The Other Side of the Altar

In times of crisis, effective leaders understand the urgent need for honesty and candor, for the kind of truth telling that allows for healthy, creative responses. They steel themselves to hear truths and face realities they may well prefer to avoid. Often the urgency of the crisis overrides the instinctive denial of realities too painful to face and voices too disturbing to hear. It is one of the graces of crisis that truth telling unfetters the imagination and offers hope and direction.

In the present church crisis, Paul Dinter emerges as a significant truth teller. The Other Side of the Altar may well shake loose a constricted ecclesial imagination and contribute to the kind of honest dialogue that remains a vital step in moving through and beyond the present morass.

The storm now engulfing the church and its priests and bishops has been building for decades. Yet during these years of restless turmoil, many church leaders appeared indifferent to the experiences, joys, and struggles of both the lower clergy and the people in the pews. One would think that bishops would search for ways to tap into the lived experience of the men and women, husbands and wives, parents and grandparents who remain the backbone of the U.S. Catholic faithful. And one would think that bishops would be eager to meet with their priests and ask sincerely and honestly, "What is your life really like? Tell me about your joys and sorrows, your struggles. What gives you hope and energy? Tell me about your doubts and fears. What discourages you, what oppresses you? What is your experience of celibate living? Does it help you to be a loving, whole person? Where do you find the presence of God? And glimpses of the divine?"

I read Dinter’s The Other Side of the Altar imagining that he was writing in response to his bishop’s invitation to respond to these questions. Dinter answers each of these queries and many more in this honest, informative, and riveting book. He begins with the story of his vocation and the power of the church’s and the priesthood’s mystique and moves steadily-with increasing passion-to tell us the story of his soul. His honesty is moving and at times wrenching. Only the most defensive bishops, I believe, will read the story told here without being moved-and disturbed-in the depths of their own souls.

The Other Side of the Altar is more than a compelling memoir of a well-educated, thoughtful, resigned priest, however. It is also the story of a clerical culture coming undone. Dinter offers one of the more insightful readings of the priests’ sacral, special world yet to find its way into print. For he not only describes the protocols shaping attitudes and behaviors that reveal the paths to clerical status and advancement, he allows us to see how these unspoken patterns of clerical life tend to suck the humanity and integrity out of its priests. Readers interested in how the system works will no doubt be gratified, but readers in search of the impact the clerical system has on the souls of priests and how the system impacts the church at large will also be informed.

While Dinter writes from his experience as a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, his analysis of rectory life and priestly privilege captures an element of the clerical system that can be found in presbyterates from coast to coast. The attitudes and posturing of a group of New York priests calling themselves "Gents" emerges in most large U.S. dioceses. "Gents," Dinter informs us, "was coded speech meant only for other members of the in-group, cleverly formalizing aspects of the clerical culture that had long been operative. As Gents, men who became priests indulged their delight in their unwarranted social status even as they lived together in rectories like boys in a patriarchal household....As a result, Gents soaked up the social deference they received...and insisted on being treated reverently in public, but privately they reveled in irreverence and their secret sign was the knowing smirk."

Dinter’s treatment of the Gents lays bare some of the more destructive elements in clerical culture-a sense of entitlement, preference, exemption, and secrecy. The Gents who "place loyalty to the corps over honesty, candor, or integrity" epitomize clericalism, the shadow side of clerical culture. Granted, the Gents constitute a subculture within a culture and are representative of only a portion of priests. Still, the Gents of New York capture the hubris and arrogance fostered by the clerical system. The attitudes embraced by these and other like-minded priests and bishops help to explain the monumental mishandling of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.

In the final chapter, "Grace Abounds," Dinter takes the reader into the inner chambers of his soul where he wrestles with the growing awareness that celibacy is strangling his spirit. He returns here to a point he makes in the forward: the unfulfilled promise of Vatican II can be traced to "the priestly habit of dishonesty coupled with the ordained leadership’s unwillingness to imagine a life in which sanctity and active sexuality cohabit and minister to each other." The tone is different in these final pages-painfully honest, passionate, and critical. Dinter is no longer chronicling the "hidden patterns at play" in the institutional church’s clerical culture, he is revealing his own painful struggle to find integrity and peace of soul as a celibate priest that culminates in his decision to leave the active priesthood.

At the outset, Dinter tells his readers that "some characters are composite figures and some bear fictitious names; others are woven so tightly into the historical record that they must be depicted as themselves." The trouble is, with the exception of individuals enjoying national name recognition, he doesn’t always tell us which are which. Nor does the context necessarily make it clear. In one instance, Dinter speaks of "bed sharing, which might or might not lead to arousal and genital activity, [and] seems to have become the halfway house of clerical desire," and he suggests that a bishop-now a cardinal-engaged in such behavior with seminarians. Naturally, this is likely to lead to speculation about the bishop’s identity. Dinter tells us that he heard of the bishop’s bed sharing "secondhand from one of the chosen ones." Readers will wonder if this account is little more than unsubstantiated clerical gossip or another example of the hierarchy’s readiness to wink at profoundly disturbing clerical behavior.

Still, Dinter has succeeded in writing a brave memoir and a penetrating critique of the current structures of the institutional church. He is especially astute in unmasking the attitudes and behaviors at the core of clericalism. In this time of peril and opportunity, his book underscores the need for structural reform. Moreover, it is likely to further a more honest dialogue within the faith community and stimulate the Catholic imagination to envision a renewed, healthier church. Without question, Paul Dinter’s The Other Side of the Altar deserves our attention. [end]

Published in the 2003-03-28 issue: 

The Reverend Donald Cozzens teaches religious studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priest’s Crisis of Soul (Liturgical Press) and Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church (Liturgical Press).

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