Jesuit Sees Church at Critical Crossroads

By Jim Goodman
April 21, 2003

This is an Easter season, says the Rev. Raymond A. Schroth, a Trenton-born Jesuit priest and writer, when Catholics and their church would be well advised to take stock of themselves - to think about where the church stands today and what the future holds for it.

Schroth's message is not designed to comfort the faithful but to give voice to his hopes and fears for the church, which is facing one of the most troubling crises in its 2,000-year history - charges of sex abuse against priests.

"Where will the church be five or 10 years from now?" Schroth asks rhetorically.

And then he answers: "That depends on what the leadership does. Does it become more open? Less secretive? Does it become less authoritative?"

All Christians hold Easter as the most sacred holiday in their belief that by rising from the dead three days after his crucifixion, Jesus proved he was the son of God and that everlasting life was possible.

"The message of the Easter season is that Jesus is ready to leave the Earth to join his father in heaven and he is telling the Apostles he will not abandon them, will not make them orphans.

"Instead, he says he will send the Holy Spirit to be with them and to work with them in his place."

The message, asserts Schroth, is that Jesus wanted his followers to continue the task he began with the small but growing number of followers surrounded by disbelievers.

That's where the church is today, says Schroth. Only now, the church is viewed as the most powerful religion in the world, despite being under siege by critics.

The crisis now, the Jesuit priest says, is not one of belief but of the moral authority of the church in the face of doubt.

If the church does not satisfy its honest critics, Schroth argues, it may lose the moral authority that has been its trademark for centuries.

It is a crisis that cannot be resolved by the church hierarchy alone, Schroth insists.

The church, he points out, is not just "priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope. There is the body of the church and that means all Catholics."

If a way out of its current troubles is to be found, Schroth says, the entire body of the church must be involved.-- -- -- Schroth speaks out as an ethics teacher at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, an author who has written a half-dozen books published by the Catholic press and a writer-editor-reporter whose articles have appeared in the weekly National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal magazine and newspapers.

Schroth, who is the brother of the late Mercer County Superior Court Judge David J. Schroth, is a reformer but calls himself an orthodox Catholic who does not quarrel with church dogma.

His most radical proposal was an invitation to all of America's Catholic bishops to assemble in Yankee Stadium and, as a liturgical act, offer their resignations to the pope.

"It would be an act of penance," he explains. "It would be up to the pope (who appoints all the bishops) to decide which resignations to accept.

"The pope would be involved personally in the action. Some bishops obviously would go, but it would give the pope the opportunity to inject new blood into the clergy."

Schroth wants the church to be more open and less secretive about the operations of the dioceses and the parishes, to allow parishioners, not just priests, to have a voice in how the churches are run, in policymaking and even in the selection of priests.

He predicts that if the church does not soon allow women to be ordained, it will run out of priests and "wind up with a lot of empty churches." There are, he argues, "many good men and women, married and unmarried, who want to be priests and would make good priests."

Celibacy was not mandated by the church until the 11th century, church reformers point out. They also note that many of the early church leaders, including the Apostles, were married and women were prominent.

Schroth even suggests the church eventually may approve birth control - a practice condemned by the church but, even church officials concede, routinely practiced by Catholics.-- -- -- Opinion has so strongly moved within the priesthood, Schroth reasons, that most Catholics today would just ignore a priest who lectured them on birth control.

More importantly, Schroth asserts, the church should become much more active in addressing "the plight of the poor, the huge and growing gaps in the incomes of the rich and poor."

It should be more public in opposing capital punishment.

Approval of birth control, he asserts, would not open the door for those Catholics who want the church to lift its strict ban on abortion.

Birth control and abortion "are two entirely different things," Schroth argues. "Birth control has to do with the dynamics of the sexual and personal relationship. Abortion has to do with the value we place on life."

Like many liberal Catholics, Schroth is troubled by some of the pope's most conservative policies but adds, "I am proud of the pope for opposing the death penalty. I am proud that the pope has called the (Iraq) war unjust and personally appealed to President Bush not to invade Iraq."

Schroth's anger boiled over recently in a tirade in which he labeled President Bush's professions of belief in Christian prayer as hypocritical.

How, Schroth asked, can Bush profess to be a follower of Jesus when his policies are so targeted to aid the wealthy and cut benefits and services for the poor? -- -- -- To most people who have grown up Catholic in America, Schroth's words may have a radical edge.

Schroth disagrees.

Until the middle of the 19th century, he points out, most Catholic parishes were created by trustees made up of lay Catholics who built and managed churches and who hired and fired priests.

The trustee system ended at about the time of the Civil War when John Hughes, a fiery Irish-American New York City bishop seized control of the financially troubled churches and laid the groundwork for the Catholic diocesan system that still exists today.

Hughes, one of the most important bishops in American history, opposed the trusteeship system because it was made possible by a law used to advance Protestant churches at the expense of Catholics during a period of rabid anti-Catholicism.

The bishop also fought against including religious teaching in public schools on the grounds that the teaching was universally Protestant teaching, often including blatant Catholic bashing.

Fallout from the church scandals has given rise to organizations of Catholic lay persons, including the Voice of the Faithful, a group that generates much news coverage and has been denied the use of church facilities for its meetings.

Some church officials have derided critics of the bishops as anti-Catholic rebels.

"I spoke to the Voice of the Faithful and when I said most priests are good priests and love their parishes and their parishes love them, I was given a standing ovation," Schroth said.-- -- -- Dealing with bishops is another matter.

"I can speculate about what makes bishops so remote from lay people," Schroth says. "They achieve their station (as bishops) by emphasizing their orthodoxy. If I, as a priest, want to be considered as a bishop, I would have to keep my mouth shut (on church policies)."

Until relatively recently, bishops were selected within their national churches. That changed when the pope disciplined European theologians who challenged the Vatican on church dogma. Now, every bishop in the world is named by the Vatican.

Because Schroth is a Jesuit teacher at an independent Catholic college, he is free to speak his mind without fear of being punished by a bishop.

"This is a Catholic college, but students and faculty members are free to express their opinions," he says.

However, Schroth says, the system in the diocese is that "if any priest speaks out against church policies - I'm talking about policies, not dogma - he will never be considered for promotion."


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