Vows of celibacy weren't always required; for 1,700 years, priests often got married
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Sometimes my dad celebrated Mass in our kitchen.
I grew up thinking this was completely normal. The seven of us sat at our scarred wooden table in Washington, D.C., while he walked us through the entire Catholic liturgical service. Sometimes I wondered what Mass looked like in my friends' kitchens. Was their Eucharist made from wheat or white? How did their fathers sound when they sang the Beatitudes in Latin? Did the other congregants giggle during that moment of silence after the Nicene Creed? Certainly, we could not have been the only kids on the block who spent an occasional Sunday morning in our underwear passing around a chalice filled with the blood of Christ.
Some Sundays other families joined us for "church." My father would don his 20-year-old stole, a strip of fabric 4 inches wide and 80 inches long, reserved for ordained priests and bishops. With the defiance and subterfuge of the early Christians, he would lead his congregation to our damp basement. On a carpet patterned with Chinese checkers, hopscotch, and tic-tac-toe, he expounded on the Holy Trinity while my mother strummed her rosewood guitar and softly sang folk renditions of church favorites.
Like that musty basement, my Catholicism is subterranean. I am certainly no church historian. In fact, you might find it odd for me to argue for an end to priestly celibacy when I haven't been to church in quite some time. Still, I have a stake. I am a reformed, if not lapsed, Catholic arguing for Catholic reform. I am a son arguing for his father, a prodigal son appealing to a prudish church.
That chalice, the same one my father held aloft above his altar so many years ago, that stole, the subversive memento of his calling -- these objects were part of the radical, celibacy-questioning church of my youth. Few acknowledge the remarkable fluidity with which the church has treated the vow of chastity. Here I stand aligned with a grand tradition within Catholicism, as old as the church itself.
The years of my father's priesthood, the mid-1960s, marked a burst of church reform with the Second Vatican Council. The winds of progressive change swept through the pews, anointing "the people" as the church. Now you will hear Mass in your native tongues! Now priests will no longer celebrate the liturgy with their backs to the congregation! Now the Virgin Mary will be referred to as "the Blessed Mother of the church!" An invigorating time for a young rabble-rousing priest, but one untouched third-rail reform would send my dad packing.
My mother was a young social worker in a Chicago settlement house when she met brash and outspoken Father Frank. The archdiocese suspected he was a communist sympathizer. He hadn't waited for the decrees of the Second Vatican Council to face the congregation and engage them in Spanish. His parishioners referred to him affectionately as "Padre Poncho." He broke up knife fights between battling gangs, marched with Martin Luther King, and once slept on Cesar Chavez's couch.
He had taken two vows long before he met my mother: chastity and poverty. She likes to joke that he only kept one. For a decade as a parish priest, before he became so enamored of my mother, he was enamored of liberation theology. The gravity of those two bodies -- the church and my mother -- pushed and pulled. Finally, he went to Archbishop John Patrick Cody of Chicago and announced his departure. My dad didn't kneel, and he certainly didn't kiss the crusty conservative's ring. "If they changed the rules, I'd still be wearing a collar," he insisted ever after.
As it turns out, the church's absolute celibacy dogma is relatively recent, a mere half-millennium old in the grand span of Catholic history. So why has the church maintained this curious anachronism that disallows priests from marriage and a family? Ask St. Paul. "The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided," he wrote in celebration of celibacy. And St. Augustine warned, "Nothing is so powerful in drawing the spirit of a man downward as the caresses of a woman."
On the other hand, St. Peter, the first pope, that revered rock upon which the church was built, was a husband. Close Bible readers know this because St. Mark's gospel makes elliptical reference to the apostle's mother-in-law.
For 1,700 years, priests often married. The 43rd decree of the Council of Elvira in the fourth century, for instance, stated that any priest who slept with his wife the night before celebrating mass would lose his job. By the sixth century, the vow of celibacy had actually loosened further, with satisfaction of the flesh by married priests calling for a penalty of temporary excommunication for just one year. Pope Pelagius II instituted a policy in 580 of allowing priests to marry as long as they did not transfer property to wives or children. Not until the Council of Trent in 1563, however, did the Vatican gavel fall resoundingly in favor of absolute celibacy.
Let me add that I find myself heartened by these unsung chapters of church history, knowing that the clerical and the domestic once overlapped, that back in the day other kids had dads who did say mass and not just in their kitchens either. It seems I am not a freak. Not with those scores of ancestral cousins whose dads were Fathers.
The Catholic Church's current view of celibacy has created a labor shortage. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, not known for being cheeky, the dearth of Catholic priests is expected to persist, "resulting in a very favorable job outlook continuing through the year 2012."
As in any demanding job, improved working conditions would ease the recruiting effort. So to Pope Benedict XVI, I say this: Loose the Catholic Church from its chastity belt and let the seminaries swell. If St. Peter could be both priest and husband, why not today's padres? Why not my own father, even now?
"Once a priest, always a priest," my dad used to say. Two of his younger siblings in his raucous Irish Catholic family would later take holy vows as well. My uncle John is a parish priest in a rapidly aging community in Phoenix. My aunt Joan, a vocal death penalty critic in the order of the Sisters of Providence in Terre Haute, Ind., is the administrator of two parishes without a single priest.
True to form, my father continues to adhere to his vow of poverty. These days my parents have taken up residence in the rectory housing of a Silesian parish in Quito, Ecuador. They have come full circle, returning to the spartan milieu of their courtship. There, in the hills 10,000 feet above sea level, they work with the disenfranchised street kids.
One Ash Wednesday, my dad sat at the family's kitchen table, the seven of us huddled in observance, while he carefully burned palm fronds in a ceramic bowl. One by one, he bent and folded them, bringing a match to their frayed ends. Smoke wafted to our yellowed ceiling. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. He closed his eyes, doing his magical priestly work on those dried palm leaves, transforming the black ash into the substance that would mark his familial flock as Catholic. Suddenly, the bowl shattered into a dozen pieces. Looking down in horror at the shards and the smoldering leaves strewn about and my father stubbing out small fires with his thumb, I began to consider the possibility that most kids didn't have a church in their kitchen. I gasped. Was it a sign? Had we transgressed? If He was angry on Ash Wednesday, what smitings might be in store for Easter?
Dioceses around the world have recently introduced a "prayer for the priestly vocations" into the Sunday Mass. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles called in desperation for a "Special Year of Prayer" in 2006 to mitigate the manpower shortfall. "The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers," Mahony pleaded, quoting St. Matthew.
Why leave the future of the institution to the anemic power of prayer when the answer may be as simple as lifting the proscription on priests as patriarchs? The church may have taken away my father's vestments, but in his mind, no Cardinal could legitimately strip him of his priestliness. They would have to drain his blood.
Zachary Slobig is a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism who had a fantastic in-house tutor for his high school Latin homework. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.