What Price Truth?

The Church spends a good deal of money on the education of priests and religious. From seminary or convent formation to continuing education workshops and retreats, the faithful, of course, bear the cost. In justice, what do the faithful receive in return?

The cost of seminary education is considerable. Room, board and tuition, I’m told, is now something like $40,000 a year per seminarian. That amount is charged to the diocese; it does not include the various gifts and grants seminaries receive, and it is comparable to the overall cost of private college.

Over a typical five-year formation period, the cost of educating a seminarian for the priesthood comes to $200,000. Factoring in the number of seminarians that drop out along the way, the effective cost of educating a single priest rises. A good guess for the cost of priest at the end of the formation assembly line, after quality control rejects, would be something like $250,000, probably more.

I haven’t done the math for the formation of sisters (and brothers), and the number may not be as high, unless equivalent college education is included. But the room and board component has to be considerable, and the dropout rate adds to the effective final cost per religious.

(You may be thinking my reducing priests and nuns to financial statistics is unseemly and vulgar, but when I think of my nephew supporting his wife and four kids with three jobs, it just might be useful for priests and religious to recognize the financial burden the Church is placing on him and others like him.)

Add to the overall cost of formation the continuing education costs of the priests or sisters in universities – especially in Rome, the Eternal City – and the overall cost of “the product” continues to rise. We need not continue with this rigorous (if unpleasant) analysis, but I hope the point is well made. The faithful – including my hard-working nephew – bear a considerable cost for their priests and religious. And they deserve value for their hard-earned money.

Thomas More Defending the Liberty of the House of Commons by Vivian Forbes (1927)
Thomas More Defending the Liberty of the House of Commons by Vivian Forbes (1927)

That question came to mind during a recent overseas tour where I was the designated priest for Mass. In some respects, it was a boondoggle for me. Except for about $500, my expenses were covered by the other members on the tour. (I think it was a fair exchange, though. Despite appearances, there is serious “on-time” pastoral work for such a priest. Hence, I remain unashamed.)

An elderly nun was also on the tour. She didn’t look like a nun or expect to be addressed as a nun, nor did she dress like a nun (unless nuns are by rule wearing sneakers and athletic sweat suits nowadays.) She spoke like a nun, however, betraying years of formation, workshops and retreats. Those of us in the trade know: she talked the talk of religion and liturgy. I hoped things would go smoothly and they almost did.

But at the end of the tour, I overheard Sister speaking to a couple of the younger tourists. Sister explained that the future of the Church would be open to those divorced and remarried to give everyone another chance after a failed marriage. (Earlier I’d resolved to navigate the choppy waters of touring with a modern nun by employing silence. I would say nothing about the shameful appearance of our on-a-first-name-basis sister.) We’re told that this is, after all, the 21st century.

But now, Sister was talking doctrine. She was opposing the very words of Christ, “What God has joined, let no man put asunder.” The spirit of Cardinal Walter Kasper was upon her. But I owed those two young people doctrinal clarity as a matter of justice – and they had paid my freight. Despite my live-and-let-live tactics throughout the tour, I had to intervene.

I told Sister that if the Church’s teaching on marriage is going to change, the Church would find it necessary to apologize to Henry VIII, revoke the canonization of Saint Thomas More, rebuke John the Baptist (“The greatest man born of woman”?), canonize Herod and Herodias, and delete the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Old Testament. Sister’s response was immediate: “I do not believe in doctrine, I believe in love.” (“Please stand for the Creed,” anyone?) Then she walked off in a huff.

One of the young folks, after Sister’s departure, to my delight expressed a renewed confidence in the orthodox Catholic faith and wondered why anyone could think Church teaching could change. For my part, mission accomplished. And I hope I paid for my trip with my jackhammer subtlety.

On the flight home, I reflected about how gloomy it was. A woman dedicated to Christ – a woman who received from lay benefactors a lifetime of pay and benefits, the costs of formation and education – reducing her ministry to an epitaph fitting nicely if sadly on a tombstone: “I do not believe in doctrine, I believe in love.”

In return for all the money spent on priests and religious, is it too much to expect that our benefactors receive the faith, the true faith, and nothing but the faith?

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.