Published posthumously, Goodbye Father offers a historical and theoretical analysis of the consequences of mandatory priesthood celibacy. The author — a former priest who resigned to marry — writes with insight and passion about the benefits of optional celibacy. As one sifts through the book's fourteen chapters, one recognizes how close to this issue are his heart and mind.
The author writes, "The priesthood is the linchpin that links structural elements in the Catholic Church" (15) The basic premise restated throughout the volume — hard to miss — is that "social forces, producing a decline in the priesthood, are impacting social change in the church and the larger society," and "the decline will result in a pervasive organizational crisis because priests provide valuable services that are in decreasing supply vis-a-vis growing demand" (17).
Will the Catholic Church change its conservative position on the issue of celibate exclusivity, a main reason for the decline? Yes, writes the optimistic former priest: "[M]arried men will be admitted to the priesthood during the lifetime of this generation of churchgoers"(185). And, in the final chapter, the author "explore[s] the implication of this change in the structure of Catholic ministry for the dismantling of patriarchy in the Church leading to the ordination of women" (185).
For the author, a call to the priesthood is not a call to celibacy. There is a difference. "[C]elibacy as such has been and will continue to be a viable, respected path to transpersonal holiness for those who are called. A call to priesthood, however, can no longer be equated with a call to celibacy" (191).
But, Schoenherr also cautions, change will not be easy. "Although highly probable, the ordination of married men in the immediate future is not inevitable" (192). There are tensions between the conservative coalition (for mandatory celibacy) and the progressive coalition (for optional celibacy). However, "the very intensity of this conflict indicates that transformation is already underway" (192). He "challenges Catholics and society at large to say goodbye to Father . . . . to what the title Father has come to symbolize: male celibate exclusivity" (198).
Eventually, the dismantling of celibate exclusivity will also lead to gender inclusivity in the priesthood and the larger society. But, while "a married priesthood is all but a fait accompli, a gender-inclusive priesthood, however, faces a long uphill climb. Both are inevitable" (198).
The author is convinced that "If the Catholic Church cannot say Goodbye to Father, many faithful Catholics will have no choice but to say Goodbye Church" (216).
The book targets committed Catholics, scholars, "including feminist scholars interested in theories of social change, the social scientific study of religion, organizational analyses, and, in particular, how organized religion reflects and affects social change" (xxviii). His audience also includes those who are "interested in the impact of a powerful world religion on their personal, social and spiritual lives" (xxviii).
David Yamame, the editor of the book, remembers the late Schoenherr, in response to an Oxford University Press request to cut the text, "sitting at his desk, shaking his head as he thumbed through the pages, scores of which were in red . . . . [Schoenherr] seemed genuinely perplexed about how to shorten the manuscript while retaining all of its bold theoretical vision and subtle argumentation. Ultimately, he never had the opportunity to try. Two weeks after I saw him, Richard Schoenherr was born to eternal life" (xxiv).
Drastically reduced in length from the 1200 page original, the important sociological piece takes an issue seemingly particular, and of interest to a limited audience (celibate exclusivity) and puts it in a larger context (gender inclusivity at the societal level). The author's claims are intriguing. But I wish he had considered other forms of inclusivity. For example, might celibate inclusivity also reduce (infomal) racial exclusivity in the US Catholic Church and, eventually, larger society? After all, the majority of priests in the United States are of European ancestry.
Despite deep cuts, the volume is coherent, readable, and timely. As this review is being written, priests in Milwaukee are raising voices calling for the inclusion of married men in the priesthood. And around the nation, priests are paying careful attention. Will the intensity of the conflict rise enough to produce the transformations envisioned by the author?