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Spotlight Report


The free flow of fresh air

As the Catholic Church opens windows, a theologian says celibacy and women's ordination should be central to the debate

By Thomas H. Groome, 5/19/2002

I n a communique from Rome following their meeting last month, the US cardinals and episcopal leaders said that because "a link between pedophilia and celibacy cannot be scientifically maintained" they would remove priestly celibacy from the discussion. Those who hope for a systemic overhaul of priestly ministry know that when celibacy is taken off the table, the same surely follows for women's ordination.

It's likely true that there is no cause-and-effect correlation between celibacy and pedophilia, strictly defined as attraction to prepubescent children. But how about the sexual abuse of adolescents by celibate priests? Many of the older priests now accused of such ephebophilia entered through the minor seminary system and began to attempt celibacy in their early teens, with adolescent hormones in top gear and sexual identity often still in flux. Who knows what effect that had?

Released to the world again after 12 years of strict regimen -- the old seminary system resembled boot camp -- it would not be surprising if many were sexually underdeveloped and so picked up where they had left off. More surprising by far is that the vast majority turned out to be fine priests with only a handful of aberrants among them.

There are about 13,000 married deacons in the US Catholic Church, but they have caused no such scandal. Likewise, there are 35,000 lay people in designated functions of Catholic ministry in this country; apart from a handful of cases, the same good record holds.

In another area of discussion, might there be some connection between celibacy and the "gaying" of the priesthood? Even the president of the US Catholic Bishops, Bishop Wilton Gregory, discusses the matter, and expresses concern that homosexuals not reach a majority among priests. That implies there is already a high percentage. But why would the priesthood be attracting a disproportionate number? Surely many good Catholic gay men, told by their church that their orientation is "intrinsically disordered" and that they are "called to chastity" for life, say to themselves, "If I must be celibate, why not be a priest?" A homosexual is as likely as a heterosexual to integrate his spirituality and sexuality into a life of integrity; many of our finest priests and bishops are gay. Yet no one desires that priesthood become a gay profession. Still, celibacy may be encouraging as much.

All the exaggerated rhetoric about celibacy being a "higher calling" than marriage can encourage a pedastalized clericalism that covers up and saves face at all costs for members of the club.

And why were so many known abusers shuttled from parish to parish? One reason is the dire shortage of priests. That shortage, a crisis long before this scandal hit, is attributable to having celibacy as a precondition for priesthood.

But even if celibacy is not one of the root causes of the present scandal, and even if women among our priests and bishops would not have prevented it -- an unlikely hypothesis -- it is high time that we reconstruct the Catholic priesthood. And not just because of the scandal, nor even the dire shortage, but reconsidering celibacy and maleness as preconditions is the right thing to do theologically and for the life of the church.

A brief look at each issue:

There will always be a vowed religious life within the Catholic communion, cherished and supported as an extraordinary witness to God's reign in the world. And the religious orders will most likely remain exclusively male or female. In other words, to be a Jesuit or a Sister of Mercy, one will still be required to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and to live in same-sex communities. But should a semblance of this venerable tradition, historically grounded in monastic spirituality, be imposed on all priests, specifically through the precondition of celibacy?

For almost 1,200 years, Christianity had a married priesthood. The Gospels record Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, and some 40 popes after him were married -- formally. So, to make celibacy optional is not a new liberal idea but a return to the practice of the early church.

When the Western church mandated celibacy for priests (often dated from the Second Lateran Council of 1139), it was for some noble reasons to better serve people but for some dubious ones as well: among them, concern for inheritance of church property and a negative theology of human sexuality. Eastern Catholicism rejected the precondition of celibacy except for bishops, and the Protestant reformers favored marriage for the clergy. Both of these Christian communities have been well served by their ministers. In this era, Catholic priesthood would be improved, and thus its believers better served, by having the quantity, quality, and perspective that married priests would bring. And the credibility of those who voluntarily choose celibacy -- always remaining an option -- be enhanced all the more.

Likewise, the presence of women as priests and bishops would be an extraordinary gift to the life of the Catholic Church. What a loss it is when ordained ministry is limited to men, excluding the consciousness and gifts of women; at best we benefit from only half our priestly resources. To ordain women would surely hasten the demise of clericalism -- the antithesis to priesthood as servant leadership -- and catalyze a renewed ministry of "holy order."

In the mid-'70s, Pope Paul VI set up a blue-ribbon commission of eminent Catholic scholars to investigate the question of women's ordination from a biblical perspective. Their resounding conclusion was that it would not be "contrary to scripture," a most significant finding that opened wide the theological debate. The commission also noted that women in the early church performed functions of ministry that later were reserved for priests.

It's true, of course, that women were excluded from priesthood throughout Christian tradition, though there are historical rumors of notable exceptions. But remember that the church's cultural context also barred women from the trades and professions, from owning property and from all public work. Who would wonder that they were excluded from priesthood and why repeat such "tradition"?

Clericalism needs to break down; priesthood needs to break open. Indeed, the US Catholic Church must and will put in place a national policy to prevent both the crimes and the coverup of clergy sex abuse. And it must address many other issues if it is to move beyond symptoms to causes, including lay participation in the oversight of the church, the clandestine way bishops are selected, the inflated role of the Roman Curia, and many more.

But it must keep the issues of celibacy and the ordination of women on the table as well.

The systemic changes needed will require the US Catholic bishops to find their own voice, to speak the truth that they know themselves and hear from the great majority of their people, to take back church leadership from the right wing phalanx, representing only a small percent of American Catholics but holding so many of the strings of power.

As they assemble for their June meeting in Dallas, it will take courage to keep these issues on the table for the universal church. But every people of God needs good priests and great prophets. Let us pray for both.

Thomas H. Groome is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, and author of "What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life."

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 4/28/2002.
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