Signs of the Times

Human Rights Lawyer in Mexico Shot Dead

A former nun who was one of Mexico’s leading human rights lawyers was shot dead in Mexico City on Oct. 19 in what authorities were calling a politically motivated killing. Digna Ochoa Placido, head of the legal defense department at Jesuit-run Miguel Augustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, had been kidnapped and threatened several times for her defense of indigenous people in southern Mexico. Calling her death an execution, the Pro center said Ochoa’s killing causes us profound sadness, pain and indignation.

Ochoa was an outspoken critic of the Mexican military’s history of torture, killings and disappearances. A letter found with Ochoa’s body threatened other members of the human rights center.


Cardinal Bevilacqua Lauds U.S. Response to Terrorism

In a letter to President George W. Bush on Oct. 16, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia called the U.S. war against terrorism a just war and commended the administration and Congress for their actions. He warned sharply against interpreting the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 as God’s punishment for moral decay within our nation or as an inevitable and deserved response to United States foreign policy. The cardinal said he wrote the three-page letter, to express my prayerful support for the multidimensional response to the terrorist attacks that you have been detailing for the American people.

Pope Pleads In Name of God’ for End to Holy Land Violence

Pope John Paul II pleaded in the name of God for an end to violence in the Holy Land, as an Israeli military operation left more than 20 dead in six Palestinian towns. It is with deep sadness that I have heard the painful and worrying news from Bethlehem, as well as from cities like Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour, the pope said at a Sunday blessing on Oct. 21. War and death have even arrived at the square of the Church of the Nativity of our Lord, he noted.

Celibacy Is Major Reason for Priest Resignations

Among U.S. Catholic priests who resign soon after ordination, difficulties of celibate living are a major factor, the sociologist Dean R. Hoge said, commenting on a study he has recently completed. Also important, though less so, are satisfaction with their current work in ministry, the level of support they receive from fellow priests, their living situation and their own spiritual life, he said. Resignations came disproportionately from large dioceses, said Hoge, a professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America.

The study also asked the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators how many priests resign in the first five years of ordination. Their best estimate was that 10 percent to 15 percent of the priests today resign in the first five years after ordination, Hoge said. The rate today is a bit higher than in the 1980’s.

On satisfaction or dissatisfaction with post-ordination experiences, celibacy stood out as the biggest difference. Only seven percent of those who resigned said they had been very satisfied with living a celibate life, while 49 percent of the active priests said they were very satisfied with celibacy. More than half the active priests were very satisfied with their living situation, while less than one-fourth of those who resigned felt that way. The main complaints of resigned priests were a lack of privacy and living too close to work. Resigned priests also ranked loneliness of priestly life and the way authority is too heavy-handed in the church among serious problems they had faced before leaving.

He said 94 percent of resigned priests thought celibacy should be optional for diocesan priests, and 90 percent thought women should be allowed to participate in all the church’s ministries. A substantial majority of active religious priests ordained within the previous five years held those views, but only a minority of the active diocesan priests: 29 percent for optional celibacy and 45 percent for women in all ministries.

Pope Urges China Dialogue, Apologizes for Offenses

In a renewed plea for an official dialogue with the government of mainland China, Pope John Paul II apologized for any actions taken by Catholics that offended China or gave an impression of disrespect for its culture. Over the centuries personal limitations, political pressure and theological disputes sometimes led to tensions and mistrust between China and the Vatican, offsetting the good work accomplished by missionaries in evangelization, education and health care, the pope told scholars. The pope’s message was addressed on Oct. 24 to an international conference in Rome marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Matteo Ricci, S.J., in Beijing.

Baptist-Catholic Conversation Ended

The cosponsors of the national Southern Baptist-Catholic Conversation have announced the termination of their current round of formal conversations. In a joint statement in October, they said the national conversation was only one of several forms of Catholic-Southern Baptist cooperation. Its ending should not be seen as a diminished commitment in either community to continued collaboration whenever possible, they said. The Catholic cosponsor, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the decision to end the conversations was made by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, cosponsor on the Baptist side.

Robert E. Reccord, president of the mission board, had notified Catholic officials last February of the board’s intention to end the conversations. The committee said it regretfully concurred in this decision. The joint statement announcing the end of the conversation was released on Oct. 23. It was signed by Reccord and Bishop J. Kendrick Williams of Lexington, Ky., Catholic cochairman of the conversations. It said the bishops’ committee will remain open to conversation, on whatever issues and at such a time as may seem appropriate should the occasion arise in the future. It said the mission board is committed to fulfilling its mandate to present the Gospel to everyone in North America. The overwhelming weight of this mission drives all its decisions.

Pro-Life Leaders Condemn Anthrax Threats

A spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities sharply condemned the recent rash of anthrax threats sent to abortion clinics. Violence in the name of pro-life makes a mockery of the pro-life cause, said Cathy Cleaver, the secretariat’s director of planning and information. We don’t know who is behind the suspicious letters going out to abortion clinics, but we unequivocally condemn the use of any form of violence to oppose abortion, she said.

Polish, Austrian Church Leaders Criticize Halloween’s Popularity

Church leaders in Poland and Austria criticized the growing popularity of Halloween, introduced in most East European countries after the collapse of Communist rule. It’s humiliating to see people parroting things they don’t properly understand. This imported practice is alien to our traditions and dangerous for its attractive packaging, said Bishop Stanislaw Stefanek of Lomza, chairman of the Polish bishops’ family commission.

Newsweek Religion Editor Criticizes Baptists and Oprah

Kenneth L. Woodward, religion editor of Newsweek magazine, at a convention of Catholic communicators in San Antonio, criticized Baptists for what he called their obscene response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, where bands of Baptists descended on ground zero to proselytize firefighters and other workers...some [who were] patiently culling bones and trying to identify bodies by their parts in a makeshift morgue at the death site.

[The Baptists] trampled on sacred ground, he continued, oblivious to the thousands who had come to light candles and memorialize those buried beneath the rubble, plying their trade like maggots feeding on carrion.

He was no less critical of the evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. On the Rev. Robertson’s television show, The 700 Club, on Sept. 13, the Rev. Falwell said the attacks were an act of God brought on by certain groups of Americans, including homosexuals and abortion advocates. The Rev. Robertson said on the show, I totally concur.

What struck me about the now-notorious Falwell-Robertson exchange on television was how very few of their fellow evangelists disagreed with them, he said. To suggest, as Falwell and Robertson did, that God is punishing us for our moral laxness is to illustrate how little the fundamentalist imagination has to offer, especially in a time of national crisis.

According to Woodward, on the other end of the spectrum is a hollowed-out version of Christianity prevalent in contemporary American society. Recall the insipid ministrations of Oprah Winfrey at the prayer meeting in Yankee Stadium, he continued. She asked us all to have faith in faith, hope in hope, to love lovea saccharine appeal to the classic Christian virtues as exercises without content.

All this is a very big part of the so-called religious revival in America, he said. It is hard to decide who offends most, the evangelists of the Falwell stripe or of the Oprah ilk. Both have huge follower-ships and both, from very different angles, stress what God can do for me.

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11 years 12 months ago
Kenneth L. Woodward’s keynote speech at the Unda-USA General Assembly on Oct. 17 in San Antonio, Tex., (Signs of the Times, 11/5) apparently made quite an impression. His comments about fundamentalists were harsh but correct. I had not heard of Baptist proselytizing at ground zero in New York. As a native New Yorker with friends and neighbors who joined the New York City Police and Fire Departments, it’s just as well I did not—my blood pressure might not have withstood this assault on human dignity.

Sadly, this tale of proselytizing at ground zero had the ring of truth. One can only hope that these actions did not have the general support of Baptists.

When I was growing up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, members of both N.Y.P.D. and N.Y.F.D. seemingly had but two religions—Catholic and Very Catholic. I learned later that there were also Jewish and Protestant police and firefighters. Most important, I’ve come to realize that such distinctions are without any significance whatsoever to getting the job done. Today, both N.Y.P.D. and N.Y.F.D. are multihued and multigendered and worship in many different faith traditions. Again as a native New Yorker, this transformation is a source of pride—and seems only to have improved on a good thing.

The key point is that joining N.Y.P.D. or N.Y.F.D. seems as much a vocation as the priesthood. It is certainly not just a job. What else would motivate a person to join in such dangerous and financially unrewarding professions—regardless of which church, synagogue, mosque or temple they attended? The police, firefighters and rescuers who responded at ground zero were illuminated fiercely by that light that can never be darkened (Jn. 1:5). Were they “saved,” in Baptist parlance? Perhaps. But who can be so bold and thoughtless even to suggest that these brave and holy souls needed salvation? On the contrary, they dispensed salvation with their actions and their very lives.

11 years 12 months ago
Regarding the notice in Signs of the Times (11/5), “Celibacy is Major Reason for Priest Resignations”: I disagree. The main reason is a lack of prayer that is coupled with faith in God’s capability to strengthen one in chastity. Oh, celibacy is the surface reason—as are others—but a lack of confident prayer is behind it all.

11 years 12 months ago
The news brief that Dean R. Hoge has found celibacy the major reason for “new priest” resignation (11/5, Signs of the Times) left me drifting between “ho-hum” and “so sad.” “Ho-hum” because the finding is déjà vu; “so sad” because Hoge’s “new priests” have been fed the line that sex is human fulfillment and celibacy is dehumanizing deprivation. Given the current divorce data and the incidence of depression among non-married lovers, the assertion of the new priests seems a bit naïve.

Is celibacy a deprivation? Of course it is, for sex is or can be a rich human experience. Unless, then, celibacy has some significant rewards, who would make a lifelong commitment to it, even for the sake of the kingdom?

In my associations with priests of varying ages and ministries before, during and after my 13 years as a faculty member at a major seminary, I have listened to numerous accounts of struggles with celibacy. Two instances in particular occur to me now.

One was a conversation with a 40-year-old seminarian who had “been around” before he entered. In response to my casual question, “How are things going?” he answered, “I’ve been having trouble with celibacy.” In turn, I asked, “When is it most difficult for you?” His response: “On weekends when few fellows are around.” After a short pause, I mused aloud, “Aren’t you talking about loneliness?” Blushing and looking sheepish, he answered, “Yeah, but it is easier to talk about celibacy.”

The other instance that stands out now was a conversation with a young priest-alumnus. As he reminisced, he said, “What helped me most to decide on celibate priesthood was the remark of a priest professor who began his after-dinner speech with, ‘You are looking at a happy priest.’”

Apparently the happy priest had found some of celibacy’s rewards, but who ever talks about them? In the reams of reading I have done on the subject of celibacy, only one nonpietistic, nontechnical, experiential presentation of celibacy’s rewards has impressed me. It was made by the late Christopher Kiesling, a Dominican priest, in Celibacy, Prayer, and Friendship (1978). In fairness, Kiesling deals with celibacy’s difficulties too, but his positive notions are singular. This book, together with some mentors’ assistance of seminarians toward personality development and noble friendship, might reduce the numbers of new priests’ departures. And a little dose of realism might help. It can be found in “The ‘Poor Father’ Syndrome” and “Celibacy as Answer,” companion pieces in The National Catholic Reporter in the 1980’s. They are down-to-earth comparisons of the day’s agenda of a secular father and a clerical counterpart.

It is common knowledge that celibacy, like marriage, is not for everyone. But the former is a valid lifestyle, and the many fulfilled priests in my acquaintance give witness to its rewards.


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