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Can a priest run for public office?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 28, November 2021 Categories: Clergy

Historically, priests were elected to public offices before the canonical ban was set in place by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

Canon law says "clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power" (Canon 285.3). Furthermore, "clerics are not to have an active role in political parties and in the direction of labor unions unless the need to protect the rights of the Church to promote the common good requires it in the judgment of the competent ecclesiastical authority" (Canon 287.2). This second canon is tricky, since the "unless" opens the door to political involvement if a competent authority deems it necessary. But who might that authority be if a papal representative and national bishops' committee don't see eye to eye?

Historically, priests—including a Benedictine, a bishop, and a future cardinal—were elected to public offices before the canonical ban was set in place by Pope John Paul II in 1980. A few were elected afterward and chose laicization. Twenty-three Catholic clergy have served as ambassadors, chancellors, representatives, prime ministers, and presidents in 11 countries since the 18th century. European countries that elected or appointed priest politicians include France, Germany, Poland, Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. In the Americas, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Canada, and the United States have all seen priests serving in government roles. 

The first U.S. priest to serve in federal government was Sulpician missionary Gabriel Richard. Assigned to the Michigan Territory, Richard served one term as a non-voting territorial delegate to Congress. In the 1970s, Norbertine priest Robert John Cornell represented Wisconsin in Washington for two terms. Cornell withdrew a bid to regain his office in 1980 after the ban. Jesuit Robert Drinan represented Massachusetts for five terms in Congress, ending his reelection campaign after the ban.

Upon relinquishing his campaign, Cornell said, "It is my personal belief that serving in Congress is no more inconsistent with the priesthood than teaching government and history, as I have done for 35 years."

In addition, several Sisters of Mercy, a Sister of St. Joseph, and a Dominican Sister have been elected to state or city positions of governance in the United States since the ban took effect. Technically the Canon claims jurisdiction only over clergy. However, in at least three instances, the sisters in question were ordered by their local bishop to choose between politics and religious life. All three chose to retain their elected seats "to promote the common good."

Scripture: reflect on roles of biblical priest-leaders - Moses, Samuel, Ezra, Judas Maccabeus

Books: Politics in the Parish: The Political Influence of Catholic Priests, by Gregory Allen Smith (Georgetown University Press, 2008)

Catholics and Politics: The Dynamic Tension Between Faith and Power, eds. Kristin Heyer et. al. (Georgetown University Press, 2008)

Is Pope Francis doing anything about the sexual abuse crisis and the bishops’ woeful response?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 05, April 2019 Categories: Clergy
St. Peter's Basilica
The crisis exposes an underlying sin: a self-referential church structure that promotes its own welfare over the community it’s meant to serve.

On January 1, 2019, the Pope released a strong letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The pope has addressed the worldwide crisis of clergy abusers and secretive bishops in speech and writing repeatedly. By his own admission, he’s made some painful mistakes, in misplacing his loyalty and emphasis. In his latest appeal, Pope Francis directed our U.S. bishops, on retreat in seclusion at that time, to pray and discern a gospel-inspired new way forward.

The pope uses terms that are helpful for future dialogue. He refers to the “culture of abuse”: not just thousands of incidents of pedophilia by church leaders but the whole landscape of secrecy, self-defense, and organizational entrenchment that multiplied the harm and deflected the damage. The pope doesn’t call for policies or protocols anymore. He wants a reconsideration of who a bishop is in relationship to his people. Francis demands a reassessment of power in the church that will seek to exhibit the “flavor of the Gospel”—not the boardroom.

The pope rightly names the “crisis of credibility” the U.S. church faces in this generation. He doesn’t name the twin crisis of relevance that naturally goes with it, but it’s there underneath. This present crisis has erupted over the pain and outrage we all feel for children betrayed and abandoned by our religious leaders. But it also exposes an underlying sin: a self-referential church structure that promotes its own welfare over the community it’s meant to serve.

Addressing this deeper failure requires a sea change in our present leadership model. A week of seclusion won’t effect this kind of transformation, but it can awaken sincere hearts to the need to pursue such conversion as aggressively as our leaders once sought to preserve the church’s reputation. The pope aptly notes how “spiritually abandoned” and “disheartened” faithful Catholics now feel, laity and clergy alike, in recognizing how our bishops chose to “defend spaces” over children and families.

The pope is summoning a different model of church to come into being. It’s an enormous undertaking that our bishops can’t undertake alone. We must do this together if it’s to be done, which will require a conversation we’ve never had and can scarcely imagine. It will require using a word Francis doesn’t use in his letter: shame. Our children were forced to carry shame in secret for so long. We all bear it in the open now.

Scripture: Mark 10:42-45; 11:15-18; Matthew 26:31; 1 Corinthians 12:26; 13:1

Books: Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, by Donald Cozzens (Liturgical Press, 2004)

Clericalism and the Death of Priesthood, by George B. Wilson, S.J. (Liturgical Press, 2008)

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Is it appropriate to speak of “lay ministries”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 08, December 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Clergy,Vocation and Discernment
Lay ministry
Can a layperson be said to “preach”; or should we call what they do—if they do it at all—by some other term?

Believe it or not, this was a matter of heated debate two decades ago. The concern was whether the word “ministry” could be applied to anything done by non-clergy. This same proprietary use of nomenclature affects the realm of preaching and proclamation. Can a layperson be said to “preach”; or should we call what they do—if they do it at all—by some other term?

As a laywoman and catechist of the church, I’m invited to do a lot of things that were once the official domain of priests or religious. Fundamentally I teach; but rarely in a classroom. I give religious instruction as a writer of books, magazine columns, and Scripture commentary. I also make presentations at retreat centers, give diocesan workshops, speak at Catholic conferences, and offer parish missions. It’s when I appear in person that the business gets murky. When I do in person the same things I do in print, what am I doing?

When asked to give a parish mission, for example, it’s expected that the mission leader (traditionally a priest) would preach at the weekend Masses to introduce himself and the themes of the mission to the assembly. When I give missions, some parishes invite me to do this—but are careful to call it something else: a reflection, talk, pious exhortation, or catechetical teaching. I’ve written homiletic reflections that priests use in their preaching for 20 years. But when I deliver these words myself, it isn’t preaching.

Nomenclature first showed its sticky side when I attended the Franciscan School of Theology. Enrolled in the Master of Divinity program, I spent four years surrounded by men studying for the priesthood. They spoke of their context as “being in seminary.” However, when I talked of being in seminary, I learned it was appropriate to say I was in theology school. We sat in the same classrooms, attended the same lectures, and took the same exams. We earned the same degree. But our experience was “ontologically” distinct. That’s a big word meaning the very being or essence of our pursuit was different. In the end, they would be ordained. I would look for work.

It’s in this context that I’m happy to say that, yes, these days, we do have a name for what lay people who work professionally in the church do: lay ecclesial ministry (LEM). It’s a nuanced and delicately controlled term. But it’s a start.

Scripture on ministry (as service): Luke 10:40; John 2:5, 9: Acts 6:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:5-18; 11:23; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Timothy 3:8-13

Books: Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (USCCB, 2005)

Lay Ecclesial Ministry: Pathways Toward the Futureedited by Zeni Fox (Sheed & Ward Books, 2010)

What can we expect from the Vatican Commission on women deacons?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Clergy
Women of the early church
What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were.

The Commission was formed to address a question Pope Francis frankly admits he doesn’t have the answer to: can women be deacons? What the Commission will do is study the history of female deacons in the church. What it won’t do is determine what the Pope will do with the information. As some will recall from 20th-century study commissions on birth control and women’s ordination to the priesthood, popes are free to reject the findings of such commissions and go their own way. The guy in Peter’s Chair gets to make the call.

Which is not to say the appointment of this commission is unimportant. Earlier popes, including most recently John Paul II, not only rejected ordained ministry for women at any level: John Paul emphatically said the church has no authority to ordain women. By calling a commission together, Francis suggests that the church may find such authority buried in historical precedent.

What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were. The record is clear, from Paul’s letters to church history, that the church employed female deacons as early as the year 55. Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not deaconess) in Romans 16:1. In 1 Timothy 3:8-12, after a description of what makes for a good male candidate for diaconate, the letter states: “Women, similarly, should be dignified ... temperate and faithful … .” The next sentence continues the description of the ideal deacon. It’s evident both male and female candidates made viable deacons.

What the Commission will seek to determine is whether women deacons were “ordained” or “installed” to their office. It makes a difference to the sacramental character, if any, of their service. Here, lines are drawn in the sand. Some scholars insist the rites of diaconate for men and women were identical as evidenced by existing materials. Others disagree. Still others say it doesn’t matter whether the rites were the same; what matters is how they were understood. The differences in service rendered by male and female deacons are less clear to some scholars. Others question whether past practice must dictate present needs. A bishop was once required to be “the husband of one wife,” according to 1 Timothy 3:2. That’s no longer true. The church evolves. For the moment, it’s up to Francis: is it time for the church to restore the women’s diaconate? And how?

Scriptures: Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, 8-12

Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Permanent Diaconate – ed. Virginia K. Ratigan and Arlene A. Swidler (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1990)

Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate – Phyllis Zagano (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Women Deacons? Essays With Answers – Yves Congar, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

If you're married, is it still possible to become a priest? If yes, what are the steps needed?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 11, May 2016 Categories: Clergy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Priest kissing baby

If you're a Roman Catholic male, this is a thorny issue with no clear solution in 2016. But the surprising truth is, the answer is not exactly no for others. Consider: the 1965 Vatican II Decree on Priestly Ministry and Life, states that "(Celibacy) is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches where . . . there are also married priests of highest merit." (no. 16) While this statement appears in a section on the gift of celibacy, it opens a door to other priestly possibilities.

Celibacy was practiced by many priests from early in the church’s history. However, at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, a rule was adopted forbidding married priests in the Roman church. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the tradition of priestly celibacy in 1563. A married clergy in the Roman tradition seemed a closed issue.

Then in 1951, Pope Pius XII permitted some married Lutheran clergy in Germany and Sweden to be ordained Catholic priests. In 1967, Pope Paul VI called for a study of the effectiveness of married ministers in other denominations. He entertained the possibility of admitting to the priesthood married ministers received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI allowed married Episcopal and Anglican clergy to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church under certain circumstances.

Today, around 200 married Catholic priests from other communions serve in the U.S. clergy. In order to ordain such a candidate, a bishop must appeal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The petition for a "dispensation from the impediment of marriage" can only be granted by the pope.

In February of 2015, Pope Francis addressed priests in Rome, noting the question of married priests “is on my agenda.” Asked whether priests who had left to be married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, the pope replied that the Congregation for Clergy was looking into it, but “it is a problem that does not have an easy solution.” The problem is not Scriptural, since the prophet Jeremiah was the only person in the Bible obliged to celibacy. Historical practice and a rich spiritual tradition have made priestly celibacy seem inevitable. But a door once slammed shut seems to be opened just a crack in recent times.

Scripture: Jeremiah 16:1-4; Matthew 19:12; Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9    
Books: Accompanied By a Believing Wife: Ministry and Celibacy in the Earliest Christian Communities - Raymond F. Collins (Liturgical Press, 2013)
The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological     Foundations - Alfons M. Stickler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995)

Is the clerical sexual abuse crisis over?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 14, October 2015 Categories: Clergy
Church pews

Anyone who imagines the clerical sexual abuse of minors, explosively uncovered in the U.S. media in 2002, is a contained scandalous episode fading in the church's rearview mirror is mistaken. The facts speak for themselves: between 1950 and 2002, an emerging 10,667 victims accused 4,392 priests of sexual abuse. The numbers touched 4.2 percent of diocesan priests and 2.7 percent of religious order priests, including four percent in every region in this country. The time frame of 1970-1974 was the most volatile for abuse, as social factors contributing to it were rooted in the generation born between 1920 and 1949. This suggests that while the wave of abuse is receding, the most hard-hit generation of victims are currently in mid-life.

Children who suffered direct and shocking abuse aren't the only victims of this period. Their families, past and present, have shared this terrible anguish with them. And since the revelations have gone public, the Catholic community across the nation and around the world has been crushed by the shame, blame, and guilt of this horror. The loss of institutional credibility in the public eye is immense, but perhaps more significant is the enormous loss of faith that many Catholics themselves suffer in regard to their leadership, their church, and in some cases their God. This won't "blow over" as the media finds other headlines to pursue. What has rent the Body of Christ so violently and intimately must be healed.

The healing of this scandal involves tending to the direct victims of abuse with therapeutic care and just recompense. It also requires the identification, isolation, treatment, and/or incarceration of the clerical perpetrators (and in some cases, some visible penalty rendered to their enabling bishops) as the law allows. The genuine full confession and penitence of the institution that in many cases protected its priests and its reputation over and against its children is necessary. But all of these measures are only the beginning of the cure.

The final phase of the healing process will begin when the structures and attitudes that inadvertently fostered and then covered up such egregious behavior are addressed and undergo conversion, as we all do. As church historian Joseph Chinnici suggests, "operating relationships between the clerical and lay, male and female, celibate and married, elite and nonelite, sacred and secular dimensions of the church" must all come under review. Our willingness to do this reflects our genuine readiness to repent, and to restore what has been lost in this scandalized generation.

Websites:, which since 2003 keeps documents related to the scandal

Books: When Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse, and the Challenges of Leadership by Joseph Chinnici, OFM (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus by Bishop Gregory Robinson, Donald Cozzins (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008)

Is there a protocol for paying the priest: for marriages, sick calls, last rites?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 07, September 2015 Categories: Clergy
Wedding with couple and priest

A lot of us would be glad to have a sacramental "tip chart". But there's no universal standard. The services of a priest to his parishioners are without charge. We don't pay for blessings or for the sacramental ministry of the church. These are the rights of every baptized member, and the duty of every ordained minister of the church.

Each bishop sets a marriage stipend for his diocese. This fee covers marriage preparation (i.e. Pre-Cana classes, weekends, counseling) and paperwork (publishing banns, contacting your parish of origin for records). It includes heat, lights, use of the church facility, and janitorial cleanup. When you approach a parish, they'll inform you what the marriage stipend is. This is not, I want to stress, an offering for the priest's services or payment for the sacrament.

So the priest himself isn't paid for services rendered. HOWEVER: Your hairdresser gets a tip. Your garbage collector gets a Christmas bonus. Anyone who provides good care is acknowledged by your generosity. So it's customary to acknowledge the priest, music director, and all who serve you with an offering of thanks. As follows:

Wedding Offerings: Priests I've talked to say this varies depending on the means of the individuals. A poor couple might not make any offering; a rich couple may offer $1000. The average wedding offering to the priest is $100. If a couple requires a great deal of extra time and investment (say, to annul a former marriage, or two, or three) and the priest does a wonderful job getting all that paperwork rolling, the couple may want to acknowledge this with a larger stipend.

Sick calls: Hospital calls often occur in crisis and there's no expectation of an offering. If family members are at the bedside and the priest has come a long distance, gas money is a thoughtful gesture. If the priest comes to the home at the family's request during a long illness, a gift of $5 to $50 is typical—depending on the family's means.

Funerals: Funeral offerings are often overlooked. Families may be consumed by loss, especially if death was unexpected. A gift of $5 to $50 is a typical offering, depending on the family's means.

Bottom line: Offerings are truly gifts, not coerced and not payments. Especially when the priest does a spectacular job of assisting the family, it's a kindness to let him know you're grateful.

Scripture: Luke 10:1-9; 1 Timothy 5:17-18

Are priests obliged to say mass every day?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 01, September 2015 Categories: Clergy
Priest preparing for communion

Older churches still include side chapels and altars in various locations throughout the building, mute witnesses to a time when private masses were celebrated by multiple priests. Most parishes don't have the luxury of multiple priests these days. But the question remains: was there ever a time in church history when a priest was obliged to offer a daily mass, and is it true today?

The 1985 Code of Canon Law provides us with current normative church practice in such matters. Canon is Greek for "rule", but the rules it supplies don't generally pertain to faith and morals and therefore are subject to change. For example, since the 11th century, priests have been restricted in the number of masses they can celebrate daily. This is to limit the number of mass stipends a priest might collect, curtailing certain abuses. Today a priest may accept only one stipend per day and is not permitted to celebrate more than one Eucharist daily (Can. 905) —except under conditions elaborated elsewhere in the law (as with a nuptial mass). On Sundays and holy days a priest may celebrate twice or more if a shortage of priests makes it necessary. I've been in a lot of parishes where one priest and three-plus weekend masses is standard practice.

In Canon 904, priests are "earnestly" urged to celebrate mass frequently, even daily. But this is a "recommendation," and there is no mandate to do so. Also, Canon 906 states that"Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful." Those private side altars where Father might "say his mass" are no longer deemed normative.

It's interesting to note that the 1917 Code of Canon Law offered strikingly different recommendations: that a priest say mass only "several times a year," although he was still obliged to attend mass on Sundays and holy days like every other member of the faithful. This practice reflected a time when vocations to the priesthood crowded the field of presiders. These varying prescriptions indicate that, historically, the obligation to celebrate mass has been determined more by the needs of the community than a perceived mandate for the priest himself.

 Books: Surprised by Canon Law - Pete Vere, Michael Trueman (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2005. Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry of the Catholic Church - Kenan Osborne (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003)

Scripture: Hebrews 9:1-28

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Why do we have priests?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, November 2014 Categories: Clergy

Priesthood in Roman Catholicism is rooted in two Old Testament images of priesthood. The first is the high priesthood of Moses' brother Aaron, which exercises three main responsibilities: worship and sacrifice, rendering the divine proclamation, and instruction of the people concerning divine law. The second image derives from God's covenant that names all of Israel a holy people, a royal priesthood. In the sacramental language of the church, the tri-fold leadership component of priesthood is bestowed with Holy Orders, while the corporate sense of priesthood springs from Baptism.

The Christian understanding of priesthood is grounded in Jesus, who is compared with the Levitical high priest in the exalted theology of the Letter to the Hebrews. First Peter also describes the church as a priesthood of believers. In the tradition of the early church, however, there were no individual priests to speak of. Perhaps the term seemed too confusing in a society already inhabited by Jewish and "pagan" priests. Instead, Christian leadership derived from the local bishop, who presided at Eucharist and provided guidance and governance. Each bishop was assisted by local presbyters, and as the church expanded territorially, the roles of presbyters stretched to include presiding at Eucharist. Priesthood, used at the end of the second century to describe the role of the bishop, gradually was extended to include the presbyterate. At this time episcopacy, presbyterate, and diaconate took on their normative divisions of responsibility.

After Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century, the orders of clergy took on a greater resemblance to hierarchies familiar to the Empire. Concurrently, the monastery phenomenon was growing in authority, and priesthood began to absorb the monastic ideal of separation from the lay state.

In medieval times, priesthood was increasingly identified with its liturgical powers in the Eucharist, minimizing its ministerial role and relationship to the community. After the Protestant Reformation rejected the non-biblical distinctions between clergy and laity, the Council of Trent (1545-63) upheld and strengthened them. The image of the Catholic priest was heavily reinforced in its distinctive character as the man set apart, both celibate and religious, who evokes the sacrifice of Christ in the actions of the liturgy and in his very being. It took a later Council, Vatican II, to reassert the dignity of the priesthood of the baptized, and to re-present priesthood as an extension of the bishop's pastoral ministry, locally expressed. The three-fold mission of preaching, sacramental ministry, and community leadership rebalanced the service of Holy Orders.

Scriptures: Exod 19:5-6; Deut 33:8-10; Letter to the Hebrews; 1 Pet 2:4-9

Books: The Theology of Priesthood - Donald Goergen, Ann Garrido, eds. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000)

Ministerial Priesthood in the Third Millennium - Ronald Witherup, et. al. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009)



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