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Inside straight


A weekend with the New York Times's Peter Steinfels

By William Bole

It is no secret that the Catholic Church in America has become a fairly fractious place. Take the question of hierarchy. At one pole are those who think priests and bishops are infallible on everything from how to do the parish bookkeeping to how the faithful should vote in county elections. At the other end are Catholics who would remake the Church in the image of an Upper Manhattan apartment co-op association—democracy without end, amen.

This picture exaggerates, though not greatly. And besides, there is what Peter Steinfels, in his book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (2003), portrays as "the silent middle." Steinfels, a prominent New York Times religion analyst and the former editor of Commonweal magazine, is known for trying to build intellectual bridges between left and right. This is not just an exercise in niceness. As he gladly acknowledged after teaching a class at Boston College recently, there is a combative (he also said "ornery") side to his openness. Steinfels takes dialectical delight in responding to a thought with two or three contrary thoughts, letting them all go at one another in pursuit of a reasonable proposition.

Steinfels brought some of those propositions to his class, "The Church: From Crisis to Renewal," which ran during four weekends this past fall. Offered to graduate students through BC's Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (IREPM), the course dovetailed with the University's Church in the 21st Century Initiative, launched nearly three years ago by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, to address issues emerging from the clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

The course was not what some students expected when they registered. A few, like Peter Denio, who commuted to class from New Jersey, where he directs youth ministry at Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River, thought "the class would be more about him," meaning that Steinfels would be lecturing more or less from his book. Steinfels's contrary attitude heading into this course was, "This is a collective effort. If you just want to know what I think, read my book." Denio was pleasantly surprised by the interactive thrust of the class, which was not confined to the classroom. Students posted their reflections on a class website and communicated with Steinfels through e-mails to his nytimes.com address.

Denio could have said, without self-promotion, that the course turned out to be much about him. More precisely, the subject was often the men and women called lay pastoral ministers who teach children, counsel the bereaved, and otherwise tend to the Church's flocks as ordained clergy have become fewer in the Church. They are, in a sense, the "silent middle" between priests and parishioners.

Looking at the question of parish leadership during the last weekend of the course, Steinfels began scrawling out titles like "youth director" and "DRE" (director of religious education) on the blackboard. Turning his tall, slender frame toward a class made up mostly of current and future lay ministers (most of them women, and a few seemingly just beyond college age), he observed, "The face of the parish is not the priest, but lay parish associates." Later that weekend he furthered the proposition, telling the 19 students in attendance that lay professional ministry in the United States is something that "just happened. It wasn't the effect of a strategic plan. It arose somehow of its own accord. . . . Why did we go from virtually all pastoral work being done by ordained priests, or religious, to the majority being done by lay pastoral ministers, in a 30-year span or less?"

The answer, hashed out in class conversation, had something to do with reforms spearheaded by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and the example of a few pioneers ("That person is doing this work full-time, with a family. I could do that," Denio recalled thinking about a youth minister he knew when he was a teenager in the late 1980s). It also involved sheer necessity. Thomas H. Groome, a leading scholar of religious education who directs IREPM, made the point in an interview later: "[St. John's] Seminary across the street is about to close, for lack of students, whereas we have about 320 graduate students in our program." Students at the institute are lay and young (by and large), the single largest group being in their 20s. "So when people say to me, 'Oh, there are no vocations anymore in the Catholic Church,'" notes Groome, "I say that's not true at all. They're just not entering through the traditional structures of vowed religious life, celibate life. But there are as many as ever coming forward to enter into full-time vocations."

Which lends credence to one mildly ornery comment delivered in class by Steinfels. He told of a leading bishop who acknowledged that one of the most agonizing things he ever does is to send a "dud," an underachieving priest, to a parish. "It's either that or no one at all," the prelate (who was not identified) lamented. Contrarily, Steinfels submitted to the class, "Why not no one at all, sometimes?"

It was more than a quip. It was a proposal. Basically, Steinfels suggests involving lay parish committees in the process of selecting a pastor, then giving them options if they are not thrilled with the chancery's candidates. For example, they might have the option of "at least asking" for a lay parish administrator instead of a pastor.

The right to ask for something is not everyone's idea of power to the people. But as Steinfels confessed, "I guess I'm an incrementalist." Go slow, he advised in connection with women's ordination. Experiment with reforms, he said in a discussion of married priests, but don't throw aside celibacy. "I bridle at . . . the spiels against celibacy," Steinfels said, describing the discipline as a valuable witness found in nearly every great spiritual tradition.

In that discussion, Steinfels was subjecting one idea—the idea of reform—to the pressure of another idea, tradition. His creative contrariness also surfaced when buzzwords like "collaboration" and "consultation" began flying around the classroom. After hearing some bishop-bashing on that collegial score, Steinfels mentioned that he'd known some pastoral musicians to have "such clear-cut ideas that they won't even talk to the parish liturgy committee." His point: This is not just about bishops.

Steinfels's wasn't the only voice ratcheting up the dialectical pressure, however. On the subject of leadership, he neutrally and respectfully introduced veteran religion writer Kenneth Woodward's contention that women's ordination would spark a "feminization" of Catholic ministry—which would drive men away from the Church. Catherine Brunell, a pastoral ministry student who was pregnant with her first child and showing, was skeptical. "If Woodward were right, then women wouldn't be going to a Church run by men," argued Brunell, who is especially interested in young-adult ministry.

Weekend courses like the one taught by Steinfels satisfy IREPM's curriculum requirements. The class could be taken to fulfill a requirement in the core area of Church leadership, according to the institute's Groome. It was offered, he said, "in the spirit of the Church21 initiative, a spirit of moving from crisis to renewal."


William Bole's articles on religious topics have appeared in the Washington Post, Commonweal, America, and other publications.


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