Pope Francis: let priests be people and this clergy abuse problem will largely disappear

Catholic clerical abuse, mostly of minors, is hardly news. And yet this week such a story broke through to the front pages for a change, mainly because it gave us an understanding of the truly vast scope of the problem. Yesterday, a grand jury issued a report saying an estimated 300 Catholic priests in the Pennsylvania abused more than 1000 children, and likely a lot more than that, since the 1940s. Some of the reports are so graphic they will literally turn your stomach. I won’t repeat them here, but if your stomach can handle it go ahead and read them.

And yet it was hardly the only story of this type recently. Last month the archbishop of Washington D.C., Cardinal Theodore Mc­Carrick, was suspended from duties by Pope Francis. McCarrick is accused of abusing a 16-year-old altar boy in the 1970s. He was probably not the cardinal’s only victim. You will find lots more stories but few more egregious lately than these two. A cardinal is just one step from being pope!

The problem is not confined to the Catholic Church. A Unitarian Universalist minister that married me was involved in sexual relations with women who sought him out for counseling, also a terrible violation of trust. The Roman Catholic Church has a much larger problem than other denomiations, and it’s not just because of its enormous size. Adjusting for denomination size, the Catholic Church is still by far the largest denomination with this sort of problem.

For decades the Catholic Church has been trying to control this problem. Whatever they are doing doesn’t appear to be working very well. It’s my opinion though that the root of its problem is that priests (generally) are forbidden from marrying. It’s not solely a matter of not having sex. It’s also a problem due to a lack of intimacy.

People become rounded out through having deep and meaningful relationships. Marriage is an excellent way to engage in such a relationship, providing you marry the right partner. When you are truly intimate with someone, you see him or her not only with their clothes off but with their souls bared too. As I have noted, when you are in a committed relationship you may discover the real meaning of love: not just to care utterly for another person, but also to reveal your real self to yourself. Lacking such relationships you are unlikely to uncover the real you.

The Church is proposing more of the same solutions: putting procedures in place to minimize these situations, oversight by the laity and maybe even background investigations of potential priests. It really needs to acknowledge the fundamental issue: priests are people with basically the same issues as the rest of us and thus need to have the privileges of people. Because priests are people, they can aspire to be Christ-like, but taking the sacrament of Holy Orders won’t make them so. The devastation is all around the church, mostly in the minors whose trust was abused, but also within these priests. Without deeply authentic and healthy relationships in their lives they can’t help but crave them. Given that they are expected to be celibate, they are going to crave sex too. The two together though are a toxic combination that pulls priests toward dangerous relationships. They must bring the minor into a shared secret of their own broken and scarred souls, in the process making it very hard for these children to escape a lifetime of trauma.

Pope Francis is a pragmatic pope. He has taken some daring stances recently, like saying the death penalty is wrong in all situations. I wish he’d take the next daring stand: to let priests marry again, and if their inclination is toward homosexuality, let them marry their own sex. This allows them to be authentic to themselves and others, and this will carry over to the people they minister to. It’s not like priestly celibacy was always a requirement in the Catholic Church. Many popes had wives and extended families. For the last five hundred years or so the policy has changed. Somewhere along the line theological wires got crossed. Jesus never had sex, or so the Catholic Church believes, although its never mentioned in the Bible that he was a celibate. It’s quite possible that he and Mary Magdalene were married, or what passed for marriage in those days, and they had children too. No one really knows, including the Catholic Church, but they think they know and demand it of their priests. The vast size of clerical abuse in its ranks though demonstrates that their approach to the priesthood has been horrendously wrong.

No marriage is perfect and certainly mine is not. However, marriage can let you see things through the eyes of your spouse and give you a much different perspective. To take one example: I am a much kinder person because I married my wife. She is kind by nature and takes delight in animals, which is why there are usually a cat or two in our home. She has made me more compassionate, and I suspect I have made her more human too. My own blindness of my good points though makes it hard for me to say how I have helped her, but I likely have in many ways too.

If you are a priest, I guess you are entitled to have deep and rich platonic relationships with other priests, if you can find one between being shuffled around parishes, but these are hardly a substitute for a committed relationship. In any event, while priests may be trained in theology and the tenets of their faith, they lack much in the way of practice of expressing feelings like empathy, compassion or universalism. You don’t get these things from reading about them. They come from living life. It’s hard to say how much of Jesus’s life was real or myth, but he certainly walked around Palestine and got to know people’s needs, problems and perspectives. This made him an effective minister.

I doubt there is much training like this in seminary. You may learn the Bible backwards and forward, but to really understand Jesus, don’t you have to minister like Jesus too? Don’t you have to walk around communities, listen to people, absorb yourself in their problems and help address them? Jesus at least got it, but I don’t think priests get much if anything like this kind of training. Instead, most likely after seminary they will end up in a parish, which is by nature a pretty closed and insular community.

A parish is not the real world that Jesus traversed in his ministry. Yet if you are going to have a priesthood of people who act like Jesus, these are the kind of people you would want to attract: people who broadly understand the world as it actually is from living it deeply and richly. They need to have the freedom to be true human beings and have fulfilling and messy relationships like the rest of us.

There will always be a few bad apples among ministers in any congregation. These steps the Catholic Church is taking so far is merely putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound. It doesn’t address the fundamental issues that cause these problems in the first place. For the sake of Catholic congregations worldwide, the sooner they let their priests marry, the better.

Prayer won’t solve the priest shortage

News Item:

Pope John Paul on Friday called for a national day of prayer to boost priestly vocations in the United States, where sexual abuse scandals have hit already shrinking numbers of priesthood volunteers.

“No one can deny that the decline in priestly vocations represents a stark challenge for the Church in the United States, and one that cannot be ignored or put off,” the pope said in a speech to American bishops visiting the Vatican.

“I would propose for your consideration that the Catholic community in your country annually set aside a national day of prayer for priestly vocations,” the 84-year-old pontiff urged.

Umm, a challenge for the United States Catholic Community? I don’t think so. What it represents is a challenge to the so-called leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. It will take a lot more than prayer to put more priests in American churches.

How bad is it for today’s American Catholics? Between 1965 and 2002 the number of seminarian students dropped 90%. 15% of parishes in the United States today have no priest. There are 350% fewer ordinations of Catholic priests in 2002 compared to 1965. There are 45,000 priests in the United States today, but it is projected there will only be 31,000 in 2020, despite a projected increase in the Catholic population during that period. As for Catholic religious orders they will soon be virtually nonexistent in the United States.

As bad as the problem is it could feel a lot worse than it is. Why? Because American Catholics increasingly can’t be bothered to go to Mass on Sundays. In 1958 74% of American Catholics attended Mass regularly. In 2000 the number went to 25%. You can bet if they can’t get their hineys out of bed to listen to yet another droning Mass with the same catatonic words and same boring songs they likely aren’t going to confession regularly either. (Not that Father John likely has the time to hear everyone’s confession anyhow.) Most likely their association with the Catholic Church is attending Easter and Christmas services, if that. The Catholic Church will be lucky if these American Catholics in name only decide to even marry in the church. One reason: the wholly insane policy that to marry a non-Catholic in the Catholic Church the non-Catholic spouse must promise to raise all children to be Catholics.

In short the Catholic Church in America is becoming increasingly irrelevant to American Catholics. There are likely lots of reasons why this is so. But with American priests in such short supply the laity is likely feeling more and more detached from their parish priest. If a parish is lucky enough to have a priest at all, the poor priest is likely wrung ragged. He’s probably delegating right and left. It helps to have sisters and brothers to assist but these orders are having recruitment problems also. From the 180,000 sisters in the United States in 1965 there were only 75,000 in 2002. Brothers went from 12,000 to 5700 during that same period.

It’s likely that Father John is not doing much in the way of pastoral counseling. If he is fortunate he will have deacons and perhaps some lay ministers to help out. Those who remember when the church was more flush with priests are likely to feel very short changed.

And the Holy Father’s brilliant solution to the problem? Have a yearly day of prayer. That will do the trick!

Unless the Holy Father wants an American Catholic community in name only it might be time for him to wake up and smell the coffee. It might begin with some old-fashioned market research. The number one way to solve the priest problem would be to allow women to become priests. But no Catholic who understands their church truly believes that this will happen in their lifetime. In fact Catholics will be lucky if it comes to pass in 500 years. But just why is it that fewer men want to join the priesthood? My guess it’s probably not because they object to wearing dark robes or even their miserly pay. It’s probably because they realize the celibacy tradition in the Roman Catholic Church is stupid and unworkable.

It wasn’t always this way in the Catholic Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church most priests have always been free to get married. In fact most are married. Until the Middle Ages most Roman Catholic priests were married too. Then slowly things changed. Even today there is no direct requirement from the Pope or in Vatican law that I can find that requires priests take a vow of celibacy upon ordination. Rather it is a tradition. Before ordination bishops will require priests to step forward and solemnly warn them that if they do so:

You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world. But if you receive this order (of the subdiaconate) it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound forever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign.

Every year hundreds of priests come to the inescapable conclusion that celibacy is unworkable for them. The honest ones resign the priesthood and maybe earn a few wetbacks selling their services at Rent-a-Priest. (It’s got a shopping cart! I swear I am not making this up.) The dishonest heterosexual ones (and there are plenty of them) get their relief on the side, in secrecy and likely in shameful circumstances.

I feel sorry for today’s American Catholic priest, caught between the stark reality of the way the world actually is and their so-called leadership. The Vatican seems to have no inclination to bend even the tiniest degree toward policies that would clearly help the institution survive in the future. It’s pretty clear that apostle Peter, the first “Pope” was a married man as were many of the Popes through the Middle Ages. Even today it is possible for a married Catholic priests to get ordained. They just have to start out married in a different denomination. There aren’t many of these examples but it shows just how silly and hollow this tradition is.

In reality the Pope is destroying the Catholic Church in America slowly and methodically. And he will have no one to blame but himself for such pointless and obstinate behavior.