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Lessons for all on priesthood’s future

by Richard A. Schoenherr, edited by David Yamane
Oxford University Press, 275 pages, $29.95


When Richard Schoenherr died in 1996 at age 61, he left behind a manuscript of more than 700 pages. Professor David Yamane of Notre Dame, who had been a student of Schoenherr’s, edited the manuscript, which he has done with great skill. Thus, six years after Schoenherr’s death, we are finally able to appreciate his magnum opus, a scholarly sociological, theological, highly personal, spiritual, courageous and provocative contribution to the central question confronting the Catholic church: How to and why keep the eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, celebrated by a sacramental priesthood, at the center of Catholic life?

Schoenherr’s answer is clear: This will come about during the next papacy, with the end of the male celibate priesthood. First will come optional celibacy with a married male priesthood. Optional celibacy will be followed in the next two or three generations by the ordination of women. Schoenherr presents us with a new paradigm for understanding both the past and what is to come, and makes a compelling case for why the sacramental priesthood must be maintained.

Schoenherr himself saw this book as a companion piece to Full Pews and Empty Altars, published in 1993, which he coauthored with Lawrence Young. The earlier book set forth the reality of the demographic transition in the U.S. Catholic church: continuing growth in the numbers of baptized Catholics, largely attributed now to immigration from Latin America and Asia; and steep declines in the priesthood brought about by declining numbers of seminarians, aging of the current priesthood, and resignation from the priesthood for marriage and other reasons. A more than adequate summary of Full Pews is provided by Yamane in his introduction, and by Schoenherr in the preface and elsewhere.

Goodbye Father addresses the question of whether, why and how the priesthood can be saved, not simply in the context of the church in the United States, but in the context of the church universal. In the process, Schoenherr develops a theory of social change that relies heavily on the classic work of Max Weber on bureaucratic organization. Schoenherr shows how bureaucratic organizations like the Catholic church have built in not only the mechanisms for their own stability or disintegration, but also for their transformation.

Schoenherr shows how a sacramental priesthood is as essential to the future of Catholicism as it has been to its past. It is the Mass as sacrifice that requires the presence of a priest, since the sacrifice embodies the essential elements of the relationship with ultimate reality “more completely and effectively than any other type of religious activity.” Schoenherr states that “the priest is essential for sacrifice, for in this ritual only someone anointed by the community can legitimately act in its behalf.”

From the opening pages to the conclusion, Schoenherr makes clear that male “celibate exclusivity is the issue. Male exclusivity and celibate exclusivity reinforce one another. Letting go of celibate exclusivity would expose male exclusivity in the priesthood for what it is: a historically developed form of gender dominance.” Now that we understand that patriarchy has been socially constructed, we also know that it can be deconstructed. Unfortunately, the battle to deconstruct male exclusivity is made more difficult because the Catholic church lacks a theology of gender equality. Catholic teaching regarding gender and sexuality is built on weak social constructions derived from faulty biology, anthropology, philosophy and social science.

Schoenherr sees the basic flaw of the current papacy as its failure to understand that mature adults have a right to know why particular teachings are asserted to be “unchangeable.” And with the population of Catholics increasingly well educated, and with growing numbers of women and laymen studying theology, canon law, philosophy and church history, the Vatican loses respect and legitimacy to the extent it seeks to bolster its rules and teachings in support of patriarchy and celibate priesthood. He cites Robert Wuthnow’s observation that “the rising level of education is the most dynamic and powerful force for social change in modern organized religion.” Thus, despite the “pressure politics” of papal letters forbidding further discussion about the ordination of women, Schoenherr points to the inexorable paradigm shift toward gender equality and away from male dominance taking place throughout human society.

For his part, Schoenherr looks to charismatic leaders who will lead the church away from dogmatism toward a pluralism that respects freedom of conscience within and outside the Catholic church, away from patriarchy to full gender equality, to a more human, personal understanding of sexuality. Further he looks to those who recognize that it is not the priesthood as a part of modern bureaucratic organization but priests as the sacrificers who help free believers to be enriched by the sacrament of the Eucharist and are the key to the spiritual development that should be the goal of organized religion.

Schoenherr has challenged the conservatives in a way not easily put aside by claims that he was just ranting and complaining. Rather, his call is for a transformed priesthood that puts the eucharistic sacrifice back into the heart of the Mass, this sacrifice that is so central to the Catholic experience.

While he is critical of Pope John Paul II’s attempts to turn back the clock, he is in fact reminding the pope of the centrality of the role of the priest in the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice. In this sense, the book is very conservative. But when he reminds those who run the church’s bureaucratic organization that they threaten the achievement of the organization’s primary goal of keeping open to the believing laity their primary access to salvation, namely, access to the Eucharist, he is radical in his critique of their monarchic, autocratic construction of social reality.

It would be a positive move for dialogue between liberals and conservatives if the conservatives would read Goodbye Father and focus on parts they could readily discuss with liberals. They might be expected to be supportive of Schoenherr’s defense of a sacramental priesthood, while at least some liberals will be concerned about Schoenherr’s continued defense of hierarchy and reference to the eucharistic sacrifice rather than eucharistic celebration. But if conservatives like George Weigel and Fr. John Neuhaus, for example, begin by demanding that for a discussion to begin, Catholic liberals need to obey the Vatican’s teachings on birth control, women’s ordination and all other issues, there will be little to dialogue about. More is the pity, for there is much to discuss and digest in Schoenherr’s historical analysis, his application of legal-rational bureaucratic theory, his demonstration of how the reality of our current understanding of the Catholic church has been socially constructed over time, and how it is gradually being deconstructed and reconstructed.

This book will bring rich rewards to all who delve into its pages and ensures that Richard Schoenherr will be remembered as one of the truly prophetic social scientists of the study of the priesthood. In his own words, Schoenherr acknowledged that “My friends and family know best that this book is much more than an objective, scientific explanation of historical events and social change. It is also an expression of who I am and who stands together with me.” As one who stands in awe of Schoenherr’s magnum opus, I found myself acknowledging as Mark Chaves noted on the dust jacket, this book is “Part heartfelt theology, part hard-nosed sociology, part hopeful manifesto.”

Schoenherr wants to do more than find a way to optional celibacy and the ordination of women. He wants to create a theology built on modern science that justifies the Catholic myth. Schoenherr argues that only a priesthood open to males, females, celibates and married persons can symbolically contain and express the full paradoxical reality of transcendence and immanence.

A growing number of progressive Catholics have been hoping for such changes, and surveys of Catholic laity have shown a growing majority in support of these changes. As Yamane points out in his introduction, writers such as Eugene Kennedy, Fr. Donald Cozzens, Garry Wills, Rosemary Radford Ruether and John Cornwell, among others, have made telling points about this crisis in the church, and where it may lead. But, Yamane adds, “One of the great virtues of Goodbye Father is that it brings these individual points together with some novel ones into a comprehensive framework and sets it in motion toward a probable end. There is no other book I know of that does all of what Goodbye Father does.” I say amen to that!

William D’Antonio is a research professor in the department of sociology at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002