Bert Thelen, a Jesuit priest who is almost 80 years old, recently renounced his vows, leaving the order and ordained ministry. In a remarkable letter to colleagues and friends, he explained his decision, citing a desire “to be my best self as a disciple of Jesus, to proclaim boldly His Gospel of Love, and to widen the horizons of my heart to embrace the One New World we are called to serve in partnership with each other and our Triune God”:
It is the Risen Christ Who beckons me now toward a more universal connection with the Cosmos, the infinitely large eco-system we are all part of, the abundance and vastness of what Jesus called “the Reign of God.”
Why does this “YES” to embrace the call of our cosmic inter-connectedness mean saying “NO” to ordained ministry? My answer is simple but true. All mystical traditions, as well as modern science, teach us that we humans cannot be fully ourselves without being in communion with all that exists. Lasting justice for Earth and all her inhabitants is only possible within this sacred communion of being. We need conversion – conversion from the prevailing consciousness that views reality in terms of separateness, dualism, and even hierarchy, to a new awareness of ourselves as inter-dependent partners , sharing in one Earth-Human community. In plainer words, we need to end the world view that structures reality into higher and lower, superior and inferior, dominant and subordinate, which puts God over Humanity, humans over the rest of the world, men over women, the ordained over the laity. As Jesus commanded so succinctly, “Don’t Lord it over anyone … serve one another in love.”
As an institution, the Church is not even close to that idea; its leadership works through domination, control, and punishment. So, following my call to serve this One World requires me to stop benefiting from the privilege, security, and prestige ordination has given me. I am doing this primarily out of the necessity and consequence of my new call, but, secondarily, as a protest against the social injustices and sinful exclusions perpetrated by a patriarchal church that refuses to consider ordination for women and marriage for same- sex couples. I have become convinced that the Catholic Church will never give up its clerical privilege until and unless we priests (and bishops) willingly step down from our pedestals.
Dreher predictably snarks:
In the United States, the Jesuit order has lost 70 percent of its membership since the Second Vatican Council. But be of good cheer, Catholics! Ceasing to believe the things Jesuits are supposed to believe, at least Bert Thelen finally left, instead of using the authority of his collar and his position to deceive and mislead others.
Paul Kowalewski, on the other hand, applauds the apostate:
In these few brief sentences, Bert Thelen wonderfully captures what is perhaps the greatest flaw of not only the the established church, but the inherent weakness of any institution that is intrinsically hierarchical. We human beings are indeed “interdependent partners.” The entire creation “is” an “Earth-Human community.” Any social system “designed” to place a chosen few in positions of power over others on lower rungs of the ladder is inherently flawed because that system is inconsistent with the flow and design of all creation.
When Jesus came among us, his life and teaching offered an alternative way of living in contrast to the prevailing culture of his day; a culture that exalted the mighty, and oppressed the lowly. Jesus leveled the playing field of life by exalting the humble and casting the mighty from their thrones – “Do not lord it over anyone…serve one another in love.” And he invited his disciples of every age to follow in his footsteps.