Theology Possibly an Impediment to Dismissing Priests; Ordination Considered for lifetime.(NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Graham Greene novel "The Power and the Glory" made famous the cowardly "whisky priest" in revolutionary Mexico who still redeemed people by giving them the holy sacrament central to Catholic faith.

Based on that same theology, some say, the U.S. bishops have covered up sexually abusive priests believing they still were men who could do God's work at Mass every day.

The 1940 novel was condemned by the Vatican in 1953, but its theme that "once a priest always a priest" may be shaken as the U.S. bishops consider the lifetime firing of hundreds of ordained men involved in sexual misconduct.

"There's probably some amount of theology involved in a bishop's decision" not to sideline abusive priests, said Anthony J. Tambasco, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. "But if bishops had a problem that could not be solved, the permanence of priesthood would not be their major concern."

He said church teaching endows a priest at ordination with a supernatural priestly "power." While the bishop may not take away that power, he may forbid the priest from celebrating Mass, in which the priest brings Christ's presence into the bread and wine.

Many have argued that bishops failed to remove priests who sexually abused minors, or who had sexual affairs, because of a secretive network or a shortage of priests.

The dilemma of making a priest a non-priest, however, may have played a role, said John Farina, who has written and edited books on Catholic spirituality.

"'Once a priest always a priest' is a standard understanding of the priesthood," Mr. Farina said. "It is an eternal priesthood, following in the footstep of Christ."

He traced it to a 17th-century theological revival that began to view the priest as the "alter-christos," or "another Christ." In that role, they celebrate Mass. …