I have been a bit slow of late getting onto this matter. I was alerted to the Petition “A Letter to the Catholic Bishops of Australia” when it came out, but have only just gotten around to reading it because it was not high on my priorities.
But I am aquainted with one of the drafters, Frank Purcell. I don’t want to question either Frank Purcell’s or Paul Collin’s sincerity, or that of the other signatories. Sincerity, however, isn’t the issue here. The fact is that what they are asking for is directly contrary to law of the Church (canon law) and to the law of God (God’s Word revealed in the Scriptures, interpreted by Sacred Tradition and clarified for today by the Magisterium). That should be enough for us. But not for the petitioners.
Perhaps their problem is a certain degree of positivism–the idea that the only thing that is blocking the Catholic Churches in Australia (there is no such thing as the “Australian Catholic Church”–the “national Church” is not a “Church in the proper sense”) from ordaining married men and women is some positivist law from “the Vatican”. In short, some things can’t be done because the can’t (in objective reality) be done, not just because some nominal authority says that they can’t be done.
Here is the text of the petition and my comments in [bold]:
18 June 2007
Dear Bishop ______________,
We write to you as members of the Australian Catholic Church to express deep concern about several key challenges that are facing us all as Catholics. At the same time we are especially heartened that the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference has commissioned excellent research projects on the specific issues that we wish to highlight.
These specific issues are:
The increasingly acute shortage of suitable priests to maintain our Mass-centred, Eucharistic spirituality and the celebration of the other sacraments; [I wish I could believe that the petitioners were really concerned about the priest shortage–which has been a result of a lack of evangelisation and catechisation as much as anything (the reapplication of which is the real solution to the priest shortage–as I have said before, this isn’t rocket science). But here it is simply used as fuel to the fire for their argument for married and female priests.]
The increasing drift of young people from the Church because of the difficulties we face in our ministry to them. [Again the solution is evangelisation and catechisation. I wonder if the petitioners are all supporters of WYD? I also wonder how having married and women priests are expected to minister to the young better? It doesn’t seem to have worked for those protestant communions which have both.]
The lack of full leadership roles for women. [I wonder about the word “full” and even more about the word “leadership”. The Church supports women in leadership roles in society, and it is arguably the case that there are more women currently leading in the Church’s parishes throughout Australia than men. Nevertheless, I thought the point of the Church was to provide servanthood roles for its members rather than leadership roles]
It is obvious to most Catholics that there is a major crisis of ministry and leadership in Australian Catholicism. A number of bishops have acknowledged this. This is already limiting the Church’s capacity to provide Mass and the sacraments for the Catholic community. It is also damaging the Church’s capacity to provide pastoral care and is limiting its missionary role in the wider secular community. The Church, at its best, could play a crucial role in ameliorating the suffering and darkness in which so many people live: not only their mental, physical, emotional and psychological suffering, but their spiritual darkness as they search for meaning and direction in their daily lives. [No one has an argument with this.]
While it is true that bishops are constrained in what they can do by the Vatican [see what I mean by “positivism”? The Church is constrained in what it can do by God’s Word], the Catholic tradition is clear: the bishop’s primary responsibility is to his diocese and more broadly to the national Church. [A very odd ecclesiology here. For a start, there is no such thing as a “national Church” to which bishops are responsible, and secondly the bishops are as much responsible for collegiality and communion with the Una Sancta Catholica as they are for their own local particular Church.]
At the same time we are aware that there are many people in our communities who are already well educated in theology and liturgy and are well gifted with talent for pastoral ministry and leadership. [Education and talent, though extremely important in chosing candidates for the priesthood, do not in themselves make anyone a necessary candidate]
We are therefore asking each bishop individually and the bishops as a conference to:
Acknowledge that there is a major crisis in ministry within the Australian Catholic Church [many bishops have acknowledged this and that is why there are strong vocations programs in many dioceses];
Acknowledge that there is no doctrinal or theological barrier to the ordination of married men [While we can acknowlege this, we must also acknowledge that there are strong doctrinal and theological reasons for celibacy. The latter has been judged to outweigh any perceived benefits that would come from relaxing the canonical discipline of priestly celibacy]. The Australian Church [there it is again] has already ordained married former Anglican priests;
Take practical steps toward ordaining suitably qualified married men [this cannot be done because it is against canon law; the petitioners may wish the law to be changed, but cannot reasonably expect the bishops to act contrary to it as it stands];
Encourage a wide-ranging discussion of the role of women in ministry and in the authority structures of the Church, including the question of women’s ordination [it strikes me that the bishops would be far more agreeable to having such a “wide-ranging discussion” if it were made quite clear from the outset that it DID NOT INCLUDE the question of women’s ordination. On top of this, the petitioners are ignoring the fact that Pope John Paul II declared that the matter of the ordination of women cannot be “considered still open to debate” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).];
Establish appropriate scriptural, theological and pastoral training programs (campus, distance and online) to prepare suitable women and men for ministry [I believe these are generally called seminaries. Those diocese which do not have them might well think about establishing them]. These candidates should have the recommendation of their parishes and communities, and should participate in mentored pastoral work [There is always the possibility of priests mentoring local parishioners for a greater role in pastoral care of the parish. I did it when I was a parish pastor in the Lutheran Church and I know many priests who are doing it now in thier own parishes. We don’t need “experts” to prepare such practical leaders];
Invite priests who have left the ministry to return to active priesthood, subject to negotiation with the local bishop [There are canonical restrictions here–besides the issue of the fact that many have left to get married. Besides, do we really want to fill up our vacant parishes with men who have put their hand to the plough and turned back?].
We would therefore request that these issues be pl
aced on the agenda of the November plenary meeting of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference later this year.
Paul Collins & Frank Purcell