Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Answers and equations

When we begin to think about the current priest situation faced by Catholics in the United States and the Western world in general, it is necessary to consider the various sides of the problem and the implications afforded by the many solutions.

The statistics show that from 1970 to 2007 the number of diocesan priests fell from 36,005 to 27,971. Including religious priest the numbers fall from 59,000 in 1975 to about 41,500 last year.

Listed as causes for the drop are: trends of smaller family sizes; a sexualized culture where celibacy seems like an impossibility; negative views of the priestly ministry following the sexual abuse scandal; a culture that overvalues wealth; the audacity of a lifelong commitment to a single occupation. The one, however, most considered is celibacy.

Parts of the Church clearly call out for a married priesthood. Numerous theologians argue that a married priesthood is the stimulus needed to solve the "number problem". Rev. Donald Cozzens of John Carroll University said in an interview,
I think celibacy is a great gift, and it's wonderful for people who have the grace and the gift and the calling, but it can be a very difficult situation for men who feel called to the priesthood but not to celibacy. Over the past half dozen years, I've asked probably two dozen men if they've ever thought of being priests, and every one of them has said yes, they have thought of it, but then they add, "I really feel also called to the sacrament of marriage, I'd like to be a husband and a father."
Though a consensus concerning celibacy appears far off, the demographic issue will continue to affect the life of the Church. It surprises me, however, how many commentators tip-toe around the main question. Why? More specifically, what are the underlying foundations for arguments on both sides?

The approach which values both tradition and the status-quo states that a male-celibate priesthood is the proper order given to the Church. Relying on centuries of precedence the reasoning holds well. Even though the celibacy of the clergy is not dogma, and can change, there are theological knots to untie with a married priesthood.

If the priest's vocation is to be one person for many, and a married person's vocation is to be one person for his or her spouse, the lines cross quite clearly in a married priesthood. Can a man give himself totally to a spouse and at the same time give himself to a priestly ministry? If the love of a priest is to mirror the love of Jesus Christ in an analogous way, as one for many, is a married priesthood adding insult to injury when priests are currently overworked and suffering burnout?

The second approach which calls for change does so in clear response to a certain more contemporary phenomenon. The obvious drop in numbers presents a clear dilemma and has been mentioned already.

Without denigrating the gravity of this situation, a few things should be understood. First, priest shortages have happened previously; this is not the first, and this will not be the last. Although distinct historical circumstances should be considered distinctively, the Church should not be quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater due to a singular event.

Second, and perhaps more weighty, to what extent should an issue such as priestly celibacy be an answer to a simple numbers problem, a pragmatic answer? Should the Church immediately change because she is faced with a problem? Inundated with such ideas as natural selection, we hastily choose adaptation for survival over hope in order.

Arguing against pragmatism in Church politics can go either way. My hope for the Church is for Hope. The celibate priest may be a symbol of something quite foreign now in the days following a sexual abuse scandal and in the midst of a highly sexualized culture, but the impetus for change cannot be merely a survival ploy or a number crunch. If we change our understanding of the priesthood it must be for the good of a Church that is everywhere, that is past, present and future.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

To be free

As Christians and People of God, one of the goals of spirituality is freedom. We seek to be free from poverty, free from oppression, freedom from the forces in society that turn us away from God and the good found in others. We seek freedom from our carnality and pure emotionality that is irreverent of the providential goodness of God. Paul writes, we seek to be free from the slavery of sin and fear of death (Rom 7:14; Heb 2:15).

Freedom is by all means an important thematic element in the spiritual journey, but are their currents within Christianity and culture that view freedom as absolute, freedom idolized perhaps?

Sadly, yes. Most clearly in culture, freedom has become synonymous with whimsy and caprice. The free person is the self creating person, the person who seemingly floats free of influence and heeds the call of no one. The free man can say what he wants, without considering the reception of others. The free man can become what he wants, without care of who is taken advantage of. The free man is a sort of existential ideal, living in a situation Heidegger calls "fallenness," a hermeneutic employed by Heidegger and espoused by Jean-Paul Sartre which calls each person to realize his responsibility and freedom following the awareness of the "death of God".

Because of the failed Enlightenment project we know that man, in fact, has a deal of limitations. Thus in accord with these limitations man cannot become his own creator. For instance. human rationality has a limit, and in the face of this limit, the conception of man seems intuitively inadequate. Or considering the various instincts and emotive influences that man is forced to deal with on a daily basis, it is clear that the supposed death of God does not necessitate the responsibility of the self-creating project.

All of these points revolve around the question of the proper use of freedom. Further, the value and proper use of freedom is either an end in itself or freedom is a subordinate end or means to a greater end.

The first possibility endows man with an absolute freedom and equally absolute responsibility that man cannot adequately fulfill and be held responsible for. The previously mentioned self-project cannot be the sole responsibility of the person, if only for the reason that the person did not initiate it. Man is gifted with the prospect of personhood and is so condemned (according to Sartre) to the responsibilities to that personhood.

Rather, freedom to participate in the self-project which was initiated by Someone else must point to a freedom beyond mere whim or caprice, beyond the care of a single person. Freedom is, in a sense, the self-project as participation rather than condemnation. Freedom is a participatory experience. As Karol Wojtyla writes,
Love consists of a commitment which limits one's freedom -- it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one's freedom on behalf of the other. Limitation of one's freedom might seem to be something negative and unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful and creative thing. Freedom exists for the sake of love. If freedom is not, is not taken advantage by love it becomes a negative thing and gives human beings a feeling of emptiness and unfulfilment. Love commits freedom and imbues it with that to which the will is naturally attracted -- goodness. (Love and Responsibility, 135)
Freedom ends in love. Perhaps the loving acknowledgment that we are not our own gods; that though we are utterly responsible for our actions, we are not alone in them.