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Priests, sex and the media


'Our Fathers' by Chris McGillion and John O'CarrollCatholic priests have been much in the news this last week. On Friday, Paul Collins discussed a study of parish life in Australia. And there has been much discussion of a new book by Chris McGillion and John O'Carroll on Catholic priests working in parishes.

The discussion of Our Fathers has been colourful. It has retailed pithy quotes from priests interviewed in the book, and highlighted disagreement with church positions, and critical judgments of Roman and episcopal authority. The book and the criticism made of it deserve reflection.

Media coverage of the Catholic Church usually assumes that it is a homogeneous and disciplined body with bishops, priests and laity walking in step with the Pope, and that its uniformity derives from fear of authority. From this perspective the difference of views and plain speaking among Catholics will always be presented like rebellious voices in a strict school, with unspoken anticipation about how the headmaster will deal with the situation.

This way of telling the story is unreal. Priests are more like franchisees than employees. They identify with their parish and are fairly independent in building it up. Like franchisees most have been ready to criticise any authority above them, and always ready to grumble. This need not amount to disaffection.

In this survey the level of dissatisfaction is about what I would have expected. It reflects the tumultuous times priests have lived through, when as a group they have gone from being highly to lowly esteemed, when the church they serve has diminished and aged, and when their own workload has increased with age.

The attitudes to moral issues and to doctrine described in this book are also much as I would have expected, especially given the ambiguity of the statements to which the priests were expected to respond. Most priests learn to use words carefully when dealing with questions about contentious issues of faith and morals.

In the survey, for example, they were offered the options to agree, disagree or be undecided in responding to the statement 'it is always a sin for unmarried people to have sex'. This statement could be understood in two different ways. It might be taken to mean that it is never objectively morally justifiable for unmarried people to have sex. Or it could mean that unmarried people always commit a sin when they have sex (including, presumably, if they are sleep walking, are ignorant that what they are doing is wrong, etc).

Priests who understood the sentence in the second sense would have to disagree with it, even if they accepted the Catholic poition that objectively sex is properly reserved to marriage.

Given similar ambiguities in other statements to which the priests were asked to respond, I am not convinced that the survey reveals a widespread rejection by priests of Catholic moral positions. The question needs closer and more precise analysis.

The quotations from interviews with a range of priests are the most thought-provoking part of the book. The priests generally speak the language of their people: blunt and straightforward. Their views are salty and down to earth, sometimes compassionate, sometimes unfair, and always worth listening to. Their language is that of men who have worked through the heat of the day.

For all their criticism of the Catholic Church, they present as a committed group of men with a passion for what they do. Indeed, most of the aspects of the Church that they criticise, whatever their presuppositions, are associated with a lack of generous passion.

Their language is characteristically Australian. A significant point in which it seems lacking is that words do not come easily to speak of the hunger for God and the relationship with God that underlies their ministry. That lack is also Australian. It is understandable when so much Church language is stale, referring to but not evoking God's presence. But in times when a deep centre is required to be a priest, deep and earthed words are needed.

Taken together Our Fathers and 'Catholic Parish Ministry in Australia: Facing Disaster' suggest the size of the challenges that the Church faces. That is why they deserve close reflection.

A generally aging clergy whose numbers are clearly inadequate to carry on the forms of service and of local gathering that have been inherited, and who have toiled to serve their people in this difficult situation, need encouragement. It will be important that they can contribute their wisdom to the necessary reconfiguring of the Australian Church, and that their energies are engaged only in projects that have a high importance and a persuasive rationale. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, ChrisMcGillion, John O'Carroll, Paul Collins, Our Fathers, Priests



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Existing comments

This article reminds me of a heated, judgmental discussion on the horrors of abortion and its sinfulness. A wise old priest listened, became uncomfortable, then restless before reminding us of the old green catechism definition of mortal sin: Grave matter, perfect knowledge and full consent of the will. Thank you Michael for reminding us that sin is really for God's judgment and one of the priest's jobs is to help us understand what God wants of us. We should value and encourage our priests even if we must sometimes be patient with them. They are an important part of our family.

Margaret McDonald Brunswick West | 07 March 2011  

Why not ask the people what might be done to keep he church -alive, functioning well,caring for and healing the people. The way we live and work has changed-the church has not. Why is the church not in shopping centres etc? Why are Mass times so fixed in past traditons? Why not use all the suitable (and many are ) theologically educated people,and the psychs and social workers to more effect.Enliven the liturgies for young people, Look more carefully at the functioning of the Uniting church (which unfortunately priests are so quick to criticise).

Bev Smith | 07 March 2011  

Did Michael Mullins or Andrew Hamilton write this article- different names appear at the top and bottom. Not that it matters. It is a well balanced and sensitive comment worthy of either men, and well worth reading.

Brian | 07 March 2011  

Michael, your generous assessment of the workers in the vineyard is fair enough. And true, they are deserving of praise and support for their long and patient toiling even if, as you say, like most Australians they like a good grumble from time to time.

Your analogy of priests as franchisees is a good one because while it highlights parish priests as in a certain sense entrepreneurial, energetic and committed to building up their franchise, it also highlights many of the shortcomings of the 'priestly franchise'. Most franchises run for a limited term, they are generally open to renegotiation at the end of the term, they are not 24/7 and they are open to all adult members of society to participate in.

Part of the problem at the moment is the 'franchise' itself, not only should the current franchisees "contribute their wisdom to [its] necessary reconfiguring" but so should all members of the Australian church who believe they have a powerful claim to a priestly franchise - this includes women, married priests and married men and women generally.

John Edwards | 07 March 2011  

Apologies to our readers about the attribution of the editorial. To paraphrase Scripture, the voice is the voice of Andy, but the byline is that of Michael. So any blame for the article should be laid on me alone. And, of course, unlike the story of Esau and Jacob, readers can be assured that I have no designs on Michael's editorial inheritance!

andy Hamilton | 07 March 2011  

Andy, Good analysis of Our Fathers and Facing Disaster, but unfortunate in an article on Priests, sex and the media you did not include Chrissie Foster's Hell on the way to Heaven. I recommend Googling

8th Nov. 2010 Alan Howe editor of the Herald Sun
Google "Hell - who's joining me?"

10th Nov. 2010 Denis Hart Archbishop of Melbourne
Google "Concealing sex abuse a grave evil"

13th Nov. 2010 Chrissie Foster Author Hell to Heaven
Google "The catholic church must give all victims a christian response"

A discussion of Priests, sex and the media should include this cancer that has 9% of priests ordained in my time from CCC 1952 - 1959 convicted and acknowledged guilty of sexual abuse and covered up by Bishops and Religous Superiors. Regretfully taints each and every priest.

At last Our Fathers opens the issue of active priests living in permanent relationships.

Michael Parer | 07 March 2011  

Rise up Chjristians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus ... Rise up as one one the 7th of April 2011: Reclaim the Light and reclaim the position entrusted to you all by the prophets who still sleep in the dust.

Greig WIlliams | 07 March 2011  

An interesting article. This was attention-grabbing: "Priests are more like franchisees than employees. They identify with their parish and are fairly independent in building it up. " Legally, franchisees have little autonomy, and can be 'kicked out' for any breach of the rules. Products do not vary between franchises - take somewhere like Dominoes (apparently one of the biggest franchises in the country) as an example; the menu and product is identical across the country. Franchises do not respond to local needs, not to local communities.

However, if the author's concept was allowed (i.e. a priest responds to community), I am sad to say there's a long history of those being independent 'pulled into line'. There are numerous examples I could give - intinction would be a major one - the preference of many Catholics for a range of reasons (banned); using non-alcoholic wine in certain communities (banned); refusing to administering gluten-free hosts for coeliacs (one archdiocese has banned priests from this practice, meaning coeliacs can't receive the host and due to their medical issues would be very reluctant to drink from a common vessel).

I chuckled at a " A generally aging clergy ...." it's a strange way of describing a group with an average age of 70! The Western Australian response to this has been the "import a priest model" and there have been both successes and disasters with this; the absence of a period of enculturation into community is the major issue with the disasters. Yet, we won't bite the bullet and close 'dead' parishes, or offer alternative ways of doing things - yet non-Catholic churches have. My aunt, a retired Uniting church minister, worships in a country town within the Anglican church - turned into a vibrant ecumenical community with the amalgamation of other churches. It has responded to need, and has adult bible study, a mothers' club, Sunday school for the children ..... and strong liturgical music.

The catholic church in the same town continues, with a serving (very elderly and frail) priest, and no more than a handful of (related) parishioners, with one Sunday mass.

Keith | 08 March 2011  

There was a time when the local priest as well as the doctor were expected to be on duty 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. In this modern world life is more hectic and people need time to relax and enjoy life as a whole.

Every priest needs support in order to carry out any form of ministry as well as in service training.All churches need a new model of ministry to cope with the changing nature of society at large.

John Ozanne | 10 March 2011  

We cannot know what you go through but many of us truly do appreciate, respect and admire all your hard and inspired work. Thanks!

Nicole Pryor | 11 March 2011  

"Is it alwasys a sin for unmarried persons to have sex"? The correct answer to such a question should be another question "For whom"?
The knowledge, freedom and intentions of the doer are essential elements when discerning whether that person is 'in sin'. This isn't new theology, it's the traditional teaching I learned in primary school back in 1957. Grave matter, full knowledge, full consent. Even the leaders of the Church seem to have forgotten the last two when thundering forth "Abortion is always a sin", for example. It's always grave matter - it isn't always a sin.

Joan Seymour Albion, Vic. | 13 March 2011  

I am a priest who got the survey and chose not to respond as the choice of answers to the questions were such that to choose any of them would mean giving a distorted view of my opinions.

Brian Angus | 16 March 2011  

Your article is inaccurate. Priests have never acted as employees or franchisees. They have in the main acted as Princes and Kings of people who are regarded as unworthy of being consulted or listened to.

Perhaps you have been absent too long from parish life but even a little effort of engagement will soon convince you of the reality and you can be sure your view is inaccurate.
A suggestion.

Laurie Sheehan | 17 March 2011  

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