In his Defense of Purity, Dietrich von Hildebrand distinguishes between the purposes of sexual intercourse for man in quantum animal (procreation), in quantum homo (the union of man and woman in wedded love), and in quantum fidelis (the reflection in Christian marriage of Christ's love for the church). Von Hildebrand describes the disasters that ensue when these purposes or meanings are severed from one another; the disasters are a result of the deep illogic or incoherence of the sexual sin involved.
That has led me to wonder whether this insight regarding the sexual act can apply to questions regarding the priesthood or ordained ministry. It seems to me that many people in my church -- I am a Roman Catholic -- will grudgingly admit the necessity of having a man serve in quantum sacerdos or in quantum imago Christi -- insofar as he is a priest or an image of Christ -- but not in quantum homo. But man, as man, needs a father, not merely to reflect the Father, or Christ who is the image of the everlasting Father, but for perfectly human purposes too. I don't want to labor the obvious here; should anyone be inclined to doubt our deep need for fathers (and I am not speaking only of fathers in blood), I suggest visiting the local penitentiary in the company of someone with a ministry to those lost men.
Now the three staunchly orthodox priests serving the communities on the island in Canada where we spend the summer are being recalled by their order to their mother house in Quebec. For eight years they have served as best they could under trying circumstances. Their order is not yet recognized by the Vatican (though the priests are all well educated and validly ordained); the local bishop invited them here on a trial basis; the people had been running the parishes their own way, seeing nothing untoward in having a woman teach catechism to children, though she was separated from her husband and living with another man, nor anything untoward in allowing a local doctor to receive communion, although she is an unbaptized Hindu; the divorce rate is over fifty percent, and cohabitation is a yawner; the hymnals are at best debased and at worst heretical; the parishes are relatively poor and the buildings have needed repair; young men are nowhere to be seen in the church. So the priests have done a great deal -- they have reinstituted important Catholic devotions, and have gently let the scandalous catechizer go, and have run seminars on proper liturgical music, and have refused to marry cohabiters unless they separate and abstain for a certain time, and so on.
But I can still say, barring a miracle (a qualification which must hold true of all human predictions), that these parishes will not produce a vocation to the priesthood in the next fifteen years, and that they are rapidly reaching the point, if they have not already reached it, at which one might confidently say that these parishes will never produce another vocation again. That's because, among many of the people, the idea of a father has diminished, and the idea of a spiritual father has vanished altogether. They have been taught from all sides except their priests that the laity ought to be in charge of everything but those few minor functions that have to do with certain parts of the Mass. (From what I hear, many a Protestant congregation suffers from a similarly incoherent wish to have a minister as a presentable officiator at service, but not a teacher; a fellow that would look like a pillar of the community, but no leader.) Now the good people of our island are in pretty dire need of strong paternal leadership, but the inertia of a declining culture, and the tacit acceptance of this severance of priest-as-priest from priest-as-man, will ensure that strong paternal leadership is exactly what the people are not going to get.
Given Roman Catholic teaching regarding the valid operation of the sacraments, everyone will acknowledge the need for a priest: without him (or without a “him” on call from someplace or other) you can’t have Holy Communion and a few other incidental things that the old folks especially want. So they need a priest around, and if he just sticks to his minimal Sunday duties he’ll be all right. But it's strange; this ignoring of the priest's role in quantum homo, as a father and leader of his flock, tends not to exalt his supernatural calling in quantum imago Christi, but to debase it to the level of a brute superstition. In other words, when we sever the idea of ordained ministry in quantum imago Christi from its foundation in human nature, we revert to the barbaric idea of the minister as magician or ritual functionary. He is a father no more, but the sacerdotal equivalent of a sperm donor.
“Just consecrate them hosts, fella,” says the pious Madame, crushing her Marlboro into the thurible, “and don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”