The Catholic Church will have to make significant changes to remain a vibrant leader in world society. The first change is to ordain women and married people. The prohibition of women from the priesthood made sense when women rarely had a major public role in society. Nowadays, women have filled every position in our society except President and Vice-President. Women such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher have been prime ministers. The concept of 7 sacraments for men but just 6 for women no longer passes muster.
During the first millennium, the Church experienced rapid growth with a married clergy, including the first Pope, Saint Peter, whom the Gospels record as having a mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15). Without these changes, there will have to be increasing ingenuity of the use of the few remaining priests. One idea would be to have huge television screens showing the celebration of Mass somewhere in the diocese, like a sports bar, in churches without priests but with assistance of deacons and communion ministers. Some schools survive with hardly any religious teachers. When I was a student at Saint Vincent de Paul Elementary School in Houston in the 1950-1958 period, 6 of my teachers were nuns. Today, there is just one nun teaching at St. Vincent’s. When I graduated from Saint Thomas High School in 1962, there were 25 priests or seminarians. Today, there are 6. Some schools without great ingenuity or resources have had to close their doors.
A second major change is accountability for pedophile cases. Such wretched abuse is more common in families and institutions than people like to admit. The public can understand when someone commits acts and is later discovered. What is not understandable is covering up the crime and performing the geographical cure, transferring the priest to another parish, lining up a new set of victims. State laws require institutions such as schools and churches to notify the authorities. Cardinals, bishops and others who have not complied with the reporting requirement should face criminal charges for negligence and obstruction of justice.
A third major change is to drop the idea of Hell as an everlasting punishment. Currently, Catholics are required to believe that Hell exists but are not required to believe that anyone (including Hitler and Stalin) are there. The purgatory concept, not found in scripture, where there is eventually pardon or reprieve allows a merciful God. Jesus spoke of a loving father. The picture of God in the Psalms and Gospels present total compassion, which is inconsistent with everlasting damnation. The Church should decriminalize a number of regulations such as the Sunday Mass obligation. What does premeditated murder and willfully missing Mass on Sunday have in common for Catholics? Currently, the Church considers both as mortal sins. The projected punishment for both offenses is out of line with reason.
A fourth major change is calling for the abolition of war which Pope John Paul II came close to doing in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year):
“..true peace is never simply the result of military victory, but rather implies both the removal of the causes of war and genuine reconciliation of peoples.
“ An insane arms race swallowed up the resources needed for the development of national economies and for assistance to the less-developed nations.”
This will take real effort to relieve worldwide poverty, place disincentives like an international tax on arms and strengthen international law. There are many strategies and tools that the rich countries can use to bring about development aid and debt forgiveness. Should the Pope call for this on a sustained basis, more good things will happen sooner.
A fifth major change would be to welcome homosexuals and lesbians into the Catholic community. Sexual orientation is not something that people pick and choose. One declared gay is in Congress and the comptroller for the City is Houston is gay. Most of the public has an open attitude. The church can share this same openness.
A tactical change to reduce the number of abortions is to make sure that families have all the resources they need for early child care. A simple observation is that Democrats do not care about children before they are born and Republicans do not care for children after they are born. Making sure that mothers have prenatal care, proper nutrition and the family has time to raise their children are all important. With fewer families with health insurance and parents working two or more jobs, the pressure for an abortion is high. For all the efforts or rhetoric of the Bush administration, the number of abortions per year has risen. An unlikely alliance with pro-lifers, pro-choicers and other child advocacy groups can encourage measures that will make every child a wanted child.
I felt most deeply about spiritual matters when I lived in a rural setting on a relative’s farm in Missouri, as a camper at Texas Catholic Boys Camp in Mountain Home, Texas and as a novice at St. Basil’s Novitiate in Pontiac, Michigan. As a novice, I had something like a spiritual awakening and looked back at a background of attending Catholic grade school, Catholic high school and freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas and felt that all the religious teaching was superficial. I was determined to do something about that but eventually left the Basilian Fathers without outlining any new ideas. The best I can come up with is featuring month long retreats at seminaries, monasteries, convents and retreat houses, hopefully in rural setting. This would fit best for young people during summer vacation and retired people.
Since the Third World has the most Catholics and the most growth, I was hoping that the College of Cardinals would have given serious thought in the last election to choose someone from a poor country as the next Pope. My favorite was Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez from Honduras. There are many others who are working for social justice. Since Pope Benedict XV made efforts to negotiate an end to the First World War, I am hoping that Pope Benedict XVI will make peace efforts that will alleviate the causes of war - poverty and militarization. Let us hope that the Holy Spirit has chosen wisely.
Ed O’Rourke is an environmental accountant who lives in and grew up in Houston. He attended St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School, Saint Thomas High School and the University of Saint Thomas, all in Houston, Texas, USA. For three years, he was in preparation for the priesthood with the Basilian Fathers.
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Last modified: 04/19/2007