- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

The Graham Greene novel "The Power and the Glory" made famous the cowardly "whisky priest" in revolutionary Mexico who still redeemed people by giving them the holy sacrament central to Catholic faith.
Based on that same theology, some say, the U.S. bishops have covered up sexually abusive priests believing they still were men who could do God's work at Mass every day.
The 1940 novel was condemned by the Vatican in 1953, but its theme that "once a priest always a priest" may be shaken as the U.S. bishops consider the lifetime firing of hundreds of ordained men involved in sexual misconduct.
"There's probably some amount of theology involved in a bishop's decision" not to sideline abusive priests, said Anthony J. Tambasco, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. "But if bishops had a problem that could not be solved, the permanence of priesthood would not be their major concern."
He said church teaching endows a priest at ordination with a supernatural priestly "power." While the bishop may not take away that power, he may forbid the priest from celebrating Mass, in which the priest brings Christ's presence into the bread and wine.
Many have argued that bishops failed to remove priests who sexually abused minors, or who had sexual affairs, because of a secretive network or a shortage of priests.
The dilemma of making a priest a non-priest, however, may have played a role, said John Farina, who has written and edited books on Catholic spirituality.
"'Once a priest always a priest' is a standard understanding of the priesthood," Mr. Farina said. "It is an eternal priesthood, following in the footstep of Christ."
He traced it to a 17th-century theological revival that began to view the priest as the "alter-christos," or "another Christ." In that role, they celebrate Mass. "That's still the most fundamental thing they do. The preaching doesn't matter, the singing doesn't matter."
At the bishops' meeting in Dallas through tomorrow, they will vote on whether a priest accused the first time recently, or far in the past, may be "laicized," or retired from ministry. That priest, however, will still have the ordination power, Mr. Tambasco said.
In Rome, some canon lawyers have said that a priest accused of crimes of abuse may not be fired because of the theological and canonical statutes of the church.
In May, the Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, a Jesuit and top canon lawyer for Vatican City, said in the semiofficial publication La Civilta Cattolica that bishops should defend the "good reputation" of an abusive priest rather than disclose his doings to parishioners or police.
In explaining the crisis to member of the Arlington Diocese, Bishop Paul S. Loverde emphasized the theological importance of the tie between bishop and priest "throughout the entirety of that man's service" in the church.
"However, certain actions can be so contrary to remaining in service as a priest that the basic relationship between a priest and bishop can be severed forever," he said, in apparent contradiction to Mr. Tombasco's impression.
Bishop Loverde said, "This process of severance is called laicization, and results in restoring a man to the lay state."
While the bishops in Dallas seem strongly united in a "one strike and you're out" policy for priests hereafter, they are divided on whether to laicize all priests accused of sexual abuse in the past.
Mr. Farina said that a major push to take priestly status away from accused men who are ordained could raise new theological debates on the very nature of the priesthood, in which the bishops themselves are a part.

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