Thursday, March 21, 2013

Beware what you wish for

Sometimes I enjoy a stroll through the parallel universe of liberal Catholicism:

Where Benedict was a withdrawn absolutist, Francis is an engaged pragmatist. Here are two illuminating examples. The first is that he backed – as a last resort – civil unions for gay couples in Argentina as an alternative to full marriage equality. It’s extremely hard to imagine the mind of Ratzinger being capable of such a nuanced and practical stance in a specific situation:
 
Benedict, an absolutist? If only, if only. As Cardinal Bergoglio, Francis said that same-sex marriage is a project of the devil. You can't get much blunter than that, and that is one reason why I like the cut of his jib. A high ranking Catholic prelate who speaks in unambiguous declarative sentences is a rare bird indeed.

Here’s what impresses me: the call back to a gay rights activist. Dialogue. Empathy. I do not expect the Magisterium to change switly on homosexuality – but if we could only have a dialgoe, a discussion, some kind of glasnost on the subject, what an amazing change that would be! If Berguglio had succeeded in persuading the Argentine church to back civil unions, can you imagine how he would have been seen at the Conclave? Can you imagine Benedict’s conniption? Sometimes you need a straight Pope to deal honestly with gay issues.
 Pope Benedict XVI is still alive but he is dead to the world. Sullivan still can't resist the passive-aggressive gay baiting, which is ironic coming from him. What exactly does he want to dialogue about? The Church may not say so out loud as often as it used to, but it is the perennial teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium that sodomy is one of the sins that cries out to heaven for justice. It is a mortal sin for which it is possible to burn in hell for all eternity if one does not repent, confess, and do penance. Sullivan knows this, which is why he's using the ambiguous word "dialogue." What he means by dialogue is that he hopes the Church can be convinced to teach error in faith and morals. I'm sorry sir, but we have a divine guarantee that that cannot happen.

Then this striking flexibility on priestly celibacy, in an interview last year, after retelling a story of falling head over heels in love as a young man:
 
Yes, yes, yes: confirmation bias, wishful thinking, you name it. But there is nothing unchangeable about the celibacy requirement. Half of Catholic Christendom has married priests. My old parish in England, where I first received Holy Communion, now has a married priest – a former Anglican. These are management, not doctrinal decisions. Francis understands that, it seems. These procedures can change. For the sake of the survival of the church in the West, they must.
 There's a tendency, even among mainstream Catholic apologists, to speak of priestly celibacy as "just a discipline," like the amount of time we're supposed to fast before receiving Holy Communion. This is part of a larger tendency to gloss over the fifteen centuries of the development of the Church between antiquity and Vatican II. The venerable Catholic Encyclopedia has a good entry on this subject. No Catholic with a lick of sense denies that at one time married men could be ordained priests (it was never the case in the early Church that a man who was already ordained could marry.) Nor was it the case that the requirement for Western clergy to be chaste celibates was imposed overnight by a tyrannical pope determined break up a racket of priestly nepotism. It has always been the teaching of the Church and Holy Scripture that virginity is the superior state. The Spanish Council of Elvira laid down a pretty severe law: married men who were ordained priests had to embrace continence, i.e. no more sex with their wives. Requiring celibacy of its clergy was vigorously debated throughout the early life of the Church and finally became law around the time of Pope Gregory VII. In short, the Church codified a practice which had already existed for centuries. We see something similar with the TLM. Many people call it the "Tridentine" Mass, but that Mass was not invented by the Council of Trent. The Council codified a Mass which was already several centuries old.

Theoretically, the pope could change it overnight, sure. But he would be overturning centuries of ingrained teaching, discipline, theology, spirituality, and people's expectations of their priests. I'm not at all convinced that allowing married men to be ordained priests would solve any problems. There might be a momentary uptick in men entering the seminary, but it would quickly settle back down to what it is now. If priests had wives and children, Catholic lay people would have to accept that they could not demand nearly as much from their pastors as they do now. Are you lay Catholics who support ordaining married men going to put more money in the collection basket so he can send his kids to Gonzaga? Are you going to commiserate with Father when his wife frivorces him and takes their children? How about when Father needs some more cash to cover the costs of his annulment proceedings with the Diocesan marriage tribunal?

Our ancestors were not idiots. They had reasons for doing things the way they did. Priestly celibacy is a sound discipline supported by centuries of legitimate development of doctrine. Don't be too hasty to overturn it. I suspect the real reason why many progressive Catholics want it repealed is because the idea that man is not defined by his sexual drive is repugnant to them. Homosexuals like Sullivan are particularly averse to the idea that man can accept the call to chaste celibacy.

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