Saturday, April 28, 2007

Priest for Hire

Through Web site, married priests continue ministry despite objections from Catholic Church

By Stephanie Morris
Star-Banner (Ocala, FL)

There's certainly not a shortage of items or services available for rent these days. You can rent a Hummer if you want. You can rent someone to escort you to the office Christmas party. You can even rent a Prada handbag if you can't afford buy your own.

But did you know you could rent, dare we say, an ordained Catholic priest at

You can.
Thanks to Louise Haggett, who founded the non-profit Celibacy Is the Issue Ministries in 1992 after her devout mother passed away in an assisted living facility without a priest to read her last rites.

Haggett, of Brunswick, Maine, said her family assumed that because 80 to 90 percent of the residents there were Catholic, the center would have a Sunday mass and a priest available to perform the sacraments. But as it turned out, because of a shortage of priests in the area, there was no Sunday mass, and there was no priest around to minister to the community.

"I didn't want other seniors who had been devout Catholics all of their lives to go without seeing a priest," said Haggett.

That prompted her to start researching the shortage of priests and the issue of celibacy in the church.

She found that all over the country there were meetings of married priests who no longer pastored parishes but still had a desire to minister.

Haggett saw this as her opportunity to minister.

A year after her mother's death, she created the Celibacy Is the Issue Ministry that offers, a free online directory of priests who are available for sacramental ministry - weddings, funerals and baptisms - for a fee.

Almost all of the priests who are listed with are married, and for that reason, no longer pastor. But according to Haggett, under Cannon Law they have every right to administer the sacraments.

"Cannon 290 says once a priest, always a priest. Cannon 843 says a priest cannot refuse ministry to someone who asks. Cannon 1750 says the salvation of souls is always the supreme law of the church," explained Haggett. "This is what motivates the work of these priests."

But according to Father Patrick Sheedy of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Ocala, the Catholic church, as a body, does not endorse or accept the practices of priests who function outside of the body.

"It's a gimmick," Sheedy said. "To practice, they have to be approved by a bishop. They have no status within the church. They're not covered by anybody."

Like any other licensed minister, clergy who are listed with must adhere to state laws regarding marriage ceremonies. Rentapriest ceremonies are recognized by the state, but may not be recognized by the Catholic church.

Haggett said that in some instances, priests who have retired and gotten married, or who have left the priesthood to get married, have been blacklisted by their bishops, but she said there are some bishops who are extremely supportive of her ministry.

"I didn't want to do anything that went against the church. I guess that's why after 15 years they haven't come after us," she said.

According to Haggett, people typically contact when they want to be married somewhere outside of the church, like the beach, or when they have not been affiliated with a parish for some time, but would like a priest to preside over a ceremony.

The Rev. John O'Callaghan of On Top of the World is a married priest who lists his services with He said he has performed 37 weddings in the Fort Meyers area through, but in spite of advertising efforts, he hasn't performed any since he moved to Ocala in September.

"Many young Catholics are alienated from the church," he said. "But they want a Catholic service because their roots are in the Catholic church."

Priests from set their own rates for officiating ceremonies, O'Callaghan charges $350 to officiate a wedding. O'Callaghan said that offering his services through is a way to keep his toe in ministry.

"If it weren't for Rentapriest, I'd be hungering for ministry," said the Rev. Pat Wenrick of Tampa. He married Paul and Johanna Chovlin of St. Petersburg in an outdoor ceremony last year.

"If anything, I feel more comfortable with a priest who is married," said Johanna. "They can understand more what I'm going through as a married person much better than a priest who's never been with a woman."

Haggett's organization believes that being married does not make a priest less effective in his ministry.

"We've helped about 75,000 people in the last 10 years," she said. "In these priests, I see the holiness of Jesus."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Father in Every Sense

The Pastoral Provision at work again! I just love the photo of Fr. Bergman and his daughter. Why can't such a loving relationship be the norm rather than the exception in our Church?

By Jody Roselle
The Times-Tribune

Deacon Eric Bergman will become one of the rarest of Roman Catholic priests today — a married one.

The former rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church will be ordained for the second time at St. Clare’s Roman Catholic Church today, nearly 10 years after his ordination in the Church of England.

After he takes his vows, he will be the first married priest in the history of the Diocese of Scranton, joining the 100 or so other married Roman Catholic priests in the United States.

“I’m very eager,” Deacon Bergman said. “This was a leap of faith. Two years ago, we had no idea what would be the end result.

“When I renounced my orders, I said ‘If it works out, it works out, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’ ”

Conversion for Deacon Bergman has been about spreading his feelings of unity and the welcoming atmosphere of the Catholic Church. “The church is pro-unity and the church does everything she can to welcome all her brothers,” he said.

Deacon Bergman, 36, and his wife Kristina, 29, grew up as an Episcopalians in Bethlehem. He attended James Madison University followed by Yale University, where he received his master’s degree in divinity. The couple met at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and were married there in 1996. They have four children: Clara, 5, Eric, 3, Julia, 2, and Joan, 5 months.

Qualities that Mrs. Bergman sees in her husband also makes him a good priest, she said.

“He’s very caring, very thoughtful and he likes to take care of people and he wants to spread the Gospel and the truth of the Gospel and he doesn’t waver, just like the Roman Church doesn’t waver,” she said. “And he’s very dedicated. If he says something, it’s true. That goes for being a priest, and a husband and father.”

With many memories, friends and milestones wrapped up in their faith, leaving the Anglican Communion was not a rushed decision.

“We had been talking for a very long time about where the Episcopal Church was going and what we were going to do,” Mrs. Bergman said. “We thought, Eric and I thought, that one day we’d be united with the Catholic Church.”

The ordination of women, ordination of an openly gay bishop in 2003 and the increasingly liberal stance on birth control and abortion have led to great divisions within Anglicanism over the years. The Bergmans’ strong pro-life beliefs played a major role in their decision.

“The Catholic Church is pro-life, pro-responsibility and pro-unity,” Deacon Bergman said.

“The Roman Church hasn’t changed with the culture,” said Mrs. Bergman. “That appealed to us.”

The road has been difficult and uncertain for the once and future Father Bergman and his wife.

Renouncing his vows in late 2004, meant the loss of his salary. The Bergmans also had to move out of the Good Shepherd rectory, where they had been living, and rent a home.

“That was the scary part — not knowing how we were going to be provided for,” said Mrs. Bergman. “Fortunately, the children were young enough so they knew we moved but they didn’t ask a lot of questions.”

At least 60 parishioners left Good Shepherd and Anglicanism, following the Bergmans to the Catholic Church.

Ray Hays, 55, of Scranton was one of that flock. He said he was raised Episcopalian because his mother brought her faith with her to the United States from England.

“I never really felt comfortable in the Episcopal Church,” he said. Like the Bergmans, Mr. Hays found his beliefs at odds with the church, though he wouldn’t elaborate on specific complaints.

“I think things over the years built up,” he said.

Deacon Bergman became simply Mr. Eric Bergman again, but continued serving as a spiritual leader for the former Anglicans as they moved through catechism classes taught by the Rev. Charles Connor, pastor of St. Peter’s Cathedral, to confirmation by the Most Rev. Joseph F. Martino, bishop of Scranton, on Oct. 31, 2005.

In March, Mr. Bergman was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church.

Through a diocesan spokesman, Bishop Martino declined to comment for this article.

The St. Thomas More Society, of which Deacon Bergman has been serving as executive director, was formed about the same time as the confirmations by Bishop Martino for those who left the Episcopal Church with the Bergmans.

The society is an Anglican Use group. Anglican Use refers to the liturgy used by the group and is similar to the services at Episcopal churches, approved by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. An Anglican Use Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 1 p.m. at St. Clare Church. The society also pays Deacon Bergman’s salary, an arrangement that is planned to continue for the foreseeable future.

There are at least five Anglican Use groups in the United States and one in England, according to the Anglican Use Society.

The Bergmans and the society members hope that after his ordination, Deacon Bergman will eventually be given his own Anglican Use parish.

While she doesn’t see many things changing between their lives as Episcopalians and as Catholics, Mrs. Bergman is ready for more questions.

“When he was an Episcopal priest, people were always asking, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s that woman doing with that priest?’ ” Mrs. Bergman chuckled, referring to the Roman collar her husband has worn first as a member of the Anglican clergy and now as a member of the Roman Catholic clergy.

“I’ve known Eric for a long time and I’ve known him to be a good Christian and friend for many years,” Mr. Hays said. “I can say the Catholic Church is gaining a very faithful priest.”

Friday, April 20, 2007

Web Resource: Atrio

For Spanish speakers who read this blog, I just found a Web place where the theologically progressive folks are hanging out and talking about a variety of church issues including celibacy. It is called Atrio and the URL is for those who want to check it out. It's been around a while but I just found out about it because they've started to post Spanish translations of Sr. Joan Chittister's articles. The collaborators on the site are some of the best (i.e. most open) minds in our church. Definitely worth a look.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Preti che "abbandonano", preti che "ritornano"

Some new research out today in an article "Preti che 'abbandonano', preti che 'ritornano'" ("Priests who leave; priests who return") by Gian Paolo Salvini, SJ in the Jesuit publication La Civiltá Cattolica (2007 II 148-155, quaderno 3764). The full article itself is not available online but Agence France Presse has released a good summary of the contents in French.

Salvini says the Vatican puts the number of priests who have left the priesthood to get married at fewer than 57,000. This is considerably lower than the 80,000 to 100,000 figure usually cited by married priests' associations. He says that while there are no precise statistics, the Vatican estimates that 69,063 men left the priesthood between 1964 and 2004 and that 11,213 returned between 1970 and 2004. Reasons for leaving were varied and included crises of faith, conflicts with superiors and/or church doctrine as well as other factors in addition to marriage so, while the priests may subsequently have married, it was not always their primary reason for leaving the priesthood.

Since 1967, 438 married priests have asked to be reinstated and 220 have been. A further 114 requests are in process, according to the article. In order to be reinstated, the priest must no longer be married sacramentally, e.g. his wife has died, he was never married in the Church in the first place, or the religious marriage was annulled. He must also be free of any civil obligations towards his wife or children.

Or he could be Eastern rite, ex-Lutheran, or ex-Anglican....

Friday, April 13, 2007

Italy: Married priest and wife denied communion at Easter Mass

The full version of this story April 10, 2007 story out of Rome province (ADN Kronos agency) in Italian follows. The summary is that Fr. Jorge Wilches publicly denied communion to Giuseppe Serrone, a married priest and former pastor of Chia, and his wife Albana Ruci at the Easter liturgy. They were in line to receive the Eucharist and each was told: "I cannot give you communion for reasons that you know." The article says that this was embarassing to the other faithful. Fr. Serrone later confronted Fr. Wilches in the sacristy and said that he had been unjustly denied communion as he had received dispensation from the Pope and had properly married his wife in the Catholic Church. Fr. Wilches replied that he would have had to verify this.

Fr. Serrone is a writer and a theologian who is involved in the Associazione Sacerdoti Lavoratori Sposati, the Italian married worker priests' association. His own Web site is here:

Padre Jorge Wilches, cappellano del Monastero Benedettino di "Santa Scolastica" a Civitella San Paolo in provincia di Roma, ieri durante la Messa celebrata per le suore e gli ospiti, al momento della Comunione ha negato i sacramenti a don Giuseppe Serrone, sacerdote sposato, ex parroco di Chia e alla moglie Albana Ruci.

La coppia era stata invitata per pregare, da una suora del monastero.

Giuseppe e Albana si erano messi in fila con gli altri fedeli per partecipare al rito eucaristico. Ma prima Albana e poi don Giuseppe si sono visti negare, in pubblico, tra l'imbarazzo generale dei fedeli, la possibilità di ricevere l'Eucarestia.

Padre Jorge ha detto prima alla signora e poi al sacerdote sposato, interropendo per due volte il rito, mentre appoggiava la sua mano sulla loro spalla: "Non posso comunicarti per i motivi che tu conosci".

Al termine della celebrazione don Giuseppe si è recato in sagrestia e ha chiesto spiegazioni al prete celebrante sul perché del divieto di ricevere i sacramenti. Ma il cappellano non ha saputo rispondere. "Ci hai ingiustmante negato il diritto di ricevere un sacramento - ha detto l'ex sacerdote - noi siamo regolarmente sposati dal punto di vista religioso. Con la dispensa del Papa dagli obblighi del celibato e con il matrimonio registrato nei libri parrocchiali".

"Ho bisogno di verificare - la replica - ha avuto questa disposizione".

Swiss Church criticized by leaders of traditionally Catholic party on celibacy

Apr. 9, 2007 ( - The leaders of a traditionally Catholic political party in Switzerland have voiced public opposition to Church teachings.

In an April 1 interview with the newspaper NZZ am Sontag, Christoph Darbellay, the president of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), rejected Church teaching on the priesthood. "Priestly celibacy and the male-only priesthood have no biblical basis," he claimed.

The PDC has no official ties to the Catholic Church, but has traditionally commanded the allegiance of Swiss Catholics. A week earlier, in the same newspaper, a former PDC president and current Senator, Carlo Schmid, had aired his own opposition to Church teachings on priestly celibacy, the male-only priesthood, and the Church’s refusal to allow divorced people to remarry. Speaking on the state of the Catholic Church in Switzerland, Schmid predicted, “It will make itself irrelevant in the period of one generation, simply because there will be no more priests.”

At the same time, in an interview for a Protestant newspaper, former PDC parliamentarian and scientist Jacques Neirynck stated that were it not for the rule on celibacy, he would have become a religious. On the question of the priestly celibacy and the male-only priesthood, Neirynck said, “We are battling against discrimination in every area of life. We must not tolerate this conduct.”

PDC vice president Dominique Buman distanced herself from the comments by her colleagues. “I do not feel capable of judging them," she said. "They are their personal positions." But she insisted: "When they speak about the Church, they do not do so in the name of the Party."

The spokesman for the Swiss bishops' conference, Walter Muller, told the press: “We have decided to not comment on the interviews given by these three people. We are discussing them in private with the PDC, not in public.” According to Muller, the CES are also pursuing relations with other political parties.

In 2004, the PDC debated removing the word “Christian” from its name. According to Buman, “In the end, we retained the word because it refers to moral values that even non-Christians can support.” The PDC states that its founding principles were inspired by a “Christian conception of the person and of society, without ties to a specific confession.”

Colombia: Celibacy -- who cares? But don't neglect child support!

El Tiempo newspaper has been running a clerical telenovela out of the Barranquilla archdiocese. This "all in the family" story would have remained out of the media and ecclesial spotlights had the "father" honored his child support payments in the first place.

The whole sorry mess started when Fr. Mario Solano, then pastor of San Rafael church, performed the marriage between Lorena Escorcia and a "friend" of his, then a law student. When the marriage soured and the couple separated, Fr. Solano got involved with Ms. Escorcia in what was later charmingly described by the auxilliary bishop of Atlántico, Msgr. Luis Antonio Nova Rocha, as "un acto de locura transitoria" ("an act of transitory craziness" -- supposedly qualitatively different from a serious and deliberate violation of chastity vows).

Out of this "acto de locura transitoria", a boy was born who is now 7 years old. Fr. Solano baptized the child but refused to recognize him or support him. So the mother went to her ex-husband -- now a lawyer -- who turned to the Church tribunal to force Fr. Solano to pay child support as required by Colombian law.

And, because this is an "all in the family" telenovela, Fr. Solano is now making his monthly payments, the Church authorities have "forgiven" him because he is not "living in sin" with the mother, and mother and son continue to attend Mass at Jesus of Nazareth in Soledad where Fr. Solano is currently the pastor.

Moral: In Colombia, if you play, you better pay...up!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

At Easter Sunday Mass, Only Half the Easter Story

Here comes Easter. Here, too, comes another opportunity for the U.S. bishops to disprove the accusation, long raging in the public square, that the Church fathers suppressed the truth of women's leadership in the early Church and do so to this day. Once again, that opportunity will be missed.

Indeed, the Church hierarchy makes no effort whatsoever to spread the news of the archaeological evidence of women's ministerial roles in the early and evolving church, roles that pose a direct challenge to the Scripturally and theologically bankrupt ban on women's ordination as priests and deacons.

Today, archaeologist and Catholic theologian Dorothy Irvin travels the globe uncovering and publicizing such evidence. It includes frescos and mosaics that show Christian women being vested, ordained and celebrating Eucharist in the early church, as well as tomb inscriptions attesting to those roles. It is not the Catholic Church hierarchy that sponsors tours to these sites but a progressive reform organization called FutureChurch. One such tour, led by FutureChurch director Sister Christine Schenk and joined briefly by NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, just returned from Rome.

The U.S. bishops' collection of Scripture passages that are read at Mass, based on the standard Vatican lectionary, further obscure women's roles in the early church. Those roles, again, challenge the ordination ban. As revealed by women scholars, Catholics never hear at a Sunday Mass the list of women leaders recognized by Paul in his letter to the Romans (16: 1-16). Most notably, those women include "our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the Church in Cenchreae," and "Junia...prominent among the apostles." Junia, in fact, morphed into Junias, a man, until the research of Catholic theologian Bernadette Brooten--Brandeis University professor of Christian Studies and 1998 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award--restored Junia to her rightful gender. That discovery was made official with the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1989. Still, only Catholics who make it to Saturday Mass--and only every other year--will hear about Junia, who stands as a direct contradiction to the Church's contention that there were only male apostles. And Catholics never hear about Phoebe at any Mass at all.

And then there's Easter. There is no question but that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to Jesus' empty tomb. There, Jesus personally charged her with delivering the Gospel message of his Resurrection to his brothers, a call to ministry if ever there was one, which is as close as Jesus ever gets to anything resembling "ordination." Yet, at Easter Sunday mass, no U.S. Catholic will hear about that intimate encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (John 20: 11-18), where Magdalene sits weeping until Jesus appears. What they will hear about are two male apostles racing to the empty tomb, with the reading ending abruptly where the Magadene passage begins.

But how's this for irony: Even if the Gospel passage where Jesus charges Magdalene with delivering the Word were designated for Easter Sunday mass, no Roman Catholic woman would be allowed to read it or preach a homily about it--again, because women cannot be ordained.

In defending their claim to an "unbroken" tradition of male priests, the Church fathers also neatly erase more recent women, like Ludmila Javorova. In 1970, the late Bishop Felix Davidek ordained Javorova a Catholic priest in the underground church in Communist-occupied Czechoslovakia. She served as a priest and vicar-general of a branch of the underground Czech church for twenty years, until communism fell. Then, the Vatican repudiated her ordination and banned her ministry. In the late 1990s, Hartford Seminary theology professor Sister Miriam Therese Winter visited Javorova in Brno and wrote an authorized biography about her (which won a Catholic Press Association award), while the Women's Ordination Conference brought Javorova to the U.S. for a private tour.

By denigrating efforts to spotlight the truth about women's place in the early Church as well as threatening to excommunicate--or actually excommunicating--anyone who dares to challenge the indefensible ban on women's ordination, the Church fathers continue to obfuscate, manipulate, and deny that truth. Catholic women, however, are promoting, publicizing, and in their support for the Roman Catholic women priests' ordination movement, embracing that truth. They know, even if the Church fathers do not, that the integrity, indeed the very survival of the future Church, depend on it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Spirit at Your Back The Spirit at Your Back by Daniel O’Rourke

Reviewed by Rich Hasselbach

Reading Dan O’Rourke’s first book, The Spirit at Your Back, brings to mind the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem Aurora Leigh,

… Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

From the simple things of life, like drinking a cup of coffee or caring for his grandchildren, to the seemingly intractable problems of war and prejudice, O’Rourke finds wisdom, and meaning, and hope.

This collection of short essays, originally published as newspaper columns in the Dunkirk, New York, Observer, is eminently readable. Dan writes with the wit of an Irishman in love with language and passionate about sharing his deepest convictions with his readers. Throughout the book there is one overarching theme – “love takes action.” It is this insight, woven subtly into almost every chapter, which gives this book its power.

Like a good teller of parables, O’Rourke finds his material in the stuff of everyday living – often drawing profound and challenging insights out of the simplest of life’s experiences. Meditating on going to a garage sale, we are reminded of the poignant human stories behind some of the stuff that clutters those American rituals: of the children who once played with now-discarded toys; of lives and loves long forgotten, but preserved as browning pictures in ancient frames offered for sale. Ultimately we are reminded of the fragility and impermanence of human life itself: all things pass, and here we have no lasting city. But this is not the whole story – from the impermanence of life, Dan reflects on those things of enduring beauty that point beyond themselves to that “beauty ever ancient, ever new,” and so invites us to value the valuable, while seeking the eternal.

O’Rourke challenges the reader to live in the present, and to honor the Mystery, the Spirit in which “we live and move and have our being.” The author manages to touch the heart and soul as well as the mind, but the book does much more than merely touch – it inspires, it encourages, and it lures us to ACT. This is no “head trip,” it is a gently prophetic call to live life in the Spirit through loving, compassionate, and prudent engagement in family, community and national life.

The Spirit at Your Back is not a religious book in the narrow sense of that term. Dan breaks beyond the boundaries of narrow institutionalism, and of a god who is too small to embrace the world with all its splendid diversity. Yet in another sense, it is profoundly religious. The author reminds us, in one chapter, that the etymological root of the word religion is the Latin verb religare (from which we also get the English word “ligament.”) Religare means to reconnect. Genuine religion unites, it connects; it makes us one and helps us “atone.”

Forgiveness and atonement are also themes that run through the book. O’Rourke recognizes forgiveness as one of the great human skills needed in successful marriages; he challenges us, in our civic and international relationships, to accept the other with understanding; to embrace differences with prodigious love; to forgive our enemies, and (what is even more difficult), forgive ourselves.

The Spirit at Your Back is also an invitation into the mystery of prayer, and into Mystery itself. Whether reflecting on the current state of American politics; the disastrous war consuming precious lives in Iraq; a friend’s death; or the meaning of Christmas or Thanksgiving, O’Rourke approaches his topic with sensitivity and prayerful reverence. And he urges us, his reader, to go and do likewise. In this sense, he stands in a great tradition – with Meister Eckhart, and with Dag Hammarskjöld.

Prayer connects us to Mystery beyond all words — the Mystery “from which all words recoil.” Dan reminds us that, according to John of the Cross, ”Silence is God’s first language.” Throughout the book, O’Rourke challenges us to find and nurture that silence within us, and so to make space for God’s indwelling presence to grow more and more brilliant. But prayer is not for prayer’s sake – in every great religious tradition, prayer and meditation lead to enlightenment, to a sense of being one, not many; to the knowledge that the other, even the enemy other, is our brother and sister. And so prayer leads to compassionate action.

Some may not agree with O’Rourke’s take on things political. He can be harsh in his criticism of the Bush Administration and its national stewardship. He points out failures, not only in the administration’s pursuit and management of the war in Iraq, but also in its care for the environment, and for the policies it fosters that affect the most vulnerable in our society. Whether or not you are in agreement with him politically, O’Rourke’s soulful critique of current issues and events deserves a respectful hearing.

The title of this work is adapted from the Irish Blessing: “… may the wind be always at your back.” The author explains in his opening paragraphs that: “the title is a bold assertion in faith that the Mystery we call God is ever with us, around and behind us in all of life….” Spirit and Grace fill the pages of this book, which encourages us not only to be more enlightened people, but to be more thoughtfully engaged in life, more gentle with others and with ourselves, more compassionate and more kind. Dan O’Rourke eloquently invites us to live consciously, knowing that our earth is crammed with heaven, and the Spirit is, indeed, at our backs.

Those interested in reading a copy of the book should contact the author directly at

Friday, April 06, 2007


By Louise Haggett, 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2007 All rights reserved.*

“...the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
* No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the copyright owner and without credit to authorship.

In the spring of 1996, I was profoundly inspired to find the origin of Judaism’s “tenet” religion, with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform sections. I wondered whether or not a tenet religion like Judaism might be a solution to what seemed a deadlock between Roman Catholic liberals and an orthodox hierarchy. My good friend Anita Lewis Damiano had loaned me her copy of “The Second Jewish Book of Why” (Kolatch) so I decided to begin there. I randomly opened the book and there before my eyes on page 47, it said, “…Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who believed in harmonizing Judaism with the ways of the world and in maintaining a working relationship with all elements of the Jewish community...” wrote a book in 1836 entitled, “The Nineteen Letters about Judaism by Ben Uziel.” It was not an easy find, but a trip to the Boston Public Library yielded not only the original book but a providential 1995 translated version by Rabbi Joseph Elias. It seemingly was just waiting for a Roman Catholic to pick it up. The following paper is a result of my studying “Nineteen Letters” from a Catholic’s perspective. Rabbi Hirsch was suggesting that Jews ask themselves “What does it mean to be a Jew?” It made me ask myself, “What Does It Mean To Be Catholic?” LH

In 1836, when some of the teachings in Judaism were being questioned by a new generation of reformers, looking to change their religion to conform to the times, a young rabbi named Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote a book called Nineteen Letters about Judaism by Ben Uziel1. A fictitious dialogue between a philosopher and a youthful intellect, Nineteen Letters challenged opponents to examine their identity and religious belief. The concept proposed was so divergent, yet so simple, that Rabbi Hirsch used a pen name for fear of embarrassment. The book became a landmark in transforming Judaism into the religion it is today, one that simply embraces all religious philosophies from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal. Rabbi Hirsch, still considered to be the supreme head of German neo-Orthodoxy2 agreed that reform was needed. However, he submitted that it was the Jew who needed reformation, not the Jewish religion; that perhaps the failure had been in the emphasis of its teachings. He also believed that Jews with varying philosophies could maintain a working relationship.

The contents of The Nineteen Letters helped me understand that the dilemma in today’s Catholic reform movement in the 1990s may be similar to that of 19th century Judaism. These contents may also provide an outline for personal and/or group studies:

The First letter “Complaint” presented the main arguments that were raised against traditional Judaism by the reformers. The basic complaint: Judaism just was not up to par with the times (1836); religious practice and observance of the Torah (The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) interfered with the lifestyle of the new generation.

In the Second letter, Rabbi Hirsch, suggested that before trying to judge Judaism, a study of its history and teachings must be done “from the only authentic source, the Torah.”

Letter Three “God and World” taught that in order “to understand Judaism and the Jewish people in their historical role, we must first learn about God and His creation of the world, the role of man (humankind) in the world, and the course of human history in general,” and how it is all inter-related according to God's plans. It explains how everything and everyone in life is very different, created to be different, but to harmonize with one another. Rabbi Hirsch said, “In this way everything contributes according to its strength, however much or little, to the existence of the whole; and if it destroys a fellow creature, it robs itself of what it needs for its own

existence…None exists by itself and for itself; there is a constant striving of each creature with, through and for others, on behalf of the whole, and of the whole on behalf of the creature… The Harmonizer of Opposites is His Name,” said Hirsch.

Letter Four dealt entirely with “Man" (human species), and how we differ from the rest of nature because we are the only beings who have the freedom to do God’s will--or to disobey--the only ones who can take advantage of the world God has provided us. We will be judged by God and God alone, according to how well we have used, and provided for, God's world.

The Fifth letter entitled, “Education”, covered good and bad deeds, sin and punishment, and the education that takes place from our life experiences. We relive, in this chapter, the stories of Adam, Cain and the great Flood with reminders of how important our loyalty to God is.

Letters Six through Nine reviewed the history of the Jewish people, and the significance of the Torah in their lives throughout the ages.

Letter Ten began the discernment process, examining the Torah with emphasis on The Ten Commandments, and its application in the Code of Jewish Law. The process continued in Letters Eleven through Fifteen with a more practical examination of The Commandments, grouping them into three basic concepts:

JUSTICE means consideration for every being as a creation of God, for all possessions as having a purpose before God, and for the natural order as being ordained by God; and, therefore, compliance with the claims that they make on us.

LOVE means acceptance of all beings as children of God and as our brethren, and promotion of their welfare and of their fulfillment of their God-given mission—all this without their having any claim on us, but purely because it is the Will of God, the fulfillment of a Divine command.

EDUCATION of oneself and others to such a way of life means taking these truths to heart as one’s moving principles, giving expression to them for himself and for others, and—if through life’s vicissitudes [changes] he has lost sight of them—struggling to re-instill them in his heart.

The Sixteenth letter stressed that the bond among people needs to be spiritual rather than political; that it is possible to lead a normal civilized life and still be loyal servants of God.

Letter Seventeen admitted that there was certainly a need for “reform,” for improvement. Fault, however, was placed on the “system”--a system that perhaps had spent too much time teaching the law when it should have concentrated on the Spirit of the law. Rabbi Hirsch suggested that, “Instead of dwelling on the present sad picture, let us rather sketch some outlines for bringing about what we see as authentic reform, as well as means to attain it.”

In the Eighteenth letter, Rabbi Hirsch spoke of two generations confronting each other; one which had “inherited Judaism practiced by men from habit, a revered but lifeless mummy which it is afraid to bring back to life; and the other, though in part burning with noble enthusiasm for the welfare of the Jews, regarded Judaism as bereft of any life and spirit, a relic of an era long past and buried... threatening to sever its last life-nerve.” Hirsch’s message: “Judaism must be studied and understood out of itself and be elevated, all by itself, to a science of wise living.”

Rabbi Hirsch stressed that Jews must not be concerned about each other’s school of thought. It was necessary to go back to the truth...the Torah. He asked the questions, “What does it mean that I am a Jew?” and “What is Judaism?” He further asked, “Should we just look at its (Judaism) dusty exterior and, solely because of that, cast away as worthless the precious possession for which our ancestors sacrificed life, property, and liberty and all of life’s joys?”

He said in the Nineteenth letter, “By all means, let the scales swing. The more freely they land, and the more reliably they will assess truth and life in the end, the more violently they must swing at this time. But, once the scales have come to rest, the spirit of Yisrael will stand revealed in its full brilliance, comprehending itself, its teachings and its destiny, pervading all of Yisrael’s members and engendering the fullest life in this spirit.”

Reconstructing Judaism
What many people, including some Jews, don’t know is that it wasn’t until the late 1800s (a short time ago in comparison to how far Judaism goes back in history) that the religion took the form that it has today--a community expressed through three major religious groups--Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.

The Orthodox tenet maintains a strict code in the letter of the Jewish Law. Conservative Judaism, while it recognizes the authority of Jewish law and tradition as Divine, believes in and observes differing interpretations. Reform Judaism puts more stress on the prophetic teachings and less on the ritual observances of Judaism. Faith in God forms the basis for Judaism and the three basic groups (now with various other options) still have one umbrella.

While biblical law is taught and observed, it only serves as a standard for religious practices and community conduct in the non-Orthodox clusters. Local custom usually prevails. (Soferim 14:18) Several recordings attest to the fact that Rabbis “do not impose a hardship on the community that the majority cannot endure.” For instance, while homosexuality may be in violation of Jewish law, it is argued that homosexuals like everyone else are made in the likeness of God. Some synagogues, therefore, have been established by and for homosexuals3. Likewise, divorced individuals, marriages of mixed faiths, couples practicing birth control and others who may have difficult life choices are encouraged to continue practicing their faith and are not turned away from full community worship. The basis for the argument, “When Moses went up to heaven, he refrained from food for forty days and forty nights. And when the angels came to visit Abraham, they partook of his meals, each one submitting to the custom of the place.”4 (Talmud: Baba Metzia 86b)

While the Orthodox will not recognize women as rabbis (there is even separate seating for men and women in some synagogues), women rabbis are more common now in some of the Conservative and Reform synagogues4.

The history of Roman Catholicism is one of schism (separation) with many Protestant offshoots. Today, however, is perhaps the first time in history when Catholics seeking change refuse to call themselves anything but Roman Catholic—refuse to go elsewhere like Henry VII, Martin Luther and others did. Perhaps for the first time in history, Catholicism, like Judaism, has a new meaning beyond religion; maybe we too, have become a culture. A Jew is a Jew forever. It is a way of life, not a religion. Is it possible that Catholics have also reached that pinnacle?

Finding Catholicism’s “authentic source” may be more challenging than we think. While Catholics agree that Jesus is center to our culture, there is reluctance by some to use the Bible’s New Testament as our “authentic source” because the Christian Church was formed before the New Testament was written. The Ten Commandments, which Christians also observe, are found in the Old Testament—The Jewish Bible. If research the early history of the Catholic Church, we will find evidence married Popes, Bishops and Priests, divorced remarried Catholics accepted as full members of worshipping communities; also women priests according to Vatican archives. If we follow Jewish culture during Jesus’ life we would have to wonder if Jesus might have been married. Almost every Jewish historical account indicates that no Jewish male was still single at 33, especially if he preached in the temple. There is now evidence that he and Mary Magdalene may have been.

Judaism and Catholicism

Since the early Christians were Jewish, it is no surprise that our religions are alike in many ways. For instance, the Catechism is Catholicism’s answer to the Jewish Talmud. They have The Jewish Book of Law; ours is called The Code of Canon Law. We have Confirmation; they have Bat/Bas Mitzvahs, both acknowledging the age of spiritual reasoning. The Torah, central to Jewish worship, is kept in a curtained "ark" in synagogues; in the Catholic Churches, a Tabernacle holds the Communion Host, believed by Catholics to be the body of Christ, and both are isolated from the public when not in use. Vestments are also an important part of each religion's rituals. At one time, we each had dietary laws. We each have a Sabbath, though on different days. Even our hierarchy wear a Catholic version of the "Yarmulke" (reserved for High Priests in the Scriptures)3. The calendar of high holydays is also similar. While we combine Christmas and New Year to follow the traditional calendar, it is a copy of the Jewish Yom Kipper and Hannukah. In the spring, we have Holy Week and the Resurrection, they celebrate Passover around the lunar corner. The list goes on.

If we apply the same percentage of American Jews of varying philosophies to American Catholics, we would be looking at approximately 26% liberal/reform, 40% traditional/conservative and 20% orthodox (remaining 14% split among different degrees in between).

Some of our differences
Apart from our hierarchical structure which contrasts Judaism’s Home Rule, we believe that Jesus was the Messiah, not just another prophet as Jews do. There are also major differences between Catholicism and Judaism in the process used to arrive at practical laws for worship and conduct.

Great emphasis in Judaism is placed on the Torah which contains the Ten Commandments. The Talmud, written version of the Oral Law, is an interpretation of the Torah. The Code of Jewish Law contains practical applications of The Talmud. Catholic lineage, on the other hand, is not so clearly defined.

Our original catechism, called the Didache, was, written in the first century.6 It too, was an interpretation of the Old Testament because the New Testament had not yet been written. Through the centuries, The Didache evolved to our current Catechism first issue 1918, one year after the first publication of The Code of Canon Law.. The newest 1995 version was also a combination of Scriptures, non-infallible Catholic teachings and Canon Law.

The Existential Question
It would seem that we need to find our identity, our truth, before we can determine our destiny. We too need to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” We too need to examine God’s role in our existence and our relationship to one another, according to God's plan. Perhaps the failure, as was suggested about Judaism in 1836, has been in the Catholic Church’s teachings. Maybe the concentration of Catholic teaching has been too much about the letter of the law, as demonstrated in the above diagram, rather than the spirit of the law. We too need to search our heritage with new eyes and clear minds in order to discern our future.

While “Nineteen Letters” was written for Jews, the philosophy of God’s concept for civilization is universal. Hirsch’s book, therefore, may be an appropriate study guide for anyone interested in pursuing spiritual self-examination, either in group work or individually.

The more recent writings including those of female theologians may provide a new perspective that may not have been available 160 years ago because there were no female theologians in those days. (All Scripture and church history throughout the ages may have been authored by men, because women were not allowed to be educated, to have a voice or a written word--to even pray. Interpretations of Scripture have, therefore, been conceived by male biblical scholars. All practical laws deriving from same would have been studied, interpreted, written and controlled by men.)

We must preserve the beauty that exists about our religion and its people. Should we therefore make it our duty to make the distinction between what is of God and what is not?

In “Nineteen Letters,” Rabbi Hirsch said that God is the “Harmonizer of Opposites.” He did not say that God is the “Segregator” of opposites. I’m not sure if Hirsch’s intention was to segment “like minds” the way they are in the various Jewish tenets, though it did pave the way for women rabbis.

Catholics need to determine whether Catholicism is a religion or whether it’s a way of life as it is with Jews as well as Moslems.

The many similarities I found 11 years ago between Christianity and Judaism left me with even deeper questions.

A. So Why Christianity? If our religions
are so similar, was God’s concept
B. Why are Catholics today on the same
threshold of reform that Jews were 170
years ago?

In the Nineteenth letter, Rabbi Hirsch wrote, “given these insights, one would ordinarily begin scholarly investigation and then apply to life those conclusions that had proven true…however, the events of the time demand a different course.” He added, “Will I be able to write the truth with all the clarity needed to convince the minds, and all the forcefulness required to capture the hearts?”

My Personal Journey
At the time of my curiosity about Judaism, I was at odds with what had been ingrained in me about my religion. Even though I was trying to do my part in reforming the Church through Celibacy Is the Issue --CITI, the notion of standing on church steps with picket signs or petitions was for me, irreverent, even though I knew that what was going on inside the building was unjust. I had been a “pay, pray and obey” Catholic all my life.

I could not walk away from the Church either, like the 50 million other U.S. Catholics who have. There are too many things about my religion that I love.

In my discernment, I realized that rather than being taught how to develop our own relationship with our sibling Jesus, institutional rules and regulations were applied to prevent that relationship. I prayed over what affirmative action I should take while still remaining the practicing Roman Catholic that I am. This led a personal “Weaning Process” similar to what teenagers experience as they become adults. Simply put, at birth we are given a body, a mind and a soul; and in our formative years, we are conditioned to take responsibility for our own destiny as adults. We learn to eat the right foods if we want to remain healthy and to educate ourselves if we want to be successful in life.

That natural evolution did not take place, however, regarding our Roman Catholic soul. While we were also taught spiritual and moral values during our early years, the “weaning” process of our conscience was not fulfilled by the institution. We have never been given, nor have we felt free to take, control of our own moral decisions and remain Catholic. Today, the Sacraments—Holy Communion in particular—are still treated by the institution as “rewards” rather than “sustenance” which is what they are.

Through prayerful discernment, I did the “weaning” myself. I recognized that I’m in charge of my own body, my own mind and my own soul…and that I don’t have to change denominations to take control of the latter. I can remain who I am—a Roman Catholic.

I have become a liberated or “spiritual” Catholic even though I’m still traditional/conservative in my philosophy.

Recognizing that Jesus lives within each of us and not just inside some church building or on a mountain where some people think He will show up one of these days, is freeing.

I am left with questions, however. For instance, since we seem to be in the shadow of Judaism, is it possible that it is meant for Catholicism to have three tenets as well? Would there be a coming together of the minds and souls if we had an Orthodox Catholic Church, a Conservative Catholic Church (we might want to call it traditional) and a Liberal (or Reform) Catholic Church. There would then be room for all philosophies. How many Catholics would return?

What do you think?

Louise Haggett, All rights reserved, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2007,

No part of this paper may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright owner and without credit to authorship.

Thanks to Feldheim Publishers for permission to use the contents of “The Nineteen Letters”, newly translated with comprehensive commentary by Joseph Elias.Jerusalem, Israel and Nanuet, NY1995, (Available at Jewish book stores or through CITI--$24.95+$2.50s/h)

Additional Bibliography

2. Judaism: Between Yesterday & Tomorrow by Hans Kung. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.
3. The Second Jewish Book of Why, by Alfred J. Kolatch, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., Middle Village
NY, 1995, page 151, 289, 290, 295
4. The Jewish Book of Why by Alfred J. Kolatch, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., Middle Village NY, 1985, page 121.
5. Religion in America: The Demographics of Belief and Affiliation by Dean R. Hoge, Ch. l. Religion and the Clinical Practice of Psychology, edited by Edward Shafranke, Washington D.C. American Psychological Association, 1996.
6. Catholicism by Richard P. McBrien, Winston Press, Minneapolis, 1981, page 802
7. The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk & Wagnalls, NY
8. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago
9. The World Book Encyclopedia, Field Enterprises Education Corporation, Chicago