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'That's Catholicism, Mister'

July 06, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

One of the few Democratic senators who were reelected in the Reagan landslide of 1980 was Max Baucus of Montana. On Baucus' staff, working as a special assistant, is an ex-priest (or unemployed priest) named Michael Miles, whose story deserves to be better known than it is and may become so with the publication this month of his deeply affecting book "Love Is Always" (Morrow: $17.95).

There is nothing especially remarkable in the story of a Catholic priest who falls in love and leaves the priesthood to marry. An estimated 12,000 American priests have done just that. Their personal struggles are old news by now, or else bad fiction.

But Miles (no kin to The Times' book editor) was different. For a few years after his marriage in the mid-1970s, he continued to serve as parish priest at Resurrection church, Bozeman, Mont., with the formal consent of his bishop, Raymond Hunthausen. Hunthausen did not want the arrangement publicized. Neither did Miles: He just wanted it to continue. And yet, the two of them (and the Resurrection parishioners) were giving, in those years, a quiet demonstration that all government, even church government, proceeds by the consent of the governed. Democracies differ from autocracies by having formal mechanism for the withholding of consent, but this is just their special way of bowing to the common necessity. Even autocracies, and even an institution like the papacy, do finally change as the will of the people requires them to change.

Herein lies the fascination, and the pathos, of Miles' "Love Is Always." The denouement came swiftly. Bishop Hunthausen, his protector, was named Archbishop of Seattle. Hunthausen's successor in Montana, Elden Curtiss, moved against Resurrection church with speed and with something like fury. Orders requiring Miles' termination as priest came from Rome. Curtiss proclaimed the matter at that point out of the parishioners' hands and, indeed, out of his own. In one of several stormy meetings with the parish leaders, he is quoted as saying: "Please quit referring to it as your parish! It is first and foremost mine. That's basic ecclesiology. Besides, you can't call yourselves Catholic unless you are in union with my will. To be in disharmony with me is to be fractured from the church itself." Miles, faced with the prospect of forcing his church friends, by their loyalty to him, into a one-parish schism, finally agreed to go.

At that point, as Miles reports it, Bishop Curtiss praised him for being a "real churchman" and acting in the way that would best serve the larger church. In their own eyes, however, the priests and people of Resurrection parish were doing just the opposite. They were giving in to save the smaller church, their own parish, and abandoning an action which, as they saw it, met a crucial need in the larger church. To many in its ranks, the Roman Catholic church has seemed by its requirement of clerical celibacy to be starving itself of clergy--like a patient who desperately needs blood but refuses blood donations. Miles and his supporters saw his ministry as a kind of transfusion, the first pint from a blood bank the church could draw on whenever it chose to do so.

Elden Curtiss' loss is now Max Baucus' gain, but there are other signs of a reorganization of church governance on the part of Catholics, priests and laymen alike, whose greatest rebellion may be their refusal to consider themselves rebels. The Catholic prescription of marriage for the clergy is matched by its prescription of divorce for the laity. In lieu of divorce, a Catholic can sometimes be granted an annulment--a church judgment that an apparent marriage has in fact never quite taken place. Male impotence is one obvious grounds for annulment. Lack of completely free consent is a less obvious one. Whatever the circumstances, the judgment is not one that the official church has generally believed lay Catholics competent to make about themselves.

At least not until "New Hope for Divorced Catholics, A Concerned Pastor Offers Alternatives to Annulment" (Harper & Row: $12.95) by Barry Brunsman, a priest and an advocate on the Marriage Tribunal of the Diocese of Monterey. On p. xi of this book, Brunsman declares: "A sincere Catholic remarried 'outside the Church' can never be prohibited from receiving Communion. With competent clerical or lay help, or even this book (emphasis added), a person could make a decision concerning the termination of a previous marriage either by the sin theory, the death theory, the annulment theory, or the preference principle theory and enter a lawful second marriage."

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