The Problem of Priesthood

GARRY WILLS

June 22, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Roman Catholic bishops in the United States have finally, for the first time, created a national policy on priests who abuse children. The sense of urgency was late in coming, though it seems sincere. The new policy involves better screening of candidates for the priesthood and permanent seclusion of known molesters from unsupervised contact with children.

More important, the policy looks to the plight of victims, calling for repentance, confession and restitution (so far as that is possible). All this is commendable.

But the consequences of this policy may help explain why its formulation was delayed for so long. It has been alleged -- I do not know with how much justice -- that one reason the scrutiny of priests was so perfunctory was the lack of manpower for all the tasks priests have to perform. And it was hard to segregate known offenders when the need to staff parishes was so great -- often to staff them with only one priest.

If the new rules for scrutiny and segregation are applied, there will be fewer candidates for the priesthood accepted at seminaries and more of the active priests removed from parish work, aggravating the already desperate shortage of ministers to the Catholic faithful.

Nor does the problem stop there. The discrediting of the priesthood, the suspicions raised about it, the sense that a celibate corps is hardly suited to the modern world, has made the vocation to this work less appealing. Those who might otherwise have applied have less motive to do so. Who wants to join an organization known in the past for sheltering and covering up for pederasts in its ranks?

These pressures all point to the real problem of the Catholic ministry -- the claim that only men can be priests, and only celibate men at that.

The blind opposition to a married priesthood and to women priests helped create the problems -- in fact, in image and in equity -- that have for just one of their symptoms the existence and the former treatment of pederast priests.

All the remedial work in the world will do nothing, in the long run, to make the Catholic ministry vital again so long as women and married people are excluded from it. The historical conditions for that kind of leadership have disappeared, and the theological reasons clung to in Rome are ludicrously shallow. (All the original priests around Jesus were men? They were not yet priests. Some disciples were women. And, besides, all the original disciples were Jews -- does that mean only Jews can expect to be ordained in the Catholic Church?)

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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