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Hierarchical power games: sex and celibacy in the catholic Priesthood.

The Other Side of the Altar: One Man's Life in the Catholic Priesthood Paul E. Dinter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, 240pp.)

NOW in his late fifties and married with two stepdaughters, Paul Dinter is a laicized Roman Catholic priest. The Other Side of the Altar, One Man's Life in the Catholic Priesthood is an autobiographical work covering his life from the 1950s through the 1990s--he left the priesthood in 1994. In six chapters, the book reflects on a traditional Catholic boyhood in New York City, the author's minor and major seminary experiences, clergy typology, 15 years as a chaplain at Columbia University, a sabbatical in Rome and finally his exodus from the priesthood.

The book's central theme is the politicization and inadequacies of official Catholic teaching about sexuality and how it impacts on both clerical and lay members of the church. This may seem at first glance to be old material, but Dinter treats it in a new way--from the standpoint of an "average" priest (i.e. one of the majority who has not been caught up in the sexual abuse scandal). Dinter, the "average" priest, brings poignancy, insight and sometimes brutal honesty to the subject by placing it in the context of his personal struggle. His analysis rings true and could benefit other priests, both active and resigned, in dealing with their own sexuality, and those of their parishioners.

However, his identification of the central issue as being "sexual" does him a disservice. Dinter's struggle is part of the universal human search for psychological wholeness, intimacy and personal validation. The central problem in the church is the lack of an adequate "theology of the person." In this broader context, the frequent theologizing about sexual issues and Roman politics (bishops covering up abuse, opposition to birth control, the arrested development of the clergy, the primacy of infallible teachings, etc.) fit more comfortably in the book. As Dinter puts it, "Rome's inflexibility about birth control, like its overvaluation of clerical celibacy and of an all-male priesthood, represents the hierarchy's own instinctual sense that their entire worldview is at stake." (p210)

Dinter's journey has not ended. He has transformed his priestly vocation from the clerical state to the lay state, and like many before him, found work in social services. Dinter is at the start of his lay journey and is optimistic that the official church will change, even though Rome is not known either for timely innovation or forgiving reformers.

Some readers will find Paul's perspectives too narrow--too North American--too New York--too 20th century. This leads to some generalizations that do not fully fit all parts of the universal church. This may blunt but does not invalidate the author's analysis of the issues. The hard-won insights that he achieved through therapy are of enormous value to the many priests who are currently working through these issues. The insider's view of the priesthood gives lay people a larger base for understanding the sometimes odd and mystifying actions of their clergy. This story is an honest and refreshing addition to the continuing struggle for an adequate theology of the person in the Catholic church and may serve to enliven and enlighten many who read it.

TOM RATERMAN resigned as a Catholic priest in 1972 and is a professor of social work and gerontology at Seneca College in Ontario, Canada.
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Author:Raterman, T.A.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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