September 13, 2013

Regular Guys In The Pulpit? Can It Be?

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was installed as the new pope earlier this year, his reputation preceded him. He was already known as a free thinker, an advocate of the poor, and a firm (but gentle) opponent of political influence in the church. He has rejected many of the worldly trappings of his office, and recently accepted the gift of an old Renault (French for “lemon”) as his favored means of getting around town.

But nothing could have prepared us for his biggest pronouncement yet, which came this week: At some undetermined point in the future, he’s open to the remote possibility that he might, maybe, allow priests to marry. This would be a huge change in the life of the church, and even if nothing ever comes of this proposal, I’m heartened that he had the courage to broach the subject at all.

Surely, the pope’s announcement did not come in a vacuum. He inherited a decades-long scandal of, well, biblical proportions. Hundreds of priests around the world, perhaps thousands, betrayed their vows of chastity to engage in repeated acts of perversion with children, and with each other. How many? How often? Truly, God only knows. Any initiative to find a meaningful lasting remedy for this situation, can only come through a forceful exercise of the full authority of his office.
Of course, the timing of this announcement arouses the cynic in me: Joseph Smith, the first Prophet of the Mormon church, declared that the Lord had commanded him to take many wives. Yet, curiously, this revelation was announced only after Smith was himself caught in an act of adultery with his brother’s wife. Genuine prophecy? Perhaps. Damage control? Oh, you betcha. How convenient.
As much as I applaud this development, I’m not so na├»ve as to suppose that any real reform will come easily or quickly. For the proposal before us is really little more than an “if” joined to a “maybe,” wrapped in a “someday.” Even if the discussions began today, any meaningful change would likely not take place in the pontiff’s own lifetime or even mine. For this is an ancient institution that treasures its traditions and hates change.

This proposition is not as simple as it might seem at first glance. For if we allow priests to take wives and sire children, it will upend many centuries of carefully crafted doctrines on sexuality. We will need to demystify normal human behavior, and dispense with the manifold rules and hangups. Perhaps we can now enjoy ourselves in bed, and not just look to it as a legalistic duty for the purpose of producing new converts who can be added to the membership rolls without their consent? One can only hope.
Let us remember that Francis’ immediate predecessor charted his course in the opposite direction, wishing to undo some of the reforms of Vatican II, enacted a half-century ago. Many of these changes (such as the vernacular Mass) are still not fully implemented, not universally accepted by the faithful, and have in fact spawned several schisms. Even though the Council followed all rules of due process, there remain many in the church who refuse to recognize its authority.
The record of Scripture is clear: Paul himself (our exemplar of clerical singlehood) reserved the right to take a wife, in keeping with the practice of Peter (ostensibly our model for the papacy) and "the other apostles" (1 Cor 9:5). Bishops are not just permitted to marry, but are downright required to do so (1 Tim 3, Titus 1). Will we still call Mary the perpetual virgin, if she can now conceive children by normal means and still be considered virtuous?
If we adopt this new practice, it will then become necessary to reinterpret the biblical proof texts that we normally associate with clerical celibacy (such as 1 Cor 7:32-34). Having done so, we will then need to revisit the findings of the 16th century Council of Trent, which tells us that church tradition is equally authoritative with Scripture. Of course, this notion is itself unscriptural (Mat 15:1-9).
Apart from these philosophical concerns, a host of practical matters will need to be considered. How do we restructure the parish rectory, to make room for a wife and children? Will we need fewer nuns, if the priest’s wife can keep house for herself? Will the pastor now work fewer hours each week, so that he can tend to his family? Go on vacation? Go out to the movies with his friends in civilian attire, now that he’s allowed to have a more normal life?

Next, what shall become of our convents and monasteries? Seeing as these cloistered communities have no minor children in their midst who might tattle to their parents, it's harder to know what goes on behind closed doors. But clearly, our vows of chastity aren't necessarily producing holier people. Knowing this, should we continue?

Even more momentous, methinks, is the matter of institutional infallibility: If this new way is right, does it mean that our former practice was wrong? Or do we, like Smith, claim a new revelation in keeping with a new age? Or is this only a stalling tactic, a grudging concession to an increasingly vocal contingent of malcontents who might vote with their feet if we don’t at least pretend we’re doing something? If the latter is true (which has happened before), it will be the height of heresy, just to pacify the rebels and nudge them back into the pew for a time.

If history is a guide, I'm inclined to think (at least in the nearer term) that we could end up with yet another divisive splinter group that falls short of breaking fellowship with Rome. Just as there are Charismatic groups that speak in tongues, and others that allow women to preside at Mass (and know full well that they're breaking the rules, yet are tolerated), there will be groups that embrace the new way while others sentimentally cling to the old. The marriers will be scorned as less spiritual, less committed, than the non-marriers. And every parishioner will, in time, be forced to pick a side.

For the moment, I’m willing to believe that Francis’ motives are pure. Perhaps he and his colleagues really have, at last, figured out that they brought this scandal on themselves with a faulty business model. That a man who is compelled to lead an unnatural lifestyle, will in time seek out a means to satisfy his God-given appetites.

Viva Francisco. I pray that his initiative bears much fruit, sooner than later.

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