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A Modern Priest Looks At His Outdated Church

In A Modern Priest Looks At His Outdated Church, Father James Kavanaugh closely examines the human impact of the legalism of the Catholic Church.  In his opinion, steadfast adherence to rules regarding the sinfulness of some common human behaviors makes the Church a less effective and caring institution.  The book was published in 1967, a time when the immutable traditions of the Catholic Church were beginning to undergo a gradual process of change to make it’s external forms more relevant to modern society.  Kavanaugh does not discuss these changes at length. He does, however, make a compelling argument why many of the rules of Catholic behavior embedded in canon law are not beneficial to an individual’s spiritual development and cause a great deal of suffering.  Often, the application of these rules exacerbate painful human problems by blindly dictating how Catholics must act regarding such issues as:

A Modern Priest Looks At His Outdated Church

A Modern Priest in the 50's and 60's

Kavanaugh suggests that many Catholics of the 1950’s and 1960’s essentially lived in a ghetto environment.  They were born, educated and married in a closed community, steeped in Catholic traditions. Suspicion of non-Catholics and their spiritual ideas was rampant, as was the fear that outside influences would tempt people away from their faith. The rules of Catholic behavior provided set answers to the difficult problems that individuals faced in life.  Presiding over this community were the priests, authoritarian figures set apart from the people and charged with the task of insuring that the rules were followed.

When Kavanaugh enters the seminary, he becomes keenly aware of the gulf between a priest and the people.  On his summer breaks, he is no longer welcomed by his friends on their “dealings and their dates”. As might be expected of a seminary education, he learns the Catholic interpretation of history, theology and philosophy, which discounts ideas that conflict with doctrine.  He watches as any seminarian who questioned doctrine and canon law too closely are weeded out before ordination.   He eventually realizes that he is not being trained to console and guide, but to administrate finances and disseminate doctrine.

A Modern Priest and Separation

After Kavanaugh begins to work as a priest, the feeling of separation from the people continues.  Whenever an individual comes to him with a complex human problem, he is obliged to counsel them only within the limits of Catholic law.   He believes that this legalism robs him of his ability to respond with compassion, and often results in people continuing to suffer in intolerable situations.

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