Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine November-December 2007


A recently received manuscript laid out in tediously precise detail the six social dynamics undermining respect for the family. Not five, mind you, and not seven, but six. The author was insistent about that. There is a type of mind that seems to think nothing is said precisely unless it is numbered. Peter Altenberg, a major figure in Vienna’s café society at the beginning of the last century, wrote: “There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.” Precisely.


Avoiding contact with those with whom you disagree is a “sophomoric strategy”. So said Prof. Daniel Finn of St. John’s University in Collegeville in his valedictory address as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA). The CTSA has been somewhat marginalised in recent years. Ten years ago, Bernard Cardinal Law called it a “wasteland”, and Avery Cardinal Dulles, a former president of CTSA, said it “constitutes a kind of alternative magisterium for dissatisfied Catholics”. Finn said that CTSA’s frequent statements criticising the Magisterium of the Church were counterproductive, alienating church leadership and reducing support for changes desired by CTSA members. His theme was power as “part of the software of daily life”, and the ways in which academics havedistanced themselves from that reality. Closely related to the question of power, he noted that the organisation was losing members because “conservative” theologians wanted nothing to do with it. On his mind may also have been the awareness that a substantial number of distinguished theologians have been making plans to establish a new theological society for scholars more attuned to the Magisterium. Finn’s address received a standing ovation, but what difference it will make for the future of CTSA is very much in question. Finn was careful in not repudiating former statements but suggested that in the future such criticisms of Rome might better come from individual theologians rather than from the CTSA as an organisation.


The number of priests is in decline but “lay ecclesial ministers” (LEMs) are popping up all over. The late Msgr. Philip Murnion, a sociologist who founded the National Pastoral Life Centre, called the phenomenon “a virtual revolution in parish ministry”. Many see the revolution as a very good thing, a remedy for a “priest-ridden” Church, to use a favoured locution of classic anti-Catholicism. There are today 31,000 certified lay ecclesial ministers working in American parishes today and 18,000 more are in training. The total number of priests is 43,304. In many cases, LEMs run parishes and are the ministry of the Church for everything except sacramental acts requiring a priest. In such cases the LEM hires, so to speak, a priest for piece work. (With the permission of the bishop, to besure.) If it is not a revolution, this is certainly a radical change in the understanding and practice of ministry in the Catholic Church. John Allen, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, highlights an additional dimension of the phenomenon that is worrying many. Eighty percent of LEMs are women. David DeLambo of the aforementioned pastoral centre says this, too, is a very good thing. Women ministers, he says, “bring sensitivity to lay concerns and to families, as well as to issues related to gender and inclusion”. Critics disagree, pointing to the increasing “feminisation” of the Church. In 1999, Leon Podles published The Church Impotent: The Feminisation of Christianity. A First Things reviewer (October 1999) thought he got much of his historywrong, but even casual observers know what scholars have documented, namely, that religion is disproportionately a “woman thing”. As Podles puts it with a charming bluntness, “Women go to church, men go to football games.” Christianity’s alienation of males is the theme of a more recent book by David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church. Murrow, a specialist in media and advertising, says: “It’s not too hard to discern the target audience of the modern church. It’s middle-aged to elderly women.” They have what churches need, time and money. In addition, says Murrow, “If our definition of a ‘good Christian’ is someone who is nurturing, tender, gentle, receptive and guilt-driven, it’s going to be a lot easier to find women who will sign up.” Which leads Allen to ask thequestion, “If the tone in most parishes is being set by female ministers, what will that do to the comfort level of men, given that women are already over-represented?” Some think that women LEMs are a step toward the priestly ordination of women. Others, recognising that that is not going to happen in this millennium or the next, see LEMs as virtual priests without ordination. So why don’t bishops recruit more men to be LEMs? In large part, Allen plausibly suggests, because they want to recruit men to the priesthood. Or, in the case of married men, to become permanent deacons, another fast-growing group that is also compensating for the shortage of priests. (Permanent deacons are men ordained into the sacramental ministry of the Church and are to be distinguished from “transitional”deacons who are seminarians on their way to priesthood.) Some dioceses in this country are rich in priestly vocations. More generally, the precipitous decline in vocations has bottomed out, with signs of a reversal underway. Embracing the intended slur, a friend says, “Of course, Catholicism is priest-ridden. Always has been, always will be.” He’s probably right about that, although, if the reversal doesn’t accelerate dramatically, the takeover of the LEMs may be hard to undo.

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