By Sean Callahan, News Editor
On Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Fred Rogers Center, The Saint Vincent College History Department, in conjunction with the Peace and Justice Studies Program, hosted a talk by Arthur McDonald, author of the book, A Progressive Voice in the Catholic Church in the United States: Association of Pittsburgh Priests, 1966-2019. Students, faculty and staff were invited to attend. He was originally scheduled to speak at SVC at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
McDonald served as a Roman Catholic priest from 1978 to 1982, then married and went on to serve two Unitarian Universalist congregations. He retired from this work in 2017. In addition to this, he has taught theology and religion at several colleges and universities. Currently, he is minister emeritus at the Universalist (UU) Church of Essex.
His book, published in 2019, details the formation of, purpose of, and activities carried out by an organized group that began with 19 Pittsburgh priests following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. They came to call themselves the Association of Pittsburgh Priests (APP), and they were inspired by the documents of Vatican II to minister effectively in the modern world by advocating for church reform and social justice causes. Gaudium et spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) was one of the APP’s primary sources of study.
McDonald’s lecture focused on an overview of the APP, both within the content of his book and the group’s general history. His goal was to objectively describe how the APP has been and still is a force for change in the Catholic Church and society as a whole. He clarified that ‘1966-2019’ was the time period in which he covered the APP’s activities for the purposes of his book, and that they are still active today.
McDonald explained that initially, the group of 19 priests met twice during the summer of 1966 in secrecy, for worry of impeding on Bishop of Pittsburgh John Wright’s authority. However, word spread, and as many as hundreds of other priests became interested in the meetings too. This led to the group going public. They invited all of Pittsburgh's Catholic clergy, including Bishop Wright, to their third meeting.
As the number of interested clergy grew, so did the APP’s involvement in church renewal and issues of social justice. Optional celibacy, woman ordination, opposition to LGBTQ discrimination, and democratic voting of bishops are among multiple causes the APP has advocated for.
By 1992, they had opened their membership to nuns, former clergy, and laypeople (non-ordained members of the church). McDonald explained that this led to an exchange between the APP and then Bishop of Pittsburgh, Donald Wuerl, in which Wuerl asked them to change their name, accused it of being misleading and dishonest, and that they should ‘tell everyone who they really are.’
“To which, one of the APP members wrote to the sender, ‘well then the diocese should acknowledge they are a wing of the Republican party,’” McDonald said.
McDonald clarified that this response was not a pointless and angry rebuttal, but a reflection of the frustrations of many people in the Catholic Church, over the question of party platforms and how Bishops handle issues such as abortion. For example, he pointed out that some bishops would say ‘no Catholic can vote for someone who is pro-choice.’
“The APP, although consistent with church teaching on abortion, said that there is a problem here,” McDonald said. “There are a lot of life issues. We need to be consistent with them. Death penalty, guns, war, peace, and so on. We object to this notion of abortion being the one life issue.”
McDonald then provided other examples of how the APP has fought for church reform and social justice, such as some APP priests withholding 20 percent of their taxes for several years to protest military budget spending, and successfully advocating for better wages and unionization for Catholic workers and teachers. In fact, the APP is currently advocating for adjunct professors at Duquesne University to receive better wages.
The APP’s work has also come to SVC. In 2007, President George W. Bush was to give the commencement address at SVC. Many faculty members protested this address because of what they perceived as Bush’s poor handling of the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay prisoners, and APP joined the protest against Bush’s arrival.
To conclude the talk, McDonald addressed why he believes the APP has not been shut down by the church. He said that the APP ‘always do their homework,’ and are careful to ensure their statements and activism are supported by church teaching and facts.
“They have integrity. They are good priests and they do the work of the church well. And they are always grounded in Catholic social teaching and good theology, never their own opinion,” McDonald said.