Community Priests: A Response to Bp. Lobinger’s Idea of the Ordination of Community Leaders

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2000 »Volume 37 2000 Number 4 »Community Priests A Response To Bp Lobingers Idea Of The Ordination Of Community Leaders

Francisco Claver, S.J.

FRANCISCO CLAVER, S.J., Bishop of Bontoc-Lagawe, Northern Philippines, is a frequent contributor to the EAPR. Former chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Social Action-Justice and Peace, he is now chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Indigenous Peoples. A doctor of Anthropology from the University of Colorado, U.S.A., he is the author of many scholarly articles

Lobinger’s admirable magnum opus, Like His Brothers and Sisters -- he’s been working on the subject for years -- has to be read in toto if one is to understand what he is trying to say about the ordination of viri probati (literally, “proven men”), or, as he later calls them, OCLs or ordained community leaders. He tries to see the problem of ordaining such men in all its complexity and ramifications, and he does so step by step, each step nuancing what went before, and with plenty of examples and illustrations.

I see four basic questions he is asking in his book. These are the following:

Should we have OCLs at all?
What kind of priests should we have or promote?
How do we go about ordaining them?
When should we have them?

Lobinger opts for the ordination of Viri Probati but only of the OCL type and then only as teams of leaders, not as individuals. The how and the when of the question he leaves to such Churches -- nations, dioceses, parishes, small communities -- as are ready for such ordinations. And he puts that readiness in a Church’s evolvement into a community-centered one.

The ordination of OCLs will introduce into the Church two kinds of priesthood: the OCLs themselves and priests whose main role will be the care and continuing education of the OCLs. The latter he calls “Animator Priests” most of whom will come from the ranks of celibate priests such as we have them now.

I have no trouble going along with Lobinger in the general thrust of his thought. But there are nonetheless a few points I feel need some commenting on -- at least from my own way of thinking. I’d like to say what these are in the rest of this response.


The insufficiency of priests is great the world over. In the old Churches, their fast dwindling numbers seem to indicate that the old version of the priesthood no longer attracts vocations. In the young Churches, the increase in the number of priests has not kept pace with the galloping growth of population and of the number of conversions to Christianity, making it impossible for the Church to take sufficient care of the spiritual needs of the people she calls her own. Lobinger takes pains to point out that this fact is only the occasion to rethink the priesthood in the Church, not the real reason for ordaining OCLs. It is true the diminishing number of priests is the occasion for the rethinking, but the fact is the shortage of priests (a shortage due in great part to our present requirement of celibacy in priests) means the deprivation of countless millions of Catholics of the sacraments. They have a right to the sacraments and the Church has a duty to provide them. But she is failing in that duty because of a law requiring celibacy for the priesthood that is not of divine law.


There was a time in the early seventies in Malaybalay (my former diocese) when we decided as a presbyterium that we had to get away from the notion and practice of Provider Priests--”Sacramental Priests,” we disdainfully called them, whose main activity was to, machine-like, dispense the sacraments to our people. We were then in the throes of developing a BEC-type Church, a liturgical community, yes, but also one that was concerned with social issues of poverty and justice, and the human rights violations of Marcos’ martial law government, and above all, full lay participation in the Church’s task of evangelization. Soon, when functioning BECs had become the rule in most of our parishes and trained lay leaders were taking over many of the functions that used to be the sole prerogative of priests, we realized that the only special thing the priest could give the community was the sacraments-and even then not all! In other words, a priest by ordination is essentially a “Provider Priest” and OCLs are not going to avoid being such. There is a difference, I admit, in the way a Provider Priest in a non-participatory Church functions from the way a Provider Priest does in a fully participatory one, but the task of providing the sacraments to people is still, in both cases, an essential part of their priesthood.


The distinction made between the Animator Priest and the OCL in terms of their roles does not seem to me to be as clearcut as Lobinger presents it. For one, both kinds are priests and hence can provide sacramental service to the people by virtue of their ordination. And for another, there is no reason why only celibate priests should play the role of animating OCLs. I am aware the role is being given our present seminary-trained clergy in order for them not to lose all sense of the calling they responded to initially. But once the OCLs are establishing as another valid way of exercising priestly ministry, the distinction, I’m afraid, will not be a crucial one. And the reason is that there are many tasks connected with the role of Animator, and lay experts of all kinds, seasoned OCLs among them, could perform those tasks just as well. Thus, trained theologians, experts in community-building, counseling, bible studies, other disciplines--these can be called upon to help in the continuing education and animation of OCLs. There is no compelling necessity therefore for only celibate priests to function as animators of OCLs. It strikes me too that one doesn’t have to be ordained to be an animator qua animator. But he has to be to become an OCL.


Lobinger doesn’t like to use the term because he believes that making celibacy optional for a would-be priest is not the issue. I’m afraid it is the issue. We can’t get away from the fact that the two kinds of priests he wants to see developing are either celibate or non-celibate. And there is a real option to be made by any candidate for the priesthood to become one or the other. Also, one’s state of being single or married decides what kind of priest he is to become, Animator or OCL in Lobinger’s scheme. What I’m saying is that optional celibacy is the real question and not the kinds of priests distinguishable by the roles given them because, as we’ve shown above, it is possible for the same roles to be played by either.


What Lobinger says about a priest being part of a community and partaking of the life of that community like any member is well taken. Still, there are other actual communities besides the grassroots (basic ecclesial community or BEC) one and any human being can belong to several communities, Church communities of various kinds, secular, professional communities too, and do so at one and the same time. In the Church, we have the parish, the diocese, religious communities, movements and organizations which can take on the characteristics of bonafide communities etc. I would therefore not make too rigid the requirement that an OCL must come from the community he belongs to by residence, minister only to it. Otherwise, it seems to me, bishops and animators (episcopal vicars), OCLs themselves when they are out of their primary communities, would have to be excluded from performing any priestly duties in those other levels of communities? Besides, in highly mobile societies (a growing phenomenon the world over), birth or residence in the community cannot be the only criterion of deciding who deserves to be called a full member of the community. Participation in and identification with the life of the community would be to me more important.


Lobinger makes the point that the only kind of OCLs to have would be those who can work as teams and hence there should never be single ordinations. The idea is good in view of our long experience with clerical leadership (of the worst kind--the I-am-king type). But if we are all moving towards a Church that is in truth a Church of Communion-a participatory Church which demands that its leadership be likewise of a participatory character--it is possible to have single ordinations and still avoid the dangers the bishop speaks of.


Lobinger does not deal with this problem explicitly but in everything negative he says about the old priesthood and the possibility of ordaining married men who would take on all the qualities of such a priesthood, it is clericalism he is excoriating and wouldn’t want to see perpetuated in OCLs. His insistence on a team of OCLs for each community is, I think, precisely aimed at avoiding that danger. It seems to me one of the worst things about clericalism is the monopoly of power in the Church vested in one man, whether it be in a parish, a diocese or in Rome; also, a certain arrogance in its exercise? That kind of power-wielding would be hard to do in a participatory Church where shared leadership is the ideal and the rule and leadership is not limited to the ordained. In such a kind of leadership, it would be possible to have ordained and non-ordained people leading the community. And if so, it is also possible to have even only one ordained minister in a team of leaders whose role is limited to liturgical things, all other roles that a clericalist priest used to monopolize being spread out to the rest in the team, lay members included. I’m thinking along the lines of a seminary or religious community where one priest is assigned to be the spiritual father. He is expected not to make use of his role in affairs of the seminary or house that are of the “external forum.” Similarly I would think it is possible to have a lone OCL in a community fulfilling the same role. I would think as the man charged with things of the “internal forum” of the community, his leadership role will be different from that of the others in a team composed of men and women leaders assigned various areas of competence. (I suppose a germane question to ask is whether a priest, because he presides at the liturgy, has to preside too in all other areas of Church life.)


Lobinger speaks of the possibility that celibate priests will ask to be allowed to marry and to still exercise their priesthood. He believes there is such a possibility. But the question then comes up: Should the acceptance of such priests into the active ministry after marriage be automatic simply because they have already been ordained?  I should think not. We talk of ordaining viri probati, men of upright character who have proven themselves to be real Christians in ordinary life as lay people. One area of life that they have to be shown to be of “proven” probity is marriage. For former celibate priests who marry to be allowed to exercise their priesthood again, they must be judged in the same way as lay candidates aspiring to become OCLs. They must prove themselves to be faithful husbands, good fathers of the family, etc. But that’s not going to be immediately clear after marriage. They must thus undergo a period of probation as lay persons, earn a living not as priests supported by the diocese but by their own work--just like all the other OCLs.


The way a community defines the Church -- its theology of the Church--and acts from that theology has much to do with how it is to be assessed whether it is ready or not for OCLs. This ecclesiology, it was pointed out above, is not spelled out in Lobinger’s work, but it is very clear nonetheless. He opts for a Church of Communion. Such a Church is one that will make it possible and easy for its members to go through a process of reflection on the pros and cons of the question of ordaining married men. And he says a community that still adheres to what we could call a pre-Vatican II model and whose definition of a priest’s role is therefore that of the Provider type should not be allowed to have a married clergy as the reason they want the services of such a clergy is not a valid one. I would be less apodictic. No matter how hide-bound a Church may be in its adherence to things of the past, the fact is something has happened in the world Church as a result of Vatican II: There is definitely a movement everywhere, in old Churches as well as in young, in some slower than others, in some faster, towards the acceptance of the Church as Communion and therefore a more participative Church than before Vatican II is on the rise--even where it is being met with resistance. My point is that it is not impossible, though hard and hazardous perhaps, for a married clergy in unready Churches to move from the model of a priest as Provider to that of an OCL.


Lobinger asks for deeper and wider reflection on the question at all levels of the Church, all possible ramifications and implications looked into. I couldn’t agree more. But at this time, does the injunction of Paul VI against public discussion of the possibility of a married clergy still hold? Whether it does or not, however, the fact is the problem of the growing scarcity of priestly vocations (especially in the old Churches) is making people consider the advisability of changing Church laws on the celibacy requirement for the priesthood. I would think that where a BEC-type Church is the norm, there will come a time when the thirst for the Eucharist will get so intense and the base communities will rebel against the Church’s present thinking that only a fully eucharistic community has the right to be called Church. Are the BECs, despite the term “ecclesial” in their name, not really ecclesial because they lack the Mass? They have the Word of God, holy scripture, and they make great use of it, but by accidents of Church law, they cannot have the Eucharist. To me this is another instance where we as Church would have to fit what we teach to what we do. The hope springs eternal that Rome with soon see the lack of fit between what it is saying and what it is doing and work to do as well as speak the truth.


Lobinger cites a number of times the experience of other Churches (Anglican and Protestant) in regard to the same problems we would be having with the introduction of OCLs in the Catholic Church. I would think the Orthodox and Eastern Rites Churches, since they have long and established traditions of both married and unmarried clergy, have plenty to teach us on the subject. Their experience is worth consulting.

Lobinger has tried to be as comprehensive as possible in his detailing of all kinds of situations--and of problems specific to those situations. And if there is any point that he has brought out clearly, it is the necessity of thinking through all the possible implications of the institution of OCLs in the Church. The reflection he calls for, I take it, is not just a reasoning exercise, a debate, a dialogue. It must be a prayerful reflection too, one that we can rightly call spiritual discernment: a weighing of all the pros and cons of a problem with the Holy Spirit, with his fight and help, and in a genuinely participative way. This kind of discernment is something BECs do as a matter of course and there is no reason it cannot be done by the Church at large, all the way up to the top. And if this were done, it would be the best preparation for the eventual instituting of OCLs as an alternate form of priesthood. It would also be the guarantee that, as communities meet problems that will inevitably arise from the new kind of priesthood, they will be able to chart their movement forward, correct mistakes, avoid new ones. So at least we can hope.

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