Monday, July 09, 2007

Does celibacy still serve Catholicism?

By Phyllis Zagano
Religion News Service
Salt Lake Tribune

Catholic priest pederasty may be on the wane, but it has not stopped. Voice of the Faithful, the Catholic lay group formed in response to the crisis, thinks celibacy is part of the problem. It's gearing up to ask the Vatican to restore an ancient church tradition: married priests.

Church tradition? Well, yes. Married men can be ordained - bear with me for a moment - as Catholic priests and as deacons. Laws have overlaid the tradition, but the early church's determination stands: Married men can be ordained, while ordained men cannot get married. Bishops must be unmarried, but widowers qualify.

The largest cadre of married Catholic priests serve in one of the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches. The next largest group comprises former Protestant and Anglican ministers who have converted - in some cases with their entire parishes - to Catholicism. Since the 1950s, the Vatican has approved priestly ordination for convert ministers, a process regularized by Pope John Paul II for members of the Anglican Communion. There are about 75 former Episcopal - now Catholic - married priests in the United States; more than 600 Anglican priests (about 150 married) have converted in Great Britain. There are even a few married convert priests in Spain.

Catholicism has plenty of good experience with happily married priests, and plenty of bad experience with unhappily celibate priests. Voice of the Faithful is not calling for an end to celibacy, just for a closer look at things.

VOTF President Mary Pat Fox says research supports the common-sense understanding that celibacy "plays a role in the abuse crisis." Fox told The New York Times that celibacy does not cause pederasty, but "it plays a role in creating this culture of secrecy that then caused the bishops to handle the crisis the way they did." The system closes ranks, and celibacy remains the be-all and end-all of priesthood.

Don't get me wrong. Celibacy is fine - for those who are called to it. But married priests are also part of the Catholic tradition.

The U.S. bishops' spokeswoman, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, argues the celibate system will not change: "Don't waste the bishops' time on it - they can't do anything about it. You might as well have a great discussion on what goes on on Mars."

Hello? Let's review. The Catholic Church can ordain married men. Most Eastern Catholic Churches ordain married men as deacons and priests. The Western (Roman) Catholic Church ordains married men as deacons and, with special Vatican permission, as priests. There remains a huge problem with priest pederasty in the U.S., fed by a culture of secrecy and supported by ordained celibate men who just don't get it.

Sometimes some of them really don't get it.

At a public session of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Los Angeles in June, Catholic priest-writer Donald Cozzens argued that zero tolerance for priestly sexual offenses should not apply to an otherwise good priest who was credibly accused of, say, once being a flasher, or of making one pornographic telephone call. I questioned him, and he restated his belief that once-a-flasher should not disqualify a Catholic priest forever.

That is just plain nuts. Would a one-time flasher physician keep his license? How about a teacher? Who else - besides a priest - gets a free pass for one pornographic phone call?

I know there are married oddballs out there, and there have been some sad situations with the married priests we have today. But the predominantly celibate clerical culture is not yet cleansed of concepts that are both silly and dangerous. What father of children would say a flasher can be a priest? What priest's wife would let her husband say it?

Walsh says talking to bishops about celibacy is the same as talking to bishops about life on Mars. I think she may be right. The celibate clerical culture remains in trouble. There are still some clerics out there who are not living on this planet.

* PHYLLIS ZAGANO is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University and author of several books in Catholic studies.

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