Changing Catholicism

January 31, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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There’ve been all kinds of books lately about Catholicism: Garry Wills’s new book on the priesthood, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition; Kerry Kennedy’s anthologyBeing Catholic Now, and even, if you’re so inclined, Why Catholicism Matters, a study of the cardinal virtues in the 21st century, by Bill Donahue of the Catholic League.

Sometimes, though, if you want to know what’s happening with American Catholics, it’s just as helpful to notice what’s going on. Like the other day, when I had lunch with a relative down in Philadelphia, a cradle Catholic like myself, but even more so since a number of her parents’ siblings were nuns or priests. (She’s also a successful lawyer.) We chatted a bit about her kids, and then she said, “Well, I’ve stopped going to Mass.”  In response to my inquiry as to why, she told a long but all-too-familiar story: first there was the new pastor, who’s a lot more conservative than the previous one. Then there was the archdiocesan campaign to which she refused to contribute because of the Philadelphia archdiocese’s shocking record of protecting child sex-abusers.

But the last straw, she said, was the attack by the Vatican on the nuns. “I know that my aunts who were nuns put up with a lot from the pastors and priests they interacted with,” she said, “but the idea of these women being treated this way in old age is more than I can take. I’m finished with it.” This, as I suggested some months ago might be the case for many Catholics, was the “line in the sand” for this extraordinarily theologically middle-of the road, (almost) life-long Catholic.

Next there is the steady movement of married priests into the Catholic mainstream (by which I do not mean the institutional church). First there was the celebrant of the memorial service for my friend Susan Donahue down in West Chester, PA, in January. This former member of a religious order, now married, and vested in an alb and stole, led a room full of nuns, ex-nuns, and practicing and non-practicing Catholics through readings, hymns, prayers of the faithful and eulogies. Nobody blinked.

Then there was an article on the National Catholic Reporter webpage this week about “Fr. Paul Mayer” of East Orange, New Jersey, who has called for faith communities to begin building a major movement that elevates climate change above its current “footnote” status and places it squarely in the center of both spiritual and public concerns. Mayer’s lifetime of social justice activism, as described in the article, is truly inspiring. Almost as an afterthought, in the last sentence, the authors identify Mayer as “the founder of a spiritual peace community in East Orange, (who) teaches yoga to seniors and has an active wedding ministry as a non-canonical, formerly married priest.”

And lest you think that all the change goes in one direction, there’s an article in the January 27 New York Daily News about John Cornelius, the first former Episcopal priest to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in New York state. A big part of the story is that Cornelius took a vow of celibacy, to which his wife of thirty-three years gave her blessing, in order to be ordained. I will attempt here to restrain my cynicism about the quality of the sex lives of couples who eagerly renounce same and say instead that it’s good to know that the exclusion of women and gays and sexually-active married men from the Catholic priesthood is an inspiration to somebody.

I suppose I could close with a riff on the increasing number of Catholic women priests in the US, but since that’s been going on for decades, it hardly constitutes a change at all!


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  1. Marian, I believe that Paul Mayer was a Benedictine when I was in college at St. Elizabeth’s in New Jersey. He had a profound influence on me through his retreats. He’s about the right age and certainly the right attitudes, then and now. I was astonished to see his name — and that he’s still alive.


  2. Marian, I know I’m stating the obvious but I’ll go ahead anyway – Jesus never meant his church to run as it does. Maybe I have no business talking about this, because I am not a believer & I have no faith. Still I am disgusted with the pope & his lackeys for what they have allowed, but can’t stomach the idea of a woman priest, a married priest, a gay priest. I am in awe of anyone who devotes their life to the Catholic Church, their faith is very strong & the Church is lucky to have them. Too bad “it” isn’t able to be humbled by the love & faith of those who choose to enter religious life. I like what you said about the sex,.


  3. My sister stopped going to church when her favorite brother got lung cancer and passed away at age 61. She still hasn’t returned, 4 years later, though she seeks spiritual direction from her pastor and he is a great guy and works with her schedule and other issues. Much of what you talk about are reasons for her continued absence from church, though her abhorence of crowds has more to do with it than anything, I suspect.
    I agree with Deborah Silvestri, though I do believe and continue to go to church, though at times I have left when the priest is someone who I find it difficult to listen to and still be charitable and nourished by the liturgy. I refuse to be pushed out of my church.


  4. I have had similar experiences, Marian — very sad all around, when what the world needs is the Gospel of love and forgiveness and peace. How many “workers in the vineyard” are being lost because of the subordination of Gospel values to face saving and protocol.
    I was surprised to read about that Episcopal priest — one major contradiction in the Vatican’s inviting them to become Roman Catholic is that they can do that and remain married (no vow of celibacy).


  5. Thank you for calling attention to Father Paul Mayer’s efforts. Readers of this article may want to be informed also about his memoir, Wrestling With Angels, book which remains unpublished. Though excerpts from his book which he has released are at
    Father Paul Mayer is very ill right now and is receiving hospice care in his home in East Orange, New Jersey. Please join us and remember Father Paul Mayer in your prayers.
    – Mark


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