St. John’s – A must-save situation

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To fight the frazzle of a Twin Cities rush hour, then to arrive on the green campus of St. John’s University just in time for 7 p.m. prayers, then to witness 150 monks in black habits file silently into the Abbey Church to begin a liturgical cadence very . . . much . . . slower than the happenings of the outside world, is to gradually absorb the special gifts that the monastery and its serene soundings have given Minnesota over the past 146 years.

No other Minnesota institution combines in quite the same way the contemplative tradition with liberal education and, through its publishing house and Ecumenical Institute, a hospitality that reaches beyond Catholic roots. It’s easy to understand the loyalty and affection St. John’s stirs in so many Minnesotans. It’s a shame that the institution has been jeopardized by the same scandalous behavior and deceit that besets the larger church. We refer not only to sexual abuse of minors but efforts to hide and rationalize those crimes.

St. John’s new abbot, John Klassen, understands both the stakes involved and the clear necessity that Stearns County authorities help investigate a dozen or so monks now living under restrictions. For Minnesotans, St. John’s has come to represent in sharp relief the crisis facing the American church.

When President Bush expressed to Pope John Paul last week his worries about the “standing” of the church in American life he was exactly right. For that standing to be repaired, American bishops might consider two avenues of self-examination.

First, they might try to understand more fully the tendency to hide, obfuscate and rationalize sexual crimes against minors. Second, they might consider resuming their course of 20 years ago when they produced two courageous explications on peace (1983) and the economy (1986). A similar clarifying effort on the question of mandatory celibacy for priests would be a welcome gift, no matter the outcome. If the Christian gospel carries specific teachings on warfare and the exploitation of the poor, it might also untangle this issue.

Editorial pages should tread lightly on religious matters, but we can’t help but worry that a troubled church, led by a hierarchy losing respect even among ardent followers, leads inevitably to weakened outreach and education, and that civil society loses much in the process.

“St. John’s is at risk,” the Rev. Donald Cozzens said bluntly at the end of a recent conversation on campus. Cozzens, a visiting scholar in Collegeville, has written extensively about the two issues outlined above.

“There is something wrong with the clerical system itself,” he wrote, “a closed system of legislated celibacy, upward hierarchical accountability without corresponding downward accountability, and feudal privilege.” The church, he said, must shed its distrust of democracy, its secrecy (including paying hush money to cover scandals), its medieval suspicion of civil justice (seeing the church as sanctuary for clerical crimes that matter only to God) and the infantile arrogance of some of its bishops. “It’s about restoring integrity,” he said.

Drawing from experience as a seminary director, Cozzens concludes that restoring marriage for priests as an option would benefit the church, not because celibacy causes pedophilia but because optional marriage would broaden the pool of prospective clergy and retain thousands of talented men.
We share Cozzens’ hope that lay Catholics will demand a restoration of trust so that special places like St. John’s can continue to offer gifts both spiritual and temporal.

Copyright 2002 Star Tribune.
St. John’s – A must-save situation

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Topics: John Klassen, Opinion

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