Thursday, July 28, 2011

Musings on eligibility for the priesthood


The first Episcopal nun ordained a priest and the first woman to preach a sermon in Westminster Abbey, the Rev. Mary M. Simpson, died last week at age 85. The ordination of women in the Episcopal Church has infused the Church with new life by recognizing the important gifts for ministry that God has given to women. The welcome and exultation that greeted the election of the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006 testifies to the broad acceptance of, and even reliance upon, ordained women in the Episcopal Church.

In contrast, consider some stark statistics about the Roman Catholic Church:

·         Although the number of Roman Catholics in the U.S. has grown as a percentage of the U.S. population by 1 or 2 percent, the number of Roman Catholic parishes has declined by 7.1% since 2000.

·         The average Roman Catholic parish has 3277 parishioners, up 45% from 2000.

·         The number of Roman Catholic priests has declined by 11% over the last decade. Regardless of recruitment, the decline in the next decade will likely be steeper because of the age demographics of current priests.

·         The total number of priests, men and women religious and deacons in the United States was 117,080 in 2010, a decline of 41 percent from the 197,172 in those categories in 1980.

Officially, the Roman Catholic hierarchy refuses to countenance ordaining women or married men (unless the man was reared in and ordained by the Anglicans, in which case ordination in the Roman Catholic Church is possible).

The refusal to ordain married men is a matter of church discipline rather than theology. Historically, the Christian Church began with married clergy. One website offers this list of married popes:

·         St. Peter, Apostle

·         St. Felix III 483-492 (2 children)

·         St. Hormidas 514-523 (1 son)

·         St. Silverus (Antonia) 536-537

·         Hadrian II 867-872 (1 daughter)

·         Clement IV 1265-1268 (2 daughters)

·         Felix V 1439-1449 (1 son)

Furthermore, the Uniate liturgical rites within the Roman Catholic Church currently ordain married men. These men, however, are ineligible for subsequent ordination as a bishop.

Concurrently, Roman Catholic clergy in three countries are actively protesting the Vatican’s policies against ordaining women and married men. In the United States, one priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois is under investigation for participating in the ordination of a woman priest. One hundred fifty seven priests have signed a letter to the Vatican supporting his right to express his conscience. The woman is part of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a group of renegade (in the eyes of the Vatican) Roman Catholics who actively support the ordination of women priests. Excommunication is the penalty for a woman being ordained. In Australia, the Pope removed a bishop, the Rt. Rev. William Morris, from the Diocese of Toowoomba after Bishop Morris wrote the Pope a letter urging the ordination of women and married priests. In Austria, more than 300 priests and deacons have signed a pledge to promote the ordination of women and married priests actively.

The ferment seems likely to have little effect on the Roman Catholic Church or its policies in spite of an acute shortage of priests. Pope Benedict, like his predecessor, seems to have adopted an entrenched position against ordaining women and married men.

Until those policies change, I predict that the Roman Catholic Church will continue to have significant problems with allegedly celibate males behaving inappropriately, even criminally. The Church still lacks the transparency necessary to establish a full and healthy accountability. Exacerbating this unfortunate proclivity is the increasing pressure the Church experiences to replace its diminishing cadre of priests. One priest formerly responsible for priest recruitment told me several years ago that he had requested reassignment when his order insisted on accepting any candidate for ordination, regardless of the candidate’s mental and emotional health. In other words, the Church’s lax standards mean that it is continuing to recruit priests who will become problems even as it seeks to weed out problem priests. Sadly, this immoral behavior shows how sick the Church is, a very different entity from the life-giving community God desires.

Only when the Roman Catholic Church ordains based on God's gifts to an individual for ministry and not based on gender, marital status, gender orientation, or other irrelevant demographic characteristics will the Roman Catholic Church move toward greater organizational health.

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