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Authors take sides while offering solutions to Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal

Sunday, November 16, 2003

By Michael McGough, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The books discussed are "The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism" by David Gibson (Harper San Francisco, $23.95); "A People Adrift" by Peter Steinfels (Simon & Schuster, $26); and "The Courage to Be Catholic" by George Weigel (Basic Books, $22).

For more than a decade some friends of mine, most of them cradle Catholics, have gathered once a month for "beers and a book." The beers are more a fixture of this ritual than the book, and sometimes the group takes as its text not the assigned reading but the news of the day.

That was the case a year or so ago when the table talk turned to the sex-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston (and elsewhere) and what it portended for priesthood and the church itself.

In our scattershot seminar we considered all the possibilities, from the idea, favored by liberal Catholics, that the scandal was an indictment of mandatory celibacy to the notion, pressed by conservatives, that the problem was a "homosexual subculture" in seminaries.

Our discussion would have benefited from an assigned text or two, or three. Better late than never, I suggest these three books. Each has its own emphasis but when read synoptically (like the Gospels), they define the debate about the future of American Catholicism that my friends and I blundered into that night.

The liberal analysis comes from David Gibson, a journalist who converted to Catholicism after working at Vatican Radio. The conservative critique is supplied by George Weigel, a lay theologian and the author of a well-received biography of Pope John Paul II. The center-left position is occupied by Peter Steinfels, a former religion correspondent for The New York Times who, while clearly a liberal Catholic, treats the conservative case with respect and sometimes even agrees with it.

All three authors emphasize the priesthood, and not just because they take the sex-abuse scandal -- which they condemn with equal indignation -- as a point of departure.

In "The Coming Catholic Church," Gibson quotes a priest who warned that "we are a sacramental church. We must celebrate the Eucharist or we will die." It was a warning because, in Catholic theology, a valid Mass must be celebrated by an ordained priest. And the ranks of priests are dwindling.

Gibson writes: "At the high-watermark of priestly vocations, during the Golden Age of American Catholicism in the 1950s, there was one priest

for every 650 Catholics, studies show. By 1999, that ratio had nearly doubled, to one for every 1,200. According to one widely accepted survey, by 2005 the ratio could be one priest for every 2,200 Catholics."

How can that decline be reversed or at least arrested? For Gibson, the remedy is a lessening of emphasis on the "cultic" role of priests. Although he insists that priests remain distinct from laymen, he also says that "the chief problem ... is the degree to which many priests and church leaders -- and lay faithful -- have allowed the sacred view of the priest's role to obscure or replace his status as one of the baptized, as another sinner in need of redemption."

But for Weigel, this view of the priest as a "wounded healer" is precisely the problem. In "The Courage to be Catholic," Weigel suggests that it was the blurring of the priest's role that led to mass defections from the clergy and a steep decline in seminary enrollment. And, yes, Weigel also links this crisis of priestly identity to the sex-abuse scandal:

"Priests who believe themselves to be what the Catholic Church teaches they are -- living icons of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ -- simply do not behave as sexual predators behave."

So the abuse was fostered either by too otherworldy an image of the priesthood or by one that was too earthbound and accessible. And revitalizing the institution will require -- take your pick -- a priesthood that includes married men (Gibson's vision) or one characterized by a new generation of self-confidently celibate men who pattern themselves after John Paul II and have contempt for a watered-down "Catholic Lite" (Weigel's).

The differences don't stop there. Gibson warns that banishing homosexuals from the priesthood "will do nothing to stop sexual abuse and it will do everything to undermine the Catholic Church's understanding of itself as a place where saints were made." Weigel, while distancing himself from conservatives who would refuse to ordain homosexuals, draws a distinction between "a man with a 'homosexual orientation' and a man who declares himself to be 'gay.' "

Steinfels' book paints a more complicated picture. About the scandal, he argues that the "facts about priests who have preyed sexually on minors contradicts both those who wish to dismiss homosexuality as a pertinent issue and those who blame recent, more tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality. ... [A] great number of offenders, including many of the most notorious, did their seminary studies and were ordained when attitudes toward homosexuality were fiercely condemnatory."

As for the future, Steinfels does not see either an infusion of "John Paul II

priests" or a married priesthood, though he calls for a careful laying of the groundwork for that change, as a solution to the priest shortage. "The number of priests is not the primary issue," he adds. "Leadership is, and a certain kind of leadership: American Catholicism needs priest leaders for a church of lay leaders."

Unless vocations to the priesthood increase dramatically, Catholic laypeople will be an ever more powerful force at the parish level and in the church as a whole. And they are unlikely to be content, in Gibson's phrase, to "pay, pray and obey."

That scenario is hard to reconcile with the restoration of Weigel's "iconic" priesthood. There may be Catholic Lite at the end of the tunnel whether he likes it or not.


Michael McGough is a Washington-based editor at large for the Post-Gazette. He can be reached at mmcgough@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7025. This column will appear monthly in Books on Sunday.

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