I am always intrigued by the ways in which faith communities ultimately are unable to control the conversation about ideas that arise from their members. (Consider this a follow-on to my previous two blog entries.)
Ideas the community officially may consider heresy or at least unwanted rarely seem to go away completely, and when those ideas address what appear to be continuing problems within the group, they are even less likely to disappear.
One such idea is that of opening up the Catholic priesthood to men who are married. The church's commitment to a celibate priesthood is not one it considers forever unchangeable. There have been times when priests were married and there may yet be such a time again in the future, though current church leadership opposes the idea -- at times quite rigorously.
But an organization called FutureChurch is committed to promoting the idea of a priesthood open to married men, and is using Oct. 30 as a day to honor all priests and to call attention to the need for married priests.
"Our goal as FutureChurch is to honor not only the ministry of celibate priests but to also advocate for a return to permitting married priestly ministry," Emily Holtel-Hoag, FutureChurch special projects coordinator, said to me in an e-mail.
I invite you to look around at the FutureChurch Web site to see the group's various activities, but while you're there you might look at its section on the shortage of priests.
I looked up there the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and found some statistics that showed that the number of diocesan priests in the diocese had dropped from 126 in 1976 to 96 in 2009.
Diocesan spokeswoman Rebecca Summer tells me that the January 2011 figure for diocesan priests was 98, of whom 70 are in active ministry, while 28 are retired. The FutureChurch figure of 126 diocesan priests did not count 29 it listed as "retired, sick or absent." So the comparable figures for diocesan priests appear to show that there were 126 active in 1976 and 70 active today. By my math, that means the diocese has only about 55 percent of the available, active diocesan priests that it had in 1976. (This count doesn't include priests of various religious orders working in the diocese.)
The shortage of priests is one of the arguments for having married priests.
Well, this debate may go on for many more years, but in the end a church without enough ordained leaders to sustain it will suffer. What we don't yet know is how much suffering the current top of the Catholic hierarchy is willing for the church to accept to be able to maintain a celibate priesthood..
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PUNISHING COPTIC CHRISTIANS
The recent violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt has been a disaster for the interim military government. The world watches as the country's armed forces crush an already oppressed minority, and everyone wonders why any of this had to happen. Coptic Christians, a people with a long, long history, make up from 6 to 15 percent of Egypt's population, depending on what source you consult. Theologically, Coptic Christians differ from traditional Christianity in that they reject the idea that Jesus had two natures and was, thus, both fully human and fully divine. Copts accept that Jesus was both human and divine but insist that these were united in one nature. It may seem today like arguing about angels dancing on pinheads, but over the centuries such arguments got lots of people killed. I have been twice to Egypt and have visited Coptic sites. I admire the faithfulness of the Copts.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Belieber!: Fame, Faith, and the Heart of Justin Bieber, by Cathleen Falsani. The author, an excellent religion journalist (whom I've heard speak), is clearly and unabashedly a fan of pop singing star Justin Bieber. It's not that she's a lady ga-ga over Bieber's music but, rather, is profoundly impressed with his willingness to acknowledge to the public that he's a person of faith who wants everyone to know about and feel God's love. And, really, that's a pretty admirable quality in a 17-year-old who just a few years ago was an unknown kid from a small town in Canada. Falsani, whose own Christian faith shines through this book, describes Bieber's astonishing rise to fame and fortune and his commitment to his Christian upbringing. It's so amazingly easy for fame to erode one's moral center. Falsani wants us to know that has not happened with young Justin. She describes him not as a zealous Jesus freak who wants everyone in the world to see faith the way he sees it but, rather, as a committed Christian who has experienced God's embracing love through an unusual family (Bieber correctly notes that there may be not be "any such thing as a 'normal' family.") and who wants others to have the opportunity to know that God loves them unconditionally. (Speaking of his family, his mother got pregnant with him as a drinking, partying teen who later found a welcoming church.) So along with the improbable story of a Jewish manager discovering Bieber on YouTube and helping him shoot to stardom, we get the story of Bieber's commitment to faith. I certainly had heard of (and even heard) Bieber before this book, but hadn't bothered to learn much about him. I'm glad Falsani's book moved me to do that. I bet you will have much the same reaction.