Jesus Our Shepherd
Priests' Tough Questions Are A Service To Their People
NCR Editorial

So what’s going on with U.S. priests?

NO small irony attaches to the fact that at a time when speaking out or raising tough questions could quickly derail a cleric’s career, more and more priests are uniting to publicly confront their bishops over leadership matters and to take stands on some of the most difficult issues confronting the church. We’re not certain why this recent flurry of activity has taken place, but it is one of the healthiest signs we have observed in the priesthood in recent time. In an institution aching for leadership, some priests are finding the courage to step up and, in a true example of pastoral service, to raise the deep concerns of the people they serve.

Perhaps no step has been as remarkable or courageous as that taken by 23 Chicago priests who signed a letter strongly objecting to “the increase in the use of violent and abusive language” in Vatican declarations directed at gays and lesbians. The letter particularly objects to the use of such expressions as “serious depravity,” “grave detriment to the common good” and “intrinsically disordered” when referring to homosexuality. “Does anyone consider this vile and toxic language invitational? The letter asks. It goes on to urge “a new atmosphere of openness to dialogue, which includes the lived experience of many Catholic members.”

The letter is the latest in a string of correspondence involving hundreds of priests who have publicly signed messages to the hierarchy. The first occurred in Boston when nearly 60 priests signed a letter asking for Cardinal Bernard Law’s resignation for his role in the sex abuse scandal, That letter reportedly was significant in convincing the Vatican to move Law out of Boston. More recently, 170 Milwaukee priests wrote an open letter asking for reconsideration of the celibate male-only rule for ordination, a move that has inspired similar letters signed by hundreds of priests across the country. And in New York, two groups of priests have asked their bishops for face-to-face meetings about issues of leadership and about due process for priests accused of sex abuse.

The Chicago case provides some valuable measures for evaluating both the requests of the priests on the whole range of issues addressed by the various initiatives and the chance that any dialogue will progress beyond the request stage. Chicago Cardinal Francis George responded to his priests, acknowledging that church language (“a philosophical and theological barrier to welcoming homosexuals and indicating he would be willing to discuss the matter. However he also made clear that any dialogue would be tightly circumscribed. God “knows the difference between right and wrong,” he told his priests, “and he expects us to know it, to live accordingly and, as ordained priests, to preach the demands of the Gospel with integrity to every group.” And that means calling homosexuals to conversion and acceptance of the church’s teachings on “the use of the gift of sexuality.”

So ever the stalemate. It is correct to wonder what the priests expect. Just as it is correct to wonder how this church, in which the search for truth should be the oxygen for the sanctuary lamp, has become so absolutely terrified of questions and new revelations about human behavior. The priests questioning the language used about homosexuals might not be experts in human behavior and sexuality, but they are expert in observing the lived experience of their people. Not a good basis for doing theology? For understanding deeper truths?

Church history would say otherwise. Change in thinking has always come from the bottom up, not from the top down. From slavery to usury to the very mechanics of the heavens, to a grudging acceptance that sexual pleasure is not necessarily sinful, the impetus for change has almost always derived from lived experience of the people or from understanding born of experimentation and study. Not all change is good, but popes and cardinals deny the best of the Catholic tradition when they consistently resist even the questions that could lead to reconsidering traditions and assumptions.

One might reasonably expect church leaders to be especially careful when claiming to know the mind of God in the area of sexuality. This is, after all, the church that perpetuated the Manichean pessimism of Augustine on matters of sex; that bore the Thomistic notion that “woman is defective ans misbegotten”; that gave rise to the Irish “penitentials,” lists of sins and penances – in effect an extensive catalogue of offenses regarding sexual positions and attitudes; and that taught that menstruation was a special sign of impurity.

How well, really, in all that, did we understand God’s mind? How many poor souls were unjustly subjected to tortured lives because their experience, their understanding of God’s goodness, of right and wrong, did not march with hierarchical assertions eventually shown to be wrong?

Certainly there is something to be said about the dissonance that church language will generate at times in contemporary culture. But it is impossible to find even that ecclesiastical vacuum where language is scrubbed entirely of psychological and political meaning. The language of recent Vatican decrees on homosexuality arrives dripping with political and cultural baggage – a linguistic Molotov cocktail thrown into the circle of civil discourse.

To the priests, we say it is impossible to know where your initiatives will lead. Who can say if you’ll find someone to talk to, an honest dialogue that doesn’t begin with all the questions already answered? WE can only encourage you not to abandon your questions – about ordination, about leadership and accountability, about the church’s approach to homosexuals. Know that your concern for the welfare of the eucharistic community – the entire community – is deeply appreciated. Keep leading. Keep listening to your people.