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Amid Clergy Sex Abuse Summit, Former Priest Calls For 'New Conversation Around Priesthood'09:37
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Survivors of sex abuse hold a cross as they gather in front of Via della Conciliazione, the road leading to St. Peter's Square, during a twilight vigil prayer of the victims of sex abuse, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
Survivors of sex abuse hold a cross as they gather in front of Via della Conciliazione, the road leading to St. Peter's Square, during a twilight vigil prayer of the victims of sex abuse, in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
This article is more than 2 years old.

As nearly 200 Catholic leaders from across the world gather at the Vatican this week for an unprecedented summit on preventing clergy sex abuse, many in the church community are calling for significant changes to the clergy.

Among them is Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College and a former priest, who, with a group of other U.S. scholars, has authored a report urging church leaders to reconsider the structure of the priesthood altogether. By creating the document, titled "To Serve the People of God: Renewing the Conversation on Priesthood and Ministry," Groome hopes to spark a fresh dialogue on priesthood.

“The main thing is that we start a new conversation,” Groome tell Here & Now’s Lisa Mullins. “As Pope Francis — and we quote him at the end of our document — says, the future priest will definitely not look the same as the present or the past.”

According to Groome, one of the major problems in the clergy that Pope Francis frequently refers to is the “curse of clericalism,” where priests view themselves as “above the people,” rather than as co-workers “in the vineyard of the Lord, helping the whole community to live their faith.”

Groome points out that while it is OK to condemn this sort of attitude, it arises from a specific theology, rooted in clerical history. The Catechism of the Council of Trent — developed by church leaders in the 1600s to both counter the rising tide of Protestantism and explain Catholic doctrine — is considered a major authoritative text in the church. In it, though, Groome says, priests are referred to as gods.

“Now, it's a small ‘g,’ but nonetheless, that's why Sister Bridget in second grade told me that [as] I was passing through the village and I met Father Murphy and I met my guardian angel, I should salute Father Murphy first, because he indeed was closer to God even than the angels,” Groome recounts. “At least in Catholic culture, this exalted, exaggerated imaging of priests ... has to be debunked.”

One change the report proposes to combat this attitude, Groome says, is a shake-up of the current approach to seminary formation. By being taught by male priests in small clerical enclaves, young and middle-aged seminarians get preferential “treatment from the very beginning,” he says. “It’s not healthy.

“It's not the way to prepare people for priesthood.”

Interview Highlights

On whether women should be allowed to be ordained as priests

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“Of course, if you ask that question, I would say of 90 percent of the Catholic theologians, at least of North America, they would see it as an open question, rather than a closed question. The church proceeds as if it's a closed question, but there are very few Catholic theologians that would agree with that interpretation. ...

“Our document doesn't really get into the controversy about should women be ordained, should married people be ordained. We simply say, 'Before we get to there — and indeed we have to get to there — let's step back and ask the question, what does it mean to be ordained?' … One of the great emphases, traditionally, is that the priest has the power to preside the Eucharist. ... But priests are also called to preach well and to break open the word of God in ways that are relevant and engaging for people's lives, and to pastor well, which doesn't mean to lord it over. It means to engage the gifts of the community and put them all to work together.

“The conversation around what is priesthood, what does it mean to be ordained, I think that's a prior conversation. That's what we tried to do in this document we created. Now, when we come to list the criteria for priesthood — in other words, what are the gifts, what are the charisms ... that one needs to be a good priest? — you'll notice, and I am sure other people will notice too, we don't mention maleness, and we don't mention celibacy as prerequisites.”

"The church has been taking into its seminaries people that 20, 30, 40 years ago never would have been admitted. But given the scarcity now, almost any warm body that shows up ... can talk their way in there."

Thomas Groome

On celibacy, sexual abuse and the exclusion of women in church leadership

“I don't think there's a correlation between celibacy and sexual abuse. The evidence, the research doesn't indicate that. And then you can cite all the married men and some women who are indeed pedophiles and abusive of children. ... On the other hand, if through women [being] present in priests’ lives — I mean, intimately present, as spouses, as parents, as grandparents together — I think it would be a totally different culture, a totally different dynamic. I often said it years ago, if Cardinal [Francis] Law, who presided over the Boston Archdiocese at the beginning of the great scandal here in Boston [in] 2002, had had a couple of grandmothers in his cabinet ... he wouldn't have done what he did, moving abusive priests around, because those grannies would have objected. So, there's a real loss to the church in excluding women.”

"This can be some of the good that might get drawn out of the dreadful evil and crimes that were committed, that we would stop and pause and rethink and reimagine priesthood."

Thomas Groome

On reforming the selection process for priests

“We have to increase the intensity of the review of candidates. I think there has to be a whole review of the process, and I would be very much in favor of putting laypeople on the admissions committees of our seminaries and theologists, laypeople who would discern rather quickly whether a young person male or female is going to make a good priest. Now, the tendency has been — and we know this, it's a common whisper — that the church has been taking into its seminaries people that 20, 30, 40 years ago never would have been admitted. But given the scarcity now, almost any warm body that shows up ... can talk their way in there. That has to stop and cease.

“I suppose it's the exigency of numbers, that they don't want to leave parishes, good parishes, vibrant parishes closed for lack of a priest, so I suppose they will sometimes then overlook peculiarities, shall we say, and idiosyncrasies, and at least in some instances, there's evidence that the selectivity has been rather poor.”

On their goals in releasing the report

“Our hope is to create a new conversation around priesthood. In fact, a meeting we had in Rome — myself and a colleague, talking about the work of our seminar — we asked them, some of the leaders in the Congregation for the Clergy, which is the one that oversees priests, are you open to a new conversation around priesthood? Do we need a new conversation? And they agreed, heartily agreed that, yes, we need a new conversation. So, I think there can be a backhanded blessing somehow, that God can sometimes draw good out of evil. God never causes the evil, but yet, when evil happens, God can sometimes draw good out of it. And I think this can be some of the good that might get drawn out of the dreadful evil and crimes that were committed, that we would stop and pause and rethink and reimagine priesthood, in far more faithfulness to the tradition.

“This is what our research did: We went back into the history, the theology of ministry in the early church and the early Christian communities, looking for the threads that could provide us with a contemporary theology of priesthood. And we found them there. They are there. They're not the adulating kind of exalted pedestalizing that you find at the Council of Trent. It's much more a ‘servant of the servants of the people.’ ”

On whether Catholic leaders have seen the report

“Pope Francis has received it, we know that, and I know some of his staff are reading it. We've had some intimations of that. Whether he gets to read it or not or has somebody read it for him, we're hoping of course that he may read it and that we'll get a call to Rome to explain it or something.”


Savannah Maher produced and edited this story for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaJackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on February 22, 2019.

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Lisa Mullins Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.

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