Michael Kelly SJ. Next item on the Catholic reform agenda

May 2, 2014

This is a time of reform in the Church. Everyone who bothers to look, from average Catholics around the world to the cardinals who elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio to become Pope Francis, knows the Church is in strife and in need of a lot of work to render it an effective means to the end it serves: to proclaim the Gospel and serve God’s people.

First steps are being taken to fix a dysfunctional Vatican. But some of the big-ticket items for the wider Church won’t be fixed as quickly. Many of them are pastoral and require cultural change as much as administrative amendments. And as anyone with experience in changing the culture of an organization will attest, that type of change is the slowest in coming.

It will start in October with an issue that is perhaps the single most undeclared but neuralgic item in the Church’s life; also the one that frequently triggers the departure of otherwise observant Catholics from the Church: divorce and remarriage.

But there is just as fundamental an issue, one that has needed, and failed, to be addressed for at least 40 years: the issue of ministry in the Church. Perhaps this will be the topic of the next Synod.

There were two issues Pope Paul VI would not allow to be discussed at Vatican II – clerical celibacy and contraception. The latter was addressed directly in 1968 with such an unsuccessful outcome that Paul VI never wrote another encyclical in his pontificate. Clerical celibacy was to have been the subject of the Synod of Bishops in 1971, but it overlooked the topic to focus instead on social justice.

It is now a subject whose consideration cannot be delayed any longer. That it is on Pope Francis’s mind is obvious from his statements about his readiness to consider ordaining married men – the so called viri probati.

But that’s the tip of the iceberg. If all such a move does is to reinforce the existing structure of ministry – where power rests in the hands of ordained men – there will be little attention given to what is needed in a Church that has vastly changed in the last 50 years.

And unless the issue is addressed in its full context, with full consideration given to what ministry in the Church is there to accomplish, such a change would also run the risk of enhancing something that bedevils the Church today and has contributed substantially to the syndrome of sex abuse.

I speak, of course, of clericalism, that culture of self-interest which promotes and sustains the presumption of superiority among clergy and their practice of protective secrecy. It is something that priests share with all would-be elites, such as professional associations in law and medicine, bureaucrats and the military.

If ordaining married men to priesthood inducts more people into a destructive culture that is the antithesis of anything Jesus hoped for among his followers, the move won’t reform but rather entrench the decadence. This is a constant theme of the present pope when he rails against careerism and narcissism among the clergy and the Church administration in Rome.

The reality is that God seems to be on the side of reform because in most parts of the world, the supply of celibate males ordained as priests has been in serious decline for 40 years.

This is a worldwide phenomenon. In the Philippines there is only one priest for 6,500 Catholics. And in many parts of Europe, North and Latin America, the Church’s capacity to provide the Eucharist – the source and summit of the Church’s life, according to Vatican II – has been compromised because of the lack of authorized celebrants.

The reality is that, in many parts of the world, the small and ageing number of priests today are not the ones who are leading Catholic communities; many are led by lay people. Catechists, school principals, leaders of communion services and lay pastoral workers now frequently fill the place occupied by priests in recent centuries.

It is lay people who communicate the faith in myriad ways – through teaching and catechetic instruction, biblical and theological research, in routine pastoral care in communities, in service delivery to the poor, sick and aged, by administering communities and institutions, by managing the Church’s assets and finances, in creating liturgies and training pastoral workers who are themselves lay people, in preparing people for the key sacramental moments of their lives in marriages and baptisms, even in performing funerals. The list could go on.

The Church would simply stop happening without the ministries – in both paid and voluntary employment – that lay people provide, with perhaps a majority of them performed by women. But none of these is celebrated and confirmed with appropriate authorization as integral parts of the Church’s ministry.

The style of priestly service – and the training of candidates to supply it – is not as old as many think. It owes its current shape and style to the reforms introduced at the 16th century Council of Trent. At that Council, disciplinary rather than doctrinal changes occurred that tightened up a loose and decadent situation where clergy were mostly untrained, unaccountable vendors of sacraments for a price.

The next stage of reform has arrived and it needs to go deeper than a mere tightening of regulations.

Jesuit Fr. Michael Kelly is the executive director of ucanews.com.


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