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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Priest Talk

Today in the NYT are two pieces on RC priests. 1) Peter Manseau whose father had been a priest before he married his mother says that good Pope Francis might be more forgiving of married priests. 2) Roy Bourgeois, the courageous Maryknoller who fought against the assassination training of the School of the Americas, talks about his being excommunicated and thrown out of his order for advocating for women priests.

I am sympathetic to both but I disagree.

When I was studying French as a young Jesuit in Quebec, I asked people on the street about their social issues. One man said it all: "trop de prĂȘtes," he said--too many priests. He found clericalism a real problem in that French province.

Then I went on to study theology for four years. Under the tutorship of a scripture scholar from England, Father John Bligh SJ, I studied the priesthood in the New Testament. It became very clear that Jesus and his early companions had no use for the priesthood--certainly not as a holy class of men who could be intermediaries between God and the people. That came much, much later as the Roman Church was institutionalizing itself using the cultural forms of the times. Before then, in the early days, the leaders of Jesus communities were men or women who had proved themselves or as Timothy (3, 1-16) said, in response to a community that asked how they should choose their leader or overseer (episcopos), "choose someone who has raised his/her family well." And see Titus 1, 6-9. But even Timothy and Titus wrote much later as the communities were organizing themselves.

The word priest comes from presbyteros meaning "elder" and should be distinguished from "sacerdos," the specialist in holy things, ordained by the gods or God to conduct religious ceremonies to bring God to the people and the people to God. It is especially that second meaning of priest that I shun--though I must admit to being suspicious of any one who claims authority.

I asked Father Bly, "why then, and how did the priesthood start." He said he didn't know but that it may have just been the human condition of "institutionalizing charisma" or "bureaucratization" as sociologist Max Weber said. But he suspected that it was the seminary that led to the priesthood. As soon as a group organizes and claims to have a special knowledge and develops a training center, it starts a degree program and licensing. That's why Jane Addams fought against the establishment of social work schools. Professionalizing is probably a necessary evil in accounting, law, research, even management.

And so now to my disagreement with the writers in today's NYT. It's not that priests should be allowed to marry or be women. It's "why priests" at all as Gary Wills says in his new book. I have not read his book yet, but had come to the same conclusion many years ago when my Jesuit superior asked me if I was going to be ordained. I told him no--that even though I knew many wonderful priests and that many of my heroes were RC priests, I did not believe in the institution. At the time I wanted to stay a Jesuit because I was working with a great community of men and women as a Jesuit. And he said that was fine.

But after a year or so, I met Bernadette and she would not have fit into the order then. Nevertheless, I am still in touch with many of my Jesuit colleagues and as I have noted earlier I consider myself a member of the Church Universal (indeed Bernie and I are members of a Unitarian-Universalist congregation) along with all my RC family and friends.

Perhaps like Roy Bourgois I too am excommunicated from the Vatican. But I am open to their return to the fold.

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