On April 4, 2013 the New York Times carried a story about a group of Dominican friars in Ireland. Contrary to the development in other Catholic monastic orders, these Dominicans had decided to continue wearing the traditional habit of white tunic and black cloaks (because of which Dominicans have been known as Black Friars). The point of the story is that this order has been unusually successful in recruiting new members, despite the overall steep decline of religious vocations in Ireland (in that quite typical of Europe, but particularly sharp in that country because of the recent crop of pedophile cases and the scandalous revelations about Catholic charitable institutions in the not too distant past). According to the Times story, the Dominicans have also been relatively successful in attracting recruits in other countries, including the US.
What caught my attention was the lifestyle of these Dominicans. This goes back to the earliest times of the order, but is particularly relevant in the current situation of the churches in Europe and other strongly secular environments. Unlike other monks, Dominican friars live, not in monasteries, but in communal residences, then go to work (mostly teaching and preaching) in the outside world. I was particularly struck by a quote from a recently ordained Dominican: “My hat goes off to diocesan priests, but I don’t know how they do it without community life. Today, you need the support of your brothers”.
The Dominican Order of Preachers was founded by a Spanish priest, Dominic de Guzman, and officially recognized in 1216. Like the other so-called mendicant order, that of the Franciscans, the Dominicans were to be more mobile and flexible than the monks confined in monasteries. Unlike the Franciscans, the main purpose of the Dominicans was to combat heresy and to teach correct doctrine. Their history is rather a mixed bag. They played a very unsavory role in the brutal suppression of the Albigensian heresy in what is now the south of France. Worse, they were put in charge of the Holy Office, better known as the Inquisition, in which capacity they tortured suspected heretics and, if found guilty, handed them over to the state authorities to be burnt at the stake (so as not to sully the Church by acts of cruelty which, somebody seemed to remember, were in some tension with the teachings of Jesus). The notorious Grand Inquisitor Torquemada was a Dominican. But the order also has much brighter dimensions to its history. It has a brilliant intellectual tradition (with Thomas Aquinas as its high point), as well as a mystical one (Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Siena). Bartolome de Las Casas, who defended the rights of the Indios of the Americas against the oppression by their Spanish conquerors, was a Dominican; so was Yves Congar, one of the major figures in the theological movement leading up to the Second Vatican Council. It is important to emphasize that this brighter side of the Dominican heritage is operative today, though there is continuity with the early mission of teaching and preaching the supposed truth of the Catholic faith.
Much of the current debate concerning clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church has focused on its sexual aspects—the difficulty of maintaining the celibate ideal in a strongly sexualized culture, the sexual frustration that must go with celibacy, and the possibility (not proven) that the latter may foster a homosexual inclination (which, for a number of those so inclined, may or may not lead to pedophilia). I don’t want to speculate here on any of these aspects. But I think that there is a very simple human aspect, quite removed from any sexual issue, which ought to be in the center of this debate—the loneliness of being a Christian minister in social environments in which this vocation is implausible. As is a frequent habit of mine, this thought led me to an issue far removed from the topic of the Times story: the decline of the Protestant parsonage.
If one gives credence to the monastic vocation at all, it is arguable that the Eastern Orthodox Church has solved the matter of celibacy in a much more practical way than Rome: The monastic life is separate from that of ordinary priests. Such priests are expected or actually required to be married. Bishops must be monks. In an Orthodox perspective, the entire Roman Church is one big monastery, from the Pope on down! [If I may voice a hunch here: Given the theological fact that the Eucharist is at the heart of Catholic piety and that only priests can celebrate it, and given the empirical fact that the shortage of priests is reaching crisis proportions, Rome will be pushed in an Eastern direction.]
But there is a more proximate comparison—with married Protestant clergy. The solution there has been simple and drastic: The overwhelming majority of Protestant ministers have solved the problem of loneliness by getting married. [In this as in many other matters, Luther led the way: When a group of nuns joined his movement, he felt obligated to find husbands for them. Nobody wanted one of them, Katherine Bora, who had the reputation of being opinionated and headstrong. He ended up marrying her himself. By all accounts, the marriage was a happy one.]
A couple of years ago I heard a very interesting lecture by a historian about the cultural role of the German Protestant parsonage (das evangelische Pfarrhaus) and its recent decline. (The same historian very recently helped to organize an exhibition on this topic in a Berlin museum.) For several centuries this had been a central institution in German cultural life. An amazing number of scholars, artists and statesmen started out as children growing up in this milieu. The main point of the lecture was that this institution no longer exists. There are probably a number of reasons for this, but the most salient one is that few women today are prepared to play the traditional role of the minister’s wife (as Frau Pastor)—having no outside career of her own, being her husband’s helpmeet (a sort of unpaid curate), and his special deputy in matters involving women and children in the congregation. Add to this the strong possibility that she does not fully share her husband’s faith. This of course does not mean that such marriages cannot be happy. They are certainly capable of making the minister less lonely. But they make the traditional function of the Protestant parsonage quite obsolete.
At the lecture one participant asked whether one could imagine a new institution that could perform a similar function. At the time nobody seemed to have an idea. One idea occurred to me afterward. It may be relevant beyond the particular situation of German Protestantism.
Imagine a group of pastors and their families sharing a large residence. Today the pastors will be both men and women, as will the non-pastoral spouses. Such a residence could easily be structured so as to safeguard the privacy of each family and yet provide space for community activities—including cultural activities attended by outsiders. If the church authorities paid for this residence, it would surely be cheaper than maintaining, say, four or five separate parsonages. There would always be someone available to do babysitting. And who knows, there might be enough synergy in such a place to be bring about new cultural vitality, in addition to making ministry loss stressful and more effective.
German Protestantism after World War II created imaginative new institutions, foremost among them the so-called Protestant Academies, a unique type of think-tanks dealing with morally relevant issues of public policy. The above idea would thus be one of a succession of institutional innovations. But this one reminds me of an event very far removed from Europe and, as far as I know, with no religious associations—the institution of the “joint family” in India. This was very traditional—a group of brothers residing in one big house with their several families. In recent times it was looked upon as an old-fashioned arrangement, to be discarded by university-educated middle-class people, who wanted to be modern and to live exclusively with their nuclear families. As professional women in this class increasingly worked outside the home, child care became an increasing problem, aggravated by the difficulty of finding reliable domestic servants. Suddenly the old “joint family” seemed like a solution to the problem, and it underwent a modest revival. Sometimes necessity is the mother of imaginative social innovations.