National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
May 21, 2004

LettersThe future of the church

We were shocked to read the letter by Bette Woods (NCR, April 23), wherein she states that she’s never met anyone under 50 who shares a vision even close to that of the late bishop of Saginaw, Mich., Ken Untener. We decided to write in and introduce ourselves to Ms. Woods and to anyone else in your readership who has not yet opened their eyes to the rich diversity of opinions that exist in our church.

We are young women with graduate degrees in theology, 28 and 30 years old, respectively, who work as pastoral associates in active parishes in the Saginaw diocese. We are not only committed to serving the Roman Catholic church but are also committed to the scripturally based vision of church out of which Bishop Ken worked and lived.

We know young adults who are involved in parishes that reflect a vision such as that of Bishop Ken, and we know those who, like Ms. Woods, are involved in more traditional models of church. Sadly, we also know many young adults who no longer participate in the church precisely because they do not find the image of church lauded in Ms. Woods’ letter to be life giving and they cannot find parishes that provide a different model. Time and time again we hear visitors to our diocese remark, “If my home parish had been like this, I never would have left.”

As people of faith, we must be open to the breadth of the Spirit as well as the breath of the Spirit. Moreover, we must foster communities that reflect that breadth. A radical openness to the Spirit is what Bishop Ken’s vision of church modeled and continues to model for us all.

Saginaw, Mich.

Mount Pleasant, Mich.

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Like Bette Woods, I am a 24-year-old Catholic woman. I do not subscribe to Ms. Woods’ views on the future of the church. That is not to say her description of our generation of Catholics is not fairly accurate; sadly, it is. However, there are a lot of us who do not agree with what Ms. Woods has set forth in her letter. Frankly, the views of my generation frighten me. It frightens me to think of all the work that came before us being turned upside down and dismissed by tomorrow’s priests and religious.

However, youngness alone does not give us a monopoly on the future of the church. Vision transcends age, race, sex and sexuality. Before you write off everyone over 50 as a doddering old fool whose prime has passed, learn from them. “Older folks” are also graduating from theology schools, ministering to youth, teaching religion and writing textbooks.

I will not remain silent when people in older generations tell me I’m wrong for believing the church will change. I will not stand by and watch as people in my own generation attempt to stagnate the vision for which those before us have worked so hard, and for which many of us continue to work.

Monee, Ill.

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I challenge the views put forth by Bette Woods as representative of all young Catholic women (I am 28). I do not share her “John Paul II-esque interpretation of Vatican II,” which to me represents liturgical stagnation and an unquestioning acceptance of decrees handed down from an increasingly out-of-touch hierarchy.

Rather, an Untener-esque interpretation of Vatican II embraces a living and creative liturgy, a Christ-centered people of God, and priesthood open to all who are called, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. For those of us who have come of age in the post-Vatican II years, our reality has been liturgical and catechetical chaos. A sense of nostalgia for a past that is not ours is understandable, but what is behind this ecclesial conservatism? It seems that many of my contemporaries overemphasize external appearances, rather than seeking understanding of the underlying theology and context.

Rather than blind adherence, what is needed is a faith that is rooted in conscience and is, at times, critical of the status quo. I am a master’s of divinity candidate at Catholic Theological Union. As I embark on my ministry, I hope to emulate the qualities of Bishop Untener, who offered another, broader vision of what it means to be church and had the courage to live into his vision.


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I’m a new subscriber. So, the tributes to Bishop Untener (NCR, April 9) give a better hindsight view of his liberal viewpoint than the local Saginaw middle-of-the-road Catholic Weekly newspaper. That explains why I knew him so imperfectly.

But if he was so led by the Spirit, then who was leading John Paul II and the rest of us?

Bay City, Mich.

Anti-meat clergyman

Just a note from a retired United Methodist minister to thank you for Colman McCarthy’s “Think twice before asking, ‘Where’s the beef?’ ” (NCR, April 9). As one who does speak out from the pulpit on the issue of cruelty to animals (and writes op-ed pieces on the same), I’m delighted to see you giving some space to McCarthy.

Princeton, Minn.

Fallujah debacle

Outrageous! A former Saddam Hussein general is being paid to lead former Iraqi military personnel to pacify Fallujah.

That’s equivalent to the World War II allies hiring Adolph Eichmann to lead a division of SS troops to pacify Germany.

Garden Grove, Calif.

Mazenko notes he is a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Navy League.

Everyone loves Mary

In “Mary makes a comeback” (NCR, April 30), Andrew Greeley claims that feminists “have tried to diminish Mary’s role in Catholic life.” On the contrary, from my childhood days in rural Ireland to now, my understanding of Mary has evolved and deepened. In my books on feminine images of God, women in the Bible, and women in the Celtic tradition, I have written chapters on Mary as the most perfect icon of the feminine divine reflecting the courage and compassion of God in the face of discrimination and oppression in church and society. When the Celts embraced Christianity, attributes of the goddesses were transferred to the Blessed Mother. I believe that we need Mary’s mystical, healing, cosmological presence to liberate and transform our world. This is the reason I contributed to the feminist rosary and the reason I lead pilgrimages to the holy wells and Marian shrines in Ireland. Don’t put all feminists and reformers in a box! We, too, claim Mary of the Ages as our sister, companion and Great Mother. Mary is the cosmic woman for all ages.

Falls Church, Va.

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Andrew Greeley dismisses Elizabeth Johnson’s cogent theology in Truly Our Sister to declare the author as just another ideologue. Talk about reductio ad absurdum!

This reader found Johnson’s book to be not only a well-fashioned theological proposition but also a hymn to Mary’s humanity. In it, Our Lady is portrayed as a companion for women in today’s world.

Mary lived under military occupation and became a refugee from terror, exiled from her own land. Today she would be called a displaced person. Mary became a widow, a “single head of household,” and grew dependent on the charity of others. She witnessed the unjust execution of her son.

In honoring the briefest of scriptural profiles, Johnson is right to name the Blessed Mother as “truly our sister.”

Syracuse, N.Y.

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I’m a Eucharistic minister at a behavioral health center here in Phoenix. About half of the people who attend my prayer service are non-Roman Catholics. After the service and Communion I give out do-dads, lapel pins, crosses, doves and images. Also I give out plastic finger rosaries and a credit card to the “Bank of the Holy Spirit.” The credit card has the four mysteries, the three principal prayers and an assurance that one holy buck is deposited for each decade said.

To my great surprise, I’m giving out as many finger rosaries to non-Roman Catholics as to Roman Catholics. Yes indeed, Mary is alive in all religions.


Doyle dismissal unfair

The dismissal of such a caring and open-hearted priest as Fr. Tom Doyle leaves many devastated at the underhanded yet imperious way the true heroes of our church are treated sometimes by trusted officials (NCR, May 7). It is with regret that I write this letter to you and with shame for the sins of the hierarchy, so blind to certain men among themselves.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien has made Doyle, already a hero, more heroic in the eyes of those who believe in his work. The damage done to the archbishop is to reduce his credibility, to say the least.

It is my hope that the archbishop will heed the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who so aptly stated, “Piety and power make life difficult for truth.”

Victoria, British Columbia

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Fr. Doyle was dismissed in a dispute over the number of Masses he led. Yet, amazingly, the church has taken virtually no punitive action against the many priests and bishops who kept silent, or actively covered up, as children were being abused for decades.

Rather than firing Fr. Doyle, the church would be wise to recognize his significant contributions toward justice and compassion. Sadly, the number of priests who have demonstrated courage by expressing outrage toward the hierarchy’s behavior, marching with survivors, working to change antiquated sexual abuse laws, and/or personally reaching out to victims is pathetically small.

Cambridge, Mass.

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Regarding the Tom Doyle massacre -- when they hate the message, they shoot the messenger. Doyle spoke truth to power in 1985, and now Archbishop O’Brien nails him to the institutional cross of denial, deceit, dishonesty, distortion and damage control. Praise the Lord for Doyle!

Tucson, Ariz.

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Many of Fr. Thomas P. Doyle’s friends believe that Archbishop O’Brien of the Catholic Archdiocese for Military Services has tried to terminate Fr. Doyle from his career as a military chaplain as retribution for Doyle’s defense of victims of pedophilia by priests and his criticisms of the hierarchy.

I, a beneficiary of the military retirement system, believe the archbishop’s effort was much more deeply thought out; it was an exquisitely Machiavellian attempt to discredit and/or silence Fr. Doyle permanently.

As they say, follow the money.

Fr. Doyle was due to retire with full benefits as a chaplain in the Air Force this summer. If he is able to do this, he will have a good pension for life, the majority of his medical bills paid and, another plus, as a military retiree he will be able to travel in the United States and around the world almost for free on the military air transport system.

This would mean, no matter what sanctions the bishops would later lay on him -- even if they were to force him out of the priesthood -- Fr. Doyle could travel, teach, write and speak in relative freedom.

If, however, Archbishop O’Brien could force him out of the Air Force short of his retirement date, he would have none of these benefits. Out of military service, Fr. Doyle would have to accept whatever postings his Dominican order assigned -- probably heavily influenced by hierarchical pressure to ensure that his ability to speak freely was severely constricted.

Similarly, if, through these efforts, the archbishop were to force Fr. Doyle to affiliate temporarily with another Christian body, as he had to do with the holy Orthodox church, then Fr. Doyle would be discredited in the eyes of some. This has apparently happened with a group of priests on Long Island who had invited him to speak.

I hope that Fr. Doyle will be able to stay in the Air Force until he is eligible for his pension. And, when he retires, I pray he will continue his prophetic role of defending the victims of the church and speaking truth to hierarchical power. In the words of the late Ann Landers, he is “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

As for Archbishop O’Brien, by going outside the military chain of command to relieve Fr. Doyle of his post in the Archdiocese of Military Services, the archbishop has demonstrated he has no appreciation of the proud honor and traditions of the U.S. armed forces or of the need to follow the United States Code of Military Justice. The Air Force should open a Court of Inquiry on the archbishop’s continued fitness to serve.

Fripp Island, S.C.

‘Kiddie version’ postscript

A postscript might be in order in regard to Jeannette Cooperman’s article of March 26, “Going beyond the kiddie version of God” and a letter, “Biblical accuracy” of April 16, advising us to go to the Jesus Seminar to begin our education. There are some important issues at stake here.

It is certainly true that the Catholic laity has not been well educated in the faith, and while it is tempting and even accurate to lay the blame for this at the doorstep of the institutional church, it is not particularly helpful. Study, as both the article and the letter suggest, is much more fruitful. But it is precisely a lack of education that makes something like the Jesus Seminar appear as a bolt from the blue and an answer to difficult scriptural questions. To accept what it says in the same uncritical way as before does not bring us to genuine understanding. Many of the Jesus Seminar-type writings are based on a certain view of history that is presented as if it is the only way to know Jesus. Their approach has undergone a devastating critique at the hands of Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.

The real issue here is just what history can know and how it relates to faith. Can we say, for example, that it is only by history that we can come to a firm knowledge of Jesus? What happens to all the believing Christians of yesterday and today who don’t have a command of the methods of historical inquiry? And since the modern historians of Jesus disagree with each other, whom shall we believe? Our new education in the faith should not be a new uncritical acceptance of whatever the latest fad is, whether it is the Jesus Seminar or the new cosmology, or whatever.

Chiloquin, Ore.

War not justified

I’m a Vietnam infantry veteran who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. One of the most difficult periods in my life was trying to justify killing.

I have to respond to a fellow vet -- Richard Hopkins, who wrote a letter in the April 30 issue of NCR. Richard sings the old song: Don’t protest the war, you’re helping the enemy. He also states that Bush is “the only man who had the nerve to take action.”

To me, being Catholic is about following the example of Jesus. If Jesus wanted us to kill and hate, he would have taught us. Instead, he taught us love. He taught us by his actions. The antithesis of love is war. Thus, it is our responsibility as Catholics to protest war in every form. My mantra is: If you have to hurt someone to solve a problem, you are the problem. Jesus taught us by example. It’s not rocket science. It’s not about patriotism or terrorists. It’s about Jesus. All we need to do is follow his example.

Jackson, Mich.

Politics and abortion

Your editorial “Politics, piety and the Catholic vote” (NCR, April 30) makes the point well that politicians’ pro-choice or pro-life rhetoric has had little effect on actual abortions. I’m no statistician, but a cursory examination of the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control reveals that the abortion rate remained steady during the Reagan-Bush years (it dropped 4 percent over the 12-year period) but decreased substantially during the Clinton years (down 30 percent over the 8-year period). That would suggest that “good pro-life Catholics” must support the Democrats.

Naperville, Ill.

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The decision of some Catholic prelates to deny Communion to Sen. John Kerry is a terrible mistake. It nourishes the illusion that Catholics who hold public office should feel duty bound to vote according to the dictates of church hierarchy. It also encourages the fantasy that abortion is more important than any other public issue that touches on the sanctity of human life.

Kerry is running against a president who launched a needless war that has resulted in the deaths of more than 15,000 people, most of them innocent civilians. The fact that these people were postnatal at the time of their deaths should not exclude them from the concern of conservative prelates.

Fairdale, Ky.

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With all that the American bishops have on their plate, you’d think they could be more constructive than damning Catholic politicians on a single issue -- or, if they want to be really instructive, how about excommunicating all those American politicians who seem never to have heard of the social teachings of the church?

Grand Rapids, Mich.

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I am 20 years old and attend the University of Kentucky. I am a devout Catholic. I would just like to say that I find your views, as a whole, watered-down, feel-good theology.

Your blatant support of John Kerry and your ignorance of the fact that it does matter that he is pro-choice deeply troubles me. If a person, any person, cannot respect and protect life from its beginning, when it is most innocent and helpless, he has no business running this country, Catholic or not. I do not think it is right for John Kerry to tout his faith in one instance and then brush it aside when it comes to public policy. By asking Kerry to be pro-life and in line with the true teachings of the church, I am not saying that Kerry must set up a theocracy and push Catholicism on the entire population of the United States, as you have led readers to believe. I simply believe that one’s faith should play a large role in advising and informing public policy.

Your assumption that all Catholics cannot be Democrats is ridiculous. One can be a Democrat and still behave in a way that is loyal and true to the church’s teaching, although this is rare. Your attempt to split Catholics along a political line trivializes what the church stands for. There is not a single political party at this time that presents and supports all issues that are central to Catholic teaching. We must then choose the lesser of two evils.

It is ridiculous for you to argue that a politician can be pro-choice and vote in favor of pro-choice legislature but work against abortion by trying to eliminate the root causes of abortion such as poverty. The truth is that even if we eliminated the root causes of abortion, women would still have abortions because they are not taught that it is wrong.

Yes, I dare to say that there is such a thing as right and wrong and that truth is not subjective. I see John Kerry as weak and unable to stand up for the truth because he is afraid of being called intolerant. Well, guess what? Everyone is intolerant. The people who will call him intolerant are being intolerant themselves.

I will pray that you, too, will have the strength to stand up for what is right, not what is popular.

Lexington, Ky.

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I just read your article on Kerry. Unbelievable. After 40 years, you guys still remain the rebellious adolescents.

Mandeville, La.

Child abuse now and then

A large number of sex allegations have been made against priests and nuns, dating back decades. Does this mean that things were terrible when the church was powerful and that there is a vast improvement today?

In my country, Ireland, there were about six murders a year in the 1950s. Today the figure is closer to 60 a year. Every other type of violent crime has increased in the same way, not to mention addiction and venereal disease. AIDS and drug abuse hardly existed then.

Are we supposed to believe that child abuse is the only exception to this sorry story?

Look at it another way. It’s usually accepted that criminal behavior starts early in life and that a child’s early experiences are vital in determining his future. So what type of early experiences are our children having today as compared to 50 years ago?

I have put this question to some of my “liberal” friends and I have got very strange answers.

I was told -- more than once -- that many murders were never reported in the 1950s! So maybe that explains the lack of statistics about deaths from AIDS and heroin back then. Maybe the Catholic church was concealing them, as well?

I was also told that decades ago alcoholism was the same as drug abuse today. That is partly true, but does it mean that the number of alcoholics is going down as the number of drug addicts increases? Rubbish. All doctors agree that both problems are getting worse.

Moreover, the children of addicted parents are more likely to be abused -- either because the parents are out of control or because they cannot protect their children.

So how is it possible to believe that children are better off today than they were in a society where the church was powerful?

We are now living in a “liberal,” secular society in which anything goes. Why do our liberals persist in blaming the church for the evils all around them?

Dublin, Ireland

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, May 21, 2004