Reform-minded Canadian Catholics are demanding that women and marriage become part of the priesthood

RAE CORELLI December 19 1994


Reform-minded Canadian Catholics are demanding that women and marriage become part of the priesthood

RAE CORELLI December 19 1994


Reform-minded Canadian Catholics are demanding that women and marriage become part of the priesthood


The door to the rectory of St. Michael’s Cathedral in downtown Toronto is kept locked because a few years ago a man demanding food stamps slugged a priest with a pedestal ashtray and nearly blinded him. Since then, visitors have had to use a side entrance equipped with a security lock and a TV camera. But the disturbances have continued in the adjoining cathedral where, every 10 days or so, someone interrupts a service. On one occasion, worshippers ducked when a woman wearing a cloak began brandishing a long staff. On another, a priest grabbed a woman waving a knife, wrestled her to the floor and held her for police. During a marriage ceremony, a street person wandered into the wedding party and started slapping the step on which the bride knelt. “When you’re celebrating mass, you keep an eye on the congregation,” says Rev. Michael Busch, the cathedral’s associate pastor. ‘You just never know what’s out there.”

For inner-city Catholic churches across the country, mindless disrespect for ritual and decorum is a recurring headache—but minor compared with the real torment. Within Roman Catholicism in Canada today, there is a wrenching schism between by-the-Book conservatives on the one hand and outspoken apostles for radical change on the other. Among feminists, left-leaning reformers and many Catholic academics, Pope John Paul II’s steadfast refusal to relax—or even discuss—the ancient rules by which Catholics are expected to live is feeding alienation and frustration. Liberals and feminists are becoming more and more insistent that the priesthood admit women and that marriage should be an option for now-celibate parish priests. Activists claim that the widespread use of birth control among Catholics is evidence that for hundreds of thousands, the edicts of Rome are no longer heeded. “These are faithful people who are asking the church to change its structures,” says Aldona Ewazko, a nun who teaches at Edmonton’s Newman Theological College. “They’re not people who are out to ruin the church.”

In the face of dissent, the reaction of conservative Catholics is blunt and unequivocal: a men-only priesthood is not discrimination against women but the church’s interpretation of its 2,000year mission that began at The Last Supper, when Jesus commanded the men he had chosen as his disciples to carry the Christian message. “In our understanding, the priest is representing Jesus Christ in relationship to the church,” says Most Rev. James M. Wingle, the 48-year-old bishop of Yarmouth, N.S. Moreover, say traditionalists, those who advocate clerical marriage are ignoring the fact that being a priest is more than a fulltime job, that a married priest would inevitably fulfil neither responsibility adequately. (Christ’s disciple Peter, however,

regarded by Catholics as the first pope, had a wife. In fact, priests and bishops often wed and sometimes had concubines until the Middle Ages, when the papacy finally insisted on celibacy to, among other things, prevent the children of its clergy from laying claim to church property.)

Behind that mixture of incipient rebellion and stem reproof, there are sobering statistics. The nation’s Catholics, their ranks swollen by postwar immigration from heavily Catholic countries, now number 12.3 million—more than 45 per cent of the Canadian population. But the priesthood, tarnished by lurid accounts of pedophilia, is in trouble. Since 1977, the number of priests—and nuns—has declined by roughly 25 per cent as the result of resignations and a sharp drop in recruitment. That phenomenon is not limited to Canada. In 1993, the University of Wisconsin Press in Madison published a book whose authors concluded that between 1966 and 2005, the number of parish priests in the United States would plummet by 40 per cent while the number of Catholics increased by 65 per cent. “Often, vari-


Bishop Bernard Hubert

ous kinds of sexual confusion and sexual deviance goes with a dying culture,” says Janet Somerville, associate editor of the biweekly newspaper Catholic New Times, published in Toronto. “I really do think that the Catholic culture into which I was bom has died. As a human culture, it doesn’t sustain people any more through a whole lifetime.”

Some disillusioned priests and nuns leave their orders out of frustration with the Vatican’s resistance to rapid social change. Some leave to get married. Some realize that they simply did not belong. But others stay and fight.

Sister Ewazko is a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, many of whom are teachers, and she is associate professor of pastoral theology at Newman College on the northern outskirts of Edmonton. She enjoys murder mysteries and spy thrillers by authors such as Britain’s P. D. James, whose latest whodunit, Original Sin, she eagerly awaits in paperback. But the central passion of her life is what she calls Christian feminism, and that has placed her sharply at odds with the structure and politics of her church on the issues of ordaining women and mandatory celibacy. “We could have very effective priests who are married as well as very effective priests who are celibate,” Ewazko says. “But this Pope has not seen fit even to discuss it.”

Her principal quarrel with the Catholic leadership, however, arises from its “repressive measures against women”—including, she contends, its refusal to embrace inclusive language in its teachings. ‘To define womanhood as essentially unable to receive the gift of priesthood is to put us in the position of being marginal members of the church,” Ewazko says. “This real deep necessity to identify the essence of Roman Catholicism with the exclusion of women, while at the same time saying we honor women, is an enormous contradiction, but to me the best word for that kind of contradiction is stupid.” All positions of leadership in the church should be open to women, she says, including the papacy.

At age 52, Ewazko has taught theology at Newman for 12 years, but “it was only recently that I just simply decided that I am far too old to waste any more time saying anything but the truth as I experience it.” Nor does she plan to quit. “I’m going to call this church to authenticity,” she declares, “because I think we say a lot of things about Christianity that we don’t quite believe apply to women.” If the Roman hierarchy does not heed the push for reform, “then the institutional church will simply become discounted in the real life of the people generally and certainly in the lives of women.”

To conservatives, all that misses the point. The women’s rights movement, says Yarmouth’s Wingle, one of the youngest Catholic bishops in Canada, can be credited with a lot of positive social change, but ordination is not a right. “There is a kind of very dangerous theo-

ry which seems to be gaining popular ground,” he says, “that I would call a kind of unisex mentality, as though the sexual differentiation of man and woman is an accidental feature of human existence, and that’s just bonkers.” Men and women are distinct and unique, Wingle says, “and their contributions—to the world, to the church, to society—are specific to the gender.” What must be understood, adds Most Rev. Bernard Hubert, the 65-year-old bishop of St-JeanLongueuil in Montreal, is that the feminist pursuit of the right to ordination is primarily a North American movement. Women, says Hubert, can have “a tremendous impact and influence on the church” without becoming priests—by filling administrative and educational roles.

The delicatessen on downtown Toronto’s Queen Street East is called Only in Paradise, and the New Times's, Somerville likes it because of the chicken soup. She has a master’s degree in theology, spent five years as a producer on CBC Radio’s highbrow one-hour program Ideas, and has been a Catholic activist for most of her life. But now, at 56, she says feminist stridency is pushing her towards Catholic moderates whose goal is to find common ground rather than to define differences.

‘To have a liturgy that in no way recognizes a significant difference between men and women kind of worries me a bit,” she says. “Sexuality is central to the Catholic understanding of the human person, really central.” Like the hard-core feminists, however, Somerville believes the priesthood should be open to both women and marriage.

Although the Pope recently reaffirmed that the church will not ordain women and does not want Catholics even to discuss it, she says, “we will discuss it, we’re doing it now and we’ll continue to do it. The person who decides that Rome is the voice of God risks becoming really eccentric.”

Only in Paradise is a scant half-dozen blocks from St.

Michael’s Cathedral, but the ideologies explored there one recent day are a universe apart. In the rectory library, there is a life-size painting of Pope John Paul II on one wall and glass-fronted bookcases containing works on ecclesiastical history and canon law on another. At a long oak table sit three parish priests—all, by coincidence, called Michael: Busch, 41, Hughes, 36, and McGourty, 29. Each oppose the ordination of women on the grounds that a male priesthood is part of Christ’s legacy to the church.

Hughes and McGourty also reject the option of marriage, but Busch says if it ever came to a referendum, he would probably vote for it. And all took the rigorous oral and written tests introduced a decade ago by seminaries across the nation to identify psychological problems, including sexual deviance, among applicants.

“When you talk of pedophilia, you’re talking about someone who has obviously been heavily scarred in their own early development,” says Hughes, who gave up other careers, including a law practice in Dublin, because he found them empty of meaning. “Normal development and normal temptation are going to be about someone of the opposite sex, not having an interest in little boys. It’s an issue for a small number of priests, but it hurts priests in general because it is a breach of trust.”

While pedophilia is not an offence limited to priests, McGourty says, they should be held to a higher standard of behavior. “However,” he says, “we don’t leave our humanity—and all that represents—when we’re ordained, and the issues that affect all of mankind also affect priests.”

When he hears of child abuse by priests, Busch says, “my first reaction is for the child, for any child who has gone through any kind of abuse. My next reaction is, what happened in this priest’s life to cause this? Obviously it’s wrong. Nobody has the right to do that to children and a priest is no different than anyone else in that respect.

But you have compassion for the priest as you would for anyone who has done something wrong.”

Busch knows firsthand how much outrage sexual abuse has caused. “I was coming out of the bank, dressed in my collar, and a man standing there started screaming at the top of his voice, What are you doing wearing that? Don’t you know what those priests in Newfoundland did? Don’t you know what that collar means?’ And he actually followed me down the street, screaming at me. There wasn’t really anything I could do. To stop and have an intelligent conversation with him would have been impossible. So I thought, Well, maybe he needs to scream at a priest.’ He obviously had a lot of hurt and a lot of anger.”

Is there anything that would persuade them to follow the lead of priests who have quit? “I’m here for the long haul and it’s going to take an awful lot to blast me out of here,” says Busch, who worked for a national advertising agency until he was 30. “I have a friend who


Journalist Janet Somerville

says this is not much different than advertising: ‘You’re still trying to sell something nobody wants.’ ” Hughes says present-day agitation for reform of the church reminds him of a story about the French Revolution-era statesman Talleyrand. “When someone asked Talleyrand how to start a new religion,” Hughes said, “he replied, ‘It’s quite simple. You have yourself crucified and three days later, you rise again. It works every time.’”

On the grassy plain of north-central Saskatchewan, Roman Catholicism’s urban guerrillas are a distant aberration for the 36 Benedictine monks who farm the lands around St. Peter’s Abbey at Muenster. The monks minister to 20 surrounding parishes, teach 180 students in the two-year program at their liberal arts college—affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan—and publish a weekly newspaper, The Prairie Messenger. But for Abbot Peter Novecosky, bom 32 km from the abbey 49 years ago to Russian-German immi-


Former priest Peter Leblanc


Former nun Joy Leblanc









(including United and Anglican)



Eastern non-Christian

(including Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh)


Eastern Orthodox Jewish





Para-religious groups

(sects and cults)

No religious affiliation


grant parents, the main concern is the survival of his mission. “We are an aging community and that’s one of the challenges we face right now in terms of attracting new recruits. We used to get a lot of recruits from our own area here, but we haven’t had any for the last 30 years. That’s a little discouraging, I guess.”

In the country and the city, too few are seeking the priesthood and too many are leaving. “Many of my friends have left and many of my classmates have left,” says Rev. Thomas Rosica, the 35-year-old newly appointed Roman Catholic chaplain to the University of Toronto, and a member of the Basilian order. “Later on, the church must consider optional celibacy for diocesan priests,” he says. “But marriage is not the solution for the crisis in the priesthood at present.” There are, however, other reasons why priests abandon the calling. ‘The disillusionment that arises in many people’s minds is the result of thinking that the church is not moving as fast as they would like, that leadership is not being exercised the way they would like,” says Rosica. “Or the reasons one may have had in the beginning for entering the priesthood are suddenly changing and for them, the honeymoon is over.”

For Jesuit Peter LeBlanc and nursing Sister Joy Rabby, the honeymoon that ended in disaffection with the church was followed by one bom of love for one another. They met in 1979, when each had already begun to have profound and disturbing misgivings about the calling. They made their decisions to leave independently; three years later, they were married. They live in Waterloo, Ont., where he is a disability claims officer for the Mutual Life Insurance Company and she is director of quality improvement at KitchenerWaterloo Hospital.

“I think what propelled me to leave was a recognition that I had entered for the wrong reasons,” says the Montrealborn LeBlanc, now 57. “I had entered the Jesuit order looking for something I felt was missing in my life, a sense of community. I didn’t leave because I didn’t like that community life; I just couldn’t live with that kind of constraint on me. In retrospect, what I was looking for was to live as a common man.” It took him three months to find a job. “The first thing I did was I phoned Joy, and then I went out and bought myself a coat, a really expensive coat.”

Joy LeBlanc, now 47, says she became a nun partly because missionary work appealed to her. “But the other main reason was that I didn’t think I could become a good person by myself. I was really afraid that I wouldn’t end up in heaven if I didn’t have a structure around me to protect myself from

me. I think I finally grew up.” The Roman Catholic hierarchy, Peter LeBlanc says, “is kind of lost There’s no model of leadership any more, and many Catholics seem to feel it’s irrelevant what the Pope has to say or what their bishop has to say because it just doesn’t gibe with their own experience.” He pauses and smiles, free now of Catholicism’s politics but not of its passion. “Although when I go to mass in an old church,

I settle down in the pew and it’s like an old shoe. The organ starts playing and I smell the incense and all these memories flood back.” □