America’s Roman Catholic bishops decided to steel themselves against the rising howl for change in the church’s standards for priests. In so doing last month at the semi-annual conference in Detroit, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) appeared to reject the findings of a $500,000, four-year study of the priestly life that the NCCB itself had commissioned.

The most visible issue in the conflict between the hierarchy and the priests, both at the three-day assembly of the 230 prelates and for several weeks beforehand when the study results were leaked to the press, was celibacy. But the controversy goes far deeper, relating to the very nature of the church and the priesthood itself. And judging from the stance of the bishops in Detroit, for now at least they have chosen a hard-line approach that emphasizes the sacerdotal aspects of the priesthood and the traditional authority. This approach flies in the face of what surveys—including their own—indicate the majority of priests believe is right.

John Cardinal Krol, head of the bishops’ committee for Study of Priestly Life and Ministry, said the study was “the most massive single examination of the priesthood in history.” Its purpose was to take an in-depth look at the priesthood today and to fit the contemporary view into the permanent, theologically based understanding of the role and ministry of priests. Studies were made in the areas of theology, history, sociology, psychology, ecumenism, spirituality, and pastoral ministry. The first four were released to the bishops in mid-April. The press wasn’t to be let in on the findings until the Detroit meeting, but the New York Times obtained the reports and the cat was out of the bag twelve days early.

The sociological and psychological studies focused on the problems of authority, loneliness, and relating to people. And although a majority of Catholic priests, according to the survey, favor a change in the church’s mandatory celibacy law, that issue—like the others—is tied more to freedom than to the desire to marry. Only one in five would marry if they had the right, and an overwhelming majority consider celibacy an advantage in their work, according to the studies. But priests want the freedom to choose or reject celibacy.

A majority also feel that Roman Catholics should have the right to choose artificial birth control and divorce.

The sociological portion of the study was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago and involved a sample of 5,200 active priests, both diocesan and in religious orders. Sociologist Andrew M. Greeley, NORC program director, headed that study. The psychological survey was based on 271 lengthy interviews with priests.

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If the bishops were nettled by these results (committee chairman Krol told the bishops in a report that “psychological and sociological data cannot be used as a criterion of truth or as a norm of action”), they were even more displeased by the theological study. Relatively brief (twelve pages), it was written by Jesuit theologian Carl J. Armbruster, who took over the work less than a year ago; the original author had resigned from the project—and the priesthood—to marry.

Celibacy as a life style is not necessary “to the charisma of priestly service,” Armbruster said. And bishoply eyebrows were raised when he added that there are “no scriptural or dogmatic arguments against the ordination of women to the priesthood, and in fact some theological and pastoral reasons for doing so.”

The studies found, however, that the Catholic priesthood is in no danger of collapse. And, despite the prevalent permissive moral atmosphere, the studies showed “little evidence of a change in position on either premarital sex or abortion” by the priests surveyed. Younger clergy, however, are “somewhat more sympathetic to premarital sex and a substantial segment of priests think that the abortion issue ought to be carefully investigated.” The younger a priest, the less likely he is to celebrate Mass or pray every day. But surprisingly, the youngest priests read the Bible more often than any other age grouping.

The tie between priestly resignations and marriage was flavored with a dash of irony just a few days before the NCCB meeting. Prominent Catholic pastor Robert F. Duryea of Pacifica, California, was excommunicated and removed from his post when his archbishop learned that the 49-year-old priest had been secretly married for nearly seven years and had a 5-year-old son, Paul—named after the present pope.

Said Duryea and most of his parishioners: This proves the traditional objection to a married priest is nonsense. Not so, squawked the conservative National Catholic Register editorially: “Yeah, like the guy who gets away with bigamy proves the traditional objection to polygamy is nonsense.”

The debate is likely to rage on at the October world synod of bishops in Rome. “Priests need a more genuine experience of freedom in all those areas of life which are recognized as significant to the process of personal development,” the psychological study said. “These include freedom concerning celibacy, self-support, place of residence, life-style, and mode of Gospel service.”

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That the nation’s 59,000 active priests would find ears sympathetic to the seven-part study among the four U. S. delegates to the Rome synod seemed most doubtful. Only NCCB president John Cardinal Dearden of Detroit is considered a progressive. The other delegates, Krol of Philadelphia, John Cardinal Carberry of St. Louis, and Archbishop Leo C. Byrne of St. Paul-Minneapolis, are conservative to ultraconservative.

In the midst of the tumult, however, there was a slight thaw on one front: The Vatican ruled April 29 that a simmering, 33-month-old dispute between Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington, D. C., and nineteen of his priests over the papal encyclical on birth control could be ended through a semi-compromise. All would be forgiven, the Holy See ruled, if the disciplined priests presented themselves to O’Boyle for the restoration of “full faculties.” The Vatican statement was considered ambiguous enough to allow both sides to claim a moral victory. It provides for the “subjective norm” of individual conscience and the “objective norm” of official church teaching.

Meanwhile, Catholics at the grass roots noted in regional meetings that a clear distinction is needed between the priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial priesthood of the ordained in order to remove confusion about how authority in the church is exercised.

Perhaps future rounds of discussion here and in Rome will come back to the words of Cardinal Krol. Saying that he was sure he was speaking for all bishops and priests, Krol observed that the priesthood is a ministry of service. “How,” he asked, “can priests more effectively serve God and the people entrusted to their spiritual care?”

‘Pope Joan’

From London comes word that a film, is being made of the mythical Pope Joan and that a 26-year-old Norwegian actress, Liv Ullman, is cast in the role of the pontiff.

There is little historical evidence that a female pope existed. But a story appears frequently in literature of the late Middle Ages to the effect that a Pope Joan reigned briefly in the ninth century. One source says, however, that she was elected to the pontificate in about 1100 while pregnant, that she gave birth during the procession to the Lateran palace, and that she was then dragged out of the city by her feet and stoned to death. Protestant polemicists picked up the story in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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The film may arouse controversy. It is entitled simply Pope Joan.

Ferment At Central Baptist

“I think this school just voted to kill itself,” predicted student-body president Johnny Andres after the Central Baptist Theological Seminary’s board of directors in Kansas City voted to accept the resignations of three of its professors: Dr. Warren L. Molton, Dr. Alvin C. Porteous, and Dr. M. Edward Clark.

The three American Baptists had tendered their resignations conditionally in a letter asking for a clarification of the school’s policy and image. But the executive committee recommended that “the resignations be acted upon at once apart from the issues.” The board complied, summarily releasing the trio, and later rejected their pleas for reconsideration of the decision.

“I am mystified as to what really happened to us,” commented Molton, who is professor of pastoral theology. “This was a steamroller decision caused by professional jealousies.” Clark, professor of Christian education, said the intent of their letter was misinterpreted, and he blamed the ouster on their controversial involvement in social and racial issues. The three have participated in civil-rights, peace, and environmental movements, including last year’s war moratorium in Washington, D. C. One professor even led a downtown march against Kansas City’s superintendent of schools, O. L. Plucker, for failing to provide a hot-lunch program in ghetto schools. Plucker is also president of the seminary board.

The action was precipitated by student controversy over a statement in the school catalogue that posits agreement with the historic—and conservative—New Hampshire Confession of 1833. “The seminary has been represented as a conservative school. When students come here, though, they are sometimes shocked to find that both the faculty and larger body are, in fact, theologically pluralistic,” explained Andres.

One student wrote a letter to the school newspaper charging that some professors did not believe in the virgin birth or bodily resurrection, and questioning their integrity as representatives of the institution. “We are not fundamentalists by any means,” conceded Molton. “But no one questioned my theology when I came in 1965.”

The seventy-two member student body met with the board and asked for a reinterpretation of the school’s position, or at least recognition that the seminary indeed represented diverse viewpoints. One conservative seminarian tongue-lashed President Paul T. Losh: “Even when you go to liberal churches, you are liberal, and when you go to conservative churches, you are conservative.”

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When the board failed to clarify the official position, the three professors submitted their resignations in a move intended to force the board “to deal with the issues.” A majority of the students, in support of the trio, petitioned the board for “either a delay in the decision or rejection of the resignations, because we felt a vote to accept would close the door to reconciliation.” But, replied Plucker, “it is no longer possible for us to work together.”

“A few men had an opportunity to settle a grudge, and they pushed it through,” Andres complains. He says two-thirds of the students pledged not to return to the school next fall. They plan, however, to form “a new-life-style Covenant Community here, in an attempt to humanize Kansas City, rather than transfer to other schools,” he says. “And the three professors have assured us they will remain in the area, if possible, to lead us in this new ministry.”

If the students do leave, one close observer speculates, the seminary’s doors may not open again, especially since most of the remaining six faculty members have doctorates from Central, an inbreeding that could lead to loss of accreditation by the American Association of Theological Schools.


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