I AM a Catholic, born in 1921 of Italian and Irish families and raised in California seminaries. After decades of work as a priest, I was astonished that Pope Paul VI appointed me a bishop in San Francisco. I love my church, and every night I pray that I might die in her warm, loving arms.
Yet I worry about my church’s future. Basic doctrines will not change. But the church may change policies and practices after doing serious study.
So, as we await Pope Francis’ visit to America, I offer a peaceful contribution to the controversies that convulse the church today.
American Catholics are divided, primarily, by three internal church conflicts.
The first is over priestly celibacy. Observers within and outside the church point to mandatory celibacy as a principal factor driving down the number of American priests.
A celibate life is admirable for a priest who personally chooses it. For 1,000 years, great good has been accomplished because priests could fully devote their lives to their ministry.
Nevertheless, in recent years married clergy of other Christian churches have been accepted into service in the Catholic Church. So far, the ministry of these married priests has appeared successful.
The church should start relieving the desperate shortage of clergy members by also accepting for ordination men of mature age, of proven character and in stable marriages.
Optional celibacy allows a choice between an abstinent life, totally free for ministry, or a married life that enables better understanding of the lives of parishioners.
American Catholics are also divided over the ordination of women as priests.
Recent popes have said publicly that priesthood for women cannot be considered because the gospel and other documents state that Christ ordained men only.
Yet women have shown great qualities of leadership: strength, intelligence, prayerfulness, wisdom, practicality, sensitivity and knowledge of theology and sacred Scripture.
Might the teaching church one day, taking account of changing circumstances, be inspired by the Holy Spirit to study and reinterpret this biblical tradition?
Finally, why is a divorced Catholic who has remarried denied the Eucharist? Such people are considered living in an irregular union.
Valid marriages remain indissoluble. However, in confession a priest, after reviewing the circumstances with a remarried penitent, already can assist that person to develop a clear conscience with God and resume receiving the Eucharist.
Last month, Pope Francis stated that divorced and remarried Catholics were “not excommunicated,” perhaps suggesting that prohibition of the Eucharist is under review.
In surveys today, the question “to what church do you belong?” increasingly prompts the answer “none.” Polls show that many high school and college students have gradually come to believe that what they learned as children about the nature of God can be erased as readily as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.
The culture that surrounds them focuses on science, growing out of the long history of Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Einstein and Hawking. Still, most young people become not atheistic but agnostic, still searching even as they entertain doubts about God.
Pope Francis prefers the simple title “bishop of Rome.” So I ask my brother bishop: Should we not convene a third Vatican Council just as ethical and paradigm-shifting as Vatican Council II of the 1960s?
A Vatican Council III would bring together the world’s bishops under the unifying guidance of Peter. It would include representative major theologians, scholars of sacred Scripture, scientists and appropriate academics, lay people of all ages, clergy members and parishioners, and officials of other faiths.
In addition to the three issues dividing the church, this council and future councils would explore the morality of world economies, spiritual life, human sexuality, peace and war, and the poor and suffering.
Such a council might slow or reverse the flow of the faithful out of the church. It would also stimulate a new conversation about God, one that shows young people that God is not an old man with a long white beard. God is infinite and unlimited.
This is not easy to grasp. God is incomprehensible to our finite minds. We surmise that God is spirit, straddling the universe and parallel universes. At the same time God is intimate to each of us. We cannot prove existence by reason, nor can science disprove God’s existence.
Moreover, faith and science are not in conflict.
Many of the young say they relate to God personally and do not need a church. We applaud this personal relationship, but it is also truly human to do things in community: We party together, we play sports together, we enjoy meals together. The three generations of my own nieces and nephews are just as moral as I am, if not more so. Could it be that they know more clearly what Pope Francis has been asking of us for the past two years — to be more loving and accepting?
What caused much of the church over the centuries to underestimate the gospel’s core message, which is love? After the emperors Constantine and Theodosius embraced Christianity in the fourth century, one strain in the church developed a spirit of power and dominance, seen most clearly in the Crusades and the Inquisition. Many, including Pope Gregory VII, tried heroically, but unsuccessfully, to stop this trend.
Therefore, the main challenge facing the church today is not simply to resolve questions like celibacy, but to relearn how to communicate a deeper, more intelligent, more relevant religion that leads to a life of acceptance and love.
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