Priests' Tough Questions Are a Service to Their People

National Catholic Reporter, January 9, 2004 | Go to article overview

Priests' Tough Questions Are a Service to Their People


So what's going on with U.S. priests?

No small irony attaches to the fact that at a time when speaking out or raising tough questions could quickly derail a cleric's career, more and more priests are uniting to publicly confront their bishops over leadership matters and to take stands on some of the most difficult issues confronting the church.

We're not certain why this recent flurry of activity has taken place, but it is one of the healthiest signs we have observed in the priesthood in some time. In an institution aching for leadership, some priests are finding the courage to step up and, in a true example of pastoral service, to raise the deep concerns of the people they serve.

Perhaps no step has been as remarkable or courageous as that taken by 23 Chicago priests who signed a letter strongly objecting to "the increase in the use of violent and abusive language" in Vatican declarations directed at gays and lesbians.

The letter particularly objects to the use of such expressions as "serious depravity," "grave detriment to the common good" and "intrinsically disordered" when referring to homosexuality. "Does anyone consider this vile and toxic language invitational?" the letter asks. It goes on to urge "a new atmosphere of openness to dialogue, which includes the lived experience of many Catholic members."

The letter is the latest in a string of correspondence involving hundreds of priests throughout the country who have publicly signed messages to the hierarchy. The first occurred in Boston when nearly 60 priests signed a letter asking for Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation for his role in the sex abuse scandal. That letter reportedly was significant in convincing the Vatican to move Law out of Boston. More recently, 170 Milwaukee priests wrote an open letter asking for reconsideration of the celibate male-only rule for ordination, a move that has inspired similar letters signed by hundreds of priests across the country. And in New York, two groups of priests have asked their bishops for face-to-face meetings about issues of leadership and about due process for priests accused of sex abuse.

The Chicago case provides some valuable measures for evaluating both the requests of the priests on the whole range of issues addressed by the various initiatives and the chance that any dialogue will progress beyond the request stage.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George responded to his priests, acknowledging that church language ("a philosophical and theological language in a society that understands, at best, only psychological and political terms") can be a barrier to welcoming homosexuals and indicating he would be willing to discuss the matter. However, he also made clear that any dialogue would be tightly circumscribed. God "knows the difference between right and wrong," he told his priests, "and he expects us to know it, to live accordingly, and, as ordained priests, to preach the demands of the Gospel with integrity to every group." And that means calling homosexuals to conversion and acceptance of the church's teachings on "the use of the gift of sexuality. …

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