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By Timothy Lavin

Volume 16 • Issue 31 | December 30 – January 8, 2004

Catholic Churches like St. Xavier grapple with reform

St. Francis Xavier Catholic church has long been known for its progressively minded congregation and clergy. Few found it surprising, then, when in the summer of 2002 a collection of Xavier parishioners formed the first New York City chapter of ‘Voice of the Faithful,’ a controversial group created in Boston in response to the priestly sexual abuse scandals.

Since then, members of the Xavier affiliate, like many of their counterparts nationwide, have labored to defend what they consider a moderate, centrist reform agenda. Detractors claim the group operates as a front for Catholics hoping to enact broader changes, like revamping the church’s view of sexuality. The Xavier group, which operates independently of the parish proper, may have offered their critics some legitimacy last week, when they invited former priest and vocal critic of the clerical hierarchy Paul Dinter to speak about his book, “The Other Side of the Altar.”

Claiming that the abuse scandals resulted largely from an unbalanced distribution of power, Dinter delivered an unsentimental history of the priesthood. He focused on the consequences of the Medieval belief that celibacy provided a means of appeasing God in a dangerous world, that it constituted a sacrifice shouldered by only the most holy. This provoked a division, he believed, between a celibate clergy and a seemingly tainted laity.

“When we speak of the priesthood, we speak of Christ instituting the priesthood. Excuse me while I gag,” he said. “Christ did not institute a priesthood. Let’s be mature and try to deal with changes that arose in the church—some for good and some for ill.”

Through centuries of misinterpretation, he continued, priests have acquired both the onus of protecting their flock from the supernatural and the attendant trappings of grandeur this enabled. “For generations,” he writes in his book, “a certain spiritual narcissism has functioned as the clergy’s single most effective recruiting tool.”

Indeed, Dinter’s book, like his oratory, is often arrestingly blunt. It traces his boyhood life upstate, his tumultuous journey through the seminary (that “prep school for delayed adolescents”), his ministry at Columbia University, and a sabbatical at the Vatican. He interweaves this personal history with commentary on the enormous cultural and theological upheavals in the church during these years, and includes ruminations on his encounters with women and with other clergy—some admirable, others unstable or reprehensible.

Though clearly polemical, the book is generally honest about its motives: Dinter offers his story to illustrate the need for broad reform in the church’s understanding of priestly power and sexuality. Whether or not one agrees with this view, Dinter provides a refreshing and engaging story. Despite his disarming penchant for sexual frankness, he mercifully declines to engage the lurid. And despite his often-roiling anger toward the church’s hierarchy, he refuses to settle for the lazily vituperative.

Though his candor is most salient on matters sexual, it also extends to other, less scrutinized vulnerabilities of the clerical life—most poignantly its isolation. “For a priest,” he writes, “pronouncing the final blessing over a newly married couple and sending them down the aisle arm-in-arm to the boom of the organ and the tears and smiles of friends and family can be one of the loneliest moments in ministry.”

And it is this profound, inescapable isolation that Dinter eventually blames for his retirement from the priesthood and abandonment of celibacy. His portrait of his final days as a celibate man is genuinely affecting. Yet given his criticism during the 223 preceding pages of practically every other aspect of priestly life, one marvels that it took him 23 years to quit. But to marvel at any depth here would require unfounded psychological speculation, the likes of which Dinter is occasionally fond, to the book’s detriment. And rarely does he give voice to any of the legion of priests content with the life of the collar. Indeed, he seems to believe that those foolish ones who did not follow his lead and storm out the doors in protest were either deluding themselves or too weak-minded and insecure for such bravado – – “they are just keeping busy,” he said.

Now married and the president of New York City Care for the Homeless, Dinter is an adroit and confident speaker. His audience of about 70 at St. Francis Xavier responded ambiguously to his speech, some applauding, others shaking their heads at his occasional acidic irreverence. Though several of the audience’s questions sought to lure out some explicit details of priestly sexual misconduct, he nobly declined.

He did not, however, miss an opportunity to call for extensive reform within the church, including financial accountability, a reevaluation of clerical celibacy, and an end to the “mythology of the Magisterium,” or the belief that the most fundamental Catholic doctrines should not be available for reinterpretation. “The corruption that exists in the church today persists because the hierarchy is fighting the course of doctrine as it moves,” he said.

Many Voice of the Faithful members, despite their desire for reform, would hesitate to agree. Claiming to represent the bulk of centrist Catholics loyal to the church, the group has elucidated three goals it hopes will ensure such a crisis will never recur: defending decent priests, supporting victims of abuse and creating “structural change” in the church.

Interpretations of that last goal differ widely, even among members of the same chapter, as do considerations of its vitality and theological legitimacy. Many critics see “structural change” as a front for liberal Catholics hoping to advance other goals, including the acceptance of married and female priests, a rethinking of the church’s view of birth control, and democratization of the hierarchy.

“I’m afraid the group is getting hijacked by people with other agendas,” said one VOTF member. “It’s a noble goal we have, and I think those of us in the center still dominate, just people who want to see some more accountability, nothing radical. Some of these guys seem to be pulling in other directions, though.”

Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a forthright and frequent Voice of the Faithful detractor, agreed. “They’re a many-headed monster,” he said. In print, Hudson has decried the group as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a vanguard of radicals hoping to boost their numbers and legitimacy with a moderate veneer. He considered Dinter’s visit further proof. “The wolf side is being continually confirmed,” he said. And though their public efforts to emphasize a moderate agenda continue, “It’s never successful because they continue to showcase guys such as this” at their meetings.

Dinter remains in the church and is a Voice of the Faithful member himself. “My faith has never wavered,” he said, “it just didn’t sustain me in being celibate.”

Outside of the priesthood, he said in an interview, working for reform has proven difficult. “It is hard. To the extent that the faithful are supposed to have a voice, they haven’t had one at all.

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