Saturday, January 07, 2006

Changes in Churches

First published 12-14-05

Catholics in the United States are losing priests but gaining parishioners. Episcopalians are gaining priests but losing parishioners. Catholics and Episcopalians are changing, but in different ways and the interplay it getting interesting.

Catholic priests have been in short supply here in the Portland, Maine diocese, necessitating a reorganization of how they are to be distributed across parishes. There are just not enough for every parish to have one. Now the Vatican has reiterated forcefully that homosexuals cannot be admitted to seminaries. The rule isn’t new, but since the 1960s American and European seminaries have been winking at it and allowing more and more to become priests. Many have become bishops as well and probably cardinals, but not openly. Seminary rectors and other church officials estimate that about 40-50% of US Catholic priests are homosexual. Under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican is acknowledging what has been obvious to many - that Catholic sex abuse scandal is mostly the result of homosexual priests and the bishops who protect them. More than 85% of sexual abuse victims have been adolescent boys and over 200 Catholic priests have died of AIDS over the same period. Under Pope Benedict, not-quite-open, but not-so-closeted homosexual priests are threatening to leave the church, worsening the already-severe priest shortage.

Other Catholics believe a strictly-enforced ban on homosexual priests will have the opposite effect; it will increase the number of men going into seminary. In his book “Good-bye Good Men,” Michael Rose makes this case quite convincingly. He documents how the “lavender mafia” within seminaries and many dioceses have turned away more traditional candidates. The few seminaries who have remained faithful to church teachings, like one in Omaha, have no shortage of straight applicants. Liberal seminaries, like the one in Boston which graduated so many homosexual priests, are largely empty.

The Episcopal Church is dealing with its homosexual challenge differently. It has trumpeted its gay and lesbian priests, and lately, Bishop Robinson. They have plenty of priests, but are losing the parishioners to serve. Other Episcopal priests are not comfortable with these developments and consider leaving, but they’ve been informed that they would lose their pensions if they did. Some whole parishes are outraged and are trying to secede from the Episcopal Church. The leadership responds by claiming that the diocese owns the parishes and not the parishioners, so the churchgoers can go, but they have to leave behind the property. The Catholic Church, under siege from homosexual-abuse lawsuits, is claiming just the opposite - that the local parishes are owned by the parishioners and not the diocese.

Lawsuits against the Catholic Church in the United States have surpassed $1 billion. They are filed against the local dioceses wherever the abuse occurred. The Spokane, Washington diocese, for instance, filed for bankruptcy claiming inability to pay the huge homosexual abuse settlements against it. Attorneys for the men who were abused as adolescents claim that the the diocese should not be allowed bankruptcy protection, but should instead liquidate parish properties and pay off the settlements. The diocese claims that the properties are owned by local parishes and the diocese has no authority to sell them, citing Canon Law. The Catholic News Service then reported that “U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams of Spokane ruled Aug. 26 [2005] that civil property laws prevail in a bankruptcy proceeding despite any internal church laws that might bar a bishop from full control over parish assets.” The diocese is appealing.

As if church ownership issues weren’t confusing enough, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, where the homosexual abuse scandal was worst, began closing local parishes and selling off the assets, claiming the diocese owned them. Meanwhile, the Portland, Oregon and Tucson, Arizona dioceses, however, have filed bankruptcy just as Spokane did and legal experts expect the ownership issue will go all the way to the US Supreme Court before it is settled. President Bush’s two Supreme Court appointments are conservative Catholics. When Alito is confirmed, he will join coreligionists Roberts and Scalia to rule on these property issues.

Meanwhile, if homosexual Catholic priests who are threatening to leave and join the Episcopalians actually do so, they will be able to wave at straight Episcopal priests going in the other direction to join up with the Catholics. Conservative Episcopal priests have been welcomed into the Catholic Church, some even with their wives. It makes one wonder how that goes down with straight Catholic priests who have lived for years under a vow of celibacy.

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