To Save A Thousand Souls by Fr. Brett Brannen: A Book Review

by Therese Ivers, JCL

Have you ever been torn between getting married and becoming a priest? If you are serious about discerning your vocation, one of the best tools to have is this book, To Save a Thousand Souls : A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood. In it, Fr. Brannen discusses the different aspects of vocational discernment, what you need to bring to the table if you’re thinking about the diocesan priesthood, common questions and fears about becoming a priest, insights into what seminary life is like, etc. A good amount of space is dedicated to one of the biggest concerns of healthy men: the requirement of celibacy.

Overall, I think that this book is a very good one, probably the best on the market insofar as being helpful for discerning the diocesan priesthood. I strongly recommend this book for everybody discerning the diaconate or priesthood. Since the amount of material covered is vast in this book, I will simply say that it is a gold mine for men discerning their vocations (even though they are ineligble for the priesthood, women can benefit from it too since it gives many key factors in learning how to discern a vocation) and should be a staple in everyone’s library. However, that being said, there are a  few concerns which I have with the book which you should be aware of.

In the first place, this book is geared primarily towards those specifically thinking about diocesan priesthood. This is good. We need diocesan priests. However, if you are a man and discerning the call God is giving you personally, then this is only one of many vocations you need to be discerning. It’s not just a matter of looking at marriage and diocesan priesthood. Why not? Because you may be called to another vocation. God may have created you to be most happy as a religious brother or a religious priest or a member of a secular institute or a member of a society of apostolic life or as a diocesan hermit or a permanent deacon (he does not mention all of these possibilities in his book). Thus, do not take this book as the end-all, be-all of discerning a Church vocation. The author himself says that religious life is higher than diocesan priesthood, and should be discerned first. Obviously, the book is focused on the vocation to diocesan priesthood and so you will need to consult other books and really investigate other vocations so that you can make an informed vocational decision.

Another concern I have about To Save a Thousand Souls is that the theology of chastity presented is fairly good overall for men/women to understand its place in human life. However, there is a serious error on the concept of virginity in the first edition of the book. Until it is corrected in a later edition (I shared my concerns with the editor of the book and he promised to convey them to Fr. Brannen), I would advise the reader to be aware of the fact that the way virginity is covered is incorrect. Let me explain. On page 224, Fr. Brannen writes:

St. Augustine understood sexual integration. In his writings he implies that virginity is lost through masturbation. He meant that when a man masturbates, he is showing that he has not been fully integrated in body and soul the way God made a human to be. Pope John Paul II expounds on this concept in the Theology of the Body when he re-defines the term “virginity” as sexual integration. The usual definition of virginity describes a person who has never engaged in physical sexual intercourse, but these two giants of the faith see virginity as something much more profound. And this is great news. It means that a person with a sexual history can “reclaim his virginity,” so to speak, by attaining sexual integration.

The context of this passage is that Fr. Brannen is writing to prospective seminarians, who may have lost their virginity to masturbation or intercourse, and goes at great length to indicate how the priesthood is possible for those who may have fallen in the past but are not bound by sexual disorders in the present. What is true is that a man who has lost his virginity may repent and he (and if not sexually addicted or suffering from a deeply rooted tendency towards homosexuality) may be eligible for the priesthood. God does forgive sexual sin. The key here is that the man has to be living chastely for some time and give every hope that he can continue to live chastely. However, it is not true that Bl. Pope John Paul II “redefined virginity” any more than St. Augustine did. What both Bl. John Paul and St. Augustine would say in modern terminology is that a man/woman may attain “secondary virginity” (chaste sexual integration), but not what is known as “primary virginity”.

Primary virginity is what is permanently, irrevocably lost either through the conjugal act in holy matrimony, or through masturbation/fornication and/or adultery. St. Augustine, in writing “On Holy Virginity” is very clear that a woman must be a “virgin” and never have experienced voluntary sexual intercourse to be considered “a virgin”. Why does this matter? Because primary virginity, while not required for the priesthood, is required for women who wish to be consecrated virgins. Secondary “virginity”, or more properly, chastity, is sufficient for all vocations (Holy Orders, religious life, hermits, secular institutes, societies of apostolic life, and marriage) except one, that is, only females with primary virginity are admitted to the vocation of consecrated virginity because they in their bodies most perfectly represent the Church as Virgin-Bride.

Further, on page 225, the author comments:

This is why Pope John Paul II wrote in The Theology of the Body that “everyone in heaven is a virgin.” Even if a woman was married and had ten children on earth, she is a virgin in heaven. Why? Because everyone in heaven has attained sexual integration, or they wouldn’t be there. Union with God passes only through sexual integration.

Theology Of The Body is a thick book. My version has over 600 pages. I couldn’t find the quote “everyone in heaven is a virgin”. However, I would expect that the context would be the lack of concupiscence in heaven, rather than that all people in heaven are actually virgins. The reason is that while everyone in heaven has “sexual integration” and all in heaven are chaste, and no one in heaven will be having the conjugal act, only a portion will be virgins. The Scriptures and Doctors of the Church are clear that a distinct portion of the people in Heaven are “the virgins who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” and that these virgins are people who have preserved their primary virginity. Thus, the woman who had ten children is not a virgin. She is chaste in heaven, lacks concupiscence, and is sexually integrated. But, since she lost her primary virginity honorably in marriage, she is not considered a virgin. If she was considered a virgin, then the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and that of all virgins who did preserve their primary virginity would lose all meaning.

Why is it that I spend this much space on the concept of virginity?  It is quite simple.  Fr. Brennan wrote this book to promote a vocation – the diocesan priesthood.  By “redefining” virginity, he effectively destroys the basis for another vocation in the Church that is most similar to the priesthood:  consecrated virginity.  This is absolutely not acceptable.  If a vocations director can’t get it right, how are the seminarians and future priests and bishops supposed to appreciate the value of the vocation to consecrated virginity?

The most serious critique I have of this book besides that of not being clear about the reality of virginity (as opposed to chastity, celibacy, or lack of concupiscence in heaven), is that of the author’s stance on psychological evaluations for applicants to the seminary. Fr. Brannan simply factually states how/what psychological evaluations are typically done by dioceses and completely bypasses the real issues at stake here in terms of the prospective seminarian’s rights. Seminaries, dioceses, and religious orders can abuse a person’s conscience by not handling these psychological evaluations correctly. Further, the results of these evaluations may be subject to legal subpoena or to unauthorized persons’ access if the candidate does not take the necessary precautions to defend his right to maintain privacy in matters of conscience. Part of these issues I covered in my thesis for my canon law degree in Rome, which you can get HERE (use coupon code JULYBOOKS12 for 20% off up to $25). I do intend to present this topic more fully in upcoming books and workshops.

Please note:  I do get commissions for all recommended books.

(c) 2012 by Therese Ivers, JCL
All Rights Reserved

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