Humanity Versus Ideology

The foundation of the Roman Catholic Church's ban on the ordination of women and married priests continues to show signs of stress. Today's New York Times carries the account of a body of US priests who signed a statement supporting a fellow cleric who participated in an ordination ceremony led by Roman Catholic Womanpriests, whose 120-plus ordinands the Vatican has declared to be excommunicated.

The move follows two similar expressions of support within the worldwide Catholic church for overturning the historic ban. Last month 300 Austrian clerics stunned church authorities with a seven-point pledge that includes actively promoting priesthood for women and married men. And in Australia the National Council of Priests vigorously defended the bishop of Toowoomba, who had issued a pastoral letter saying that, facing a severe priest shortage, he would ordain women and married men “if Rome would allow it.” The Vatican's response was to force the bishop's resignation.

If it is to cope with the extreme shortage of priests, the Roman Catholic church must think beyond dogma. Future Church, a Lakewood, Ohio organization which supports overturn of the ban, offers some sobering numbers: "According to Vatican statistics, nearly half of the world’s parishes do not have a resident priest. There are only 405,000 priests to serve over a billion Catholics. In 1970 there were 419,728 priests to serve 653.5 million Catholics. And the situation is getting worse. Actuarial studies in several American dioceses reveal a desperate situation within 25 years. For example, a diocese with 235 parishes and nearly a million Catholics now will have less than 80 active priests in 25 years, assuming 4 ordinations per year, which is above the average for recent years."

Here in Columbus, Ohio, for example, the diocese has grown by 77 percent since 1976, to 254,759, but the number of priests has shrunk by 59 percent, to 195. Percentages aside, that means there is one priest for every 1,300 parishioners. In what other mainstream denomination would its leaders would permit such a stressful situation to continue?

What those who support overturning the ban on women and married priests are saying is, "‘We don’t have enough priests, we’re closing down parishes,’ ” states David J. O’Brien, who holds an endowed chair in faith and culture at the University of Dayton. “It’s a sign that the pastoral needs are sufficiently grave now that priests are speaking up and saying, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t just ignore the pastoral consequences of the things you do and say at the top.’ ”

Not surprisingly, the Vatican is digging in with the response that its teaching on women's ordination is infallible. A 1994 papal letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, tried to end debate by affirming "the reservation of priestly ordination to men alone" and stating that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women."

But the reality is that there is a world of people with deep spiritual needs, many of whom are not being shepherded properly or at all.  "For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost," Jesus says simply in Luke 19:10. At what point will the Roman Catholic Church put the pastoral needs of those for whom the church exists above the strictures of dogma?


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