Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal Sharpens Church Rift over What a Priest Should Be

By Marquand, Robert | The Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandal Sharpens Church Rift over What a Priest Should Be


Marquand, Robert, The Christian Science Monitor


Progressive Catholics and theologians in the US and Europe say the Vatican's model of a priest is outdated.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

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. …

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