Tuesday, April 22, 2008

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."

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