- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

The Vatican said yesterday the Roman Catholic Church needs to do a better job in selecting and training priests and nuns to ensure they live by their vows of "chastity, poverty and obedience."

The admonitions were contained in a 57-page document, approved by Pope John Paul II, called "Starting Afresh from Christ, a Renewed Commitment to Consecrated Life in the Third Millennium."

The document was released as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Dallas yesterday and adopted a policy for dealing with the crisis of priests and bishops who have sexually abused minors. American bishops adopted a policy that will bar sexually abusive clergy from face-to-face contact with parishioners, but keep them in the priesthood. To date, four U.S. bishops and about 250 priests have lost their jobs as a result of accusations of sexual abuse.

"Young people need to be challenged to meet the high ideals of a radical following of Christ and the profound demands of holiness," said the document, known as an "instruction."

The paper directed superiors of religious orders to take extra care and caution in selecting people to enter religious life. It called on them to use "peaceful discernment" in screening candidates in order to "verify the authenticity of the vocation" and to detect and remove "possible contradictions" early, rather than later.

The new instruction said clerical candidates must accept fully what it called the "evangelical councils of chastity, poverty and obedience," which it described as a "powerful antidote to the pollution of spirit, life and culture."

It held that an "ongoing religious crisis" in society has made it necessary for priests and nuns "to look for new forms of presence and to raise not a few questions regarding the meaning of their identity and future."

There was disagreement yesterday over whether the timing of the document's release was accidental or intentional. And while the pope is urging greater scrutiny of those who enter the Catholic clergy, no one seems to think the new instruction will aggravate the problems that already exist in recruiting candidates for the priesthood.

"We want to affirm our belief that Catholic orthodoxy is a solution to the problem [of sex abuse by priests] and where a local bishop is orthodox and he and others in charge are vigorous and assertive in their beliefs, young men flock to that diocese" to serve as priests, said Robert Royal, a member of a group called Catholics for Authentic Reform. He cited the dioceses of Arlington, Va.; Denver; and Peoria, Ill., as some of those that have no problem finding enough priests.

William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, agreed. He said he believes the Vatican's new instruction "will help in the long run" in recruiting more priests who are properly prepared to be moral and spiritual leaders. "Everybody is getting the message. The party is over," said Mr. Donohue, adding:

"It's the dioceses that are relaxed and progressive, like those in Long Island and Saginaw, Mich. and the [religious] orders that have assimilated the culture that are having the worst time [in recruitment]. I'd rather have a smaller church with people who have fidelity to the church's teachings."

The Catholic Church in the United States has 60 million members, up from 15 million in 1965. Last year, just about 500 priests were ordained, a number that has remained unchanged since the mid-1980s. There are currently about 46,000 priests in the United States.

More than 3,000 of the 19,000 U.S. Catholic parishes have a vacancy at the priest's residence, according to CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based in the District. Priest shortages are most severe in the Great Plains and in the Northwest and Southwest. In those regions, it is not unusual for one priest to minister to two or three parishes at a time.

Monsignor John Woolsey, pastor of St. John the Martyr Catholic Church in New York, said it takes "eight to 10 years" to become a priest, which he believes is ample time for proper "discernment" of whether someone has what it takes for the job.

"But slackness has developed a lot of laxity has developed," Msgr. Woolsey said in a telephone interview. He said the new instruction could serve as a papal "wake-up call" to those responsible for selecting priests, telling them to "get their act together."

The Rev. Thomas Nairn, assistant professor of ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the nation's second-largest Catholic seminary, said the document's preparation obviously "took awhile," and he's convinced the contents were not induced by the church's sex-abuse scandal. In fact, he said in an interview, its very name "comes from an earlier document of the pope that was released in the 1990s."

"The pope's document is trying to provide a spiritual context for religious life. There's nothing astonishingly new here. He wants religious superiors to be very serious about what they do. He says they really have to take preparation [of priests and nuns] seriously and that there needs to be serene preparation," Father Nairn said.

But Mr. Donohue said he believes the document was "intentionally" released yesterday. He said the reason for the document's release is because the policy the bishops adopted in Dallas for dealing with sex-abusing priests would only affect diocesan priests, not those in religious orders, who constitute a third of the Catholic clergy in this country.

Stephen Brady, head of an orthodox Catholic group called the Roman Catholic Faithful, whose members believe the church should follow a 1961 canon law that bars homosexuals from the priesthood, said he, too, believes the release of the document at this time was not coincidental. "The pope's spokesman has made it clear homosexuals should not be ordained in this document, [the pope] is doing everything but mentioning the 'h-word.' He obviously feels he should not have to restate church doctrine," Mr. Brady said in a telephone interview.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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