|Bert Thelen, (ex) S.J.|
Bert Thelen, S.J., an eighty year old Jesuit who had spent the last 14 years at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska has petitioned to become laicized. Thelen announced his intention to abandon his vows in an open letter to friends and colleagues that was also published in The National Catholic Reporter. In his apologia, Thelen professed to renounce his ordination as well as leaving the Society of Jesus is to protest what he describes as a patriarchal church which refuses to allow for priestesses and permitting homosexual so called marriage.
Although it is lamentable that it took Thelen 45 years of service to the Church to discern his objections to the Magisterium about the vocation of Holy Orders and Marriage, but the manner which he chose to “self-defrock” was troubling. Rather than showing some semblance of personal integrity by conducting his change in spiritual status in private, Thelen chose to publically score some partisan political points. Hence it is only fair to scrutinize Thelen’s conduct and consequences of the spiritual change of status which he seeks.
Jesuits take twenty years to take their final vows. Part of Thelen’s indictment of the Church is that its patriarchal clericalism prompted him to abandon ordained ministry. There have been male priests for over 1600 years. So why could not Thelen discern his objection to an “all boys club”. Pope Blessed John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacramentalis (1994) which reaffirmed the teaching that since there is no scriptural basis for the ordination of women, the Catholic Church does not have this power. This was several years before Thelen claimed that his lovers quarrel with the Church began.
Those who accept the calling and take the sacrament of Holy Orders in the Roman Catholic Church typically take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Jesuits take an additional vow of obedience to the Pope (regarding their mission). Upon Thelen’s taking leave of his priestly faculties, he was still listed as “faculty ally” of Creighton’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance. It is dubious whether Thelen carried out this mission in an orthodox manner.
Thelen chose to trumpet his belief in same-sex marriages as precipitating his new call to be part of liberally inspired laity. Obviously, Natural Law and thousands of years of tradition mean nothing to an ideologically incensed ordained priest. Of course, the logic of Pope Venerable Paul VI’s Humanite Vitae (1968) reaffirming the primacy of procreation in marital sexual relations is passe. More recently, Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI used his Christmas message in 2012 to denounce same-sex “marriage” and adoption as an attack on the traditional family made up of a father, mother and child. Perhaps Thelen’s prophetic protest of renouncing his vows was precipitated by Pope Francis and Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI’s encyclical Lumen Fidei (2013), which asserted that:
[Marriage should be the] stable union of man and woman...This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation.
So since even the liberal new Pontiff does not follow the progressive trend of blessing same-sex unions so Thelen decided to abandon his ordinational obligations.
Although ordaining women and gay marriage were the polemic flash points for Thelen’s new calling, he also had condemnation of his order of the last 45 years which he connected to his aspiration of religion without pedestals. He condemns the general practices of Jesuits:
Make no mistake about it: the Society of Jesus shares in and benefits from this patriarchal and clerical way of proceeding. We still regard ourselves as the shepherds and those to whom and with whom we minister as sheep. I discovered this painfully when the Society of Jesus decided against having Associate members. We are not prepared for co-membership or even, it seems at times, for collaboration, though we pay lip service to it. "Father knows best" remains the hallmark of our way of proceeding. I can no longer, in conscience, do that. But I still honor and love my fellow Jesuits who work from that model of power over. It is still where we all are as a company, a Society, a community of vowed religious in the Roman Catholic church.
So after bad mouthing his brothers, octogenarian Bert Thelen will set off on his new calling. While I know of an 80 year old Jesuit who recently celebrated his 50th year of being a Jesuit and is active being a spiritual director and Christian Life Community facilitator, these wonderful ministries would not pay the bills. It is dubious that the prophetic protestor will earn his keep so he will live off of the largess of the Society of Jesus as provisions need to be made for a laicized priest. That’s rich in irony.
Catholics have the appreciation that our spiritual vocations, namely Marriage and Holy Orders, not only reflect states of living but that sacramentally mark us. This is why Catholics seek to ensure that one is sacramentally understand their vows (and annulments take so long to adjudicate). Similarly, the Church believes that once a priest, always a priest like the order of Melchizedek. But because of political pique, Thelen wants to walk away from his vows and be a useful idiot for those who rail against the Church’s teachings.
Reading the rhetoric in Thelen’s open letter, one wonders if there is much of a loss. With phrases like: “Biocide is even more devastating than genocide” and the “survival and well being of ALL earthlings” Thelen’s views may be more welcomed amongst secular humanists and activist atheists rather than in an ecclesiastical environment. But I am scandalized by Thelen’s assertion that through his new calling, he as lived and died as a Jesuit but now is free from being shackled by a judicial, institutional, clerical, hierarchical system. Thelen’s fickle commitment and sui generis understanding of death to me shows the shallowness of his sacred professions. Moreover, the emphasis of Earthlings (sic) preventing biocide, egalitarianism which obliterates authority and championing secular humanist trends intimates what Thelen holds in deep esteem.
Rather than respecting his polemic philippic, I find this apologia to be a tardy Jesuitical discernment. It is a pity that years of serving the People of God is marred by a cheap political stunt.