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October 6, 2005Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand
Vol. 3, No. 17

 If the Eucharist isn't a right, is it a responsibility?
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

While the Russian Orthodox church sat in solemn conclave in 1917 debating internal church agendas, a fledgling group of communist insurgents made their first military attacks on the czar.

While the clergy bolstered the monarchies of Europe, the first stirrings of democratic revolution broke out in France.

While Roman Catholicism was being banned in France in 1793, the construction of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., a country built on the rights of the individual, was beginning.

And while 256 Roman Catholic bishops from 118 countries prepared to assemble in Rome this week for a synod on the Eucharist, Corpus, an organization of married priest that has long supported the notion of a married priesthood (it was formally named the Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service), initiated a program that could certainly enliven the discussion. Maybe even start a revolution of its own.

Corpus is setting out to identify married men who feel themselves called to ordination as Roman Catholic priests.

The rationale for the project is nothing if not intriguing. There are, the statement argues, support groups for women who seek to be ordained but are barred from consideration by gender. At the same time, however, there are no similar support groups for married men who are also barred from holy orders by virtue of marriage. And, many contend, they abound.

We know that there are priests who feel they are also called to be married. The question the document posits is whether or not there are also married men who feel that they are called to be priests.

Corpus points out that there are already approximately 25,000 Roman Catholic married priests in the United States alone. Another 100,000 married priests are affiliated with other support organizations around the world.

The figures are accurate if for no other reason than church doctrine itself. If the theology of the indelible mark, the idea that "once a priest, always a priest" persists, then there is simply no such thing as an ex-priest. There are only priests who, for one reason or another, are not permitted to publicly perform priestly duties, like saying Mass or celebrating the sacraments.

Clearly men have been called to both marriage and priesthood before now. We know it's so because over 125,000 of them exist. Suspended from priestly activity, yes, but there nevertheless, while we claim that we have a priest shortage. Clearly, these men, dispensed from the active priesthood, perhaps, are nevertheless both married and still priests.

The question is: How many more such men -- men who feel that they are called to be both priest and married -- are there now? As Corpus itself points out quite cogently, "It is one thing to state in theory that there are married Catholic men who might be interested in priestly ordination if institutional celibacy no longer were a requirement. It is quite another to be able to present to local bishops a roster of (presently) married men who might be interested in becoming candidates for priesthood." Indeed.

For these men, Corpus is creating a support group of their own.

For those who question the wisdom of such a group, I must admit that I know of at least one young man who might have wanted to have been part of the organization. Instead, he is now, as are many Roman Catholic women, an ordained Episcopalian married priest with two children serving a parish within 60 miles of his family home. The parishioners like him. They think his priesthood is quite valid, in fact.

At the same time, another 60 miles away, the same Roman Catholic diocese has installed a married priest and his family from another denomination as a local pastor -- apparently because he left his church over the ordination of women.

Whew. This is getting complex. When is the Holy Spirit really the Holy Spirit and how can we tell? Apparently only when It sends married priests from other places to serve where our own married priests are not allowed. And if that's the case, is this what theologians call "the analogue of faith," the idea that one part of the faith does not contradict another part of it?

More confusing than ever is the statement of Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice to the bishop-delegates at the opening assembly of the synod, which has as its theme: "The Eucharist: Source and Culmination of the Life and Mission of the Church." Cardinal Scola is the synod's official secretary and he made the point that Catholics do not have a "right" to the Eucharist. "The Eucharist," the cardinal said, "must be understood as a gift from God; it is not a possession or a right."

But if Eucharist is not a right, it can hardly be a responsibility either. By virtue of that kind of thinking, Catholics can surely not be expected to go to Mass. What Jesus said about "doing this in remembrance of me" is a metaphor at best. And the notion that women's communities need to worry about Eucharist at all since they can't say it for themselves is without substance. In fact, in the light of that kind of thinking, there is no priest shortage at all. "We cannot assume," the cardinal went on, "that the church is like a business and can calculate exactly how many priests it requires. Priests, too, are a gift from God. ..."

But if that's the case, from where I stand, they can all come home now and save both the time and the money it takes to hold a synod on the Eucharist. And somebody can tell Corpus we don't need their numbers either because while they were setting up their data base, Catholic theology became more clerical than theological.

In which case, all any of us who really see the Eucharist as "the source and culmination of the life and mission of the church," all we need apparently is a good Episcopal church nearby.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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