In his wise and engaging essay elsewhere in this issue (I Do?, p. 14), David Blankenhorn expresses puzzled dismay over the alacrity with which the clergy have participated in the contemporary trivializing of the marriage vow. I do not understand, he says, why the clergy, the custodians of our marriage tradition, so willingly relinquish their authority and, in effect, collaborate in their own marginalization. I share Mr. Blankenhorn’s dismay but not, I think, his puzzlement. The massive transfer of authority away from the clergy represented in the transformation of the marriage vow is part of a long, slow decline in the prestige of the pastoral office. That decline, in turn, is both cause and effect of the erosion of clergy self-confidence and self-respect.
In mainstream American Protestantism today (and, I suspect, in much of American Catholicism as well) the magisterial Herr Pastor of my Lutheran childhood no longer exists, and not simply because in many churches the person who replaced Herr Pastor may well be a woman. The waning of pastoral authority began prior to women’s ordination, and it continues for reasons that the undoing of women’s ordination would not touch.
Some of the sources of the decline are obvious enough. Before World War II, for example, people in many communities looked up to their pastor if for no other reason than that he was part of the small minority in their midst with professional credentials. In a time when relatively few people held college degrees, he garnered the respect accorded to all professionals. One admired the pastor not only because he was educated in the holy mysteries, but simply because he was educated at all.
That educational gap between laity and clergy has largely disappeared”or, worse, it now exists in reverse. Today’s laity typically have learning credentials of their own, while many clergy are, by earlier standards, shockingly miseducated. I recall a young Lutheran pastor apologizing to me for his uncertain grasp of the Lutheran Confessions by explaining that his seminary training had focused more on counseling and things like that than on theology. And a distinguished theologian who had switched from teaching at one of his church’s seminaries to one of its affiliated liberal arts colleges told me that his new students were only half as interested in religion as his old ones but were twice as smart. It has been a long time since adults routinely suggested to bright and ambitious young people that they consider the pastorate.
These unsettling developments are related to thegeneral secularization of the culture. Americans are still, at least in comparative terms, a deeply religious people, but over time their religion has been increasingly confined, in William James’ terms, to what they do with their solitude. In the nineteenth century religious language and assumptions permeated American public discourse. Today they do not.
That is particularly the case in intellectual circles, and the clergy, like other educated groups, take their cultural signals from the academic and media elites. Informed by those elites of their marginal status”religion in elite realms is not so much repudiated as it is simply ignored”members of the clergy have flitted from one theologically tangential concern to another in search of cultural relevance.
For much of this century, the most prominent of those concerns was politics. From the Social Gospel onward, liberal theologians interpreted Christian categories of sin, repentance, and grace in collective and social terms rather than in individual and spiritual ones. Their theology found expression in prophetic condemnations of capitalist society and in affirmation of one form or another of collectivist solidarity. As Peter Berger nicely put it, Protestant mainliners found themselves increasingly reluctant to make statements of faith unprotected by redeeming sociopolitical significance.
In its own terms, at least in certain circles, the political option had considerable success. For those willing to agree, in the slogan of the time, that the world sets the agenda for the church, the sixties were especially heady years. William McLoughlin, coeditor (with Robert Bellah) of a widely noticed symposium on Religion in America published in 1968, noted that all the symposium contributors agreed that religion is still worth talking about because it is playing a significant part in the social reform causes of the times: civil rights, peace, academic freedom, civil liberties, poverty, social justice in general. Here, he added without hint of irony, there is real commitment to ultimate concerns.
McLoughlin unknowingly indicated the limits of Social Gospel theology a few sentences later: While American religious leaders are now, as always, deeply involved in social and reform movements, those same leaders constantly express the fear that they, their churches, and their doctrines are somehow inconsequential or irrelevant to the religious needs of their constituents. Apparently the agenda set for the church by the world suited the church’s leaders better than its followers.
In any case, the collapse of socialism since 1989 has stripped the political option of its allure. One senses an exhaustion of inspiration even in the leadership of the National Council of Churches or the peace-and-justice bureaucracies of mainline Protestantism. There the new enthusiasms are for sundry versions of feminism, multiculturalism, and ecological correctness. But as far as most laity are concerned, these are”at least when pumped up to the level of ultimate concern”cult enterprises, and clergy anxious to recover lost prestige will not likely find it by invoking goddesses, shamans, or theologies of recycling.
What one senses as the dominant concern among many pastors today is no particular cause, but simply a poignant, almost desperate desire to be liked. They are eager, above all, to accommodate. If young couples wish, through do-it-yourself vows, to redefine the meaning of Christian marriage, so be it. Uncertain of their message, such pastors seek to maintain through personal popularity the authority that earlier would have been theirs simply by virtue of their office. They seem not to understand that personal charisma cannot over the long run compensate for the loss of the charisms available only to those with a sure grasp of the priestly vocation. It is my impression that the pastors least susceptible to attenuation of self-confidence and self-respect are to be found in evangelical churches and in those circles of the great catholic tradition where the traditional affirmations of the faith remain most vibrantly alive.
It’s not, to be sure, quite that simple. The assaults of modernism and postmodernism on Christian sensibilities cannot simply be wished away, and the second naivete to which Christians must necessarily aspire will not have the uncomplicated assurance of the first. We are more acutely aware than ever that we live by faith, not by sight. And I wish I could be more optimistic than I am that the new millennium will witness, in Pope John Paul II’s phrase, a springtime of evangelization. The specter of a largely dechristianized Western Europe hovers over the hopes of all of us, laity and clergy alike, that our fate will be otherwise.
But all that, finally, is beside the point. Estimations of success or failure, or of the state of our morale, are irrelevant to our duty, in season and out, to tell the Christian story. The clergy are called to tell that story because they have, in the end, nothing else worthwhile to do.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?