The “Third Rail” of Church Policy Making
(A Letter to Three Friends)
John K, John F, and Peter F,
Caveat: I express strong views in this letter, and I express them in language that may be found abrasive. The views themselves, even if stated in mild terms, would deeply offend some whose feelings and friendship I value. I’ve clenched my teeth for a few days, but I feel compelled to test those friendships again.
The article you sent me was balanced and, I think, fair. Pope Benedict in his papal role evokes much less fondness than John Paul II did. Benedict has been as weak in dealing with the pedophilia scandal as his predecessor, and as unwilling to seriously castigate its perpetrators. John Paul II rewarded Cardinal Law with a position of dignity in Rome after he was run out of Boston, and Benedict rewards the Irish primate by leaving him in office despite a clamor for his removal.
The article didn’t even mention the issue of mandatory celibacy, on which Benedict won’t yield an inch. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna had the courage to write in his archdiocese magazine that the Vatican should carry out an “unflinching examination” of the causes of the sex scandal, including “the issue of priests training,… question of priest celibacy, and the question of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the Church and of society as a whole.”
What was Benedict’s response? That kind of honesty is off limits. “The Vatican said the remarks [by Schonborn] had been misinterpreted.” Cardinal Hummes said, “Priestly celibacy is a gift of the Holy Spirit.” (What does that mean?!? How is the mandatory lifelong frustration of nature’s strongest urge, to mate and reproduce, with the loneliness and maladjustment it inflicts on many, be called “a gift.” It’s more like a punishment. Call it a sacrifice to the Holy Spirit, if you wish, but don’t call it a gift from Him. If it were really a gift, there would be no need to require that every priest accept it, like it or not.)
Cardinal Schonborn caved in. Through his spokesman he issued “a clarification” (read “retraction”) later, claiming that the cardinal was not “in any way seeking to question the Catholic Church’s celibacy rule.” (This does not speak highly of clerical regard for the truth: he meant to do exactly that.) The Times reported that “Sources in Rome said he had been obliged to issue his ‘clarification’ under pressure from the Holy See.”
Hot Issue Must Be Aired
I am greatly disturbed by that silencing of Cardinal Schonborn. Mandatory celibacy for male clergy and nuns is not a doctrine, not a matter of faith and morals, on which the Pope is deemed infallible. It is a matter of Church policy on which he has no right (though he has the power) to muzzle and censor opposing views. I see this as papal tyranny. The issue of celibacy is crucial to the revival – perhaps even the long-term survival -- of the church. Strong arguments can be made that it’s a major flaw in the screening process that has led to a clergy in which homosexuality and pedophilia are more common than they should be, and a major factor in the drastic decline of vocations in the last half century.
Counter-arguments can be made, of course. The point is that the issue needs to be aired and argued. The ecclesiastical power structure, with Benedict XVI at its head, continues its refusal to let it be freely and openly discussed by the laity and hierarchy of the Church, at a Church-sponsored forum.
I make this bold suggestion: Widespread aberrant sexual behavior by priests, conspiracy by the hierarchy to cover it up and protect perpetrators, the ruinous financial losses this causes to the Church and its lay contributors, a drastic decline of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the belief by many priests and laymen that mandatory celibacy is at least an aggravating factor in all these problems – these should be at the core of an agenda for a Third Vatican Council. And they couldn’t convene it too soon.