st-peters-basilica-vatican-city-i749 A recent AP report added a new insight into the Roman Catholic clergy abuse scenario that few have been willing to consider. Under John Paul II the church was recovering from a notable loss of priests, many of whom were leaving the priesthood to get married in the 1970s. John Paul made it harder for priests to leave the priesthood as one of several papal responses to the crisis. Since entering the priesthood involves a sacramental oath, and the reception of holy orders, leaving it for laicization requires what is often a lengthy church trial. This trial was often shortened, following Vatican II, making it easier for a priest to leave. But all this changed in the late 1970s when John Paul II changed course. These facts are not really debatable as much as I have been able to perceive from my study of the issue. (I am open to understanding this response better since I have no axe to grind here at all.)

What does this have to do with the clergy sex scandal? Well, in Illinois a priest named Alvin Campbell was convicted in a court of law. His bishop recommended that he be removed from the priesthood. The court records, now made public, show that then Vatican refused to defrock this priest based on the request of the priest himself. The case went to the Vatican where Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the pope, ruled that “The petition in question cannot be admitted in as much as it lacks the request of Father Campbell himself.” This statement occurs in a July 3, 1989 letter to Bishop Daniel Ryan of the Diocese of Springfield.

It is no surprise then that AP refers to changes in the Vatican which “hamstrung U. S. bishops struggling with an abuse crisis that would eventually explode.”

popebenedict I have several observations: (1) The response of the Vatican was not an obvious attempt to cover-up the sex scandals. (2) This response was wrong and reveals just how the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood can still leave it less than fully open to public scrutiny and (at times) proper corrective discipline of its own priests. Thankfully, this is being changed but “it is long after the cows were out of the barn” as a farmer friend once put it. (3) Nothing has convinced me that Cardinal Ratzinger covered up sexual predators but a lot of this does show that the institutional life of the church provided a series of problems that make it very hard for the Catholic Church to deal the modern world in the way that seems natural and completely straightforward. Critics will seize on everything they can and there is material here to be seized upon. Sadly, unless you have listened to the victims of these sexual crimes you have not anguished deeply enough with the “little ones” to be a credible source of correction. This is what troubles so many of us, both in and out of the Catholic Church.

Vatican II opened the door to new understanding of the priesthood, stating that the priesthood did include all the faithful. But Vatican II also said that there were still essential differences between the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood, which is Rome’s doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians. But Vatican II clearly did not go very far in specifying what constitutes this difference. Ecumenical conversation has forced further Catholic thought on the matter, which I particularly welcome as a non-Catholic. But I think there is still a long way for the Catholic Church to go in this conversation. I pray that this scandal will ultimately prove to be a means of purification and reformation. I think most of my Catholic brothers and sisters agree, though some will still defend the church in the face of obvious moral error.

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  1. July 2, 2010 at 6:31 am

    In the first three lines of your last paragraph, you say:
    “Vatican II opened the door to new understanding of the priesthood, stating that the priesthood did include all the faithful. But Vatican II also said that there were still essential differences between the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood, which is Rome’s doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians. But Vatican II clearly did not go very far in specifying what constitutes this difference.”
    The doctrine of the baptismal priesthood is not a new doctrine; it has been part of the Catholic faith from the beginning. In the middle of the fifth century, for example, St. Leo the Great wrote:
    “For all, regenerated in Christ, are made kings by the sign of the cross; they are consecrated priests by the oil of the Holy Spirit, so that beyond the special service of our ministry as priests, all spiritual and mature Christians know that they are a royal race and are sharers in the office of the priesthood.” (Sermon 4)
    The Church has no authority or power to make up new doctrines or abandon old ones. She has never treated 1 Peter 2:5,9 as referring only to the ministerial priesthood. The Catechism explains the difference between the baptismal priesthood, which is common, and the ministerial priesthood, which belongs only to the ordained. (CCC 1546-1547)
    Vatican II did not need to explain the difference between the baptismal priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, because the unique character of the ministerial priesthood had already been explained at the Council of Trent (Session 23). The late fourth century – early fifth century bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom explains it clearly in his work titled “On the Priesthood.”
    The first three lines of your last paragraph seem to be suggesting that Vatican II introduced a new doctrine, and that perhaps in the future, the distinction in Catholic doctrine between the baptismal priesthood and the ministerial priesthood will be dissolved. If that’s what you are suggesting, then you are looking at the Catholic Church through a “hermeneutic of discontinuity”, i.e. the Protestant paradigm, as though the Church has the power to make up new doctrines and abandon old ones. The Church has no such power or authority. She is steward of what she has received, such as the doctrine of apostolic succession which is the basis for the distinction between the ministerial priesthood from the baptismal priesthood. To give up apostolic succession would be to destroy the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith. So, from a Catholic point of view, apostolic succession (and thus the distinction between baptismal priesthood and ministerial priesthood) cannot be lost until Christ returns, because the gates of hell shall not prevail over the Church.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  2. Chris Criminger July 2, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Hi John and all,
    John, I appreciate your reflective thoughts on this issue that brings many emotions, etc.
    Actually, I hope some other Catholics weigh in on this one since it seems to me that the first response seems more of a strain out a gnat response rather than dealing with some of the tough issues than John perceives in all this.
    Let us all beware lest all we end up having for supper is camel.

  3. Nick Morgan July 6, 2010 at 11:57 am

    Hi John,
    This is really a tough issue, it still blows my mind! As a Catholic I am deeply saddened and greived by what’s happened in the Church, and not only in the US but in many parts of the world. I know I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and the sense of betrayal felt by those who have been the victims of the abuse. I wonder how many of the clergy abusers were abused themselves? And I’m sure the guilt, shame, and despair many of the abusers feel is overwhelming. And yet, I also know that the number of clergy abusers is only a small percentage of the total number of priests and religious we have in the RCC, those who carry on their duties faithfully, if yet imperfectly due to the weakness of sin, day in and day out.
    Having said all of this though, I don’t think that the nature of the ministerial priesthood, as understood by the RCC, is in any way to blame for what has happened, neither the abuse nor the bungled actions by our Bishops in handling this crisis. John, as you know, our understanding of the ministerial priesthood is linked to our belief in Apostolic Succession and the authority to consecrate the Eucharist in the Mass. Vatican II didn’t change the essence of the church’s teaching on this, but returned the emphasis to the forgotten aspect of the “priesthood of all believers” and what this means for the life of the church. This was not a new doctrine, but a forgotten and neglected one. For example, my Mom and her generation seemed to have no concept of the “priesthood of the believer”, they relied on the sacramental priesthood for everything. Our understanding of the ministerial priesthood is that it is a once and for all gift of God’s grace, irrevocable, “an indelible mark on the soul”. A priest can be laicized and totally forbidden from carrying out any priestly functions, but is always a priest by sacramental grace. If anything in our hierarchical structure contributed to this disaster, it is the sheer size of the RCC. With over 1 billion members, Priests, religious, and bishops all over the world, managing a crisis of this nature and magnitude probably became a logistical nightmare, and it seems that then Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican were unaware of the scope and seriousness of this scandal until the late 80s, which by then much of the damage from abusers in the US had already occured, though the reports and media explosion occured later. I think that fear, embarassment, poor psychological advice and maybe some ostrich thinking helped this disaster to grow and spiral out of control until it finally blew up in our faces. I know it’s not wise to try to guess the reasons behind God’s providencial actions, but in this case it seems that God was saying “enough is enough, if you won’t handle it, I WILL!” Of course I could be wrong, but it sure seems to fit. God disciplines His shepherds when they fail to properly care for His flock.
    Well, these are just my thoughts on this horrible tragedy that will leave scars on the RCC for generations to come. Sadly too, we’ve given the enemies of the RCC plenty of ammunition to blast away at us with and mock our gracious and loving God as well. May our Holy Triune God have mercy on His church and heal the wounds caused by our sin and negligence!! Amen.

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