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Free Priests: The Movement for Ministerial Reform in the American Catholic Church.

Perhaps someday there will be a gigantic five-volume book titled The Great Collapse: Roman Catholic Clergy in the 20th Century. In it, William F. Powers' dazzling new book, Free Priests, will occupy a chapter all its own, or at least share a special section along with recent books like David Rice's Shattered Vows, Richard Sipe's A Silent World, Uta Ranke-Heinemann's Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven and Jason Barry's Lead Us Not Into Temptation.

All those works record the profound drama and destruction that came upon an ever-burgeoning international church founding itself, on one side, upon the gospels and, on the other, upon considerably less substantial ground.

The Catholic clerical ministry is crashing in slow motion before our eyes -- there are an estimated 20,000 resigned priests in the United States alone -- apparently heedless of a host of prophetic voices, many of whom have left their ministries, yet in some sense have stayed within the church to assist the sick and wounded, refusing to give up hope.

I found Free Priests, which covers a 25-year period, a fascinating yarn, especially in the way it records for history how organizations of resigned priests became a new kind of protestant (with a small p): They refused to leave, yet refused to give up their ministry. Some even retain their Roman collar and prefer to be called "reverend."

The book focuses on the Federation of Christian Ministries and CORPUS, the Corps of Reserve Priests United for Service. These are part of a 22-group coalition now united to reform Catholicism from within, all refusing to be called schismatic. They say they are rebuilding Catholicism from the ground up. FCM has survived so many years partly because it can legally certify one for religious ministry. It even accepts and certifies women candidates. CORPUS has survived and grown strong by gathering together those who refuse to give up hope for married and gender-equal leadership. Both promote community.

What seems to me less beautiful in this whole story is the mind-bending concept of being "a priest forever," or even of being a priest at all -- if that implies separation. Neither of these is a New Testament concept and may no longer be useful, especially because they encourage clericalism, which feminist scholars see as so harmful and poisonous for the priests as well. A sense of humor -- or better, a sense of history -- is the best detoxicant for this, I think. Powers' Free Priests provides that medicine in undeniably sweet-tasting form.
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Author:Cleary, William
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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