June 30, 2019
By guest writer William M. Shea
James Carroll’s recent essay on the priesthood in The Atlantic, the critical responses by Thomas Reese and James Martin, and the tempered comments by Donald Cozzens (NCR) indicate to me that the discussion of reform has taken a significant turn. We seem now to be asking questions about the structure of authority in the Roman Catholic church rather than only about sin and how to counter it. The pope and bishops, for all their admirable attempt to amplify the reporting and handling of changes of abuse and cover-up by bishops, are struggling to keep the reform urges inside the boundaries of the received structures of authority, i.e., there are to be no independent lay bodies to open and review cases. All is to remain under hierarchical control.
In my own reading experience it was Garry Wills’ book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (2013) that decisively kicked open the door on the dissolution of the clericalism and hierarchism that, in my view, plague the Catholic church and, one way or another, most of the Christian churches, none of which has found an ideal solution. This intensified discussion in the last decade is fraught with many dangers, I admit. Even I, a retired and increasingly breathless old man, have been accused of apostasy by the renowned archbishop of Philadelphia for my memoir, Judas Was a Bishop (2015).
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