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Progressive Catholics and theologians in the US and Europe say the Vatican's model of a priest is outdated.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.

Alberto Ramella/AP
Pope Benedict XVI salutes the faithful during his visit to the Cottolengo in Turin, Italy, Sunday. With the ongoing sexual abuse scandal, many Catholics are saying the Vatican's model of a priest is outdated.

With no fewer than three Catholic bishops resigning over sexual abuse charges in recent days, Pope Benedict XVI may offer a more substantial repentance for a sex scandal that continues to batter Catholic churches around the globe, Vatican officials say.

The papal apology would arrive at the end of “the year of the priest” in the church in June – and may eclipse the official “sorrow” and “shame” in the pope’s letter to the Irish church this spring after terrific public fulminations in that largely Catholic country, over pedophile priests.

“I wouldn’t be surprised” if the pope takes a further step, says Cardinal William Levada, of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

The “year of the priest” coming in a year of great scandal has intensified a struggle inside the church over the image and concept of priests in the 21st century.

Pope Benedict this spring put forward the Vatican model priest at the end of his letter to the Irish church. Jean Marie Vianney, a 19th century French priest who overcame a lack of education to serve his flock 16 hours a day or more and was known for his radical piety, is the model. Mr. Vianney’s talent for reading thought and tales of his levitation have also brought a cult of mysticism and secrecy around him; he is venerated by hardcore groups like the Society of St. Pius X, whose namesake pope beatified Vianney in 1904.

"Vianney is thought to be a useful model for many new Catholic priests in rural or developing nations," says Andreas Batlogg, editor of the Jesuit-based Catholic intellectual journal Stimmen der Zeit in Munich, Germany.

Yet Benedict’s choice of Vianney caused loud and palpable groans in many parts of US and Europe. Modern-oriented Catholics and theologians see the choice as a political model of a priest closed off from society, overly idealized, hard for young Catholics to relate to, and one whose effect will be to increase a sense of distance between priests and ordinary people, and promote a view of priests more spiritually gifted than regular Catholics.

“We need an example, but this is a pastor of 230 people in a small French village in the 19th century,” says Mr. Batlogg.

A different model of priest

Pope Benedict's own experience as a priest dates to a brief post-war period in the almost wholly Catholic Bavarian countryside – a time the pope describes fondly in his writings.

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.

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.)

When a handful of Catholic theology students at the University in Tubingen were asked at a recent informal meeting if they wanted to be priests, they looked at each other and laughed. None did.

At Tubingen, among more than 400 students studying theology to work in the church, which together with the Protestant church in Germany, is the second largest employer in the nation – only eight say they want to join the priesthood.

How the scandal has hurt

The current pedophile scandal which may reach some 8,000 priests guilty of predatory behavior dating from 1965 to present, and payouts of $6 billion worldwide – has harmed the atmosphere for recruiting and for a normal priestly life.

Frank Flinn, a religious studies professor Washington University in St. Louis and author of the Encyclopedia of Catholicism says that models promoting a mystical class of priests is taking place “in the face of gut-wrenching corruption of priests themselves. I really feel for the good priests out there, and there are many.”

Luis Cesbron is head priest at a chapel of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit – an order that helps set up African churches and train local clergy. He worked in Cameroon nearly 30 years before giving communion at Sainte Therese de l’efant Jesus in Paris. Cesbron describes a life working with good priests “who live close to the people, walk with them, and are very good at listening to them."

“The gospel asks us to help people rise and walk; they need to rise in every way, socially, politically, economically," says Mr. Cesbron. "We tried to help people stand up… see that they are not limited by their income or education.”

In Cesbron’s view, the current model of the priest “dates to Vatican 1, to the counter-reformation, it is a model from the 16th century, and the model needs to finally adapt. That is bound to happen, it will be reformed, there is no logical choice for us.”


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