being celebrated with dignity, the parish is attracting many new Catholics, religious and priestly vocations and solid Catholic marriages are being nurtured, the works of charity and service are flourishing, and the parish finances are in order—moving a pastor out because “his term is up” is about as old Church, as institutional-maintenance Church, as you can get. Aside from the vanities of a clericalism that Pope Francis is urging the Church to shed, there is no reason to let clergy personnel policy be shaped by anything other than the demands of the New Evangelization in a challenging cultural moment.

Thus a priority task for the local bishop as agent of the New Evangelization is the re-evangelization of his priests, especially in long-established dioceses where the mindset of institutional-maintenance Catholicism and the habits of clerical careerism and ambition are most likely to be deeply entrenched. For priests, too, can be tempted to think of each other as interchangeable parts, some of those parts more popular than others. As long as they do, clergy personnel policy will be an obstacle, not an asset, to the New Evangelization.


This article was originally published at the Denver Catholic Register.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • JMC

    In some dioceses, the priest shortage has necessarily ended the practice of sending priests to parishes for a set term. In my parish, for instance, our pastor seemed to have been there forever. Then a priest in another parish died, and, for some reason I don’t fully understand, this necessitated a shuffling of priests to cover the opening. When this happened, we definitely saw the dangers of the “cult of personality” that we were always told was the reason behind the frequent changing of pastors when there were enough for that still to be a regular practice. People were angry that they were losing a pastor they loved, angry to the point that they refused to contribute to the weekly collection. A parish that had always had enough to get by suddenly had to cope with dwindling revenue. It’s been five years now, and that still hasn’t changed. These people still insist they are not giving a penny until they get Father “X” back. Given the times, I’m just glad we have a priest, and are not forced to resort to the “circuit priest” option as several, more closely-located parishes in our diocese have had to do.

  • Mary Parks

    The 6 year pastor term is an American thing. It treats parishes as career stepping stones. PASTORS are permanent, not temporary help (hirelings). Now the episcopacy is being treated the same way, with installed Archbishops (like Gomez) being moved to other Archdioceses. So much for “married to your diocese” theology.

  • pnyikos

    In our diocese, two bishops ago [we have been very fortunate with the last two], the institutional maintenance was even worse. A liberal, abortion-friendly priest was kept on in our university’s campus ministry year after year, whereas his predecessor, a fine traditional priest who could relate to the students at least as well, was shifted after one year. His successor was even better than the predecessor: for the first time in living memory, a student was inspired to join a seminary — and the successor was shifted after one year, and replaced by a wishy-washy priest who again was kept on year after year.

    The bishop we had at the time the two excellent priests were moved so soon was a classic bureaucrat of the “(fictitious) Spirit of Vatican II” variety, caring little for spiritual matters and putting in place one of the most repressive policies concerning the tridentine Latin Mass of any diocese. So it is no wonder that these things happened under his charge.

    Fortunately, as I said, we have had excellent bishops since then, but the damage to the campus ministry is much harder to undo. It takes a special kind of priest to inspire students and faculty in their faith, and we have yet to get one as good as the two who were moved to obscure parishes after one year.