William Blake, Marcus Tullius Cicero, c. 1800 (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“How did your friends react when you told them you were going to be a priest?”

This, among many other, related questions, is what Jay Doherty and I have asked over twenty priests and seminarians in the past six months for our Duffy Fellows project on priestly discernment for Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture. While we work to compile our findings into a documentary, I have found myself unable to cease pondering the answers we received to that question, “What did your friends think?”

Our project principally examines the differences between priestly discernment in the years before Vatican II and priestly discernment today. Naturally, our question about friends was intended to demonstrate that modern culture is more secular: We expected that young men discerning the priesthood in the modern world receive far less encouragement and approval from family and friends than discerners of the 1950s and 1960s.

But that’s not what we found. Almost every young priest and seminarian recalled that when he told his friends that he would be a priest, he was surprised and gratified to be greeted with support. More than one described his friends as being “oddly supportive.” 

And, as most told us, this is a reassuring response. When a young man confesses to his friends that he intends to become a priest, he might be justifiably afraid of rejection. In a culture which many decry for its anti-Catholicism, we may take some comfort in the knowledge that most new seminarians don’t face active hostility from their secular friends.

But the more I have considered these responses, the less reassured I have felt. On the contrary, I have come to see this phenomenon as something of a problem. After reviewing the transcripts of each interview, I have come to the conclusion that the “support” which young seminarians receive these days should not be regarded as a reassuring sign of tolerance, but rather an indictment on modern friendship itself.

“Friends look in the same direction,” wrote C.S. Lewis, in his description of friendly love (“Philia” in The Four Loves). This, he believed, was the very origin and definition of friendship, that two or three would join together because of the things they shared which the larger herd did not. Thus, “friendship must exclude.” 

At least, Lewis thought so. In this age of radical inclusivity, that model has been largely rejected. Now, people pride themselves on the diversity of their friendships, on the differences they can identify between themselves and their friends. Catholics share in this trend, as evidenced by the many priests we interviewed who reported with pride that they have several non-Catholic friends, to whom the priesthood is an alien concept.

We can all observe (and probably list) the positive effects that diversity in friendship can have on a society. However, we can’t fail to recognize what this emphasis on diversity has cost us. Especially in this age, when nonendorsement is often interpreted as rejection and disagreement is often mischaracterized as hate, many have decided that they cannot voice their ideological differences with their friends. While there may be more Catholics who are friends with atheists, there are far fewer Catholics who are willing to admit that atheists’ souls are in danger, and there are far fewer atheists who are willing to tell Catholics that they are basing their lives upon a fiction.

“Well, I don’t get it, but if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine.” This is (verbatim) how one priest recalled his unchurched friends’ reactions to his vocation. Another told us that despite their bemusement, his friends from law school told him “Well, yeah, if that’s what you want to do, go do it. He added: “So they were very supportive.” 

A third interview described a single friend who came closest to telling him not to enter seminary: “I could just tell he just had no inkling of why I would do something like this. He just didn’t really—I think everything I said didn’t make any sense to him. But he wasn’t unsupportive or anything.”

Support, we may gather, is the watchword of these friendships—of modern friendship in general. Beholden as we all have become to what Pope Benedict XVI described as the dictatorship of relativism, friends have become uncomfortable expressing their disagreements with one another’s choices, lest they seem judgmental or bigoted.

There is grave danger in this. It must be maintained that there is no worse plague to friendship than flattery, writes Cicero in De Amicitia (91). Cicero is concerned with actively deceitful friends, but his pronouncement has bearing on those friends, too, who cover up their disapproval or concern for the sake of preserving good relations.

At this point, I should repeat that each of these men recalled receiving their friends’ reactions with great relief. And we should not conclude, from the mere snippets I have provided, that these priests’ and seminarians’ friendships with their non-Catholic friends were not truly friendships. For all we know, their friendships are healthier than most. On the other hand we certainly can’t say that their friends’ support evidences this. 

Friends should support one another, surely, but they should also protect one another. Honesty, therefore, has a crucial part to play in a friendship, and it is the crucial aspect which is missing from many friendships today. For the same reason that many Catholics are disinclined to evangelize their communities, most nonreligious people are hesitant to express their opposition to faith, even in the face of their loved ones becoming priests. We’re all so happy to just get along that we’re not really getting anywhere.

For a contrast, compare that with the recollections of older priests whom we interviewed—priests who came to their vocations in a time when America’s Catholic culture was unburdened by religious embarrassment. Here we can discover the inadequacy of “support.” 

The retired priests with whom we spoke did not use the word “support.” Instead, they remembered that their friends were “delighted” and “proud.” This is really what’s missing from modern friendship: not only honesty, but shared vision. Joy in one another’s vocations. It is undeniable, then, that Lewis was right: “Friendship must exclude,” but not out of an exclusionary spirit. Rather, because friends must share something which others do not possess. They must share a vision.

Patrick Cullinan is double-majoring in Latin and Economics with a concentration in American Catholic Studies at Fordham University (FCRH '24). He is a 2023-2024 Duffy Fellow.