Open the windows again

The polio vaccine was not my idea. Nor was the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. The first idea protected my physical health. The second idea continues to protect and preserve my Catholic faith.

At the time the council was convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, I was an elementary school pupil in the vast, all-encompassing American Catholic ecosystem known as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In summoning the world's bishops to Rome, the rotund, genial pontiff stated that it was time to open up the windows of the church and let in some fresh air.

Even a fifth-grade Catholic schoolboy could understand why it was a good idea to open the stained glass windows, at least now and then.

By the time I was a high school student, the changes wrought by Vatican II permeated every aspect of our Catholic life. The world was swimming in turmoil, previously unimagined possibilities, and challenges to established authority. Despite its best efforts, the Roman Catholic Church was not immune to those momentous forces.

And despite the turbulence and conflict, even a Catholic high school boy could understand why it might be a good idea to keep the church windows open, especially when the debates got intense and the way forward seemed uncertain.

Between the time I entered the seminary in 1969 and was ordained a priest in 1978 for The Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity of Silver Spring, Maryland, the curriculum for educating future priests was, one might fairly say, fully ventilated. In addition to philosophy, theology, ancient languages and church history, we were exposed to contemporary biblical scholarship, the behavioral sciences, world religions and the best of modern literature.

Instead of being trained to be "answer men," we were being prepared to be parish priests who would help ordinary Catholics frame the right questions to the serious issues they faced. Then, as my moral theology professor Father Charles Curran instructed us at Catholic University, we were to pray alongside those we served in a humble search for the right answers to life's most vexing challenges.

The praying, stressed Father Curran, was far more important than the sermonizing.

More than three decades have passed since my seminary training ended and I began life as a parish priest. And almost a quarter of a century has passed since I resigned from the Catholic priesthood to marry and have a family. Like the vast multitude of resigned priests, I've found that the most succinct and comprehensible response to the question about my reason for leaving is to say "celibacy."

But it was more than celibacy; so much more.

Within a few years of my ordination, at the behest of Pope John Paul II, theologians whose work had formed the core of my seminary education were either under Vatican investigation or dismissed from their faculty positions at Catholic universities. Priests in Central America who had put their lives on the line to free their people from murderous regimes were censured and removed from the ministry. A 1986 Vatican document declared that men and women born with a homosexual orientation were "objectively disordered." Whispers about children being sexually abused by priests were drowned out by louder whispers about elaborate schemes by bishops to cover up the sex abuse reports.

Well before my struggle with celibacy went from concern to crisis, the air in the Church was growing thin and extremely stale. The spirit of engagement and dialogue with the modern world which was the driving force of Vatican II was being extinguished by reactionary elements that found full license and encouragement under Pope John Paul II. Those same elements now at work under Pope Benedict XVI have succeeded in getting the church windows closed. And just for good measure, those windows are being tightly shuttered.

October of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. As this historic milestone approaches, the dominant news stories about the Catholic Church in America include the frightening parallels between the sex abuse scandals at Penn State University and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the aggressive homophobia among American bishops, the Vatican crackdown on American nuns instigated by American bishops who oppose the Affordable Care Act, and a ringing reaffirmation of the church's ban on artificial contraception.

Perhaps the documents generated by the Second Vatican Council and the direction it charted for the Catholic Church may not have held all the answers to the grave questions that now confront the institution. One fact, however, is indisputable. A steady flow of fresh air through the windows of the Church couldn't hurt.

Stephen J. Stahley, a former Catholic priest, now lives in Westminster. His email is

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