Saturday, February 03, 2007

Shepherds and sheep

There are some things going on in the Catholic Church on the national, diocesan, and local levels that don't bode well for the continued existence of Roman Catholicism as a major religious denomination in the United States. A full discussion of the stuff that's going on, particularly on the local and diocesan levels, is best left until some other time.

Today the priest who was conducting the Mass at my parish, actually a priest on loan from a local college, had a very interesting sermon that touched upon both the continuing shortage of priests and the continuing loss of membership in the Church. His sermon touched on three major points:

1. The priest shortage. He put the blame for this squarely on one factor, which he defined in very carefully chosen terms: the current requirement of celibacy for priests, a requirement which is based on the tradition in which the Church currently operates. He arrived at this conclusion after 40 years of teaching at a Catholic College and talking to numerous individuals who would consider becoming priests if not for the Celibacy requirement. Celibacy for priests is not an issue of dogma, and in the past different traditions have prevailed and priests have been allowed to marry. If the Pope were to decide to change the tradition, it would change. (The same would be true for ordination of women, I am sure, though he did not discuss this.)

2. Catholics who have pulled away from the Church because of revulsion at sex scandals involving priests. He pointed out that the sexual crimes being committed by these priests were not related to the issue of celibacy, but were rather a result of "inadequate psychosexual development" - not a term you hear often tossed around in a little church in Nanticoke. His point, as I understand it, was that these priests had not learned to repress their improper sexual urges, but rather gave in to temptation and decided to run with it - and, worse, made use of their positions to exploit conveniently-placed victims. Still, while "inadequate psychosexual development" may explain (but not excuse) the crimes of priests, it in no way addresses the crimes of the bishops who simply shuffled these priests around from parish to parish and diocese to diocese in an attempt to avoid having their crimes come to the public's attention.

3. The relationship of priests to parishioners. This came about, I think, because of a specific incident that relates to the larger issue of the crisis at the local and diocesan level. To summarize: the diocese is consolidating all of the Catholic schools over an enormous area of (snowy, mountainous, treacherous-roaded) Northeastern Pennsylvania into a few (instantly overcrowded) facilities (with student commute times of up to an hour or more.) This has caused some dismay among parishioners, whose concerns received as much consideration from the bishop (who is widely considered to be an Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap type) as the Iraq Study Group's recommendations received from the Bush administration. So parishioners, angry at having their concerns dismissed with a wave of the crosier, have decided to express their displeasure in the collection basket. One couple that decided to put their objections on paper were suspended from the parish they had belonged to for 40 years by the parish priest. This has gotten considerable local media attention, and I believe many parish priests have been directed to do damage control.

So the point that the priest made was this: too often priests fail to treat parishioners with the respect that they are due. Perhaps this comes from the "shepherds and sheep" model of the parish - the parishioners are the flock and the priest is the shepherd, and the shepherd does not consult the sheep to see where they would like to be led. But this ignores another model of the Church as a body, with the parishioners making up the bulk of the body. The Catholic Church is essentially a feudal hierarchy, but without the serfs in the parishes the whole structure collapses. So priests must learn to tread carefully and treat parishioners with respect - and not to suspend them for speaking out against things they find objectionable.

Quite a lot there to digest. Not the sort of sermon I've been used to since I left behind the Jesuits in Scranton. I'll keep you updated as information becomes available.


dee said...

My friend and I were discussing this very thing yesterday. At her parish the priest who had delivered thoughtful, engaging sermons and worked with the laity has been replaced with someone who can't seem to do either. The "shepherd and flock" model may have worked fifty years ago when the the priest usually was the most educated person around; today it's insulting to the vast majority of Catholics. The little old ladies who show up every Sunday (and often during the week) for Mass aren't going to live forever. As long as the church keeps alienating its own members, those members will register their alienation with an empty collection basket. And sadly, that's the only message the hierarchy understands.

whimsical brainpan said...

Sounds like a great sermon. The priest certainly hit the nail on the head on all three points.