Dominican scholar: Church crisis calls for renewal of Catholic teaching on freedom

Priests Credit Lauren Cater CNA Lauren Cater / CNA.

According to a Dominican scholar, the crisis of priestly fidelity is connected to a new cultural conception of human freedom – and the solution will require re-embracing the Church's view of freedom as something which points to God.

Fr. Thomas White, OP, is a professor of theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas ("The Angelicum") in Rome and is the director of the university's Thomistic Institute. He was previously on the faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

White told CNA that a major part of today's crisis is a redefinition of human freedom and, connectedly, human sexuality, which is "very, very different from the Catholic Church's vision of the body and nature and integral human dignity – and the nature of the family and the integral connection between reproduction and sexuality."

According to White, the central symbol of human freedom in today's culture "is thought to be found in the freedom of sexual expression or even self-exploration."

For example, he said, those who object to homosexual behavior are "seen as an enemy of the State, because you're an enemy of the very notion of liberal values and liberal freedom."

And this cultural shift in the conception of human freedom has deeply affected the internal life of the Catholic Church, the Catholic laity and the Catholic priesthood.

"We're in a moment in which the great questions of our culture are about the use of human freedom, in part around issues related to human sexuality," he argued. "And we feel that crisis encroaching on the very fabric of the Church, in the laity through the widespread use of contraception, but especially in the priesthood because of the crisis of priestly fidelity."

"The answers, I think, are to show a more profoundly Catholic sense of human freedom for God," White said. "The question becomes, are we really able to articulate an alternative to the dominant vision of human freedom that's expressed in this radically new culture?"

White will give an address May 10 on "The Sanctification of the Priesthood and the Church" as the inaugural Father Val McInnes lecture at the Angelicum. He sat down with CNA earlier in the week to discuss the crisis in the priesthood and the Church and what he believes will be the path to renewal.

White said that he believes the Church's traditional teaching on priestly celibacy offers a "very powerful antidote" to the culture's redefinition of human freedom, and it does this by signaling that human freedom is ultimately "for something which transcends this world."

Priestly celibacy is a powerful symbol that "our human freedom is not just a human freedom to pursue material choices of consumption, sexual options, and the exploration of our political autonomy," he said. "It's actually a freedom to love, it's a freedom to seek the truth, and it's a freedom to seek to be happy, [a freedom] that ultimately cannot find its terminus, its end point, its fulfillment, except in the discovery of God."

St. Thomas Aquinas said the priest is celibate "ultimately for contemplative union with God," White said.

Aquinas taught that "the priest is celibate in order to be free to give his life to God, to undertake a pursuit of the love and knowledge of God that can be all consuming. It's a very challenging and beautiful view of the priesthood," White said.

In this view, he said, celibacy is not first and foremost about practical considerations, such as having more time to serve people and costing the diocese less money to support: "Those aren't false arguments, but they're not primary arguments for Aquinas."

"He says the priest is celibate to seek a kind of definitive all-encompassing union with God in the midst of his fragilities and limits and poverty, spiritually or psychologically, but nevertheless to seek an integration of his whole life in an orientation towards union with God, of knowledge and love," White explained.

As White outlines in his lecture, St. Thomas Aquinas proposes five elements for the holiness of the priesthood, beginning with a priest's fidelity to his ordination and in the administration of the sacraments.

"If he does those in a faithful manner, he is sanctified by virtue of that fidelity in doing things that are proper to the priestly state," White said.

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The priest, he continued, should also live a life of "personal search for union with God in a state of grace and love for God, the search for wisdom and understanding of the faith to communicate effectively as a teacher," and prudent governance and stewardship of the faithful, and he should be in communion with the whole Church, and especially with his bishop and the See of Rome.

"If we [priests] lack grounding in the sacramental practices of the Church and her teachings, it's also going to hurt us in trying to resolve our own life of witness in an integral way," he said.

Ultimately, White thinks the solutions to today's crisis in the Church will not be something new, and that the deep solutions needed "depend on grace and also the internal formation life and discipline life of the Church."

He said it is true that the Church needs to make some prudential considerations about the formation, training, and vetting of priests and bishops, and that the laity have the right to expect and insist upon reform from bishops and priests.

However, he said, the true and deep renewal of the Church "occurs through a renewal of love and knowledge of God by grace."

This does not do away with a concern for advocacy and justice, but the contrary, he emphasized, because "the more that people are seeking holiness, the more they desire that there be justice in the Church."

"The deep renewal of the priesthood and of the episcopacy also requires a deep renewal of faith in the mystery of Christ, hope in the sacramental means of sanctification, in the truths of the faith, and in love for God," he said. "There's just not going to be any real renewal of the Church without love for God."

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