Cardinal Mauro Piacenza's recent "letter" to mothers of priests and seminarians was clearly intended as a warm recognition, tied in with the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, of women who are life's primary teachers and examples of faith.
If he had stopped with his statement of
gratitude, the message would warrant little further notice.
Piacenza, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, went on at
length, weaving a top-heavy construct of speculative theology about
priesthood overlaid with treacly pieties and strange contortions of
gender and familial relations.
The speech stands in contrast to the words of Benedictine Abbot Peter
von Sury of Switzerland, who in a recent interview urges deep changes in
church structures, led by the way in which bishops are selected. (See Story.) Von Sury advocates returning the voices of "faithful, the local clergy and the neighboring bishops" to the selection process.
Taken together, Piacenza and von Sury represent two of the poles
between which the tensions within the contemporary church are played
Piacenza begins by comparing women whose sons become priests with the
Virgin Mary, adding, "The entire church looks with admiration and deep
gratitude upon all mothers of priests and of those who, having received
this lofty vocation, have embarked upon the path of formation."
With no intent to diminish the significance of priestly vocation, it is
nonetheless distressing to hear once again from a Vatican official the
kind of thinking that echoes from past centuries and, in this case,
reinforces what is so very wrong with the clerical culture. While
abusive behavior, including sexual abuse of children, occurs everywhere,
the unique character of such abuse within Catholic clerical circles
owes more than a little to such high notions of ordination. The teaching
that priests somehow stood outside of ordinary human experience was a
contributing factor to the peculiar manifestation of abuse within the
church and the fact that so many in authority hid the abuse for so long.
Piacenza, in his breathless attempt to elevate priesthood and the
mothers of priests to some preternatural level, actually disfigures what
is holiest, and thus most deeply human, about men and women called to a
special level of service to the Catholic Christian community.
Piacenza's idea of priesthood seems far removed from the early church's
understanding of ordination. (See Story.)
Mothers of priests, he asserts, enjoy "unique and special ... spiritual
consolations" and "rejoice in seeing the life of her son not only
fulfilled but also clothed with a most exceptional divine favor which
embraces and transforms it for all eternity."
Piacenza continues to work his weave, incorporating ever stranger
conclusions about the consequences of ordination. Experience, he writes,
shows that "when a man is ordained a priest, his mother 'receives' him
in a completely new and unexpected way," seeing "in the fruit of her own
womb a 'father' who by God's will is called to generate and accompany a
multitude of brothers and sisters to eternal life." Consequently,
"Every mother of a priest mysteriously becomes a 'daughter of her son.' "
And what of her daughters, or other sons, or perhaps a husband? Are
mother and priest son swept up, mysteriously of course, in some strange
association of the otherworldly? What Piacenza sows more resembles
division than sanctity. His tightly constructed little universe leads to
a culture of men alone, talking only to each other.
As head of the Congregation for the Clergy, Piacenza might do better to
speak to those mothers who say, "If you won't have my daughter, you
can't have my son," or others who simply will not encourage their sons
to become part of a culture that parents increasingly feel is unhealthy
Von Sury gets quickly to the nub of the issue that lies beneath the
froth of Piacenza's view of ordination. The church today, he says, is
suffering the effects of a "closed system" in which the overwhelming
majority of those who rise to episcopacy will not challenge the status
quo. "A closed system," he said, "is not capable of accepting criticism
or correction from outside. Perhaps it will have to break down one day
or disintegrate before something happens. Or it will run out of money
and then it will automatically come to a standstill."
In the meantime, the path to ordination keeps filling with those who
understand the rules of the culture as they now exist. And those rules
are designed to give us more of what we don't need: an enhancement of
clerical privilege and an increase of clerical distance from the people.