Monday, April 28, 2014

Married Priests

It didn’t get a lot of media coverage, but the priestly ordination of a married Catholic deacon on February 27, 2014, was an “historic occasion.”

Wissam Akiki, a married deacon of the Maronite Catholic Church, St. Louis, Missouri, received permission from Pope Francis to be ordained a priest.

The Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. Its origin goes back to the 4th century when a community of Christians formed around a monk named Maron, recognized for his asceticism and piety.

Today’s Maronite patriarch of Antioch, Mor Bechara Boutros al-Rahi, was named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Married priests are common in the Eastern Catholic Churches in Europe and the Middle East but the Vatican stopped the practice in America in the 1920s because Roman rite bishops complained that “it confuses the people.”

As is well-known, the Roman rite insists that candidates for the priesthood assume “the obligation of celibacy.”  The other 22 rites (e.g., Maronite, Chaldean, Russian Greek, Coptic) do not.

(Nonetheless, there are priests in the Roman rite who are married. The Vatican has made exceptions for non-Catholic Christian married ministers who convert to Catholicism. Scores of former Orthodox and Anglican married priests are now serving in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and Canada.)

It could happen that many Roman Catholics in the shadow of the priest shortage will be served by Eastern Catholic priests. In some places, where a parish has been closed, some parishioners have chosen to go to a near-by Eastern Catholic Church.

At the Second Vatican Council, bishops and patriarchs from around the world acknowledged the high value which the Catholic Church places on the Eastern Churches, including their liturgical rites and traditions. See Orientalium Ecclesiarum, “Decree on Catholic Eastern Churches” (November 21, 1964).

The Council decree solemnly affirmed that “the churches of the east like those of the west have the right and duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines” (#5).

Although subject to the direction of the pope, these Catholic churches are urged to maintain their ecclesiastical and spiritual traditions. Orientalium Ecclesiarum urges both eastern and western rite Catholics to think of these ancient traditions as “the heritage of the whole Church of Christ.”

It is estimated that about half of the Maronite priests in Lebanon are married. The people of St. Raymond’s Maronite Church in St. Louis appeared more than ready to welcome Wissam Akiki as a priest.

Akiki labeled his ordination day “historic,” and went on to express his gratitude for two great blessings: his marriage to Manal, his wife of ten years, and his “dream to serve the Lord and the Church as a priest.”

In an article by Associated Press, a woman attending the ceremony opined that he will be a wonderful priest. “The fact that he’s married will be exciting for the Church. It’s tradition in the old country. I guess we’re finally catching up to the old country.”

Francis is not the first pope to make an exception to the rule, and several clerics warned against reading too much into the one for Akiki.

When asked privately about ordaining married men as priests, Francis has not ruled out the idea but neither does he seem set to change the rules on his own initiative. Like Pope John XXIII he waits for the bishops to act, waiting for a bishops’ conferences to discuss the matter and draw conclusions for their own areas of responsibility.

I suspect that when a conference of bishops, maybe in Austria for example, discusses the matter and recommends ordination of married men to the priesthood, Francis’ likely reply will be “Fiat,”  “Es soll geschehen,” or “Go for it!”

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Repair My Church

It’s troubling (but not really surprising) to read that there is opposition in the old Curia to Pope Francis’ efforts to reform it.

The National  Catholic Reporter’s reports Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez’s remarks that despite the pope’s popularity, his way of thinking and governing the Church has awakened “deaf opposition not only in the Curia, but in some who are sorry to lose privileges in treatment and in comforts.”

The cardinal was in Florida on April 8, 2014, to lead a day of reflection for the Franciscan provincials of the English speaking conference of the Order of Friars Minor who had gathered in St. Joseph Church in St. Petersburg.

Cardinal Rodriguez, archbishop of Tegucigalpa in Honduras, is recognized as an adviser to Pope Francis and one of the “group of eight” cardinals that the Holy Father called together to initiate Vatican reforms.

NCR  explained that Pope Francis is trying to respond to the same commission that St. Francis of Assisi heard  in 1206: “Go, repair my Church.” Cardinal Rodriguez reminded the friars that St. Francis’ efforts "caused great scandal" from church leaders who wanted “to maintain their privileges.”

The cardinal went on to point out Pope Francis’ assessment of how the Church should be: 1) at the service of the world by being faithful to Christ and the Gospel; 2) to be free of mundane spirituality; 3) to avoid closing in on itself and being a clerical church; 4) to be open to dialog and diversity; and 5) to pay attention to and give importance to women in society and in the church.

In 2012 the Capuchin Franciscan Michael H. Crosby published a book titled Repair My House (Orbis Books) in which he explains that there is an imbalance in church governance (hierarchical over communal) because Church leaders have focused on Matthew 16:17-19 and neglected Matthew 18:17-20.

In Matthew 16 Jesus tells Simon, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In Matthew 18 Jesus advises, “If another member of the community sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…but if you are not listened to, take one or two others along…if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

And then Jesus adds, “Again, truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Crosby insists, “Both texts must be considered as equal in their power to bind and loose.”

In other words, there is a Petrine way of exercising the power to bind and loose, and there is a communal way.  Crosby notes Scripture scholar Donald Senior’s observation that Peter has “the discretion of ‘binding’ and ‘loosing,’ Jewish legal terms that referred either to the power of interpreting the obligations of the Law or to the power of excommunicating from the synagogue. It is not clear which of these is being conferred on Peter (note that similar powers are given to the community in 18:18).”

Crosby reiterates that “the two entities of receiving power to bind and loose must be balanced,” recognizing both the unique role of the keys in Peter’s office and the power given to the local church. “Rather than either/or,” Crosby concludes, “power and governance in the church should be a matter of both/and.”

The consequences of Crosby’s contention are serious. If we have been determining power and governance in the Church based solely on one passage of Scripture to the neglect of the other, then we do indeed have an imbalance.

Crosby quotes a theologian who served as peritus (expert) at the Second Vatican Council: “Criticism of papal declarations will be possible and necessary to the degree that they do not correspond with Scripture and the Creed, that is, with the belief of the church. Where there is neither unanimity in the church nor clear testimony of the sources, then no binding decision is possible; if one is formally made, then its preconditions are lacking, and therefore the question of its legitimacy must be raised” (Joseph Ratzinger, 1969).

Later, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in the June 3 issue of L’Osservatore Romano about the role of lay people in the Church, recognizing the need to move from collaboration to co-responsibility. Pointing to our communion with one another in the Church, Pope Benedict said that lay people “must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action.”

Pope Francis’ decision to call upon lay as well as clerical input for the upcoming Synod on the Family suggests that the current holder of the Petrine Office is seeking to right the imbalance.

Several tough issues were addressed in the laity’s response to Pope Francis’ appeal, especially the disconnect between the Church’s stand on birth control and the widespread use of contraceptives by Catholic lay men and women.

Crosby raises an important question when he asks why there is such polarization surrounding the theological difference regarding full equality of women in the church and birth control. This, he says, becomes especially troublesome when there is much debate concerning the question of ‘reception” of papal declarations about these two issues.

“Only when the churches of Matthew 16 and 18 agree on such matters of faith,” Crosby insists, “can they be considered binding.”

President John Kennedy once observed that “May you live in interesting times” was a Chinese curse. Like it or not, we do live in interesting times, as the Church continues to struggle to be faithful to Christ and the Gospel, to be free of mundane spirituality, to avoid closing in on itself and being clerical, to be open to dialog and diversity, and to give importance to women in the Church.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Blessed Among Women

The Ursuline Sisters of Cincinnati recently sponsored a symposium on women’s spirituality. About 150 women and one priest were present for the three talks and table-sharing.

Speaker Dorothy Mensah-Aggrey, past director of faith formation for the Archdiocese of Washington and currently administrative specialist for curriculum design and adult catechesis for the Institute for Pastoral  Initiative at the University of Dayton, highlighted the role of several women in the Bible.

Calling women “the crown jewel of God’s creation,”  Mensah-Aggrey urged women to look for “an Elizabeth” who can serve as a sounding-board and confidante as Mary’s cousin was for her when she gave her “fiat” to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation.

Speaker Karen B. Enriquez, assistant professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati, reviewed the devotional life of women in her native Phillippines, what she called “the faith of my mothers.”

Enriquez underscored the significance of Mary’s “pondering”  and “reflecting in her heart”  as she wrestled with the mystery of God’s will. Mary, she explained, was given to contemplation and discernment of the Spirit, preliminary but essential steps before being empowered to respond to human needs and the divine will.

Key-note speaker Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate at Hofstra University and author of several books, especially studies on women deacons in the Church, focused on “Women in Ministry: Then and Now.” Her research confirms the ordination of women as deacons in the past, and prompts her to say that what the Church did before it can do now.

Zagano suggests that, based on comments made by Pope Francis, the restoration of the ancient practice of ordaining women as deacons could be restored. In his apostolic exhortation Gospel Joy the pope wrote that "we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (103). She noted that Pope Benedict XVI said something similar in 2006, when he asked whether in ministerial service women could be offered “more space, more positions of responsibility.”

This symposium reminded me that a study published  in 2013 by sociologists and researchers William D’Antonio, Michele Dillon and Mary Gautier found that “there is strong evidence of a dip in women’s commitment to the Church over the past 25 years” (American Catholics in Transition, Rowman and Littlefield, p. 91).

One example of the declining commitment is women’s response to the statement “I would never leave the Catholic Church.” In 1987 61% of women affirmed that statement, but in 2011 only 55% agreed.

The researchers drew the conclusion that “it has become quite evident that women’s long-standing loyalty to the Church and commitment to Catholicism can no longer be taken for granted” (p 104).

It was obvious to me as the only male at the symposium on women’s spirituality that there was among the women in attendance a hunger for spiritual growth, an informed background in Church matters, and an eagerness to be of service in spreading the Gospel and building the Kingdom.

Nearly all pastors are aware that women make up a lion’s share of the staff and volunteers who plan, propel and produce parish programs. Eliminate the contribution of women, and the schedule and most services come to a screeching halt.

The story of salvation may reflect a patriarchal society, but no one can discount the contributions of Ruth, Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Priscilla, and of course Mary. Paul often  refers to the ladies who support him and his ministry, and significantly the only person in the New Testament specifically described as diakonon (deacon) is “our sister Phoebe” (Romans 16:1).

The services rendered by countless religious sisters and nuns, in this country and around the world, have been a powerful force in the mission field and in the classroom. The martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang, SND de N, in 2005 confirms for the present age the role and spirit of women in service to the Church and the Kingdom.

Women’s spirituality will likely differ from that of men in many ways. Even though men and women are equal (in Christ we are all one, as Paul affirms in Galatians 3:28), that equality does not preclude difference. We need to recognize that difference and promote that feminine spirituality so that the work of spreading the Gospel and building the Kingdom may be complete (it is, as Genesis 2:18 put it, “not good for the man to be alone.”)

 I was reminded by several ladies attending the symposium that I was indeed “blessed among women,” and I testify today that I respect and welcome the blessedness that is theirs.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


My curmudgeon friend has been on my case again, bombarding me with insights, complaints and suggestions about life, the Church, the US government, and the world.

I can’t cover all of his animadversions, but here are a few of a religious nature.

He still laments the English translation of the Roman Missal we are currently using. The collect for Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent is an example of what he terms “gobbledegook” – “May the venerable exercises of holy devotion shape the hearts of your faithful, O Lord…”

He’s amused by church leaders who are trying to read the signs of the times, that is, the signals which Pope Francis is giving regarding simplicity, poverty, and ministry to people on the periphery. Many ecclesiastics  are having to second-guess their former attitudes, policies, and routines.  Fancy finery, quick condemnations, and expensive construction projects are no longer de rigueur.

He’s still waiting for the pope to call for a Year of Women Religious, in recognition and gratitude for the ministries provided by sisters and nuns over the centuries and round the world. It would be a way, he says, of stepping back from the recent debacle investigating religious women and harassing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).

The failure to respond  to the priest shortage is another of his disappointments. He has read Same Call, Different Men, the study released  in 2012 by the National Federation of Priests’ Council and the Center for Applied Research (CARA) which notes that the most striking trend is “the aging of the priesthood.”  More than 40% of US priests are over age 65. Expecting priests to pastor two or three parishes is, as the curmudgeon puts it, “a recipe for burn-out, health issues, and retirement.  These guys are tired.”

In a similar vein is his complaint about the reluctance to ordain women as deacons. He points to evidence for such ordination  in Church records, including the New Testament. He argues that women deserve the grace of the sacrament if they are performing the services, and ordination to the diaconate is not a slippery slope to ordination to the priesthood.

The list could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The old curmudgeon has some valid points, issues worthy of discussion.

The Church has been characterized as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, but it is also messy. The apostles argued about who was the most important. Paul called the Galatians “crazy” and confronted Peter for being wishy-washy.

Made up of human beings, the Church is subject to human foibles and failures. We are therefore always in need of reform. Maybe we need the curmudgeons keeping us thinking and correcting.  Some of the prophets may well be counted among that number.