Friday, March 29, 2013

Will the new Pope go soft on clerical celibacy? (James Wimberley)

We seem to be living through significant revisions of the institution of marriage in the US and other western societies. So perhaps it's worth considering whether other populations previously excluded from the joys of matrimony might get the right to marry.

Is it possible, for example, that Pope Francis I might turn out to be soft on the question of clerical celibacy? In some characteristically erudite and thoughtful reflections, James Wimberley looks for straws in the wind ... and finds a few. (He might also have included this one.)  Wimberley concludes:
I’ll bet that this papacy will see movement on clerical celibacy, perhaps involving supervision of married priests by Eastern Catholic bishops, or an expanded married diaconate [i.e., deacons]. The Virgin Mary has her deknotting work cut out though.
I don't know whether or not that will prove correct.  (And, by the way, I sure he was right not even to raise the possibility that Francis I might consider female priests.)  But quite aside from the fact that this matter could have significant practical implications, direct and indirect, for more than a billion Catholics and for many of the rest of us, Wimberley's discussion also led me to some reflections of my own.

For many centuries, priestly celibacy has been one of the most distinctive and defining features of the Roman Catholic Church.  (The fact this this requirement has often been violated, evaded, or bent in practice—not infrequently in some times and places—doesn't change that.)  In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, monks are celibate, but ordinary priests (though not bishops) get married.  Most versions of Protestantism rejected the whole notion of clerical celibacy (and some varieties, like Quakers, don't even have clergy).  But the Catholic Church has held firmly to the principle of clerical celibacy.

However, it's worth bearing in mind that the Church has never regarded clerical celibacy as something absolutely required on the grounds of basic dogma.  It's essentially an institutional arrangement, and it could, in principle, be changed without profound theological upheaval—though the cultural and symbolic implications would be profound, of course.  Furthermore, priestly celibacy didn't get solidly established as a (more or less) universal rule in Catholic Christianity until about a thousand years ago.  Now, to most of us a millennium might seem like a long time.  But from the perspective of the Church, millennia come and go ... and sometimes it can be useful for the rest of us to remember that, too.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  Someone commenting on Wimberley's post, who signed himself Stephen, added some useful and thought-provoking points, including these:
Possible, though the pioneering moves on this front were made by John Paul II and Benedict XVI in allowing married clergy from various Protestant groups to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood upon conversion. Benedict XVI’s “Anglican Ordinate” was the most dramatic move in this direction but was the culmination of a trend that had been building steam for a while. [....]

The unbelievable growth of the married Diaconate, which really took off under JPII (the permanent Diaconate having been restored by Vatican II) is now an important fact on the group in many regions of the world. But I’m not so sure how it will impact (indeed if it impacts at all) the phenomenon of married Priests. On the one hand it makes married men in the clerical state under Roman Catholic Canon Law a common and comfortable occurance. On the other hand – there are degrees of Holy Orders for a reason [....]

Maybe, maybe not.  But it's undoubtedly true that the dynamics involved here go beyond the personal predilections of Francis I.  So I can't help speculating about some of the larger socio-historical factors that might be playing some role in this process.

For example, while western Europe has been de-Christianizing, Catholicism has been losing ground in much of Latin America to Pentecostalism and other forms of evangelical Christianity, and Christian minorities throughout much of the Muslim world have been shrinking or disappearing, the numbers of Catholics have been increasing rapidly in some other parts of the world—and both of the last two Popes made it clear that they saw that growth as crucially important for the future of the faith.  One area of the world where Catholicism (along with other Christian denominations) has been growing explosively is sub-Saharan Africa.  And although the zeal of African Catholics is often red-hot, I gather from various things I've read that this does not necessarily include accepting the notion of clerical celibacy.  The Church might be looking for ways to detour around a head-on confrontation over this issue.  But all of this is no more than (highly non-expert superficially informed) speculation on my part ...

James Wimberley (at The Reality-Based Community)
March 29, 2013
Untier of Knots?

Wonkette points to Pope Francis breaking a tradition by washing the feet of two young women prisoners in the nice Maundy Thursday rite he shares (in a bowdlerised dry form) with Queen Elizabeth II. Wonkette doesn’t draw any conclusions, but I think it’s another straw in the wind.
Line up the other data points.
  • The young Jorge Bergoglio had an major adolescent crush on a girl, Amalia Damonte, now 76. Later as a seminarian he fell for another girl seen at a dance. He seems to have sublimated desire on the positive route of troubadour idealisation rather than the more typical fearful misogyny.
  • He is close to the Orthodox and the Eastern Catholic churches that sprung from them. He had a formative friendship with a saintly Ukrainian Catholic priest, Stefan Czmil, and speaks Ukrainian. These traditions – including those in communion with Rome – allow married parish clergy, but not bishops. (The term “Uniate” is no longer PC: you learn something every day from Wikipedia.)
  • His statement as cardinal on clerical celibacy was a defence of the current Catholic line, couched in notably lukewarm and conditional language:
    For the moment, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures. What happens is that the scandals have an immediate impact. Tradition has weight and validity
    Francis clearly doesn’t find the idea of priestly sex icky.
  • He is a Jesuit, skilled in threading doctrinal and practical needles, and a devotee of a rather sweet cult of Mary Untier of Knots. The founding image is a second-rate piece of German baroque:


    But the idea is from the estimable and first rate anti-Gnostic Church Father St Irenaeus of Lyons, whose theodicy is still the best Christian product on the market. It’s a comparatively sunny and optimistic approach to human dilemmas, and suggests a Yankee can-do spirit in the new Pope.
I’ll bet that this papacy will see movement on clerical celibacy, perhaps involving supervision of married priests by Eastern Catholic bishops, or an expanded married diaconate. The Virgin Mary has her deknotting work cut out though.

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