Who Can Minister?

The Rev. Donald Cozzens has now been joined by James Martin, S.J., in shedding light rather than heat on long-suppressed questions about the proportion of and challenges to homosexual priests in America (“The Church and the Homosexual Priest,” 11/4/00). Both men are concerned about priests in active ministry. The truth is that homosexual men have functioned in the sacramental ministry for generations in greater or lesser numbers, often as generously and successfully as their heterosexual confreres.

It would be helpful, then, to broaden our perception of an issue often reduced to the narrow questions of whether homosexuals should be accepted in seminaries or ordained. By rephrasing an oversimplified question, we may discover its true complexity. As with internalized faith, the inquiry prompts no facile answers, but instead deeper and better questions.


The question is not Who can be a priest? but Who can minister? Answer the latter and you also respond to the corollary, Who may minister? And for an answer we can turn to a fresh if ancient criterion that supplants heterosexual/homosexual, male/female and married/celibate as the usual categories of eligibility for and the capacity to minister. Instead, we look at the more trustworthy criterion of discerning what is healthy over what is unhealthy.

Who can minister? Those who can make healthy relationships with those they serve are capable of ministering.

Health resembles fair weather more than foul. The latter, like the unhealthy, may be unpredictable and tormented by harmful storms. Sunrise, like health, is different every day, yet both give warmth, life and hope. Were weather and health always perfect, they would be unable to give or express life. This endowment of health is the necessary and sufficient condition for ministering in a church that understands itself as the mystery of the people of God and, therefore, a mystery of human relationships. This easily recognizable quality of health transcends all other distinctions as the common denominator of life-giving ministry.

The answer to the question who can minister tells us who may minister as well. If there is to be no distinguishing between Jew or Greek, slave or free in the Catholic community, then neither is there homosexual or heterosexual, male or female, married or given in marriage as a way of distinguishing among those who may minister in a healthy way to that community. The hallmark of who can and who therefore may minister is not exclusive to a specific gender, sexual orientation or conjugal state. Rather, it resides solely in the ability to be healthy in working with the other members of the community. That is the obvious subtext of Paul’s letters to his many communities, as he urges Christians to serve, settle differences and encourage one another.

Authoring Healthy Relationships

Making healthy relationships is, in fact, the essence of exercising healthy authority. Health, evident in his lack of defensiveness and self-consciousness, was the energy behind Pope John XXIII’s embrace of the needy world. Authority is never a problem when it is exercised by a healthy person.

The philosopher Yves Simon provided a dynamic understanding of authority as a function of human relationships in which one (pastor, teacher, parent) relates to another (parishioner, student, child) in order to help the latter to grow out of the old relationship into a new and enlarged condition of being, in which childish things may be put away. This concept fulfills the meaning of authority, whose root, augere, means to create, to increase, to make able to grow. Only those who can help others grow can or may minister in the Christian community.

Unhealthy Authoritarianism

The corollary, of course, is that forming unhealthy relationships is the essence of authoritarianism. The driving dynamic in authoritarianism is the elaborate striving by which one person controls others in order to satisfy his or her own needs. This style, no matter how nobly rationalized as “for the good of the church” or as “God’s will,” kills, delays or diminishes the true growth of the other as it places the desires of the unhealthy servant ahead of the healthy needs of those served. Authority is always a problem when it is exercised by an unhealthy person.

In the discussion spurred by Cozzens and Martin, the manipulative, authoritarian style has emerged as the most disturbing characteristic of some seminarians and priests. Such pathological tactics also mark many attacks on the Vatican II church and its leaders.

To understand who can and may minister, as well as who cannot and should not minister, identify a person’s position on the healthy/unhealthy continuum. The unhealthy cannot fake their location in the continuum, although they attempt to, while the healthy do not fake their position because it never occurs to them to do so.

Manipulating, Demeaning, Dividing

In her study of American seminaries (Seminaries, Theologates and the Future of Church Ministry, 1999), Sister Katarina Schuth identifies an unhealthy dynamic: “The greatest challenge for faculty” is found in “those [students] who have a rigid understanding of their faith...they create a climate of distrust and defensiveness, publicly questioning the orthodoxy of professors and fellow students.”

This insidious dynamic motivates students to see themselves as an elite corps, grandiosely calling themselves the John Paul II Generation, thus justifying their authoritarian efforts to reintroduce their punishing brand of orthodoxy and to demonize opponents by methods that would make James Carville blush. They want to reintroduce guilt into their version of Catholic sexual teaching. One seminarian proudly tells teenagers “that masturbation is always a seriously disordered act.... In itself it is always wrong” (in “Why a Priest?” by Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Magazine, 4/4/99). Such self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing attitudes employ manipulation, demeaning and shaming—stock authoritarian approaches that result in unhealthy human relationships.

Techniques flowing from this unhealthy dynamic motivate critics of Vatican II to attack the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago for anything and everything. These range from childish nyah, nyah claims that more people went to Cardinal Mundelein’s wake than to his, to blaming his “Consistent Ethic of Life” for Catholics’ voting 50 percent to 47 percent for Vice President Al Gore in the last presidential election. Likewise, bishops are covertly pressured to drop the Rev. Richard McBrien’s columns from their papers, although the theologian’s orthodoxy is unquestioned. It is found in a highly concentrated state in officials who demand that those they define as dissenters, like Sister Jeanine Gramick, “submit” to them and then punish them by destroying their potency, forbidding them to write, speak or even remember the humiliation they have endured.

These unconscious and unhealthy modes of manipulating people reveal the subtle but omnipresent gratifications of unhealthy authoritarianism. Those who delight in it often disguise their needs to dominate, seduce and conquer, but they cannot hide their negative effects. Such persons cannot minister because they corrupt rather than enlarge the community. Church officials should acknowledge that unhealthy people may not minister either.

Who May Minister?

We should not ask whether persons are homosexual or heterosexual but whether they are healthy enough to make life-giving human relationships. Holiness comes from the old English hal, meaning wholeness or health. Identifying health is not difficult. Who is getting the most out of this interaction, and what is the gratification, and to whom is it directed? Is there more to me or less as a result of this relationship?

Healthy ministers give themselves to others without taking so much back in return that they bankrupt the relationship, defrauding rather than helping others. To watch healthy people taking care of others is to find a rough operational definition of in caritate non ficta, “in love unfeigned,” which has been and remains the energy of successful ministry wherever it is found. Only the healthy may safely minister and only the healthy may safely exercise authority.

The so-called vocation shortage may be a function of the unresolved and unhealthy organizational conflicts in the church. It is not helped by scouring the world for those willing to accept the sexually restrictive conditions for ministry that they may not understand fully, but by identifying those all around us who can minister in a healthy and life-giving way. “The genius of the apostolate,” Pope Paul VI once wrote, is “knowing how to love.”

Everybody—heterosexual, homosexual, single or married—is invited to this well-lighted gathering. Only those are excluded who cannot bear testimony to the light for fear that it will scatter the darkness to reveal the hidden, unhappy and unhealthy parts of themselves.

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12 years ago
I was pained to read various parts of Eugene Kennedy’s article “Who Can Minister?” (7/2), especially his imprecise categorizations and hostile attitude toward a very large contingent of my generation.

Beginning with a selective reading of the Pauline letters, Kennedy proceeded to posit “health” as the sufficient condition for the agent acting with authority in the church. As it is not physical health of which he speaks, one must wonder what subjective conditions qualify as “healthy” to him: certain attitudes on doctrine, or perhaps specific understandings of ecclesiology?

Whatever his standards for health are, it is quite apparent that none of those who could remotely be described as conservative members of my generation fulfill the conditions. He criticizes those of us young people who critically engage our professors in the university or seminary: odd, since those very professors are in principle teaching us to become critical thinkers ourselves. Surely if such professors openly question the orthodoxy of other writers, implied by their discourse, we students must with equal tenacity hold them to a similar standard?

Or perhaps it is simply the fact that we are conservative that enflames Kennedy’s wrath. My generation comes to the church with little formation. We are rather ignorant about even basic doctrines and history, so when we do become curious we tend (like St. Augustine) to look to those who would seem to be the best teachers.

Kennedy tends to use images of light and illumination in his article as well, no doubt tapping into the conceptions many have regarding the “Enlightenment.” It would seem that wiping away the old distinctions regarding who can and should lead as ministers, with nothing to replace them but a vague notion of “health,” should more properly be called an “endarkenment.”

12 years ago
The articles by Eugene Kennedy and Bishop Frank Rodimer in your vocation and ministry issue (7/2) are outstanding. Kennedy’s is a breath of fresh air and is right on. Rodimer’s is concise and right on target too. Thank you for both, and congratulations to the writers.

12 years ago
I find Eugene Kennedy’s assertions in “Who Can Minister?” (7/2) deeply troubling. His artificially exclusive distinction between the “healthy” and the “unhealthy” is, frankly, Orwellian in its use of technical language to label and exclude a targeted group. In the examples he gives, he blithely stereotypes contemporary seminarians, using ambiguously unbounded terms like “students,” “seminarians” and, perhaps most tellingly, “they” and “them.” In short, in his desire to present contemporary seminarians as “rigid” and therefore unfit to minister, Kennedy misses the potential gift that the life experience of these young men can be to the church if only formators know how to respond.

9 years 11 months ago
Terrible article. Full of the same obfuscation, special pleading and avoidance of objective realities as they pertain to the objective Catholic Faith. Anyone who can minister obviously may minister, yet not all in the same way. Women cannot be priests, so they may not be priests. A person may be suffering from homosexuality and provided he knows and accepts it as a cross and not an "alternative lifestyle" he can turn it into grist for his salvation. All in all, it was tired retread of the liberal mentality of the late 1960's. Time to stop being locked in a time warp and embrace things of Eternal value.
9 years 11 months ago
It seems like Mr. Kennedy has very authoritarian views. People who agree with are "healthy" and people who disagree with him are "unhealthy." Maybe someday all the "unhealthy minds" can be locked away. I imagine Mr. Kennedy's Utopia is one where all dissent is gone and everyone adheres to his ideals.


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