Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Celibacy Issue in Latin America - Pt 2: Argentina

This is a translation of an article “El 75% de los curas quieren celibato optativo” (“Seventy-five percent of priests want optional celibacy”) by Josefina Licitra from Crítica Digital, 4/19/2009. Ironically, after this article was published, the press came out with the story of another priest from the Mendoza archdiocese, Alberto Ortega (60, see photo), who has left the priesthood to marry his partner who is expecting their baby in three months. Ortega has another child already with the same woman. He was ordained in 2000 and served in Santa Ana parish in Guaymallén. As is usual in these cases, the parishioners said that Ortega was a good priest and they were satisfied with his services and knew nothing of his personal life.

Just like Adam and Eve who were cast out of Paradise into the temporal world, the former bishop and current president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, is falling into the basement of a life that was not at all in his plans. The leap into space happened last April 6th – Easter Monday – when he was forced to admit publicly that he had fathered a son – and had maintained a long romantic relationship – while he was serving as prelate in the Catholic Church. And the hard landing ended a few days ago, when Lugo showed that not even a president, not even a former bishop, escapes from the classic farce of “separated with children”: now he has to pay support for his child – 2 year old Guillermito, he has to shut the mouth of Guillermito’s mother – who doesn’t stop talking to the press, and he has to let a volunteering member of his family – in this case his brother Pompeyo Lugo – come forward to say that he, Fernando, is still a good guy. “Celibacy is torture”, Pompeyo Lugo then said in defense of his blood relative, and with that sentence he reopened a debate that for several years has convulsed the Catholic Church intermittently: the meaning of celibacy in the 21st century.

According to sociologist Pedro Gorondi, who is responsible for several surveys on the subject ordered by the Argentinian Bishops’ Conference, 75% of those consulted (Lay people, bishops, and priests) are in favor of the so-called “gift from God” being optional. Also, during the Latin American Bishops’ Conference meeting in Brazil in 2007, the bishops put out a communique where they acknowledged for the first time the lack of priests and seminarians and that the reason for this decline was strictly related to sexual restriction. “Each time they find less and less meaning in it”, Gorondi says. The argument is: If so much importance is given to love and to the family in the Church, why oblige priests to live such a lonely and depressing life? These situations of forced isolation end up pushing them and conditioning them to have relationships, children on the sly, and all sorts of other practices that the Pope doesn’t want to have happen.”

Because of all this, in 2004 – three years before the Latin American Conference meeting took place –Brazilian priests scandalized the world by making public – through a survey ordered by the National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil – that 41% of them admitted to having violated their celibacy vow. In spite of this, 48% thought that the restriction was important and 41% thought that it should be optional. “It’s common, especially in small towns, that people know the children of the priests, who are called “nephews”, and the woman of the priest,” Luis Antonio de Souza, the author of the study, added. “People take it naturally.”

In Paraguay, the people have not taken the “Lugo affair” so lightly. Since the story came out, the positive image of the president has fallen 16 points, from 64.14% to 48.04 percent.

This is not talked about. Jesus never talked about celibacy. In fact, it was recently in the 16th century, at the Council of Trent, that the Catholic Church established that the holy function of celebrating the Mass could only be performed by men controlled and regulated in their relationship to God. From then on, the Roman Church has carried on its shoulders a latent debate, that began to stir in the 20th century. Not to mention the twenty-first century. “It’s time for a full discussion of the idea of optional celibacy, since it’s a very personal spiritual decision of conscience,” José María Poirier Lalanne, expert on religion and editor of the Catholic magazine Criterio, opines. “The continuation of obligatory celibacy shows that we have an authoritarian Church, one that is out of touch and not involved in the times in which we are living – a perspective that without a doubt is having a negative impact on young people who have a religious vocation,” adds Guillermo Mariani, a priest who is known for having published a book, “Sin tapujos. La vida de un cura” (“Out in the open: the life of a priest”), that in 2004 reopened the debate on sexual restrictions.

But neither of these opinions appears to twist the Pope’s arm. In November 2006, shortly after he took power, Benedict XVI convened the cardinals of the Roman Curia to talk about the subject. There were more than enough reasons: the African rebel archbishop Emmanuel Milingo had ordained four married men as priests, and at the same time had launched the Married Priests Now movement. Once he was before the church dome, Benedict was clear: no more talk of optional celibacy, he said. And – in the Vatican – there was no more talk.

But there was talk in other countries. In Argentina, for example, several priests got married. The most public cases were Leonardo Belderrain (a pastor from La Plata who left the priesthood to get married), Luis Armendáriz (a priest from Mendoza who became a father but who continues to celebrate Mass to this day in the province of Buenos Aires), and especially Jerónimo Podestá, the first bishop to unleash a scandal – when he fell in love with Clelia Luro – 39, separated with six daughters – he left the institutional church – he was suspended ad divinis, as was Belderrain – and he founded the Federación Latinoamericana de Sacerdotes Casados (Latin American Federation of Married Priests).

“Many bishops are asking for optional celibacy, because many worthy people are leaving”, says Clelia Luro, the widow of Podestá, who died nine years ago, “ But the Church doesn’t become more flexible for a variety of reasons. One is economic: if priests could marry, at their death they would leave no personal inheritance for the Church. And another one is even more basic: when a priest starts to live his own life, he grows up and becomes free. It is very difficult to run a pyramidal institution full of free men. I know that the debate will come up some time. An intelligent Pope has to come along, and it’s not this Pope. But, fortunately, nobody is eternal.”

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