As some of you know, the New York Times is hosting a series of blog discussions during Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic visit to the United States. Among the bloggers is the infamous Rosemary Radford Ruether.
I first became familiar with her work during college when I picked up a copy of Ungodly Rage, Donna Steichen’s expose of the ugly underbelly of Catholic feminism. Then, in 1995, I worked shoulder to shoulder with one of her students while completing my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Regions Hospital in Saint Paul, MN.
So I was not very surprised by Ruether’s contribution to the discussion on the New York Times blog yesterday. I’ve reprinted her post below, as well as the response I made (which, surprisingly, did get published in the comments box).
A Few Good Priests?
By ROSEMARY RADFORD RUETHER
Declaring himself to be “deeply ashamed” by the misbehavior of Catholic priests in the sexual abuse cases, the Pope said it “is more important to have good priests than many priests.” While this remark may seem obvious, it strikes a hollow note for many Catholics in the United States and around the world who suffer from the lack of adequate priestly ministry in their parishes. As the numbers of Catholics grow, and the numbers of priests decline, an increasing number of Catholic parishes lack resident priests. They make do with lay leaders, women and men, who, while dedicated, lack the ability to administer the sacraments that are key to Catholic religious life.
It is not that there is a lack of Catholics willing to serve in the priesthood, but a lack of those who are willing to take on the vows of celibacy. There are also increasing numbers of women who are theologically educated and eager to serve in the ministry, but this Pope, like his predecessor, has been adamant in rejecting the possibility of the ordination of women at a time when most other Christian churches have changed their minds on this historic exclusion of women from ordained leadership. The limited social base from which Catholic priests are recruited is the obvious reason why there are dwindling numbers of Catholic priests. It is also directly connected not only with why there are not “many,” but also why some have proved themselves sexually abusive.
When a church recruits its leadership exclusively from those who repress their sexuality and are taught to view sex as the opposite of sacredness, it is inevitable that some of those who take such vows have an immature sexuality that will be acted out secretly in sexual abuse of the vulnerable, young boys and girls. Until the Catholic Church faces up to the way its negative views of sexuality are connected with sexual abuse, it will continue to be faced with the problem of priests who are both not “good” and also not “many.”
My response was:
I don’t think the requirement of celibacy is the reason for the diminished number of priestly vocations. If a link could be drawn along these lines, it would be better to point to the source: an inability or an unwillingness to live one’s sexuality in a generous, self-giving way. This is the call for every Catholic, whether married, single, or vowed as celibate.
We don’t live in a culture that supports chastity — the ability to put one’s erotic desire at the service of another in a generous, selfless way. This is the key to enduring marriages and enduring vocations to priesthood and religious life.
There’s nothing repressive about this vision. When the Theology of the Body espoused by John Paul II (and by Benedict also in encyclicals such as Deus Caritas Est) truly comes into its own, I believe we’ll see an abundance of vocations lived in a beautiful, life-affirming, and love-filled way.
It’s not the time to give up on celibacy. Because it is not the time to give up on love. A celibate life, well-lived, is a witness to hope.
As I wrote this, I realized that so often, if you read between the lines written by those who reject the Church’s teaching, you will discover that the driving force is a lack of hope: Fatherhood has failed us, priests have failed us, the promises of celibacy have failed us, etc. Our sacrifices have not yielded the successes we were asking for. In short: We have been fishing all night, and have caught nothing. No matter how dissenters want to dress up their despair, to make it seem as though they have something positive and forward-looking to propose, the reality tends to be that it’s an impoverished vision, a vision that has lost hope.
We can attack the dissenters, insult them, mock their ideas, etc., but perhaps it would be better to find ways to invite them to rediscover hope. I think that is one thing Pope Benedict would like to do this week. I pray that his work in the vineyard of the Lord bears the fruit of an abundant hope for those tempted to despair.