National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
April 16, 2004

LettersMarried hermits?

This letter is in response to the article on hermit life in your Feb. 27 Religious Life special section.

I have a dear friend who has been a hermit for over a quarter of a century in our diocese, and she said to me, “The phrase ‘married hermit’ is an oxymoron.” I think it is very important to watch how we define terms.

It is OK to say that there are married couples who live contemplative lifestyles and give themselves to a quiet life and hours of prayer, but it does a great disservice, I believe, to those who have given themselves by vow and lifestyle to a life of real solitude -- their only companion being the Lord Christ.

The whole aim of the eremitical life is to be alone with the Alone, interceding, praying and fasting for the benefit of humankind. That is the hermit’s gift in the body of Christ. To speak of “married hermits” makes it difficult, I would think, for one truly called to that form of life to approach the bishop asking to be admitted to that state. When the church revised the Code of Canon Law in 1983, Canon 603 stated: “A hermit is recognized in the law as one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience), confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction.” We need to watch how we use and define our terms so they do not promote confusion in the church.

Spencer, W.Va.

In defense of Spain

In his comments regarding Hispanic Catholics in the United States (Letters, NCR, March 19), Larry Roegner painted Spain, the country that brought Catholicism to the New World, in the most degrading way. I think his comments are unjustified.

He claims “Spain came to conquer and steal … and brought disease and death … to the native populations.” With the discovery of America, Spain culminated the Europeans’ longing for exploration. She followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo, the Vikings, the Portuguese and others. In all fairness, it should be pointed out that the Spaniards of the 16th century couldn’t possibly have predicted that the microbes harmless to them would be fatal to the inhabitants of the Americas.

Unlike in this Anglo-Saxon dominated country, where Native American influence is conspicuous by its absence, the Mexicans can brag more about their Aztec heritage than the Spanish one. It suggests the Spaniards, rather than obliterating or sweeping aside the natives, mingled with them, thus creating a population of mixed blood and cultures. There isn’t a darn thing wrong with that.

Mr. Roegner seems to think it is a bad thing that the “local population,” under Spain’s influence, “retained most of their ancient beliefs, customs and practices.” Well, I hate to disappoint him, but that is how Christianity expanded throughout the Rome-dominated world and among pagan peoples.

A substantial amount of the wealth Spain acquired in the Americas, she squandered defending the Catholic church against its enemies. Let’s at least give Spain credit for sticking up for and propagating the Catholic faith.

Bear, Del.

Gay marriage

I write to commend NCR for their beautifully written and deeply spiritual columns by Demetria Martinez (“Gay marriage merits our prayers”) and Patricia Lynn Morrison (“Lent’s scary downward path”), which were both published in your March 19 issue. San Francisco’s lay Catholics are going through what Patricia Morrison writes about when she describes John of the Cross’ dark night of soul and sense. Over the last month, our diocesan newspaper has vehemently attacked gay and lesbian Catholics as well as our Catholic mayor, Gavin Newsom, for their positions of support for same-sex marriage. It has been a very divisive and disheartening campaign to get the “official” position of the hierarchy on this issue proclaimed in every San Francisco parish. Rather than inviting dialogue and prayer, our diocesan newspaper has taken a darker path, which has only further alienated and disenfranchised a large portion of the faithful flock. It is at times like these when such beautifully written articles by Demetria Martinez and Patricia Morrison give comfort and hope to so many of us. You are to be highly commended for publishing their insightful and loving words.

San Francisco

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Since your newspaper operates under the banner of Catholicism, shouldn’t your writers analyze the news of the day from a biblical perspective? After all, readers can receive an agnostic interpretation from countless other news outlets.

In the piece written by columnist Demetria Martinez, gay marriage and the non-subsidization of it are compared to slavery and the “burning of Jews at the stake.”

Demetria Martinez’s true argument is with God himself for creating man and woman and setting forth clear guidelines for Christian conduct through his word (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Commack, N.Y.

Maryland legislation

This is in response to “Cardinal error or doing the right thing?” by Joe Feuerherd (NCR, March 26). The article’s focus was on now-rejected Maryland legislation designed significantly to change the state’s child abuse reporting laws. The Maryland Catholic Conference, representing the bishops of the three Maryland-serving dioceses, opposed the legislation, characterizing it as an assault on the confidentiality of priest/penitent communications in the sacrament of penance. Your reporter viewed it as an effort to add clergy to Maryland’s “mandatory reporters” of child abuse and neglect.

The fact is that Maryland clergy have been required to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect since at least 1987. Clergy who function in the roles of educator, health practitioner and human-service worker have been required to report such suspicions since 1978. The real focus of the legislation was on an exception to the reporting requirement, the so-called “priest/penitent privilege,” intended to ensure that the sins of a penitent will not be revealed by his confessor. The legislation’s purpose was to diminish the protection provided by that exception to penitents and to their confessors.

Among the numerous faults we found with the measure was a provision requiring that priests break the “sacramental seal” whenever a child abuse-related confession occurs in the presence of a third person. The provision flies in the face of settled civil law and church canon law. Civil courts have held uniformly that the presence of “necessary” third parties should not cause the loss of the priest/penitent privilege. Canon Law’s Canon 938 permits interpreters to be engaged in confessions that involve such penitents as one who is deaf, or a person who speaks a language not spoken by the person’s confessor.

This and other offensive provisions of the legislation escaped notice by Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, recruited from his North Carolina Air Force assignment and offered as “expert witness” by proponents. “In my professional opinion as a canon lawyer with extensive experience,” Doyle testified, “I find nothing in this bill that is contrary to any provision of the present or past regulations contained in the church’s legal system known as the Code of Canon Law.”

The two attorneys whose comments your reporter invited appear to have adopted his mistaken view of current state law. A fair reading of those comments suggests a shared understanding that Maryland priests are not bound by law to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. Again, they are required to report. They have been required to report by state statute since at least 1987, and before that by the three Maryland-serving dioceses.

Annapolis, Md.

Dowling is executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference

Joe Feuerherd responds:
The proposed bill would have added “clergy” to the list of those who have a specific obligation to report suspected abuse -- “a health practitioner, police officer, or educator or human service worker who has reason to believe that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect.” Supporters of the legislation, including representatives of a local Voice of the Faithful chapter, child welfare advocates, Fr. Doyle and others, contended that the bill contained adequate protections for “priest/penitent privilege”; the Maryland Catholic Conference thought otherwise. Such conflict -- differences over a major public policy issue at a time of controversy in the church over its handling of abuse cases -- is inherently newsworthy. As to whether the lawyers quoted in the story had an accurate view of the legislation: They are both experienced attorneys who have represented clients who have won significant settlements against the church. The notion that they would view a specific statutory enumeration of clergy as abuse reporters as helpful to their clients, and potentially counter to the church’s financial interests, should surprise no one.

Abuse coverage

Thanks for the many enlightening articles on sexual abuse. To discuss homosexuality and celibacy tends to obscure the facts: Any medical doctor, therapist, teacher, dentist, social worker would be barred from their profession if they had difficulty with molesting. “Rehabilitation” is fine -- to restore the troubled individual to society -- but practicing the profession would no longer be an option. The outrage is that in this most “spiritual” and profound position of leadership and service, exemption from the norms that guide other professions has been allowed and even promoted sanctimoniously.

Sacramento, Calif.

Biblical accuracy

With regard to the article by Jeannette Cooperman in the March 26 issue (“Going beyond the kiddie version of God”), it occurred to me some time ago that in the biblical account of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, if the apostles accompanying Jesus were indeed asleep, how could anyone have reported what had happened to Jesus? I puzzled over this for quite some time and had come to wonder whether I was the only one who had ever noticed this logical contradiction.

I subsequently came across a statement in a book where this inconsistency is apparently well known by biblical scholars, and have since found out that it has been fairly common knowledge among biblical scholars that the events in the garden, as with many other biblical events, were generated in the minds of the writers and have little, or no, relation to historical fact.

As with Cooperman, my question, then, is why I had never heard mention in any sermon nor at any point during my Catholic education of the simple logical discrepancy within this very notable biblical event during the passion of Jesus? Perhaps it is reasoned that if the “person in the pew” seems quite willing to accept the Christmas story as “historical,” then why bother explaining anything as “subtle” as the agony in the garden?

One way readers may start their own investigation is to visit the Web site for the Jesus Seminar at

Beaverton, Ore.

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Jeannette Cooperman’s columns are terrific. They are, to me, (always) natural, personal, down-to-earth, challenging and prayerful. I especially remember the metaphor/Eucharist column a number of columns back. Thank you, this Lent, for “Going beyond the kiddie version of God.”

Trumbull, Conn.

Equality for women

Reflection on the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests leads me to think of a related problem in the church, namely, assigning an inferior role to women in bringing about the salvation of the world. With a female clergy, I do not believe that we would have experienced the staggering sex abuse problem. It also seems inconceivable to me that any man should be given a role that is superior to that of women in the church.

God has blessed all womanhood in Mary, just as he has blessed all manhood in Christ, but no man before or after Christ has been blessed with the blessing that has been given to Mary, and few men have been blessed with the goodness of women both before and after Mary.

It may have taken Christ 2,000 years of reflection to accord women an equal place in society with that of men. Now that we have reached that point, we must draw the appropriate conclusions about the role of women in the Catholic church. Surely, they have a right to be priests, bishops, cardinals and pope. No vicar of Christ can treat women less than the way that God has treated them in Mary.

What stands in the way of equal rights for women in the church is the intransigence of old men from a male-dominated past who rule the church -- not with the spirit of God but with a love of power and privilege. They interpret the mind of God as if God can only act in a male-dominated society. They do not look at all the works of God, particularly in regard to Mary and the women saints of the church. They narrowly theologize to protect the status quo.

Aberdeen, N.J.

Defense of celibacy

At this time when consecrated celibacy is under frequent attack from many quarters, it seems significant that Immaculate Heart of Mary theologian Sr. Sandra Schneiders, in her book Selling All, gives us a most convincing defense of consecrated celibacy for vowed religious.

It is Sr. Sandra’s thesis that consecrated celibacy is at the very heart of religious life and constitutes the essential mark of religious life. For Sr. Sandra, service to others in religious life has its origin and its reason for being in the intimate, personal and effective relationship of the vowed religious to the person of Christ. By freeing a person from such relationship with other human persons, celibacy allows an individual to concentrate all his or her efforts in affectivity in an exclusive way to the person of Christ.

It seems logical to ask if this same exclusive relationship should be present in the life of the priest. In other words, is the priest called to the same degree of intimacy with Christ as is the religious?

All people would probably agree that the principal function of the priest is to help people realize an encounter with the person of Christ that is, according to the Gospels, the beginning of conversion. If the priest exists for this reason, it certainly seems proper that he himself should have a personal affective relationship to Christ. Though the adage Nemo dat quod non habet (“I cannot give to others what I don’t possess”) is not true in all cases, it surely seems that in general a priest’s relationship is important for the people he serves. It seems extremely important that the person called to bring other people to Christ should have a deep relationship to Christ. Don’t the faithful have a right to expect this?

A second reason that calls a priest to singular holiness is his special relationship to Christ in the sacraments he administers. If anyone in the church is called to the holiness that the intimacy with Christ brings, it should be the one who so frequently acts in the person of Christ, giving life in baptism, forgiving sin and celebrating the Eucharist. Can we say that each individual priest should make the decision as to what degree of intimacy with Christ he should strive for?

Finally, the call of Jesus to his disciples (Luke 14: 26) to separate themselves from wives as well as from brothers and sisters certainly indicates his desire that those whom he calls to be his close followers should separate themselves from the ties of marriage.

Apparently it is the opinion of Jesus himself that celibacy has an important function among his disciples.

Concepción, Chiriqui, Panama

Church leadership

It was Emerson who said, “I need approval -- when you see me simmer, bring me to a boil.” This is exactly what I feel compelled to do at this time. Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., is deserving of affirmation by us all.

He met with his priests in Brooklyn and sounded like a bishop who “does get it” (NCR, March 5). He simmered with meaningful words like “the principal role of the priest would be to teach, to energize and to motivate,” “the theology of the laity and the process should be one of inclusion and participation,” “the issue is more a shortage of quality than of quantity,” “we’re going to have fewer institutions in the church in the future so that we have to do more as a parish community.”

It has been made very clear by the bishops collectively that the shortage of priests will not only continue but will grow increasingly greater in the future. Bishop Sullivan is responding to this providential situation. The church is being pressed now to become what Vatican II directed it to be -- a community of the faithful disciples of Jesus. As the bishop indicated, this means the priest leadership is to propel this direction. Many years ago the World Council of Churches, after years of research and worldwide searches, defined pastoral leadership this way:

“Members of the ordained ministry have a vital role to play for the existence and action of every community or group of people. This role, however, can only be fulfilled if it is understood as subordinate to the purpose of the whole community and for this reason it seems that all of the various conceptions of ministry that have been suggested in recent times that of an ‘enabler’ is the most helpful one.”

Yes, Bishop Sullivan, the vocations are here. All we need now is the enabling kind of leadership that activates the faith and mission of the laity who are church.

Brecksville, Ohio


In the third in the series on the liturgy (“Liturgy, the challenging call to a new direction,” NCR, Feb. 13), Fr. James Empereur asks a few questions about why, with so many programs to help, liturgy is going so badly in so many parishes. In his words, “Why are we starving in the midst of plenty?” I think I have an answer.

As a priest for 45 years and trained in music, I believe liturgy is “starving” in parishes because pastors of parishes were never held accountable for implementing the Second Vatican Council in regard to “active participation” on the part of the people. Music is a big part of active participation. As the years went by after the council, we knew things were not right regarding the liturgy. Where were the bishops in regard to this? If the liturgy is so important, why did they allow it to continue badly in each parish? We priests at that time knew the parishes with good participation on the part of the people and the places where it was not good at all. What to do about it?

I think the bishops, knowing how important is the liturgy properly done, should hire a musician or someone who knows the liturgy to visit each parish in their dioceses and assess it. Do the Masses have a leader of song? Are the tempos correct? Is the organist competent? Are the people correctly urged to sing? Where this is not happening in a parish, that particular parish should be held accountable and the bishop should do something about it. Having to attend Mass with a bad liturgy week after week is like having to see a bad movie week after week.

Prospect, Conn.

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004