Catholic sexual abuse scandal sharpens church rift over what a priest should be
Progressive Catholics and theologians in the US and Europe say the Vatican's model of a priest is outdated. The global sexual abuse scandal has sharpened the church's inner struggle over how to reform that model.
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Those pushing a different model say that priests work in a world Vianney had no idea of – crowded urban parishes with high-powered professionals, including women; a world of counseling on drugs and pornography, violence, and the other ills that flesh is heir to in a spiritually confused and values-conflicted world unlike French or Bavarian towns.Skip to next paragraph
At the largest Benedictine school in the US, the education of new priests – which started 10 years ago under the influence of then-Cardinal Ratzinger – moved sharply toward the model of the priest educated in isolation, when Vatican directives began to forbid men and women educated together.
One member of the Benedictine order who is close to the university but was not authorized to speak to the media described the directives, which came out of Cardinal Ratzinger’s office, as part of a “purification of the church concept in which women should not be in the classes. A lot of us feel this creates instead a fortress church, a reclusive model…priests leave school and immediately go into communities and work with married people, and women, but have had little contact with either group in their priestly formation. This all originated in the Vatican.”
Marked by the Holy Spirit?
A more significant struggle theologically over the identity of modern priests in the church is between those who believe literally that an ordained Catholic priest has been indelibly marked or named by the Holy Spirit, once that priest takes the vows – and those who feel that such marking or naming is subjective and metaphorical, not literal.
[Benedict this weekend sought to affirm control over a hard-line group, the Legionaries of Christ, whose influence in the past decade in Latin countries has grown quite powerful – but whose leader, the Rev. Marcial Maciel, was unable to adhere to the churches mandatory celibacy, having fathered several children and molested young men in a seminary. The Vatican will appoint a guide for the group, which has contributed significant funds and sets of strongly orthodox believers to Vatican causes.]
Fewer priests these days
At the same time, a shortage in priests is looming.
“The problem for us isn’t the future, the problem is now,” says a French priest in the 16th district of Paris.
Numbers are falling: Some 700 foreign priests, mostly from Africa, work in French parishes.
In Germany, one finds Polish, Indian, and African men taking up priestly slack. A senior priest in Bavaria says his graduating seminary class in 1982 had 90 priests; this year’s class has fewer than 10.
The situation caused French Catholic groups in the year of the priest to launch a public relations campaign depicting “cool padres” – posters with virile and handsome guys with collars and wind-blown hair, looking confidently at the public.
One affirms, “I have a passion for Christ and I say it. I am a priest.” The campaign, “And why not me,” is designed to reach young Frenchmen at a time when only 100 a year are ordained. Last year the numbers dropped from 16,800 to 15, 200. (French bloggers had a field day when it was discovered the two poster-clergy were not Catholic priests but models from the entertainment industry.)