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Friday, December 2, 2011


          The death of my very close friend, John Joe Lakers, last month, has made me reflect on my style of prayer.

          JJ told me, not long before his death, "You and I are very different." One way we were different was in our prayer preferences. I love the psalms. He could not endure them. He never attended our community prayer when it involved praying the psalms. He welcomed spontaneous prayer with others. He was partly responsible for an attempt by our community to introduce a period of spontaneous prayer in common before dinner. He even asked that we pray the Angelus then, because it recalls Jesus' becoming incarnate, which was his favorite theological theme.

          Months ago I was reflecting on the Muslim practice of praying by bowing to the floor five times a day in the direction of Mecca. That very physical action (which I could not possibly do with my knees being the way they are), led me to my own physical way of praying. I began singing the psalms out loud, privately, in my room. This became so important for me that I developed the practice of singing all the psalms in the course of a month, which means using the psalms for the Office of Readings and for Midday Prayer.

          Why do I find this prayerful?

          I think of my childhood, when everybody used "prayer books." Maybe using "prefabricated" prayers was something that uneducated people liked. But educated people can benefit too. I first began praying the psalms in earnest in the 1960s, when the post-Vatican II turmoil had caused us to abandon the old Latin breviary and we had not yet developed something to take its place. I was struggling with my own relationship to God, and said to myself, "I need to piggy-back on these prayers that people have used for over two thousand years."

          I am a child of two parents who never attended high school. I had the benefit of a fine graduate school education. I have often thought that my experience is probably shared by every person who has jumped from a "pre-modern" culture into U.S. university culture. At heart I am a 1950 parochial grade school kid. I think of Jacques Maritain's autobiography, The Peasant of the Garonne. I never read it, but its title suggests that maybe Maritain, one of the most famous Catholic intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century, was having similar reflections in his old age.

          As I sing the psalms, using the antiphons provided by the breviary—I love the Advent season and its antiphons—I stop to think of all the people around the world who are praying the same psalms this very day, maybe at this very moment. The majority of Catholics, and of new entrants into religious life, are today in the southern hemisphere. I think of the friars in Vietnam, where my confrere Ken Capalbo is now living and teaching. Surely, like everyone else, these men (and possibly women—do women find the psalms as prayerful as men do?) have their distractions and times of mechanical recitation. I find that I need to pray slowly, stopping to look out the window and reflect on the trees and the sky, a sky that every person in the world also sees. I think of all the monks and friars in the middle ages who prayed the psalms in Latin, using a Latin translation that often makes no sense. (Carroll Stuhlmiller, in his introduction to the ICEL version of the psalms, says that some verses are like objects you find in an attic. Nobody knows what they mean, and the elders could tell us, if only they could speak to us. Yet the mysterious objects and verses are part of what has been handed down to us.) The psalms have their rough, raw edges, reflecting periods when people's understanding of God was more primitive than the understanding preached by Jesus. The ICEL translation of Psalm 3 prays "Break their evil jaws! Smash their teeth!" This is not Jesus. But it reminds me that my ancestors in the faith had a ways to go in their understanding of what God is like. So do I.

          The negative tone of so many of the psalms (the "lament" psalms) used to turn me off. I judged them as out of touch with the great advances humanity has made in solving our problems. Now, as I pray them I reflect on how my vision of the world has been too optimistic, too pollyannish. There is evil in the world. People are suffering greatly because of it. Maybe the future will hold more suffering than I have seen in my day, especially as people around the world continue to struggle for increasingly scarce resources of energy and water. I pray soberly, trying to place myself in the shoes of those who are suffering even now from the injustice of the way we do things.

          I don't bow down to Mecca five times a day. I sing aloud these ancient prayers. I feel close to those Muslims who bow down, and thank God for their example.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fr. John Joe Lakers has died.

Fr. JJ, whose writings I have linked to this blog, died on Friday, November 4, 2011 here in Holy Cross Friary.

We plan to continue to maintain a website of his writings, www.qufriary.org/Lakers. In addition, some of his former students hope to edit his work. Before he died he entrusted copies of that work to them.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Reflections on a Meeting of Priests

          Last week I spent three days meeting with the priests and bishop of the diocese of Springfield, Illinois. The theme of the meetings was "Catholics in the Public Square." The planners of the meetings had decided to devote Monday evening and Tuesday morning to "right to life" issues, Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning and evening to race relations issues, and Thursday morning to immigration issues. The afternoons were free.

          The opening address on Monday night was given by George Weigel, a writer best known for his two biographies of Pope John Paul II, and closely associated with the journal First Things. He based his address on John Courtney Murray's 1960 book, We Hold These Truths. He observed that Murray's thought was central to the declaration on religious freedom of the Second Vatican Council. He drew from Murray's book four themes, supporting Pope Benedict's claim that our world is threatened by moral relativism.

          What surprised me was that he made no mention of the one thing that stays in my mind from my own reading and study of the book 50 years ago: the concept of "articles of peace." Murray maintained that the genius of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is that it is a pair of "articles of peace." The framers of the Amendment realized that the citizens of this new nation might never agree on ideas, but that the law could provide a framework in which they would at least not be at war with one another. This is what religious liberty means. I may not agree at all with what you say, but I will not use force to get you to agree with my thinking.

          That line of thought, of course, is central to Murray's contribution to the Council. It is not a statement of moral relativism. It is a statement that, given the conflicted nature of most political life today, the best policy is for the state not to try to enforce or support a particular set of religious beliefs. Murray's statement is itself an example of what traditional theologians would call natural law.

          Without the text of Weigel's address in hand, it is difficult for me to evaluate the address in detail, but it seems to me that part of his approach was an attack on "postmodern" thinking. Pope Benedict seems to have that thinking in mind when he talks about moral relativism.

          The term "postmodern" has a certain public relations aura--one who uses it can claim an advantage over someone who is merely "modern." My understanding of the term comes from a selection of postmodern authors I have read for my course in sociological theory. I see the term as having two claims, one intellectual and one emotional. The intellectual claim is that all human knowledge is mediated by the cultural context of language. This is not a new idea to sociology--it was expressed already in the 1960s by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's book The Social Construction of Reality. The emotional claim is based on a critique of oppressive trends in so much of modern history. That claim says that any statement that something is true conceals a hidden desire for domination on the part of the speaker. The critique sounds very much like a denial of all truth, and as such can certainly be criticized as moral relativism. I don't see it as moral relativism. I see it as a clumsy way of saying "people who use truth-claims as a means of oppression are morally guilty." To grab the attention of readers, the overly-dramatic sentence is added, "Therefore truth should not and does not exist." The writer goes overboard.

          Weigel, I presume, was using a statement that we are moving toward moral relativism as the foundation of his position on how society should deal with abortion. He would say that people who argue against a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion are guilty of moral relativism.

          I have been critical of the term "natural law," because in social science it is considered a copout. "Nature" is the opposite of "nurture," and one should not pre-judge whether something is "natural" or is the result of learning. However, the term "natural" can be just another term for what Emile Durkheim called "social fact." There are some things in society that will hit you in the face regardless of what you think about them. If you try to go out of your house without clothes on, things will happen to you. This is an example of a social fact.

          The real issue is not whether or not there is such a thing as natural law. The issue is: "how do you know something is 'natural?'"

          Weigel stressed Murray's use of the term "self-evident." "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The social scientist asks, "how do you know a truth is self-evident?"

          Let me use abortion as an example. Is it self-evident that abortion is against natural law?

          Weigel cited the Hippocratic Oath as evidence that abortion has always been seen as evil. "Always having been seen as evil" is perhaps the most compelling argument that something is against natural law. Notice that this is at bottom an argument based on public opinion. Another argument used against abortion is that it not only kills the infant but harms the mother. But an argument that something is harmful seems to me to be an argument based on utilitarian criteria.

          Tell me if I am philosophically naive. It seems to me that all statements that something is against natural law are grounded either in a claim that people have always considered it bad or that bad things happen when you do it. There may be other understandings, based on things like Plato's cave, but those understandings are for the philosophically sophisticated. Natural law should not require a degree in philosophy before one understands it.

          Weigel could have developed the point that most people are not actively pro-abortion. His statement about the Hippocratic Oath implies such a point. He could find poll data to support that assertion. He did not develop the point, I assume, because then he would have to account for the fact that most people also think that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances.

          Most people see abortion as an evil. The political issue is, what should society do about it? The pro-choice position is not, as some pro-life activists argue, a euphemism for pro-abortion. It is a sincere claim that it is better to let the choice of whether or not to have an abortion up to the woman rather than to the state.

          Is it natural law that the state should make abortion illegal? That is far less "self-evident" than the statement that abortion itself is evil. When 80% of the population, including 80% of the Catholic population, say that a woman should be able to have a legal abortion under certain circumstances, it certainly does not seem self-evident that allowing legal abortion is against natural law.

          Public opinion should not determine morality. It should not, but it does.

          Some pro-life proponents appeal to slavery and abolitionism as a parallel to the abortion debate today. Pro-life defenders are the modern abolitionists. But this argument cuts both ways. If slavery were against natural law, how is it that Archbishop England of Charleston, South Carolina could write a series of letters to the U.S. Secretary of State in 1840 stating that "no Catholic Church authority has ever condemned slavery"? Archbishop England was wrong, but no U.S. bishop, North or South, challenged his statement at the time. Public opinion at his time determined the morality of slavery.

          Is racism against natural law? If it is, how is it that the Church has been so slow to condemn it?

Project Rachel

          A second address dealing with right-to-life issues featured Vicki Thorn, the woman who began "Project Rachel," a program to support women and men who have been involved in procuring abortions. Part of her address focused on physiological effects of each pregnancy that a woman and her partner experience, even though the effects are so subtle that neither partner may be aware of them. As a result, the experience of abortion has lasting effects on both the woman and the man involved, and continues in the children born to either.

          Her address raised again for me a question that bothered me in the early 1990s. How is it that "secular" science and the claims of women such as this woman are in such disagreement? Just a few weeks ago I read that another set of scientific studies had definitively proved that abortion has no negative effects on women who have abortions.

          The disagreement between the claim that abortion is not harmful and the witness of people involved in Project Rachel is very troubling. It should trouble anyone concerned about the truth claims of scientific statements. It calls into question the entire scientific enterprise. The social science community needs to get to the bottom of it.

          The strength of social science research is that it listens to the voices of representative samples of people. The weakness of such research is that questions on a survey are often not able to probe some of the deeper complexities of the way people experience their lives. Furthermore, studies that follow people over long periods of time are expensive and rare, and yet, in dealing with an issue like the effects of abortion, such studies are necessary. There is still a lot of work to be done before we can definitively say what happens to the men, women, and children affected by abortion decisions.

Friday, August 19, 2011

I am a racist

I am a racist.

I am a racist because I have lived for years--all my life in fact--in a racist culture.

“Racist” is a fighting word. I can use it to describe myself, and I can use it to describe my culture, but I will never use it to refer to another human being. Using that word shuts down the conversation.

I am not a racist because I want to hurt people who do not look like me. I go to the opposite extreme: I am so afraid that I might hurt such a person that I am tempted to keep my distance from him or her. I might say the wrong thing. It is easier just to avoid such people.

This is Effect Number One of Living in a Racist Society: because I am afraid of offending someone, it is more comfortable to stay away from the other group.

What are some other ways that living in a racist society affect me? Let me describe a racist society.

A racist society is a society where one group of people have treated another group of people unfairly for a long time. In order to justify to itself why it is permissible to treat other people unfairly, the dominant group had to invent theories. They could never treat people unfairly if those people were just like them. The other people must have been different. They must have done something wrong, or God must have punished them (“the mark of Cain”), or they must be “less developed” than the dominant group.

Charles Darwin gave the dominant group the perfect theory. Human beings evolved from lesser beings, and some human beings are more evolved than others. The dominant group is the more evolved group. They know this because they can make the other group do whatever they want. (We ignore the fact that the dominant group had the bigger guns.)

Slavery had existed for centuries, but the slaves were usually people who had lost a war. Everybody knew that the time might come when the slaves would win the war and then the tables would be turned. When the theory says that the slave group will never catch up because that’s the way evolution works, the perfect system was invented. The slaves were forever less developed, and therefore they could be forever dominated. Anybody who said otherwise was unenlightened and unscientific. They were also a public menace.

They were a public menace because when slavery married capitalism, slavery became very big business. To be against slavery was to be anti-business. When people stand to lose serious money if the system is changed, they bring in all the resources at their disposal to defend the system, beginning with the military.

The Civil War was fought because southern planters were convinced that Abraham Lincoln would destroy the system that had made them rich. After the Civil War, the southern planters used all the violence at their disposal to put the old system back into place as much as they could. We call their work “Jim Crow.”

Slavery was built on violence, and has left our country with a tradition of solving problems with violence.


Nobody today will defend the theory that people of color are less developed than people without color. But we all float in a sea of the effects of the old system. We dominant folks have been trained for so long to see others as less human that we experience a psychological jolt every time we see something that doesn’t fit that theory.

I will never forget the shock I got when I first saw a mannequin with dark skin in a store window. I was in Boston, walking along Summer Street. My first reaction was, “They shouldn’t do that. Something is wrong with this picture.”

My life has been a series of such shocks. I am startled when I see black people who do not look like the way I think black people should look. When black people get old some of them surprise me with how they look. (I am 76 years old myself, but I am sure that I do not surprise people with how I look. I check this every day in the mirror.)

So, Effect Number Two of Living in a Racist Society: because I am often startled when I associate with people different from me, it is more comfortable to stay away from the other group.

Effects Number One and Two are why housing segregation is still such an important feature of American life today.

Those effects are bad enough, and help to explain why I have to struggle to welcome black people into my living spaces. But there is a more powerful factor than those two that affects me: fear. I am afraid of what my white neighbors will think if they see me associating with black people.

For those of us who are sensitive to what the neighbors will think, this is a serious problem. I may be completely convinced intellectually that my black neighbor is my equal, but I just know that my white neighbor is not as enlightened, and I have to live with my white neighbor more than with my black neighbor, because my black neighbor is not as close a neighbor to me as my white neighbor. So I can visit with my black neighbor in the workplace, or play on a team with him, but dare not invite him to have a hot dog with my family in our back yard. I can just see my neighbors glaring over their fences or from behind their curtains. “Who does he think he is? What is he trying to do?”

The sad thing is that it is quite possible that in reality my white neighbors may think exactly as I do. They may think that I will be bothered if they eat hot dogs in their back yards with black people. We all think the other guy is more racist than we are, because the media are always telling us that white people are racist. We never talk about this with our white neighbors because we think those neighbors are racist and will get mad if we bring it up.

Effect Number Three of Living in a Racist Society: we all think other people are more racist than we are.


We white people (and I am sure black people also) cannot ever change the racism of our culture until we associate day to day with people of the other group. Even then we will never quit being challenged. There are too many patterns in our heads that need to be replaced with new patterns. The patterns have to be replaced one by one, often with a little discomfort or even pain. We accept the discomfort or pain because we believe that God calls us to love one another. Love is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with each other. Such love is the result of decision, not of feeling.

This is not all grim news. It is delightful to see people in new ways, to hear their stories, and to learn from them. If we hang in there, little by little we create a less racist culture. Maybe we will never see the kind of culture we hope for (especially if we are 76 years old), but it is more important to be on the way.

This is what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God.”

Friday, August 12, 2011

Why a friar writes a sociology textbook

Fifteen years ago I decided to write my own introductory sociology textbook. I worked on it for a couple of years and then put it aside. Recently I decided to pick up the task again.

Why do it?

Sociology asks important questions about how we humans live together. The answers it gives are often incomplete. They are answers formulated without taking into consideration the Gospel. This is not surprising, since many of the people who created the field of sociology were not people of faith.

I am a person of faith. I think the Gospel has things to say about how we humans live together. A field of study that asks questions about that topic is impoverished if it does not take into account how the Gospel can shape human beliefs about the issue.

Sociology claims to be a science. Until a few years ago the word “science” was almost a god-term in western societies. Sociology had to defend itself against “hard” science, which argued that sociology could never be a science. Sociologists were attacked from both sides. Religious people were accusing them of being godless, and the “true” scientists were accusing them of not being scientific enough.

Today the term “science” has lost its godlike status. Postmodern authors have accused science of adding to human misery by using scientific language to cloak political oppression. This is a huge change from the days when science was seen as promising an end to all human misery.

So, sociology, never quite scientific enough, and always suspect of being godless, floats in academic limbo. Some universities, including my own, have abolished their departments of sociology, replacing them with departments of social work and criminal justice. Maybe sociology needs religion more than religion has needed sociology.

I say this because the questions raised in sociology are important questions in the world we live in. There is no problem with using both faith and human “reason” as the basis for discussions about the good life. The great medieval philosopher theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus did it all the time. They constantly asked, “what do we know from faith and what do we know without referring to our beliefs?” The one thing they lacked was the habit of using empirical observation when they discussed what we know without faith. Instead they used philosophical speculation, mostly based on ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and Muslim philosophers like Ibn Rushd (Averroes)and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna).

Here are some of the questions raised in sociology, questions whose answers can be enriched by bringing in the Gospel. The questions are based on the topics treated in standard introductory sociology textbooks.

What good is science? How can it be misused? How do we know what “misuse” is?

What can we learn about ourselves from empirical observation? Does the Gospel have anything to say about how we do such observation?

What are values, and where do they come from? How do human beings differ around the world in their values? What should we do about those differences?

What do we know about how we humans are born, mature, and die? What influences do our groups have on our being born, maturing, and dying?

How should we react to people who hurt other people?

How do men differ from women and what should we do about the differences?

Why are some people rich and others poor? What should we do about the difference between rich and poor?

What is a good economy?

How does religion operate in human groups? What are some of its good effects and some of its bad effects?

How can we create more successful ways of governing ourselves?

What is a good education, and how can we help more people to get one?

What is good family life, and how important is it to promote it?

What is “health,” and how can we improve it among the people?

What happens when more people are born than die, or when people migrate from one place to another?

Why do people gather in cities? What are the advantages of that gathering, and what are the problems it creates?

What makes people revolt?

How have we humans changed over the centuries?

I have used the word “should” in several of those questions. It has been customary to rule such language out of scientific discussions--the job of science is to determine what is, not what should be.

Who says so? True, as soon as you use the word “should,” you get disagreement. But when you quit using the word, you make the discussion boring and irrelevant. People who refuse to use the word are operating on the basis of a belief that we can have certitudes that we can all agree on, and that by limiting ourselves to those certitudes, we reduce conflict.

It hasn’t worked. Our world has as much conflict as it ever has. When you have no conflict you have either irrelevance or oppression. The classroom is a place where conflict should be welcomed and harnessed for the good of the whole community.

The questions I listed above would have been answered by philosophy in earlier times. Academic philosophy in our day seems to have abandoned discussion of them. Sociology is a place where they can be discussed again.

Let us begin.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Burqahs and Birettas

[I put this piece on the blog last January, but then moved it to my website. In view of the fact that the website gets far fewer visitors than the blog, I decided to move it back, slightly revised, to the blog.]

            The biggest problem facing Roman Catholicism today is the failure of its leadership to replace itself. The average age of female religious, male religious and priests keeps going up. Even if you grant that the Church in the United States was “overstocked” with priests and sisters in the 1950s, the numbers of young men and women entering religious life and priesthood today are nowhere near enough to continue parish life and the ministry of religious at a level that most of us would think desirable. The Church needs clergy and both Church and world need religious. Now is not the time in history for the Church to go AWOL in the face of the world’s challenges.

            Conservative elements in the Church, under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, seem to be trying out the hypothesis that the root of the shortage problem is that priests and sisters since Vatican II have gotten away from an observably “spiritual” way of living. Presumably they have therefore also gotten away from the essence of a spiritually vital life. The answer is to return to pre-Vatican II styles of dress and liturgy.

            As a sociologist I think the “spiritual-abandonment” hypothesis obscures another motive, a motive probably unconscious among many. I speak from my own experience. The motive is social prestige. For most of my younger life I would have vehemently denied that a desire for social prestige had anything to do with my decision to become a priest and religious, but now I have to admit that such a motive probably lurked beneath my conscious thinking.

            If this motive is operating, the theory becomes that priests and religious no longer get the social prestige that can motivate new recruits, and that the way to get that prestige is to increase the social distance between them and the laity. Thus, for example, priests should not attend Mass like lay persons. If a priest does not concelebrate, he should attend Mass from a kneeler in the sanctuary. Religious and priests should return to wearing distinctive garb. Cassocks and birettas are coming back into style, and women’s groups are encouraged to return to old-style religious garb.

            We Friars Minor here at Quincy University are wearing our “habits” more than we used to. I do not see our motivation as a seeking after prestige, but as an attempt to dramatize the importance of certain values in an academic environment. The problem is that wearing a certain garb does not get at the core of the problem. If we were bold enough, we could issue religious garb to the entire faculty and require them to wear it on campus. The core of the problem is that the entire Church, and indeed the entire world, has to come to terms with modern culture.

            Church authorities point out that the Church in the “less developed” world is drawing priesthood candidates. Seminaries, they say, are full. However, those regions are starting from a much smaller base, and have a much greater need. For example, we consider ourselves in North America as severely under-staffed with priests, with one priest for every 1,536 Catholics. In Asia the ratio is one for every 2,310 Catholics, in Africa it is one for every 4,729, and in South America it is one for every 7,155 Catholics (Statistical Yearbook of the Church, as cited in “The CARA Report,” Summer, 2008). But large segments of society in Asia, Africa, and South America are hell bent on replicating the cultural patterns of western Europe and the U.S. As they succeed in doing this, will they run up against the same problems we are having? I think they will.

            If secularism is the lion, and the U.S. is the den of secularism, we have to “beard the lion in its den.” We have to deal with it where it is strongest, not where it is weakest.

The Head-scarf

            The wearing of distinctive women’s garb (the head-scarf, hijab, in more secular Muslim societies, or the burqah or chador in more religious ones) is a matter of controversy in many places. Iran is the most dramatic example. Under the Shah, women in Iran were encouraged to become educated and to abandon such garb. After the Khomeini revolution, the chador, the head-to-toe covering of women, was re-instated and enforced by law. These regulations, which the novelist Azar Nafisi portrays in Reading Lolita in Tehran, are oppressive, but seem mild in comparison to the practices of the Taliban, who burn girls’ schools.

            The Catholic Church hierarchy’s attempts to restrict discussion of priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, and inclusive language in the liturgy are the Catholic version of the same struggle, a struggle over the role of women. The hierarchy seems to believe that essential Church beliefs are under attack by modern gender norms, and that the Church must take a stand against those norms.

            The real issue is one that sociologists of religion have been discussing for the last forty years: can religion survive the secularizing influences of what we call “modernity”? We Catholics in the U.S. answer with a resounding “yes,” and even Benedict seems to recognize that we are doing something right here. But when it comes to patterns of gender behavior, the United States suddenly becomes the opposition. The Church here seems to be maintaining a remarkably high level of church involvement by its laity, far higher than that maintained in Italy, but we are accused of selling out to a secular culture. It would be tragic if the developments of the last forty years in liturgy and parish life here in the U.S. were to be replaced by a 1950s Catholic culture.

            Officially, celibacy has nothing to do with norms about women’s behavior. Celibacy is intended to allow the priest, in St. Paul’s words, to be “concerned about the things of God.” If he were married, he would have to be concerned about pleasing his wife. But in actuality celibacy requires that women be kept at a distance. Priests are not to socialize too much with women. Dropping norms of separation from women will result in the “loss of vocation,” and certainly history has borne this out. Sexual attraction is one of the strongest of human tendencies, one that certainly deserves to be labeled as “natural law.” The price of celibacy is separation from women, and, just as in racial matters, separate is inherently unequal.

            The real battle is over the issue of sexuality, and of how to manage it so that its power can build up society rather than destroy its fabric. The mullahs believe that women must be covered because otherwise men will be unable to restrain themselves. Men certainly have problems restraining themselves, but veiling the women will not solve the problem.

            The fact that we are not able to motivate young people in our country to accept Church norms about celibacy and the ordination of women says that the Church cannot avoid the issue. We are not persuading young men and women to live apart in the ways that celibacy requires. We are no more successful in persuading young women to dress in traditional religious habits than the authorities in Iran are in persuading young women there to wear the chador. A few will do it. The rest, unless forced by law, will choose otherwise.

The Solution

            The solution is that the Church must reconfigure its leadership to allow for the development of healthy male-female relationships. This does not mean accepting promiscuity, it means accepting fidelity. It is a scandal that canon law expels members of religious orders the moment the person “attempts marriage,” but defends the man or woman against expulsion when the behavior involves simple fornication. This norm contradicts the Church’s claim that it stands in favor of committed marriage relationships over temporary sexual liaisons.

            One obstacle, probably the biggest one, standing in the way of allowing priests to marry is the issue of property.  It costs a lot less to support a celibate man than to support a man with wife and children. That argument made sense when Church finances centered on the day-to-day operation of parishes and seminaries. But suddenly the Church in this country has had to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to pay lawsuits involving sexual misconduct of priests. If we in the Church can find huge sums of money to settle lawsuits, we should be able to pay a living wage to priests who have families.

            The experience of men and women in Catholic Worker houses is a good model. Many young people have been drawn to the Catholic Worker because of its style of living in poor neighborhoods and inviting needy men and women to share their home. The idealism that draws these Workers is the same as the idealism that drew so many of us as young men and women to priesthood and religious life. But often, as the days of struggling with human realities pass by, Workers find themselves drawn to each other and end up deciding to commit themselves to marriage. A few, like Dorothy Day herself, continue to live in the Worker communities and raise children there. Others leave but keep contact with the Workers and develop ministries that serve the Church and society in the places where they decide to live. There is no pressure to marry, and there is no pressure to avoid marriage. As God calls, the men and women involved are free to respond without censure by the group. In fact, their commitment to each other is seen as an enrichment of the group.

            Celibacy has locked the Church into a system where young men and women cannot commit themselves to the Church during the years when they have the most idealism and energy. Instead, they must spend those years in some other work. If their desire to serve the Church survives these years, they can then enter the seminary or religious life. They are now able to make a “mature vocational decision.” Meanwhile they have moved further and further away from the direct contact with younger people that could inspire those younger people to follow a Gospel calling. I decided in the sixth grade that I wanted to be a priest. Our parish had a kindly pastor in his late 60s. I admired him, but the man who had the most influence on my desire to serve the Church was his younger assistant, just ordained, who taught catechism in our school and brought his dog “Smoky” to the classes.

            Of course, as Rome knows, if men are allowed to marry and still be priests, women will not be far behind in seeking ordination. That is the dynamic of life in our cultures. The question the Church has to ask is, can we win this battle?

            Years ago I heard a Methodist minister predict that the Catholic Church will go the way of the Anglican Church. As the number of Anglican ministers declined, a lay movement sprang up and replaced Anglicanism with a new form of Christianity, Methodism. What was lost was Eucharist, the thing that Catholicism has always seen as central to a Christian life.

            No one has counted the number of young Catholic women who have left the Church to seek ordination in a Protestant community. No one has counted the number of young Catholic men who have reluctantly decided to choose another life course than priesthood because they were not sure they could commit themselves to lifelong celibacy. All we see are aging priests, sisters, and brothers. Meanwhile Church authorities keep hoping for a turnaround, light at the end of the tunnel.

            I don’t think it will work. The only solution is to back up out of the tunnel and make use of the light that is already out there.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Latin Masses

           Two or three years ago the diocese of Springfield in Illinois gave permission to use St. Rose Church in Quincy (closed since 2004) for the Latin “Tridentine” Mass. A priest from the Society of St. Peter has been living there and providing daily and weekend Masses in Latin.

          I love Latin. We were exposed to six years of it in the seminary. I was ordained in 1962, and at that time had memorized the entire “ordinary” of the Mass in Latin. Over the years I have continued to use the language occasionally, especially in homily preparation. Sometimes reading how St. Jerome translated a scriptural passage into Latin gives me an idea for how to preach about a passage. Then, four years ago, I was asked to teach introductory Latin to students at Quincy University, and have done that ever since. Why shouldn’t I offer to help the priest at St. Rose by filling in for him when he cannot be there? Why shouldn’t I enthusiastically support movements to restore the Tridentine rite as the normative way for Catholics to experience Eucharist?

          Throughout my years as a priest I have tried to pray with people, even when their styles of prayer were not the ones I would have preferred. I sang songs like “Here we are” and “Kumbaya.” I have joined in Masses in Spanish and in youth Masses, Masses with Black Catholics that went on for three hours, charismatic Masses in which people spoke in tongues, and Christian Family Camp Masses outdoors where I had to worry that the card table altar would be bumped by unruly children. Why should I not preside at Latin Masses when my background is so well suited to it? Is my reluctance mostly political, because I think liberal Catholics would object?

          I have two problems with the Tridentine Mass. One is that it would make me relate to the congregation in a way that I can no longer accept. It is true that turning my back on the congregation and facing the east (though there are certainly old churches in which the priest does not face the east, among them St. Rose in Quincy) would not in itself separate me from sharing in the people’s worship. But that action would be for me a symbol of a relationship in which the people’s role becomes silent and secondary. I have become used to a Eucharist in which I share roles in the Mass with a variety of lay people. The phrase used by the Vatican Council was “full and active participation” by all the people, a phrase that has roots in Pius XII’s 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei. I begin the service with a procession from the back of the church, through the midst of the congregation, singing with the congregation. Lay people, sometimes very young people, read some of the Scripture. A lay person reads the intercessions at the “prayer of the faithful.” Lay ministers help distribute Communion. All this I would lose in the Tridentine rite.

          A friar confrere called attention to another aspect of the Latin rite that I had not considered. The rite reinforces an individualistic approach to worship. The worshipper can be present silently without any interaction with other human beings. There is no greeting of peace. I presume that the worshipper does not even respond in Latin to the priest’s “Dominus vobiscum.” That innovation (which people called the “dialogue Mass”) came into existence only in the late 1940s after Mediator Dei. We Americans are individualistic enough without having that tendency reinforced in our public worship. We need to be reminded that we do not come to God alone. I once read that the prototypical Protestant stance before God is the individual sitting silently reading his or her bible alone. The Protestant stress on Scripture, a healthy reaction against Catholic avoidance of lay reading of Scripture, led to an overly individualistic spirituality. Catholic worship has traditionally been communal. The famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, developed a whole theory of suicide out of the Catholic tendency to depend on the group, as opposed to the Protestant tendency to go it alone before God. He claimed that suicide rates were lower in Catholic regions because Catholics feel supported by the community.

          I do miss some of the Gregorian chant. My Liber Usualis is one of my prized possessions. Few pieces of music move me more than the Gregorian Pentecost sequence (Veni Sancte Spiritus. . .), and I love the Gregorian Kyries, Glorias, Sanctus’s, and Agnus Dei’s. I even tried once to translate one of those Sanctus’s into English in the hope that I might be able to use it with people who do not know Latin. I do not miss the Sunday “proper parts” (Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion), which were seldom familiar enough to allow me to sing them with devotion and pleasure. Even in the seminary, where we had a congregation who knew Latin and had to practice beforehand, singing them was almost always an ordeal.

          People speak of missing the atmosphere of awe and reverence in the Tridentine rite. My memory is of a priest rushing through the prayers at the foot of the altar so fast that I could get out only the first two words of each server response. Solemn Masses can be awesome, but I did not experience a solemn Mass until the sixth grade, because it took three priests and we only had two. Too many high Masses featured an organist ripping through the sung parts (by herself) so that the Mass would not take more than a half hour. (The priests and sisters at St. James in Decatur were not guilty of such carelessness.)

          Priests and people can be reverent in any rite, and careless and irreverent in any rite. I like the theology of the Vatican II rite, and will not return to a theology that I believe was rejected by that Council. Pope Benedict believes that the Tridentine rite is compatible with Vatican II theology. I think that in the context of the ordinary parish in this country, it would not be.