Colorado editorial boards weigh in on dioceses’ historic agreement with Attorney General

Mark Haas

“The Catholic Dioceses of Colorado should have reported to authorities any and all accusations of sexual abuse decades ago, but we must praise the development that finally came Tuesday when church officials announced they will open their records for scrutiny.” – Denver Post Editorial Board, Feb. 20, 2019.

In the days following the announcement of a voluntary agreement between Colorado’s three dioceses and the Colorado Attorney General for an independent review of past allegations of sexual abuse of minors and the creation of an independent survivors’ reparation program, newspaper editorial boards from around the state offered their opinions on the actions taken by all the parties involved.

The general themes seemed to be that while nothing can fully make right the sins of the past, the process the Catholic Church in Colorado has entered into is a positive step in the right direction, and one that should be modeled by other institutions in the state.

“Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila deserves credit for opening the records voluntarily, and we hope he is able to stand firm in his resolve to expose the worst of what remains hidden,” the Denver Post Editorial Board wrote. “The best that can come from all of this is closure, healing and restitution for Colorado survivors of sexual abuse.”

In Colorado Springs, the Gazette Editorial Board also noted the unfortunate history in the Church, but added that “fortunately, today’s American Catholic institutions are safe harbors when compared with most other environments that combine adults with kids.”

Praising the effect that the 2002 Dallas Charter has had within the Church, the Gazette Editorial Board wrote that it hoped the dioceses’ actions could lead to state-wide changes.

“Anyone who watches local news knows anecdotally about the alarming rate of sex abuse involving children in public schools,” the Gazette Board wrote. “Let us hope Colorado’s attorney general, bishops, investigators and sex abuse survivors can make the investigation a constructive model for others to follow. All children matter, Catholic and otherwise. Each warrants protection from sexual abuse — just as survivors deserve justice.”

From Pueblo, the Chieftain Editorial Board called the announcement a “remarkable partnership,” and said that it “represents a great opportunity to provide some comfort and relief for victims and a measure of redemption for the church.”

In Grand Junction, the Daily Sentinel Editorial Board questioned whether the church should be “lauded” for addressing a “crisis of its own making,” but concluded “if the church intends to re-establish its integrity worldwide, what it’s doing in Colorado should serve as an example of the right way to try to make amends.”

“At this stage of the sex abuse crisis, it’s about the best step the church can take,” the Daily Sentinel Board wrote. “It’s shining a light on its own negligence — at least in Colorado. That’s how repentance works.”

And back to Denver, where the Post board wrote that Archbishop Aquila’s “words and heart seem to be in the right place,” and concluded: “If the Catholic Church wants to move beyond this dark period in its history, the path leads through a transparent reckoning with all that has transpired and a willingness to face repercussions, whether they be legal, financial or simply public shame. This step forward is a recognition of that fact.”

COMING UP: The priesthood is more than just a job

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In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash