Re-examining the Catholic Church's celibacy rule (CBS News - Sunday Morning)

With Pope Benedict retired, many Catholics are hoping a new Pope may be a chance to rethink old doctrines, including one of the oldest and, in today's church, now one of the most controversial: celibacy.

"It's that call -- leave everything and follow me -- and if you do that you're not just a functionary providing religious services, you're someone whose whole life is at stake," said Chicago's Cardinal Francis George, who is now in Rome for the conclave.

"If you're going to lead the people in Christ's name, celibacy isn't absolutely necessary, but it is a sign that someone has left everything for the sake of the Lord," said Cardinal George.

Father John Fitzgibbons, president of Denver's Jesuit Regis University, says the church teaches that celibacy means a priest or a nun doesn't have family worries, and can instead focus solely on their religious work.

He says it offers the clergy "the ability, the wherewithal, the time, to give your energies to the people of God in a more concentrated, more useful way -- not distracted by family, kids, "any economic well-being, to some degree."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills once studied for the Catholic priesthood, but quit over the demand for celibacy. He has written extensively, and critically, about the church, including the argument that having a family diminishes the quality of one's work.

"If you really believed that, you would never go to a married doctor," said Wills. "You would never elect a married president, because you would say, 'Oh, he just cares about his family, he doesn't care about the country, he doesn't care about my health." That's such a phony argument.

"Celibacy as the church has set up is unhealthy," Wills said. "Instead of uniting it with communities, it divides them from communities . . . by setting them apart."

Read the rest here.


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It's not as though this is the first time the issue of celibacy has been brought up for public discussion. I know I've heard this conversation before, though I can't precisely pin down then when/where. It may not even be the first time I've heard it associated with the ongoing issue of child abuse by priests. It may, however, be the first time I've heard it discussed in association with the "changing of the guard" at the Vatican, the choosing of a new pope and with that, the possibility of that dirty word: CHANGE.

Is it possible that there is finally sufficient external pressure on the catholic church to effect an alteration in their collective thinking? After two such orthodox pontiffs such as Wotyla and Ratzinger, one might hope that the college of cardinals could be persuaded to consider someone who, if nothing else, has an interest in enhancing the church's relevance in an age where that relevance in the first world is fading fast. Dealing with the issue of celibacy, whether it can be demonstrated to relate to the child abuse issue or not, would at least be an indicator that the church is not so enthralled with stasis that it cannot recognize what that lack of motion and change is costing them and perhaps act on it.

Otherwise, they are likely to remain mired in their absolutism and condemned not so much to dissolution of the institution itself as to a descent into impotence.

Tags: catholic church, celibacy, child abuse

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Over the long run, policy is driven by pragmatism, although it can take centuries for people to figure out what their best interest truly is. The Church's celibacy requirements arose from two considerations: the prudish belief that any form of pleasure is somehow irreverent, and the very practical realization that the growing power of the Church could corrupt priests into favoring their families over the community at large. The first belief had some small justification in the realization that people often violate moral standards in pursuit of pleasure, and in fact we all know that sex makes people, especially young people, stupid. The second belief was better-justified and definitely made sense in those times. Of course, both constraints were violated frequently. Erasmus, noting the popular belief that the Anti-Christ would be the child of a nun and a monk, observed that there were a great many Anti-Christs out there. And nepotism was rampant in the Renaissance church.

Nowadays, neither factor applies. Western civilization, at least, accepts that the pursuit of pleasure is not intrinsically sinful. It would be impossible nowadays for a pope to appoint a nephew to a bishopric. Moreover, since priests are paid a salary, rather than living on the proceeds of their parish, there's no incentive for misbehavior. 

Accordingly, it seems inevitable to me that the Church will eventually dump its celibacy rules. However, there's oft many a century between inevitability and actuality.

It might have been inevitable that the church would recognize its error in castigating and censuring Galileo, too, and certainly they dealt with that issue.  It only took them a mere 400 years to manage it!

The incident with Galileo was in an age where general societal change was a lot slower, though the Renaissance was an indicator of things to come.  Social and scientific change since that time have undergone near constant acceleration, yet if the Vatican continues to move at all, it is at a positively glacial pace.  They could get away with that four centuries ago, especially considering the power base they held.  Under the current circumstances, however, their attempt to be an absolute in a field of relatives is not serving them well, and it is astonishing to me that they either fail to recognize that fact or dismiss it out of hand.

The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.
-- Abraham Lincoln

The RC church could stand to take Lincoln's advice to heart, yet they seem loathe to do so.  As a result, their reputation and relevance suffer for it.  They continue to regard change as a last resort, an option devoutly to be avoided, and likely for good (to them) reason.  Their whole institution is built on a supposedly divinely inspired book, a book which they have already cherry-picked as regards multiple issues.  To embrace change would be to face the inevitability of one day facing the truth about that book ... and that is one change they cannot bear.

It is said all progress is change, but not all change is progress.  What do you say about something that changes only when it has no other choice?

They're not stupid; their problem is that they perceive their moral authority to be intimately linked to their antiquity. It's related to the reverence we hold for literary classics. We still read Plato and Marcus Aurelius because they present "ancient truths" that are somehow better because they're ancient. I have an old book that I hold in particular esteem because it's so old. We associate great antiquity with wisdom. To use modern terminology, the strength of the Church's brand lies mostly in its antiquity. They don't want to mess around with that brand -- after all, look what happened when Coke tried to change its formula 30 years ago. When the priest gets up in front of the congregation wearing that ancient costume and speaks an ancient language while performing ancient rituals, he commands reverence from the congregation. There have been many attempts to modernize the rituals, but they have been, for the most part, failures. 

So I understand how the Church has to tread carefully here. If I were to play the role of Marketing Advisor to the Pope, I'd recommend a small bit of modernization, just to show that the Church is not a total fossil. I'd recommend that the Church create a new priestly order that is allowed to marry, but keep it small and tightly constrained in function, sort of like a "token non-celibate priesthood". Then slowly expand it with time. 

And now, for the contrary opinion. As an ex-Catholic, I recall the hoopla and world wide adulation over Pope John XXIII calling for the Second Vatican Council. That gathering made various efforts to bring this moribund institution in the modern age. The liturgy was no longer in Latin, but in the vernacular language, so people could understand it. They "formally" exonerated living Jews from the crime of Deicide - Christ killers. The discussed and ruled on the great Schism, which formed the Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches. 

All of these things were welcomed as a modernization of the church, and helped breath new life into this institution. And by having new life breathed into it, it allowed the continuation of the spread of superstition, ignorance, fear, and hatred to this day. It assisted this remnant of the Roman Empire in spreading it's tentacles further into Asia and Africa. Yes, the tentacles were there before, but now are tightening even more of a choke hold on the uneducated, poor and illiterate.

The last thing the world needs is more PR to give the appearance of this evil institution developing more "relevance" in the modern era. Let the fucking thing die under it's own medieval weight.

You make a point, Pat.  I guess part of me wishes they could demonstrate SOME degree of intelligence and understanding of what they're doing, yet for all appearances, they have next to NONE.

So if they're going to die, can they please get on with it?!?

I view it as a biologist views a species. If it adapts to its environment, it will thrive. If it fails to adapt to its environment, it will become extinct. Either way, given enough time, things do work themselves out.

A nice thought, except for one thing: the meme of religion has been modifying PEOPLE to maintain its own existence ... or as I originally saw it put:

Christianity alters your identity to insure the survival of ITSELF.
-- from Prplfox's video series - http://ning.it/R2isGS

Now maybe I'm being fussy, but I intensely dislike the idea of being manipulated by a meme, or at least THIS meme, though I take some comfort in being at least relatively free of it.

As for things working themselves out, maybe they will ... and maybe I'll give a little help to expedite the process!  To paraphrase Robert Heinlein (mostly because I can't find the exact quote), "What can't be cured ... should be ripped up and started over," that in response to the old saw: "What can't be cured must be endured."

So maybe I'll endure a bit ... but I'll kick the damned thing in its gonads any time I get the chance!  Just don't expect me to be complacent about it - I WON'T.

Perhaps you've heard of the fungus that attacks ants. It alters their brains, inducing them to engage in behavior beneficial to the fungus.

Religion is the same thing, except that it's smarter than the fungus: it doesn't kill its host.

Well, at least in THIS company, I think it's safe to say there ain't no fungus among us!

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