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Make room for wild and domesticated priesthood


It seems impossible to be a Catholic in the United States today and not to be thinking about the clergy sex abuse scandal. Like my 65 million companions in the faith, I’ve been shocked to hear details of the betrayal of children and young adults, and felt the stomach-turning indignity of allegations brushed under the plush rug of bishops’ offices. The crimes against the victims of abuse and their families are abominable. So is the breach of faith the institution is committing against its own.

One man in my parish prayed this weekend in particular for the people in the Boston archdiocese where his mother lives. He said she and her friends, lifelong Catholics, are devastated by the ongoing unfolding of shame, secrecy and hypocrisy. For the past month, he said, he hasn’t had a conversation with his mother without her breaking into tears about the situation.

I believe that abusive priests and their prelate protectors should resign. A priest who has so grievously betrayed a tender member of his flock is free to seek redemption and work out his salvation apart from his role as an ordained minister of the church. Perhaps his lifelong penance would be to relinquish the gifts of his ordination. I can’t help but speculate that deciding whether to defrock criminal priests would be far more clear-cut for the cardinals and pope if the church were not simultaneously facing a crisis of numbers in the priesthood.

The circumstances beg for a discussion of healthy sexuality as it relates to spirituality and vocation, as well as for a discussion of a new vision of ordained priesthood. It also begs for a discussion about the meaning of the sacraments and of the radical gospel mission of the church. Opening the doors wide to married priests would likely fill seminaries and ultimately get the sacraments delivered abundantly all around. But here’s where it gets really tricky for me.

Sacramental life is so critical to the church, but as Fr. Richard Rohr in his recent Lenten series in this newspaper has observed, the way we “do” the sacraments has become by and large an empty ritual for so many. It is not our ordained priesthood that’s in jeopardy; it’s our common priesthood. It’s we who have to back off the idea of “Father knows best” and take responsibility for our own faith, as individuals and as communities.

In principle, I support the idea of ordaining married people and women to the priesthood. But I worry about the demands of family life and the potential conflicts of interest for a priest who must choose between competing moral interests. A priest with children might like to do civil disobedience to protest the School of the Americas, or intervene in some street conflict in an-inner city neighborhood at risk to personal safety. What if that priest is the only one who could offer sacraments at a parish? Or is the sole breadwinner for a family? I think of all the martyrs, the missionaries, the labor organizers, the ministers to the marginalized -- all those who boldly and effusively give away their love at great personal cost. Who, despite their fears for their own safety or comfort, continue to bring the gospel truth with their committed presence to areas of great need. Where, in a discussion of the benefits of ordaining married men (or single or married women) is the discussion of making room for this kind of servant leader?

Easy for me to say. I’m comfortable in my family life and at my desk, warning others of the perils of turning our traditions upside down. I will make a case, then, for the complementary nature of the vocations of priest and parent. The vocation of parenthood requires hard work and struggle mingled, ideally, with great joy and satisfaction. Some have it harder than others; their children may require more care or present greater challenges for any number of reasons. Still, I know I’m a better parent when I’m not on deadline, and I’m a better writer when I haven’t been up three times in the middle of the night with a sick kid.

Likewise, a priest takes on a life of hard work and struggle, mingled ideally with great joy and satisfaction. Some get to play Wednesday golf with parishioners who open their purses to the parish. Other priests make nursing home rounds to pray with aging seniors or practice their best listening skills at parish council budget meetings. Others choose a life of material hardship to minister to the marginalized in countries far from home or to folks in a domestic demographic as foreign as if it were a hemisphere away. Some images of priesthood seem to mesh more realistically with the demands of family life, while other images present, in my mind, real ethical challenges to a priestly life.

Is there not room for both kinds of priesthood, the domesticated and the wild, if you will?

For some people, their Christian vocation is played out through a relationship with one particular beloved person -- and from there to the ability to extend their circle of love to others, whether children, neighbors or complete strangers. For others, their desire is to love universally, to limit or forego a bound relationship with one other in order to be able to give boundless love in the name of Jesus Christ. If we value all holy choices equally, then we embrace each other’s choice more fully in the faithful living of our own. And ideally, those called to be priests would live their vows in this light.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. Her e-mail address is krisberggren@msn.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002