Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Vocational Exhaustion

One of the things that the 1969 vintage priests of Married to the Church talk about a lot in their interviews is that people "only see the priest, not the person" and that they "never have any time off". (This morning I made it through about eight more pages between when we finished serving the girls breakfast and when they managed to reduce each other to tears over some tussle or other and were dragged off for their morning bath before church.)

I think one of the key problems here is that they're thinking of the priesthood as a profession rather than a vocation. My profession is being a database programmer and marketing analyst. I do that anywhere from eight to twelve hours a day. It pays the bills and is fairly intellectually stimulating. And given that I've built a few web applications that people seem to like and my weekly reporting deliverables track sales compensation programs that pay two thousand sales reps each month, I guess it's fairly useful work as well. But when the work gets to heavy, I can take a vacation (unless that would mean people not getting their payouts, in which case it's no so much of an option) and when I'm sick I can take the day off. When the hours get too long I can tell my supervisor that I'm fed up and need someone else to take the load off me. Since "work/life balance" is a corporate value (or so we're told) it's part of his job to make sure that I get home to see my family and have time to keep up with my hobbies.

However, my vocation is being a husband and father. I do not get time off when I'm sick, or when I'm tired of children bouncing on my head at 6:30am (as they did this morning). I do not get to take a vacation away from the kids for a week when I'm burnt out -- because there's no one else whose responsibility it is to be a father to our two little monkeys (and one seamonkey on the way). My only backup, as a parent, is MrsDarwin -- and I can hardly ask her to take over for a few days while I chill out, because she already holds down the fort much more of the time than I do.

I think the analogy to being "married to the Church" is probably accurate in that the priesthood seems to be the same kind of 24-7 job that being a parent is. A number of the priests interviewed in Married to the Church complain that "not everyone's cut out to be a priest forever" and wish that you could be a priest for a limited term instead. I'm not sure that makes any more sense than being a limited contract parent, though.

Certainly, like parents priests need time to themselves once in a while and hobbies and such. But like a parent, these are conditional on keeping essential responsibilities covered. MrsDarwin or I can't schedule "time off" without making sure the monkeys will be in good hands first, and if they come down sick or are having a really bad day, it still may not work out. Nor can we head off for a weeklong vacation with the kids -- at least not till they're a lot older. With three monkeys under four, we'll have pretty much committed to not having weeklong vacations for a minimum of three to four more years -- and that's assuming we have family available to take the kids for that long and no more monkeys in the meantime. It's an insanely exhausting job. It's not always fun. Sometimes is aggravating as hell. But that doesn't make it any less our responsibility. We can't go to our manager and say, "Hey, the kids have been an awful lot of work lately. The house is a mess. I think you need to assign someone else to the team or else redefine the responsibility set a bit."

Certainly, the types of pressures and commitments on priests are different than on parents, but I think they're similar in a number of ways in their strength and all-consuming nature. Indeed, it seems to me that's probably the best reason for not having a married priesthood -- because you can't do two 24-7 jobs at once and be fair to both.

Perhaps the breakdown in understanding of the priesthood for these priests goes hand-in-hand with the breakdown in American marriage over the last fifty years. In the section I was reading this morning, one of the priests was complaining that the Church was unwilling to adapt it's understanding of marriage to fit 'the reality' that many American Catholics no longer see marriage as an all or nothing package encompassing things like fidelity, procreation, permanence, etc. Some people just want one or two of these, but not all three, he explained, and the Church needed to adapt to modern understandings. Perhaps for a person with that kind of approach to the vocation of marriage, the priesthood really does seem like it should be a profession rather than a vocation.


Todd said...

Good post. But is a priest defined by what he does?

As a married person, I fetch my wife ice cream when she'd rather sit with the cat in her lap, or I perform duties around the house, and the like. But that doesn't define my sacrament as much as the love and commitment behind such actions.

So if a priest is tired from meetings, or the demands of administration, is he actually tired of being a priest? Or is his physical body and his mind fatigued by secondary duties?

I haven't read the book, but it seems that interesting questions are raised.

Darwin said...

Good point, Todd. That probably points to a good distinction in what you could and couldn't dodge legitimately as a priest. Being fed terrible food by the women's altar guild or arguing with the parish library committee or attending the Bingo night are clearly things you might do as a priest, but not things that define a priest. If he wants to blow them off because he's tired, I think he's fully justified in doing so.

I guess I'd read a lot more than that into the talk about "not wanting to be defined as being a priest" and "needing distance". I'm certainly all for priests having friend, hobbies, time to themselves, etc. just as a mother, father, husband or wife needs time alone, hobbies, and friends. I guess the important element to balance is in discerning what is an essential part of what you _are_ and what is something that someone simply wants you to _do_.