Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Optional Celibacy, SI!

The Spanish Catholic magazine, 21rs, which last year did a comprehensive opinion survey of priests in Spain, this year turned its attention to the views of Catholic laity who are involved in church ministry. It found, among other things, that two-thirds of the 815 laypersons surveyed favor optional celibacy for their priests and 49.4% support women's ordination (two-thirds in the case of younger respondents).

Although one-third were unfamiliar with Vatican II and 4 out of 10 thought the process had largely been halted within the Church, 40% thought that priests and laypeople act with shared and equal responsibility. Another third believe they have a lot of autonomy in their areas of responsibility even though the priest has the final word. A slightly smaller group would like to have more responsibility without having to depend on priests.

As far as the hierarchy is concerned, only one in 5 of these committed laypeople felt that directives from the bishops were necessary and tried to follow them. On moral questions, they generally viewed pronouncements from their bishops as informative but not binding, preferring to follow their own conscience.

Finally, most respondents, but especially the youth, would like to see a Church that is more committed to the poor and more open to dialogue. And that is very good news indeed!

Ordain women and married men to priesthood

By Chava Redonnet
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

Web editor's note: Chava Redonnet is a member of the Corpus/Spiritus Christi Community in Rochester, NY and is preparing for ordination as a woman priest. She has served as a Parish Community Forum Facilitator, Lector and Eucharistic Minister. A mother of three, she works as a laboratory technician at the University of Rochester while attending Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, where she expects to graduate in May 2008. She is also part of the Rochester Catholic Worker community and the author of two books -- Standing in the Light: A Parishioner's Story (Writers Club Press, 2002) and Don't Forget to Breathe Glory: Essays for the Spiritus Community (iUniverse, 2004).

We have heard in recent months about the shortage of priests. However, there are women, like myself, called to the priesthood; there are men called to the priesthood but not to celibacy. It's like having barns full of grain in a time of famine. The wealth of vocations is there; we need only to open the doors.

Pope Benedict XVI's U.S. visit came at a crucial moment for me, personally. I have completed my coursework for the master of divinity degree at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and will soon graduate. I'm an applicant for ordination with Roman Catholic WomenPriests, an organization that has ordained nearly 100 women worldwide in ceremonies not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. No pastorate waits, however, for any of us.

I've been reluctant to speak out much about women's ordination. It has seemed to me that answering my call means doing the work I'm called to, which is about creating community and building bridges between people, especially between those of us who are comfortable and those who are on the margins in this world — homeless people, developmentally disabled people and people in El Salvador — and doing the work of ministry out on those margins.

But when you're trying to bring some healing, you get to a place where you have to ask why things are the way they are, and you become aware of structural injustice that makes it hard for people to get out of the situations they are in.

And in the midst of working my various part-time jobs, mostly in ministry, it occurred to me that I'm in a situation of injustice myself, that a person shouldn't need to work five jobs — and the reason is sexism.

My seminary colleagues are becoming pastors in their various denominations, while as a Catholic woman, I expect to continue piecing together my ministry — and for my sister priests, for male priests not called to celibacy, the situation remains bleak as well. So here's the message for Pope Benedict and all the Roman Catholic hierarchy: We're willing, able and prepared to serve, to use our gifts, our faith and knowledge to build up the people of God and work to heal the world. Employ us. Ordain us. Put us to work.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Catholic America: The 800 Pound Gorilla in the Sanctuary

By Anthony Stevens-Arroyo
Washington Post "On Faith" Blog

On balance, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States achieved its basic goals of stating remorse for the pedophilia scandal and showing solidarity with the vigorous cultural diversity of the U.S. Catholic Church. What the papal visit lacked was a direct encounter with the 800 pound gorilla in the Catholic sanctuary: vocations to the priesthood.

It rehearses stale news to point out that the number of priests has dropped drastically in the past three decades and that the median age of those who remain is in the retirement home range. Moreover, most priests will confidentially tell you that because of the lack of priests, candidates are accepted in today’s seminaries that in other years would be rejected as unworthy. A more selective priesthood would probably solve a lot of other current church problems like dwindling attendance, stifled ministries and scandal.

Priestless parishes deny the faithful sacraments. Without a priest, there can be no celebration of Mass, and in many places, new rites led by women or deacons are substituting today for the sacramental liturgy. So, addressing the issue of priestly vocations has become a matter of institutional life or death for Catholicism.

Pope Benedict XVI did ask Catholics to pray for priestly vocations. I have nothing against prayer, but I do not think it appropriate to expect a heavenly miracle each time we pray. As the saintly Pope John XXIII pointed out, the Holy Spirit speaks through “the signs of the times.” What he meant was that sociological and cultural changes are often used by God to send a message.

Of course, he was right. We can diagnose the ebb and flow of priestly vocations by social changes in history. For instance, under feudalism only the elder son inherited land or property, so a clerical career assured education, status and survival to younger offspring. (A military career did the same.) The predictable result was an abundance of priests (and knights) in feudal times. I am not saying that all vocations in the Middle Ages were attributable to material security. However, it seems hard to deny that social conditions in that epoch encouraged many to enter the priesthood.

Closer to our own day, the sons and daughters of a largely working-class American Catholic population coming of age after World War II viewed the priesthood and the convent as upwardly mobile choices affording education and professional standing their parents could not otherwise provide them. Not surprisingly, the 1950s marked a high water mark for the US Catholic priesthood. In our 21st century society, however, a priestly vocation is no longer the only route to education and useful social service. (Latino Catholics may be the current exception.) Lifetime commitments to the priesthood and celibacy (or to the convent and celibacy) are less likely in a world filled with career options that pay better and demand less. It’s time for reassess the game plan.

As a believer, I am sure that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church in its adaptations to new circumstances, just as has happened at crucial moments in past centuries. But as a concerned Catholic, I fear the decision may take too long. In future days, I will explore on this blog some of the possible responses to the “signs of the times.” For now, let’s not use prayer for vocations as an excuse to drown out the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Vatican ponders Paraguay case after bishop elected

The more I hear about former Catholic bishop and newly elected president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, the more I LIKE him! Lugo, a firm believer in liberation theology and preferential option for the poor, decided to trade the pulpit for the presidency after more than 100,000 people signed a petition asking him to run for office to unseat the Colorado Party that had controlled Paraguay for the last 61 years. When he retired as bishop in 2006, Lugo said: "From today on, my cathedral will be the country." The Vatican promptly suspended him "a divinis" and now we are waiting for the next chapter, but the poor in Paraguay are dancing in the streets.

Photos of Fernando Lugo at his ordination as bishop and with some young campaign supporters today come from his Web site.

By Phil Stewart

VATICAN CITY - The election of ordained bishop Fernando Lugo as the next president of Paraguay poses a dilemma for the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican strongly opposes clergy assuming political office, but it is not clear whether it would be prepared to effectively defrock a man hailed by supporters as the "bishop of the poor".

Lugo abandoned his role as a Catholic bishop three years ago saying he felt powerless to help Paraguay's poor. He asked the Vatican to accept his resignation.

The Vatican responded last year by suspending him from his priestly duties, like saying Mass. But it argued he remains a bishop because his ordination was a lifelong sacrament.

Now faced with the prospect of a bishop in the presidency upon inauguration in August, the Vatican says Lugo's unique case is under review.

"The personal situation of Monsignor (Fernando) Lugo will be examined, calmly," Father Federico Lombardi, chief Vatican spokesman, told one Italian newspaper this week.

The head of Paraguay's bishops' conference said the decision may ultimately fall to Pope Benedict.

"The relations between the Church and nations depend directly on the Holy Father and he will be the one to make the decisions in this respect," Ignacio Gogorza, head of the bishops' conference, was quoted as saying by ANSA news agency.


Under Benedict's predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, the Vatican vocally opposed priests pursuing political office.

Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, left the priesthood in 1994 under pressure from the Vatican and later married.

Rev. Robert Drinan, the first Roman Catholic priest elected to the U.S. Congress, decided against running for reelection after being told in 1980 to decide between politics and the priesthood.

In the case of Lugo, the Vatican's existing "a divinis" suspension -- which leaves him as a bishop, but one not in good standing with the Vatican -- may be all that is necessary or prudent, said Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.

"They don't want to alienate the people of Paraguay who voted for him and turn it into a big Church-state crisis, so the best strategy on their part may be to simply ignore him," Reese said.

The Vatican has said that Lugo's election would not alter the Holy See's diplomatic relations with Paraguay. Neither would it prompt his excommunication.

Lugo's future religious aspirations are unclear. Media in Paraguay have even reported that Lugo expressed an interest in serving as bishop again once his presidential term ends in 2013.

"For that to happen, he'd have to pass through a period of penitence and reflection, if the Church were to accept that," Gogorza told a radio program in Paraguay.

(Additional reporting by Hilary Burke in Asuncion; editing by Keith Weir)

The Papal Visit: A Different Perspective

At Fr. Rich's request, here is an English translation of some comments I offered on a Spanish theology blog in response to an article they had posted about the Pope's trip to America. I recognize that my view is more cynical than most but, as Gustavo Gutierrez has observed, one's viewpoint depends on where one sits. My perspective is skewed by the recent experience of having to bail out one of the brothers in my prayer group so he would not lose his home to foreclosure and be one more Latino victim of the mortgage crisis that is devastating hard-working people in our community, and contrasting this with the millions that were spent on high-end accomodations and security for His Holiness...

"To tell the truth, I'm an American (but with a latino heart) and I feel a little lonely because I can't embrace all this acclamation for the Pope that we are experiencing in Washington. While he was here the raids and other anti-immigrant policies that are destroying our communities and robbing us of hope, continued. The Pope did not publicly denounce these raids.

While he was here, there was a decision in the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the death penalty by lethal injection. The Pope did not publicly denounce that decision and he even dined at the White House with the 5 Catholic Supreme Court justices who approved this decision. And, as several other people have already commented [on the Spanish theology blog], nothing was said directly about the war in Iraq.

For Latinos, the Pope gave us four paragraphs in Spanish at the end of his homily in English because he knows that today we are 30% of the Church and tomorrow we will be 50%. He told us not to become pessimistic and to keep on offering our lively spirit and our gifts to the Church. In my parish, not one single ticket to the public Papal Mass went to a Hispanic family. They do not want to pay for a regular Spanish-speaking priest for our community but when it comes time to solicit funds, they know where to find us. But if we denounce these injustices, they say we are resentful and bad Catholics who lack commitment to our faith.

The Pope talked about the sexual abuse victims and it's true that this has been a huge problem. But there is a bigger problem, and that is the fundamental structure of the Church and its hierarchy and the lack of respect for the laity, and as long as this theme isn't addressed, it's difficult to see in the Pope's visit a reason for hope."

Church needs non-Catholic partners

By Msgr. John Powis
New York Daily News
Wednesday, April 23rd 2008, 4:00 AM

The Pope's recent visit to New York highlighted the vibrancy of the Catholic Church. In a city where change is the only constant, the church's success has hinged on its ability to transform itself as a way to remain vital.

Over the nearly 50 years that I have been a priest in the Brooklyn Diocese, I have seen the four parishes in Bushwick where I was pastor have a weekly worship attendance between 1,500 and 2,000 people. This, for me, is just one indication of how vital the church is even in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Catholic schools, while struggling financially, continue to provide excellent education to young people all over the city, and thousands of low-income families receive financial assistance to keep their children in these schools. The church also continues to provide a variety of social services through various Catholic Charities offices, including seminars to aid families affected by the subprime mortgage crisis; orchestrating new construction of low-income housing; building low-rent apartments for the elderly, and operating Head Start Centers for preschool children from low-income families. Recently, 18 Catholic churches in Brooklyn put together a powerful coalition to assure that all new construction along the Greenpoint-Williamsburg waterfront includes a substantial amount of affordable housing. The church also offers legal assistance to immigrants through Catholic Migration offices. Vital work, indeed.

Despite its extraordinary record, the church faces real challenges, some of which were raised by Pope Benedict during his visit.

There was nothing more important for the Pope than his meeting with the victims who were sexually abused by priests. But Pope Benedict must go one step further. Bishops still in charge of a diocese who regularly transferred abusive priests from one parish to another should be asked to resign.

Also, the critical shortage of ordained Catholic priests is making the work load of the excellent priests we have almost unbearable. While the church must support priests who seek life-long celibacy, it is time to rethink the tradition that celibacy be mandatory for all priests. It should start by ordaining as priests some of the married, well-prepared deacons of the church. It might also be time for Rome to at least permit discussion once again on the question of woman serving as priests. There are now 4,000 functioning parishes in the country without a resident priest. [emphasis added]

Pope Benedict's visit brought attention to the problems of the church, but his visit also must serve as a reminder that the church continues to remain a powerful force in the city, where there are signs that a new kind of grass-roots religious coalition is developing - one that includes some Catholic churches, some non-Catholic congregations, some synagogues and some mosques. This coalition is organizing to reinvent the concept of church and to rebuild key sectors of the city.

If you look around Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, you can observe some of the early success the church and its partners have had, including 3,000 affordable single-family Nehemiah homes in East New York and Brownsville, Brooklyn; 1,500 more Nehemiah homes in construction along Flatlands Ave. in Brooklyn; two extremely successful high schools with the Department of Education in Bushwick; a program to keep tenants in their rent-regulated apartments; the John V. Lindsay Park on the lower East Side; the 1,000 additional Nehemiah homes in the South Bronx, and a campus of four public high schools being built that is sponsored by this coalition and the Department of Education in the South Bronx.

The Catholic Church is involved in all these efforts. But this new concept of churches, congregations, synagogues and mosques working together may actually be more in sync with the unified religious spirit of the 21st century. And this partnership is necessary if the church is to remain vibrant and vital to its parishioners.

Msgr. John Powis is the retired pastor at St. Barbara's Catholic Church and a leader of the East Brooklyn Congregations.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What To Do When There Is No Priest

Since the Catholic Church has yet to solve its priest shortage problem by admitting married men and women into its ranks, we thought we would bring you these resources as a public service because, lay brothers and sisters, the task of leading the Sunday liturgy will fall increasingly to you.


From the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa:

From The Catholic Liturgical Library: Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest (Office of the Congregation for Divine Worship, 1988)

In Spanish/En Español: Directorio Para las Celebraciones Dominicales en Ausencia del Presbítero ( Congregación para el Culto Divino, 1988)

From the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia:

From the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa (These planning sheets for SCAP are intended for use with the second edition (2007) of the ritual text.):


From the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest (English/Spanish, 2007, $59.95) -- for details, see Fr. Louis Dorn's review of this resource on the National Federation of Priests' Councils Web site.

From the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions: Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest, Revised Edition: A Pastoral-Liturgical Commentary, by Michael Henchal and Michael R. Prendergast (2007 revised, $12)

From Resource Publications: Leading The Assembly in Prayer: A Practical Guide for Lay and Ordained Presiders, by Michael J. Begolly (2008 revised, $24.95)

Theology students extol pope's pastoral gifts but say change unlikely

By Chris Herlinger
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Catholic students at one of New York City's most prominent schools of theology said Pope Benedict XVI's visit did not soften some of their concerns about his papacy and the future of the U.S. Catholic Church.

The students at Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational graduate school of theology with Protestant roots and a home for Catholic academics who have run afoul of the Vatican, praised Pope Benedict's pastoral gifts and his ability to energize the Catholic faithful.

But they also said the visit will not lead to what they feel are much-needed reforms within the church and expressed concern that the U.S. church's current and future needs are not likely to be addressed any time soon.

"The excitement of the adults and young people -- that was real excitement and real inspiration," Kim Harris, 50, a Union doctoral student focusing on worship and the arts, said April 20, the last day of the pope's six-day visit.

"A trip like this energizes people and makes them realize they're not just a part of a parish or a diocese but of a church that has a worldwide presence," she said. "That's clearly positive."

But Harris said she sees the problems caused by small, rural parishes closing due to a shortage of priests as having grave consequences for U.S. Catholic religious life.

"The people of God in the Catholic communion are starving because of the want of Eucharist," she said.

"Why is it that the people of God have to starve while the institution is holding to clergy celibacy?" said Harris, who lives in Schoharie County, about 150 miles north of New York.

"I have to place the excitement of the pope's visit next to the fact that there are now only a few churches in my county," she said.

The Albany Diocese lists four churches in Schoharie County, including Harris's home parish, St. Catherine Church in Middleburgh.

A common concern among the fellow Catholic faithful she knows is simply the physical condition of priests who must travel long distances between rural churches.

"Look at Father So-and-So, he's tired and beat up. He had a car accident and is driving on icy roads," Harris said is a common refrain she hears.

Jeremy Kirk, 30, a master of arts candidate at Union, plans to pursue a doctorate in Christian ethics focusing on the work of Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, a Latin American liberation theologian. Kirk gave measured praise to Pope Benedict's pastoral outreach to those who survived clergy sexual abuse.

"I see he's doing the right thing pastorally," said Kirk, whose social activism includes volunteering with the Catholic Worker Movement. "The apology (Pope) Benedict offered impressed me. But it would have been more powerful if every person involved in an institutional cover-up (of clergy sex abuse) would be ousted from office."

The pope remains a symbol of a hierarchy "that has failed the victims," Kirk said, adding that he believed media coverage of the pope's visit was focusing too much on Pope Benedict's pastoral image rather than on what Kirk said was the pope's potent political symbolism.

"If the pope had gone to the nearest soup kitchen after arriving and (President) Bush had been the third person, rather than the first person, he had met, I'd be happier," said Kirk.

Catholic students are a minority at Union but one of the largest single denominational groups at the predominantly Protestant school.

Although Union is still perhaps best-known for being the midcentury intellectual home of such leading Protestant theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, since the 1970s the school has been known as a leading center of study in the United States for black and feminist liberation theologies. The prominent black theologian James Cone, for example, has taught at Union for more than three decades.

But Union also has had a long tradition of hosting well-known Catholics. Liberation theologians such as Peruvian Dominican Father Gustavo Gutierrez have taught for short terms at Union, which has ties with Columbia University. Catholic scholars not associated with liberation theology, including the late biblical scholar Sulpician Father Raymond Brown, have also been permanent faculty at Union.

Of the current five full-time Catholic faculty members at Union, three are women. Union's current Catholic faculty includes Jesuit Father Roger Haight, whose book, "Jesus Symbol of God," was sharply criticized by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it was headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. The Vatican has banned Father Haight from teaching at a Catholic institution.

Another Roman Catholic theologian who has had trouble with the Vatican is Paul F. Knitter, currently Union's Paul Tillich professor of theology, world religions and culture.

Kirk told Catholic News Service April 20 that Union was lucky to have scholars like Father Haight and Knitter on the faculty, adding that the student view of Pope Benedict at Union is colored in large part by the pope's relationship with them, with figures like Father Sobrino and by Pope Benedict's past criticism of liberation theology.

For her part, Harris -- a Catholic who used to be Presbyterian -- said her concern about church reform, specifically the need to expand the eligibility for clergy to include noncelibate men and women, is coming out of real and "lived experience."

Catholic women at Union share a commissioning service as a tribute to their work and also as a formal recognition that they cannot be ordained as clergy within their church.

Harris said she would like to be ordained if she could be, though she doubts that her ineligibility will change in her lifetime. Still, she added, "We never thought we'd see altar girls and now we do have altar girls."

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Father fills role of priest

We like to keep an eye on the Pastoral Provision...This article is useful because we've seen commentators who dismiss the paradox of the pastoral provision and the ongoing mandatory celibacy by saying that, well, these PP guys don't really serve in a pastoral capacity and they certainly aren't living in the rectory. Is that so? Well, somebody must have forgotten to tell the Diocese of Scranton.

By Roja Heydarpour
Scranton Times-Tribune

Parishioners recited Hail Marys in unison as they waited for their priest, and all the while, above the sounds of prayer, the alternating cries and yelps from a pew of fidgety children echoed through St. Anthony of Padua Church in North Scranton.

Soon, the Rev. Eric Bergman walked down the aisle with his hands clasped to begin his sermon, facing the altar.

“Da-da,” said 17-month-old Joan Bergman. “Da-da?”

She was referring to her father, who also happens to be the father.

The Rev. Bergman became the first married Catholic priest in the Diocese of Scranton on April 21.

He converted to Catholicism after being an Episcopalian priest for seven years.

Like the Rev. Bergman, most of his congregation are converts to Catholicism, although lifelong churchgoers at St. Anthony’s attend his Masses as well.

“We like him and we hope he will stay forever and ever,” said Angela Marino, one such parishioner.

Other parishioners, like Ed Jordan, of Clarks Summit, converted along with the Rev. Bergman because their conservative views worked better with the Catholic Church.

“It was a perfect fit,” said Mr. Jordan, 57.

“I love the sound of children in church.”

The adjustment from being an Episcopal priest to being a layman to becoming a married Catholic priest has been a relatively smooth one, the Rev. Bergman said.

“The adjustment has not been in being a married priest, but being a priest,” the Rev. Bergman said.

Celebrating daily Mass and hearing confessions has added a workload that did not exist before. He used to do a lot more administrative and evangelical work, which, for the most part, he can no longer do.

He converted through the Pastoral Provision of Pope John Paul II, which was established in 1980. The provision allowed for American Episcopal priests who were married to convert to Catholicism, thus forgoing the vow of celibacy. There are currently about 90 priests like the Rev. Bergman in the United States.

The Rev. Bergman renounced his orders as an Episcopal priest on New Year’s Eve 2004 and less than a year later, the Most Rev. Joseph F. Martino, bishop of Scranton, confirmed him.

For the Rev. Bergman, part of the appeal of Catholicism was its stance on what he calls “the culture of death.” The Episcopal Church had become too lax in its stances on abortion and contraception for the Rev. Bergman, so he renounced his religion. He was prepared to be a layman, if necessary.

His wife, Kristina, was an integral part of the conversion process, the Rev. Bergman said.

“She is a complement to me and the ministry,” he said. “She has a vocation, too.”

Mrs. Bergman also had to submit a letter to the Vatican saying she fully supported her husband’s calling to the priesthood and that she would raise their children Catholic.

Opposition to Rev. Bergman’s status as a Catholic priest with a wife and large family — they are expecting their fifth child at the end of the month — has been mostly anonymous, he said, noting an anonymous e-mail.

“Those people aren’t courageous enough to talk to me,” he said. “You can’t really respond to people who don’t show their face.”

The Rev. Bergman understands that people may be angry about the fact that the Most Rev. Joseph F. Martino made an exception for him, but again, there have not been any head-on conflicts.

For now, the Rev. Bergman is happy performing a daily Mass at St. Anthony’s for the St. Thomas More Society, which he runs.

On Sundays, he helps the Rev. Cyril D. Edwards and performs mass at either Saint Anthony’s, Saint Joseph’s or Holy Rosary in North Scranton. The partnership is valued during a time of pastoral consolidation that can wear priests in charge of multiple churches thin.

The Rev. Bergman says the majority of the Diocese’s clergymen support his conversion and lifestyle.

“They don’t feel ... deprived of something, just like I don’t feel deprived because I was not raised Catholic,” he said.

The Bergman family recently moved into the Saint Clare Rectory after living in an apartment on Adams Avenue for the past year.

“It’s an exciting time,” the Rev. Bergman said. “New home, new baby.”

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What to Do About the Priest Shortage

By Kent Garber
US News & World Report
Posted April 18, 2008

During a 1997 interview, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, now Pope Benedict XVI, was asked about the declining ranks of the Catholic priesthood. "Mustn't celibacy be dropped," the questioner asked, "for the simple reason that otherwise the church won't get any more priests?" Ratzinger demurred. "I don't think that the argument is really sound," he said, noting that the trend had less to do with strict rules and more to do with family size and priorities. "If today the average number of children is 1.5," he reasoned, "the question of possible priests takes on a very different role from what it was in ages when families were considerably larger." The main obstacle, he argued, was parents "who have very different expectations for their children."
A priest blesses a boy as he prepares to receive communion during the Papal mass in DC.

A decade later, the challenge of attracting priests continues to bedevil the Roman Catholic Church. The pope's visit this week is clearly meant as a stimulus to his American flock, and, apart from the tarnish of the sex abuse scandal, there is perhaps no more immediate concern among Catholic leaders than that of adequate church leadership. Congregations often abandon traditions and lose direction without guidance from priests; parishes, in some cases, have folded.

According to statistics, the number of U.S. priests began falling in the 1970s, and the decline has since accelerated. In 1975, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports, there were 36,005 diocesan priests in the United States. By 1995, the total had fallen to 32,300; in 2005, the count stood at 28,700. The most recent count, from 2007, puts the number at 27,971. The decline appears to be even more precipitous when one includes "religious" priests, members of religious orders who tend to live within the priestly community. In total, the number of Catholic priests in the United States dropped from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to about 41,500 last year.

The causes of the decline are many. As the pope has said, changing family structures and social values are one problem; fewer children mean fewer potential priests, and parents are less likely to encourage the vocation. At the same time, more young Catholics—and more young people in general—are attending college or immediately entering the work force, thereby bypassing priestly considerations. Behind these trends is a strong cultural pull: American society prizes not only wealth and choice but also, to an increasing degree, mobility (the average American, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, will switch jobs 10 times between the ages of 18 and 38)—a privilege not in keeping with the lifetime commitment required of priests.

And, of course, there is the celibacy problem. In post-sexual revolution America, where, as novelist Tom Wolfe wrote in his 2000 book Hooking Up, "sexual stimuli bombarded the young so incessantly and intensely they were inflamed with a randy itch long before reaching puberty," the practice of celibacy is all but discouraged, if not viewed with suspicion. The sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church in the early part of this decade further sullied the American attitude toward celibacy.

But what to do? Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, opposes liberalizing the current rules that forbid marriage and female priests. His followers are split. A 2001 survey by the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops found that 56 percent of priests thought celibacy should be a "matter of personal choice." A Gallup Poll conducted in 2005 shortly after the death of John Paul II found that 63 percent of American Catholics support allowing priests to be married; 55 percent said women should be allowed to become priests.

Interestingly, those numbers fall among the more devout: Among weekly Catholic churchgoers, only 48 percent said that priests should be allowed to marry, and only 44 percent want women to become priests. "The church has always taught that priests are men," said Monica Kolf, 24, who attended the mass at Nationals Park on Thursday. "That's how Christ instituted it at the Last Supper. Women have important roles to play in the church as well, and of course they are not in any less of a position or have any less dignity in the church in that sense. Of course, Mary, the mother of God, was a woman. There's no higher human being besides that."

In the past 10 to 20 years, there has been talk of reform; in 2003 more than 150 priests signed a letter to the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops, calling for optional celibacy in "an ever-growing appreciation of marriage and its many blessings." But with steady opposition from the Vatican and domestic dissent, none of the proposals has been adopted, and in the vacuum some dioceses have become creative, assigning, for instance, church officials to focus solely on recruitment of new priests. Some parishes now share priests with each other, hire traveling priests, or allow lay people to conduct traditional duties.

One potential source of alleviation, however small, may come from foreign immigrants, who are replenishing the ranks of American Catholics in large numbers. As recently as the late 1990s, nearly 20 percent of priests in the United States were foreign born, and for them the cultural barriers to entering the priesthood might arguably be lower than for Americans. (Worldwide, the total number of priests has grown slightly in recent decades, from about 403,000 in 1990 to about 406,000 in 2005, even as specific regions, such as western Europe, are experiencing crunches like the one in the United States.)

Conservative Catholics have argued that the vocation, if it is to continue to attract qualified candidates, must remain privileged, special, and distinct—in the same way that the selective Marine Corps ("the few, the proud") pitches itself to secular America. The pope, for his part, seems to view the priest issue as a conceptual matter rather than as something requiring practical remedies. As he said in 1997: "The first Are there true believers? And only then comes the second question: Are priests coming from them?"

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Other Mass

Well, there will be a lot of press about the BIG Papal Mass ... the one that most of us regular folk never got close to. I would like to share some photos from a different Mass that took place on Monday night, April 14th. Sponsored by the Women's Ordination Conference and held at Foundry United Methodist Church in DC, this Mass featured women celebrants and inclusive language. The third photo in this series is a billboard truck paid for by WOC that followed Pope Benedict XVI around the city. We also got some TV coverage on Fox 5.

Editorial: The Catholic Church: Who will be left to speak and hear?

Philadelphia Enquirer April 13, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States marks a time of celebrations and challenges for the church.
The pope is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Tuesday, and spend three days in New York before returning to Rome. He will turn 81 on Wednesday.

Today, Cardinal Justin Rigali will mark the close of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's 200th anniversary celebration with a Mass at Villanova University.

The celebrations affirm the roots and impact of the church here, but also signal the challenges at hand.

The pope has a hard act to follow in John Paul II. The late pope was charismatic, assertive and beloved, and deeply influenced world affairs. Benedict, by contrast, has maintained a lower-profile, working instead behind the scenes to put his own stamp on church affairs.

In America, the church holds a puzzling position. It remains large and respected, but is withering and weathering attacks from both outside and within.

In many older, urban areas, parishes and schools are closing or merging. Bishop Joseph Galante just announced a big restructuring of the Camden Diocese that will probably close parishes in six South Jersey counties.

In Philadelphia, three Catholic parish schools in Port Richmond plan to merge into one. At the same time, the archdiocese is adapting to population shifts with plans to build two high schools in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

Maybe the biggest challenge of all is this: What does it mean to be a Catholic in the United States of 2008?

The Catholic Church is the largest single faith in the country and in the world. Locally, as in many areas throughout the country, there are many Catholics, but too many of them no longer attend church regularly. And Catholic high schools and universities everywhere soft-pedal religion and hard-peddle "values" as a branding strategy.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University says that nearly 700 parishes closed across the country from 1995 to 2007, with more cutbacks coming. The numbers of priests and sisters continue to decline. In South Jersey, it's estimated that by 2015 there will be only 85 active priests to serve 450,000 Catholics. Nationwide, in the next 20 years, the number of active diocesan priests will drop in half to 11,500. There are about 19,000 parishes, so that translates to a huge gap.

The church has helped create this crisis by insisting on ancient disciplines such as priestly celibacy (including its refusal to allow priests to marry) and the bar against women in the clergy. None of these practices was expressly enjoined by Jesus. All were local traditions that ossified into doctrine. Now, they're helping strangle it.

Sexual-abuse scandals have destroyed trust in the institution and its ministers. Church leaders have contributed to this fiasco in being slow to react; hiding or minimizing the problem; or stonewalling. True, the Philadelphia Archdiocese has overhauled its prevention and victim-assistance program (for a reported 144 victims), devoting $1 million since January 2007 on counseling and other services. On the other hand, generally it refuses to say where the disgraced and defrocked perps are now.

Yet many people love the Catholic Church, and not just Catholics. It retains an authority earned by long, loyal and often dangerous adherence to a high standard of belief and conduct. (There's much to be ashamed of, too, including the Inquisition and an often ambiguous response to Nazism in World War II.)

Church leaders regularly weigh in on public policy (the death penalty), ethical debate (stem-cell research), and personal morality. Most visible of all is the pope, father of the church.

In a world of violence, environmental degradation, and lack of coherent values, it's comforting that somewhere there's a family that, inspired by the holiest of lives, seeks to emulate that life and spread its message of peace, responsibility, moral clarity - and above all, belief.

Today, the debate (at least in the journals and op-ed pages) between belief and unbelief rages afresh. Still, hundreds of millions all over the world, and millions and millions to come, will come to believe in a God in the universe and a Christ that intervenes in human history to spread understanding and love. And they will learn that and live that through this church.

You could have a worse message. The challenge for all Catholics, though, remains: Who will tell this message, and who will hear?

Pope Benedict and American Catholicism: On The Titanic's Deck

Susan Jacoby

The most significant fact about modern American Catholicism appears in a recent report on the changing U.S. religious landscape by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Although 31 percent of Americans were raised as Roman Catholics, only 24 percent consider themselves Catholics today. One in ten adult Americans--a stunning figure--have left the church for another religion or have abandoned organized religion altogether. The saying, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic," a favorite maxim of the nuns in the parochial schools I attended, is no longer true.

In 1960, 5.4 million children attended American Catholic schools. Today, the figure is down to 2.4 million and falling. More Catholic schools close every day. Two-thirds of Catholic seminaries have closed since 1965; during the same period, the number of young men training for the priesthood dropped from 49,00 to 4,700. There were nearly 180,000 nuns in 1965; today, there are fewer than 67,000.

Without Hispanic immigration, the situation of the American Catholic Church would be even more dire. But the majority of Hispanic children do not attend the declining number of Catholic schools, and, if the history of immigration is any guide, the attachment of Hispanics to the church of their parents and grandparents -- a critical part of immigrant survival -- will diminish in direct proportion to their assimilation into American life.

There are also many liberal Catholics--they are sneeringly called "cafeteria Catholics" by the Catholic right--who go to church but ignore the church's strictures on contraception, divorce, and other sexual matters. These Catholics bear no resemblance to the Catholics of the 50s, who accepted the Church's teaching authority. These "cafeteria Catholics" also want the church to allow priests to marry and to admit women to the priesthood--a move that would eliminate the priest shortage overnight. But the old men in Rome who fancy themselves the rightful heirs of the twelve male apostles have simply ignored the wishes of the laity.

Then there is an aggressive right-wing minority of American Catholics who still believe in papal infallibility. These are the Catholics--Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito are among them--who have formed a political alliance with Protestant fundamentalists. They are a minority within their church, but they are often the public face of the church in America--thanks to ignorant members of the news media who still think of Catholicism as a monolith.

There is absolutely nothing that Pope Benedict can do to reverse the decline of his church's l authority over American Catholics. Don't be deceived by the television coverage of the pope's visit, which will surely emphasize the positive--the crowd that will show up at Yankee Stadium for the pope's public mass, the platitudes about religious pluralism that will emerge from everyone's mouth as this man who considers himself infallible in matters of faith and morals pretends to be open-minded and tolerant.

The reasons for the degeneration of the Catholic Church in America are complicated, and anyone interested in this subject would be well advised to consult the works of Gary Wills (who is a practicing Catholic).

I was brought up as a Catholic in the 1950s and early 60s, as the child of an Irish Catholic mother and a father who was a Catholic convert from lapsed Judaism. My parents were not particularly devout or particularly strict in their interpretation of Catholicism and they, like many American Catholics, became less and less observant in the 60s. I probably would have become an atheist regardless of the church in which I was raised, but the extravagant claims of Catholicism--in particular, concerning the infallbility of the pope--certainly hastened the development of my skeptical side.

During the early 60s, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, under Pope John XXIII, aroused the hopes of many Catholics who wanted the church to abandon its strictures against contraception and divorce, who wanted priests to be able to marry, and who later wanted women admitted to the priesthood. When John died, and was replaced by increasingly conservative successors, it became clear that those hopes for liberalization and reform would not be realized. At that point, many young nuns and priests abandoned their religious vocations (though not always the church itself). Had the church allowed priests to marry, I am certain that many more would have stayed.

Nearly three decades later, the scandal of priestly pedophilia finished the work that the disappointments of the sixties had begun. The church tried to stonewall at first. When that failed, and an angry laity took its case to the press (both Catholic and secular), the church began to try to hush the victims of sexual abuse with financial settlements. What the church did not do was acknowledge its moral culpability as an institution and try to repair the lives that its priests, in many cases with the full knowledge of their ecclesiastical superiors, had devastated. I don't think anything that Benedict could possibly say, at this late date, could restore the kind of faith that makes even many former Catholics say, with nostalgia, "It was the only THE church."

As an atheist, I do not, of course, share this nostalgia. Claims to the possession of absolute truth are dangerous--to individual minds, societies, and the entire world. The pope is nothing more--or less--than a fallible man "elected" to his office by a rather small group of other fallible men. He holds some reasonable views (on peace and poverty) and a host of other anti-rational views about the supernatural. My deepest wish--one that will certainly go unfulfilled--is that no American politician will address the pontiff with the ecclesiastical sobriquet, "Your Holiness."
(And didn't like it when the Dali Lama was addressed that way either.) Pope John XXIII also hated that title, and that is probably why he has not been canonized by Their Holinesses, his successors.

I should say, by the way, that I hold no more animus toward the Catholic Church than I do toward any other religion that claims to possess absolute truth. These are questions about the pope, so my answers naturally address themselves to Catholicism. Fundamentalist Islamists, ultra-right Orthodox Jews mired in 17th-century thinking, fundamentalist Protestant evangelicals, Hindu nationalists--take your pick--are all a menace to free inquiry and free thought. As for openminded people of every religious faith--those whose beliefs do not impinge on the lives and thoughts of others--come, let us reason together.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Uncertain Church Awaits Pope in U.S.


Less than two weeks ago, as final preparations were being made for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States, the bishop of Camden, N.J., announced plans to close or merge nearly half the parishes in his diocese. Meanwhile, Catholics in New Orleans, Boston, New York, Toledo, Ohio, and nearly three dozen other dioceses are mourning the loss of parishes and parochial schools they grew up in.

So when the pope arrives in the United States on Tuesday, he will find an American church in which many Catholics are eager not only for his spiritual guidance, but also for his acknowledgment that their church is going through a time of pain and uncertainty.

Hundreds of parishes are being closed and consolidated, and the reasons are usually intertwined with the other big challenges facing the church: a shortage of priests, fallout from the sexual abuse scandal, insufficient funds to maintain aging churches, demographic changes and sometimes not enough people attending Mass to justify keeping parishes open.

And yet for most observant Catholics, their primary experience of the church is their local parish.

“It’s frustrating because you start to see the bishop as the enemy, and it puts you where you’re conflicted,” said Leah Vassallo, a lawyer whose parish in Malaga, N.J., is among those to be closed. “Obviously you don’t want to give up your faith or go to a different religion, or not go to church at all. But it does disenfranchise you. We’re going to be a lot more hesitant before we give money to the church.”

A resistance movement to church closings that began in Boston has spread to other dioceses. On Sunday, Catholics in six dioceses — New York, Boston, Buffalo, Camden, New Orleans and Toledo — announced that they were forming a national group, the Coalition for Parishes, to try to prevent the closing or merging of viable churches.

In addition to the issues the closings and consolidations present, this will be the first visit by any pope since the sexual abuse scandal erupted in 2002, taking a spiritual, emotional and financial toll on Catholics across the country. The scandal revealed more than 5,000 victims, and left behind five bankrupt dioceses. It has cost the church more than $2 billion, so far, and it is not over. Last week the family of two young boys filed a civil lawsuit against a Massachusetts priest accusing him of molesting the boys as recently as 2005.

One of the scandal’s repercussions is that lay Catholics across the country are demanding more financial accountability from their bishops and more control over decisions, especially when it comes to closing parishes.
Many dioceses are also closing parochial elementary, junior and high schools that have provided a rigorous education for generations of Catholics and non-Catholics.

The cost of legal fees and settlements to abuse victims has put financial pressure on many dioceses. But in many cases, the far larger reason for the closings is demographic.

Urban enclaves of Italian, Irish, Polish and Eastern European Catholics who had their own ethnic parishes are dispersing to the suburbs and seeing their previous parishes shuttered — or having to learn to share their churches with immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa. In some parishes the new mix has been joyous, in others uneasy.

The pope is expected to praise the American church’s vibrancy during his visit, and there is much for the church to celebrate. Catholics are the biggest religious group in the United States, about 23 percent of the population, a proportion that has held steady. Many parishes are healthy, and some are growing, with the influx of immigrants, especially Hispanics.

A poll released on Sunday by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University showed a mixed performance review for the American bishops: 22 percent of Catholics are “very satisfied” with the bishops, 50 percent are “somewhat satisfied,” 21 percent are “somewhat dissatisfied,” and 6 percent are “very dissatisfied.” It is an improvement from 2002, the outbreak of the scandal.

But most priests, and even many bishops, will acknowledge the woes.

Of 18,634 parishes in 2007, 3,238 were without resident pastors. More than 800 parishes have been closed since 1995, most since 2000. (Some bishops are preparing their parishioners for more closings ahead.) The number of priests ordained in 2007 fell to 456, less than half the number of new priests in 1965. Nearly 3 in 10 Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more said they had been personally affected by the priest shortage, according to the Georgetown poll.

“There’s a crisis,” said William V. D’Antonio, a fellow of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America. “We’re running out of priests. The average age of priests currently active is over 60. We have recruitment of new priests way below replacement level.”

Groups that advocate opening the priesthood to women and to married men are using the pope’s visit to promote their causes. But there is nothing to suggest that the Vatican is close to reversing itself. The solutions promoted by American bishops are to work harder at recruiting candidates for the priesthood, and to ordain permanent deacons — laymen who can preach and perform many ministerial duties.

Peter Borre, a parishioner who helped form the Council of Parishes in Boston, said that if he could address Pope Benedict XVI, he would say: “The shortage of priests, Your Holiness, is both a symptom and a problem itself. The deeper problem is not a responsibility of the flock, it’s a failure of bishops to inspire and draw more people into the priesthood.”

Some bishops, like Joseph Galante in Camden, have tried to involve the laity in the painful restructuring process. But since the sexual abuse scandal, they are finding many of their parishioners have become more confrontational.
The restiveness is not only among laity. In Belleville, Ill., last month, 45 priests took the step of publicly releasing a letter to the Vatican’s representative in Washington calling for their bishop to step down. They accused the bishop, Edward K. Braxton, of poor communication with priests and of misappropriating more than $17,000 and using it to buy liturgical garments and furniture. (The bishop has apologized, but said he would not resign.)
In Boston, Catholics have spent the last four years taking turns camping inside five churches that the archdiocese wants to close. They figure that if the church is occupied, the archdiocese will not be able to padlock it.
In Boston and Toledo, some Catholics are suing the church to prevent the closings.

The quandary for the church is that the agitation is coming from some of the most religiously committed Catholics, said Mr. D’Antonio, co-author of a recent book that surveyed the members of “Voice of the Faithful,” another church reform group.

“These are really the loyal Catholics speaking out for change,” Mr. D’Antonio said. “They are the ones who have been the Eucharistic ministers, they went to Catholic parochial schools and colleges, got a terrific education, and now they want to change the church.”

Ms. Vassallo, the lawyer in Camden who objects to the closing of her parish (the diocese there is reducing the number to 66 from 124), spends every Thursday from 11 p.m. to midnight in her church praying before the Blessed Sacrament. She is one in a chain of parishioners who keep up this Eucharistic Adoration for 48 uninterrupted hours every week.

As Catholics they are devoted to their church, but don’t necessarily agree with all of its decisions. As Americans, accustomed to life in a democracy, they think they have a right to say so.

Dan Thiel, a contractor and excavator in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, was in a ministerial training program for five years in the Toledo diocese, which assigned him to help gather information from parishes on which ones could be closed or clustered. In the end, he said, he was appalled because some very alive parishes were cut. His own was reduced to a chapel, without a resident priest.

“They’ve totally abandoned our community,” said Mr. Thiel, who is now president of United Parishes, a group that is fighting parish closings in Toledo. “They took the buildings, they took the money, and said, ‘You guys can go somewhere else.’ ”

“There are so many people that want to be active in this church, that want to know more about their faith, and now they’re so offended,” Mr. Thiel said. “I tell people all the time, ‘Don’t leave your church. It’s not the pope. It’s not the bishop. It’s your community.’ ”

The Destruction of Parishes and The Downsizing of Catholic America

Statement of Concern:
by the Coalition of Parishes

In advance of the U.S. visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict, parishioners from some of the major Catholic dioceses have assembled in New York City to draw attention to the actions of American bishops which put at risk the future of our faith,

The systematic destruction of vibrant, viable parishes which constitute the spiritual and material infrastructure of the Catholic Church.

Parishioners from dioceses in Boston, Buffalo, Camden, New Orleans, New York and Toledo are represented here, for the purpose of announcing the formation of the Coalition of Parishes, constituted as:

A voluntary association of Catholic parishioners across America who are determined to safeguard their faith communities against the abuses of diocesan bishops.

There is a profound lesson, painfully learned over the past six years from the clerical sex abuse scandal which erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2002:

Collectively, the Catholic hierarchy in America cannot be trusted to do the right things until the cleansing glare of disclosure hits the dioceses.

We are now well into Part II of the saga of abusive bishops: if Part I was the sex abuse scandal, Part II is the abuse of parishioners through the destruction of their vibrant parishes.

The pace of parish closings across America has accelerated since the Archdiocese of Boston led the way in late 2003, in the immediate aftermath of its sex abuse scandal. In December of that year, almost simultaneously with a $85 million sex abuse settlement for more than 500 alleged victims, the Archbishop of Boston announced his policy of “reconfiguration,” which five months later led to his plan to close 83 parishes, 23% of Boston’s total.

Beyond Boston, over the past four years parish closing programs have been announced or implemented for more than 800 parishes, in at least 40 dioceses located in 14 states:

Today, this wave of parish closings has spread from Boston throughout New England to western Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire; to New York City and upstate; to New Jersey and westward to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan; and elsewhere to California, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas.

Several reasons are usually given by the bishops to rationalize parish closing programs, as discussed below, but typically the given reasons do not acknowledge the proverbial Elephant in the Room – the financial pressures on dioceses arising from settlements of sex abuse claims.

It is only in a much more legalistic setting that bishops have been compelled to make the connection between sex abuse settlements and diocesan parishes, in the six instances, over recent years, where bishops have filed for bankruptcy protection in federal courts; this sorry list consists, chronologically, of the following dioceses:

Portland, OR; Tucson, AZ; Spokane, WA; Davenport, IA; San Diego, CA; and Anchorage, AZ.

In these court proceedings, the bishops have stated that they are trustees of the parishes, that they do not “own” the parishes in their dioceses but only hold bare legal title as a convenience, and that they cannot put the parishes into a bankruptcy settlement pool to liquidate claims against the dioceses. The Bishop of Spokane has been very explicit on this point, in a sworn affidavit delivered under the penalties of perjury.

But of course, diocesan bishops beyond the jurisdiction of the federal bankruptcy laws assert that they are the sole owners of “their” parishes, and can dispose of these properties as they please. On the street, this is known as trying to have it both ways.

The truth of the matter is that the financial consequence of decades of abuse and cover-ups by bishops is coming home to roost throughout Catholic America. And the bishops’ response to this debacle is to sacrifice the parish infrastructure in dozens of dioceses.

The time has long past for “pray and obey” Catholics to acquiesce silently in a continuation of abuse by the clerical hierarchy.

It is beyond debate that American bishops must face the moral, legal and financial responsibility for their massive failure to prevent clerical sex abuse; and the efforts by the bishops to date are insufficient. It is beyond comprehension that Boston’s former archbishop, Bernard Law, is beyond reach in Rome, enjoying the prestige and emoluments of serving as “archpriest” of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, assisted by a monsignor who remains on the payroll of the Archdiocese of Boston.

On the occasion of the Pope’s imminent visit, it is to be hoped that His Holiness will take public notice of the stain on the Catholic hierarchy, with more clarity and specificity than has been shown thus far.

It is also beyond debate that the Catholic hierarchy must not try to fix one form of abuse - the sexual abuse of the young, by perpetrating another form of abuse upon parishioners through the destruction of thousands of American parishes.

Ominously, however, from the experience of the past four years this seems to be the default option for bishops.

To date well over two billion dollars have been paid by Catholic dioceses in settlement of sex abuse claims; and many other claims remain unresolved. Beyond this, there are hundreds of millions more that have been paid out by dioceses, involving hush payments prior to the eruption of the scandal in 2002, attorneys fees, medical costs, and “rehabilitation” for accused clerics. As insurance payments and liquid assets have been depleted by the dioceses, the funding for these huge sums is being raised from the sale of diocesan properties, mostly parishes:

This is what the Coalition of Parishes intends to fight, within the mainstream of Catholic dogma and teaching.

It is the Vatican itself that has put on the record the tight causal link between sex abuse and parish closings. This has become strikingly clear in the course of numerous canon appeals filed by Boston parishioners, where the canonical advocate for the Archdiocese of Boston has stated in sworn court briefs involving nine parishioner appeals (as translated from the original Latin):

“…maximum discretion was given to His Excellency the Archbishop of Boston, so that he might save the entire archdiocese from monetary ruin, provoked not only, but also by the ‘sexual abuse crisis’ [sic, in the briefs]. It is in this context that all actions of this process of reconfiguration and ‘closing of parishes’ are to be understood…”

Over the past four years, the process of parish destruction has spread to at least 40 dioceses, particularly in “legacy” Catholic America, comprising roughly the East coast down to the mid-Atlantic, west across Pennsylvania to Ohio and Michigan, and south to Kentucky. These were the areas of concentration of 19th and early 20th century Catholic European immigrants.

And the tempo of parish closings is increasing:

Within the last ten days, the Diocese of Camden and the Archdiocese of New Orleans have rolled out their parish closing plans, literally days before the Pope’s scheduled arrival.

Either this is a PR blunder of some magnitude, stepping on the Pope’s message, or perhaps with characteristic Roman subtlety the Vatican is orchestrating a message of financial distress among American dioceses, to pre-empt future financial claims.

Whatever the explanation may be, as the parish closing process intensifies, it is fair to wonder how far it will go. Authoritative estimates from Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate indicate that from a current level of 19,000 parishes, eventually as many as 7,000 American parishes could be shut down by the diocesan bishops. This would amount to a 37% downsizing in the U.S., a country which today is second, after Brazil, in the ranking of the most numerous Catholic populations world-wide.

A downsizing of one-third or more would constitute a pervasive failure on the part of the American bishops:

Their failure to evangelize among the faithful, at a time of robust growth in the U.S. among other religious denominations;

Their failure to uphold the dignity of the priestly calling, as seminaries empty out; and

Their failure to safeguard the material patrimony of the Church, as billions of dollars have been (justly and appropriately) paid out for the decades of clerical sex abuse; today, the finances of many dioceses are in disarray.

The bishops usually give a standard litany of reasons for parish closings:

Changing demographics, shortage of priests, and insolvent parishes.

But these do not stand up under close scrutiny.

“Changing demographics”

This is short-hand for Catholics getting old and dying. But this is not the operative reason; in truth, the changing demographics are driven by the fact that more than 20 million Catholics have been driven away from the faith in which they were raised, due to the failure of the American bishops to inspire them:

A recent report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life puts this in perspective:

Nationally, the report found that “one in ten American adults” are lapsed Catholics;

By this measure, these 23 million lapsed Catholics constitute the second largest religious denomination in America today.

“Shortage of Priests”

There is indeed a shortage of diocesan priests, the home-grown males who have usually marched through the local Catholic school system into the priesthood via the diocesan seminary; but today, many of these seminaries are emptying out:

In the Archdiocese of New York, not a single man is scheduled to enter St. Joseph’s Seminary this fall; “the first year program – known as Theology I – may be empty for the first time in 108 years.” [as reported last month in The Journal News.]

However, there are “supplies” of additional clergy, fully Catholic and qualified, from the dozens of religious orders active in the dioceses; and from thriving priest-exporting countries such as Poland, India, the Philippines, as well as from the Vietnamese Catholic diaspora.

Interestingly, there is an emerging model of clerical/lay parish administration rising from the ashes of reconfiguration in Boston:

A closed parish, occupied for the past three years by its parishioners, and run by the vigil group, is supplied with a retired priest from the archdiocese who celebrates Sunday Mass; the entire financial and managerial burden upon the archdiocese of this closed parish amounts to three hours per week of clergy time, to serve hundreds of Catholics.

“Insolvent Parishes”

Superficially, this rationale might have some appeal, in cases where some parishes have dilapidated physical plant, unpaid bills and dwindling congregations. However, four years of experience in Boston show that the “insolvent parish” rationale is widely used by the bishops as a pretext for another purpose:

To appropriate for the diocese the cash and property of thriving parishes.

In the Archdiocese of Boston, over half of the 83 parishes set for closing in 2004 met every test of viability and vibrancy, sacramental and financial. And many of the parishes on this hit list turned out to be among the wealthiest in the archdiocese.

This is the stark truth of parish closings in Boston, and this is the driving force for many parish closings across the U.S.

It is also part of the Boston experience that many ethnic and inner city parishes have been closed or listed for closing. In contemporary America there are thousands of urban Catholic parishes which are platforms to reach millions of recent immigrants, mostly from Catholic countries and in need of spiritual and material assistance much as the grandparents of legacy Catholics were served by their parishes in the 19th and the early 20th century.

The 19,000 parishes serving the spiritual needs of some 67 million Catholics are not the bishops’ personal ATMs. These faith communities are recognized as distinct legal entities under the Vatican’s Code of Canon Law, and they deserve something more than the downsizing techniques appropriate for overextended fast food chains, particularly when the real reason for the downsizing is the moral and legal failure of “management” – the bishops.

For aggrieved parishioners, there are not many effective ways to challenge unjust bishops, since Catholicism is a hierarchical religion where absolute spiritual and temporal authority is vested in the Pontiff and delegated to these bishops. However, driven by necessity over the past four years of reconfiguration turmoil, Boston’s parishioners have adopted a variety of resistance techniques:

Vigils, i.e. peaceful, non-violent 24/7 sit-ins in closed churches; at peak, nine such vigils were operating; four closed churches were eventually reopened, but five churches remain closed and in vigil today, having completed more than three years of vigil and going strong;

Civil lawsuits, with parishioners challenging in state courts the diocesan bishop in his acknowledged role as a “trustee,” by arguing that bishops as trustees may not appropriate the assets of beneficiaries (in this case, the parishioners);

Canon appeals, where over the past three years, at least nine Boston parishioner groups have worked their way to the Vatican’s highest tribunal for these matters, the Apostolic Signatura, challenging the closing of their parishes.

These are some of the techniques which the Coalition of Parishes will share with parishioners across Catholic America, as the spirit of resistance spreads nation-wide. Parishioners from the six dioceses represented here today are the nucleus of this effort.

The actions of the American bishops threaten to break the centuries-old bond between Catholics and their parishes, and are a direct contradiction of a recent statement by the Vatican’s Papal Nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Pietro Sambi. When asked about the Catholic church in the United States, he stated, as one of “three strong principles,”

“…a clear sense of belonging. I would express it in this way: you need a community, and the community needs you. Whoever walks alone sooner or later will be lost in the desert.”

From Boston’s extensive experience with reconfiguration, we have learned that one-third of parishioners from closed parishes simply drop out, truly “lost in the desert.”

There is a bit of scripture which applies to the shepherds of many American dioceses from The Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 34:

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!…
You have fed off their milk, and slaughtered the fatlings…
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost…
You lorded it over them harshly and brutally
So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Richard Sipe
La Jolla, California

April 18, 2008

Your Holiness, I, Richard Sipe, approach you reluctantly to speak about the problem of sexual abuse by priests and bishops in the United States, but I am encouraged and prompted by the directive of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Chapter IV, No. 37. "By reason of knowledge, competence…the laity are empowered—indeed sometimes obliged—to manifest their opinion on those things that pertain to the good of the Church."

As the crisis of sexual abuse of our children and vulnerable adults by priests and bishops in the United States is unfolding the dynamics of this dysfunction are becoming painfully clear.

This sexual aberration is not generated from the bottom up—that is only from unsuitable candidates—but from the top down—that is from the sexual behaviors of superiors, even bishops and cardinals.

The problem facing us in the American church is systemic. I will present Your Holiness with only a few examples:

Bishop Thomas Lyons, now deceased, who was an Auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. groomed, seduced, and sexually abused a boy from the time he was seven years old until he was seventeen. When that boy grew into manhood he in turn abused his own child and young relatives. When I asked him about his actions he said to me, "I thought it was natural. Father (Lyons) told me a priest showed him this when he was growing up." A pattern was perpetuated for at least four generations.

Abbot John Eidenschink of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota sexually abused some of his young monks during confession and spiritual direction. He admitted this behavior in regard to two of the monks I interviewed. They described the behavior in disturbingly graphic detail. Older monks that I interviewed told me that they knew that John's Novice Master was inappropriately affectionate with him during his two years as a novice. More than a dozen of the monks of this monastery have been credibly accused of abuse of minors while Abbot Eidenschink was promoted to President of his Monastic Congregation, the American Cassinese.

While I was Adjunct Professor at a Pontifical Seminary, St. Mary's Baltimore (1972-1984) a number of seminarians came to me with concerns about the behavior of Theodore E. McCarrick then bishop of Metuchen New Jersey. It has been widely known for several decades that Bishop/Archbishop now Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick took seminarians and young priests to a shore home in New Jersey, sites in New York, and other places and slept with some of them. He established a coterie of young seminarians and priests that he encouraged to call him "Uncle Ted." I have his correspondence where he referred to these men as being "cousins" with each other.

Catholic journalist Matt Abbot already published on February 6, 2006 reports of two priests who provided first hand witness regarding this behavior of Theodore McCarrick.

I do know the names of at least four priests who have had sexual encounters with Cardinal McCarrick. I have documents and letters that record the first hand testimony and eye witness accounts of McCarrick, then archbishop of Newark, New Jersey actually having sex with a priest, and at other times subjecting a priest to unwanted sexual advances.

Such behavior fosters confusion and makes celibacy problematic for seminarians and priests. This abuse paves the way for them to pass the tradition on—to have sex with each other and even with minors.

The pattern and practice of priests in positions of responsibility for the training of men for the priesthood—rectors, confessors, spiritual directors, novice masters, and other clergy—who have sexual relations with seminarians and other priests is rampant in the Catholic Church in the United States. I have reviewed hundreds of documents that record just such behavior and interviewed scores of priests who have suffered from this activity. Priests, sexually active in the above manner are frequently appointed by the Vatican to be ordained bishops or even created cardinals.

I approach Your Holiness with all due reverence, but with the same intensity that motivated Peter Damian to lay out before your predecessor, Pope Leo IX, a description of the condition of the clergy during his time. The problems he spoke of are similar and as great now in the United States as they were then in Rome. If Your Holiness requests I will submit to you personally documentation of that about which I have spoken.

Your Holiness, I submit this to you with urgent concern for our Church, especially the young and our clergy.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Catholic Laws for the People

BRUNSWICK, Maine, April 8, 2008 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Most Catholics believe that Church laws are only the Church's laws and that all must abide by them. However, that is not always the case. Little is known about "Book II" of The Code of Canon Law (1983, Coriden, Green and Heintschel), the book known as "The People of God," further explained as "The Obligations and Rights of all Christian Faithful."

Among these canons is #213 which reads, "The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors of the spiritual goods of the church, especially the word of God and the sacraments." This means that all Catholics have the right to a full Mass (even inside their own church building).

Also in Book II is Canon 290 which reads, "After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid." In other words, priests are priests forever -- sacred pastors -- even if they are married.

Elsewhere in The Code of Canon Law is Canon 843 which reads, "Sacred ministers [pastors] may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them." (See Canon 290 above.)

Bottom line: If a priest is missing from a church community, be it a regular or a vigiling parish that has closed, the congregation has the right -- indeed the obligation -- according to The Code of Canon Law to invite a married priest to celebrate Mass for the community. Permission comes from Canon Law. No other permission is needed.

Eighteen other Canons pertain to the legal/legitimate use of married priests by the Christian Faithful without permission from anyone. Information is available on the married priest website, Married priests are Priests Without Borders and therefore available for all sacramental ministry inside or outside church buildings. They are especially available to former/alienated/marginalized Catholics as well as non-Catholics.

Another Canon from the same Canon Law Directory, Canon 27, says that "Practice becomes custom in the church." Like the use of female servers, which finally was approved by the Vatican in the late 1980s, so can the use of married priests become custom in the church.

The more educated Catholics become about the laws that govern them, the more empowerment they will have.

SOURCE: CITI Ministries

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Underground worship: Discontented Catholics form own churches

By LANA GERSTEN Columbia News Service
The Chronicle Herald
Sat. Apr 5, 2008 7:01 AM

Photo: Rev. Mary Ramerman holds the communion cup while James Callan (holding his hands in front of him) stands beside her. (Columbia Journalism Service)

NEW YORK — Ten years ago, James Callan’s world turned upside down. He had been a priest for 22 years at Corpus Christi Church in Rochester, N.Y., but was ousted for supporting gay unions, female priests and communion for non-Catholics. Two months later, the newly conservative diocese demanded that Mary Ramerman, then associate pastor of the church, step down from the altar because she was a woman. After refusing, she was fired. The following Sunday, 1,200 people came to church to protest.

Together, they decided to break away from the traditional rigid structure and form Spiritus Christi, an "underground church" that follows the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, but is not restricted by the demands of Rome. They are part of a new form of worship, where women are free to take leadership roles, married men can be priests, and many support gay unions as well as communion for non-Catholics. These underground churches, or gatherings of people who have broken away from the Catholic Church to form their own independent churches, believe in an inclusive, progressive environment for worship. Some rent church space from other denominations, but most gather for services in people’s homes.

"Up until now, it was love it or leave it," said Kathleen Kautzer, a sociologist at Regis College who studies the movement. "Now there’s a third way. You can remain connected, you can work for change in the church, but you can practice Catholicism on your own terms."

Though officially unrecognized, there are now around 300 to 400 such churches, at least half of which have started in the last decade by Catholics disenchanted by the growing conservative nature of the church, said Kautzer. That number continues to grow.

Spiritus Christi now has a following of 1,500 people, up from 1,100 when it started in 1999. The church, which now has satellite churches in Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira, N.Y., is the largest underground church in the country. After Ramerman was ordained, "there’s been a flood of ordination of women, and some men" who are married, Callan said. Now, there are national organizations of female priests and married priests. Callan describes it as "a transformation of the church from below rather than from above."

Though it is no secret that more people have been shying away from traditional religion, a March 2008 Pew survey on religion and public life found that "Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes." Although 31 per cent of the Americans surveyed were raised in the Catholic faith, only 24 per cent described themselves as Catholic.

A number of factors are driving this trend. Though the church began to liberalize in the 1960s under Pope John XXIII, every pope since has moved toward a more conservative ideology. The current pope, Benedict XVI, is the most conservative of all, showing no flexibility regarding celibacy, homosexuality and bans on the ordination of women

Sexual abuse scandals, which came to light in 2002, are also feeding this move. According to a March 2008 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, nearly 14,000 molestation claims have been filed against the Catholic clergy since 1950, resulting in a total payout of $2.3 billion. In 2007 alone, total abuse related costs exceeded $615 million. These payouts, as well as the declining attendance at Mass, caused many parishes throughout the country to close.

Disgusted by the scandals in the church, some Catholics began searching for new ways to express their beliefs while retaining their Catholic identity. Out of this environment, a new movement was born.

Just outside of Chicago, Mary Nichols-Schleitwiler, 63, and her husband Paul, decided seven years ago to form an underground church with nearly 75 other Catholics. Every month, they take turns hosting services in their homes, sometimes gathering around the dining room table, other times congregating in living rooms. Every service culminates in a big potluck feast, and an evening discussion.

Though they begin each service with the same prayers heard in traditional churches, they change all the language to be gender neutral. When they gathered in January, they incorporated passages from Martin Luther King Jr., and when they celebrated the feast of Mary Magdalene in July, they used it as an opportunity to celebrate Middle Eastern women.

Born a Catholic, Schleitwiler attended traditional churches her whole life, but was increasingly frustrated by its growing conservatism. In 1994, her former pastor asked her to participate in a ministry training program that typically culminates in ordination. Because she was a woman, she was allowed to complete only two of the four years of training. Instead of ordination, she received a certificate.

"Here we were coming into yet another millennium and they weren’t there yet," she said. "I had come to a place in my life where I could not accept anymore the idea that this church has no place for women in ministry."

Now, at her underground church, Schleitwiler has found comfort with her new surroundings. "It’s given me a voice," she said, "a voice I wouldn’t have in a traditional church. It’s given me the opportunity to hear the voices of other women." Instead of going to mass for an hour, greeting strangers and then going home, Schleitwiler describes her underground church as a "closely knit community without being a closed community."

Though Kautzer does not argue that underground churches will lead to greater numbers of practicing Catholics, she said they could potentially draw people back to Catholicism.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Study finds active young Catholics attracted to ministry

Among the survey's findings:

Lay ministry. Nearly half of the young adults who are active in Church life say they have seriously considered working in lay ministry, compared with more than one-third of college respondents. While they have spoken about this call from God to parents, pastors, and lay ministers, two-thirds do not see a connection between lay ministry and their own gifts, talents, and career interests. Most said they were interested in youth ministry, religious education, and teaching in Catholic schools.

Vowed vocations. Many young adults in the survey-nearly half of the young men and nearly 40 percent of the women-have seriously considered the priesthood or religious life. A large majority believes the main reason for becoming a priest is to care for God's people. Following other career paths and a desire for marriage are most often cited as the primary reasons not to pursue ordination, although women are more likely also to avoid a structure dominated by men.

Questions about changing the guidelines for who can become a priest, religious, or deacon drew some surprising results. Young women in the survey did not show great interest in becoming priests if they could. Nearly a quarter of the young men would find the priesthood more inviting if celibacy were not mandatory, but many do not have an opinion about it. The required lifelong commitment does not appear to be a deterrent. The diaconate is of interest, but it is viewed as an option for later in life.

Web Editor's Note: Actually, when the question was phrased a different way, there was a surprising difference between Latino and non-Latino respondents. When the college sample males were asked "Would you be seriously interested in becoming an ordained priest if celibacy were not required?", 36% of the Latino respondents said "yes" while only 17% of the non-Latino respondents did so. Non-Hispanics, on the other hand, were more interested in the permanent diaconate which, in my personal opinion, most likely reflects the fact that this option is not being pushed or made attractive among Latino Catholics in this country through such options as deacon training programs conducted primarily in Spanish.

Attitudes about lay ministry and priesthood. Young adults, especially men, believe ordination confers a special character or status to the priest. More than half say the Church needs to move faster to empower lay persons in ministry.

Tomorrow's ministers. Young adults who are the ministers of tomorrow are active in the Church today. The survey found that the most significant indicator of interest in ministry was current involvement; few differences were based on age or marital status.

Diverse young adults want knowledge and engagement. The young adults surveyed want pastoral leaders to more actively engage them in the life of the Church. Those who are involved and active are asking for a more solid catechetical foundation. No one label describes them: some are calling for more traditional practices, while others want the Church to relate more to modern life and their personal experience.

"Underneath the differences, these young adults show deep care for their faith and an interest in the future of the Church," said Marti Jewell, the project director, who conducted the survey with Dr. Dean R. Hoge of The Catholic University of America. "Our next task is to find ways to engage them in a church for which discipleship is central and their involvement is crucial. The young adults in this study have given us some interesting ideas to think about, and point to further questions and study. It is an area of concern that affects us all."

Full text of the report: Young Adult Catholics and Their Interest in Ministry, report by Dean Hoge and Marti Jewell, 1/5/2008.