Why it’s time to drop mandatory celibacy

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich hit the nail on the head in a New Year’s Day homily when he spoke of the need for the church to modify tradition in response to changing modern times.

Change is needed, he said, “in light of the failure” surrounding the clergy sex abuse crisis. One long-standing tradition that must be up for “review,” he said, is celibacy for priests.

The current measures to address sex abuse are not enough without adapting church teachings, the cardinal said. “Yes, matters are about development and improvement and prevention and independent reviews — but more is also demanded.

“I am certain that the great renewal impulse of the Second Vatican Council is not being truly led forward and understood in its depth. We must further work on that,” he said. “Further adaptations of church teachings are required.”

“I believe the hour has come to deeply commit ourselves to open the way of the church to renewal and reform,” Marx said.

The cardinal’s statements coincide with plans to openly debate the issue of celibacy at the German bishops’ permanent council meeting in the spring. The bishops have said the workshop during the meeting is a direct response to the abuse crisis.

It is wonderful that Cardinal Marx, who is president of the German bishops’ conference, has spoken so strongly about the need to examine mandatory celibacy in light of the abuse crisis, but, it seems to me, this issue needs to be discussed on its own merits.

There were good historical reasons for its introduction in the Middle Ages but mandatory celibacy serves no good purpose now. Many priests have found it an impossible burden. Many others have coped with it in unhealthy and destructive ways. The cost to the church has been incalculable. The celibacy rule has contributed to the vocations crisis that is engulfing the church in so many parts of the world. In countries like Ireland, priests are ageing and seminaries stand empty, while the number of clustered and priestless parishes continues to climb.

Meanwhile, the church loses millions of members every year to other Christian dominations and religions. Between 2014-2016, Brazil lost nine million Catholics to protestantism. Committed lay leaders do their best, but without priests the church dies. Without priests, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated, and the Eucharist is the life-blood of the church. There are many former priests who would love to celebrate the sacraments again, but are forbidden to do so, and many others who feel called to the priesthood but not to the celibate way of life. Celibacy is too big an obstacle for them, and so their priestly vocation is lost. Yet, even in the face of this stark reality, most men in church leadership think that clinging to the man-made rule of mandatory celibacy is more important than meeting the urgent sacramental needs of God’s people. Celibacy trumps everything. This is not just tragic, but catastrophic.

Mandatory celibacy has forced many thousands of men out of the priesthood. They meet someone in the course of their ministry and sexual attraction takes over. They fall in love. They try hard to keep their vows but are not able. They are caught between love of their vocation and love of another person. Ideally, they should be able to love both but they cannot. So they are lost to the priesthood.

Others remain in the priesthood while not observing their vow of celibacy. These priests are conflicted. They know what they are doing is wrong. They are aware of the emotional and psychological damage they are doing to themselves and the person they love, but they cannot stop themselves. They don’t want to or can’t give up the ministry, but neither are they able to give up their affair. And so they juggle the two. It is unfair to everyone, especially the person they love.

Then, there are the secret children fathered by priests. Nobody knows how many secret children are out there, only that it is a scandal that cannot be denied. The damage done to these children and their mothers (and fathers) is incalculable.

Mandatory celibacy is a form of control. It is easier for a bishop to exercise authority over a priest who does not have commitments or obligations as a husband and father. The priest is easier to move around. He is more dependent on his superior, more vulnerable. He costs less to support and there are no potential conflicts around property and inheritance rights. As Thomas Doyle, Richard Sipe and Patrick Wall put it in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse, celibacy “is essential to the continuation of the power and prominence of the clerical subculture, the home of the elite minority who rule the church. … To abandon celibacy would be to risk the demise of the fortified clerical world and the consequent loss of power and influence.”

Mandatory celibacy facilitates clericalism. It leads some clergy to a sense of entitlement and privilege. The collar, the vestments, the titles, the role – all these offer status, identity, comfort, security, a feeling of superiority, of being part of an elite club, a special caste. The culture of clericalism compensates for the privations of celibacy. It also stokes ambition. Without a partner or children as a focus or distraction, some priests invest all their energy in climbing the clerical ladder. Promotion and deference provide them with a sense of validation, and help them feel better about themselves.

Mandatory celibacy leads to loneliness and isolation. In the past, most priests had live-in housekeepers or shared rectories with other clergy. They had company, companionship and support. Today most live alone. They are left to fend for themselves, often with little help from those in authority. Loneliness can lead to a feeling of isolation, or the risk of addiction, or a tendency towards melancholia. Some use work as a coping mechanism. They need to be busy, so they don’t have to acknowledge the emptiness they feel inside or cope with the painful reality of spending every night in a cold, empty house. Others have found solace in the bottle, or on internet chatrooms, or in a particular obsession.

Mandatory celibacy promotes a warped notion of sex and sexuality. It implies that sex and sexuality are bad, and over-identifies holiness with sexual abstinence. It inhibits healthy, open relationships that people need if they are to be fully alive. To live a life empty of physical affection is a tremendous burden for many.

Of course, abolishing mandatory celibacy would be no panacea for the church. It’s not going to pack the pews again or solve the vocations crisis. It would create problems of its own but ministers of other denominations and religions have to deal with these challenges all the time, and they do. Whether there is a married or unmarried priesthood, there will always be scandals, because priests are human.

And even if abolishing mandatory celibacy does nothing to address the sexual abuse crisis or produce a single new vocation, it is still the right thing to do because it would make for a far healthier priesthood and a far healthier church.

What being pro-life really means (and why yesterday was a good day)

Yesterday, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as Speaker, making her third in line to the presidency. It was a good day for democracy and many people rejoiced.

Of course, most evangelicals and many in the American Catholic Church did not rejoice. They don’t like the Democrats or Pelosi. They have bought into a rugged individualism type of politics and religion that rewards wealth and hard work and individual freedoms like the right to carry weapons (it’s why they can support a twice-divorced, tax-avoiding, sexist, racist, foul-mouthed president as someone specially anointed by God). For others, their opposition to Pelosi and the Democrats has got to do with abortion. This one issue frames their entire political thinking.

Of course, abortion is a critical issue. Preserving life, protecting the most vulnerable and defenceless, has a particular urgency for Christians because it is literally about life or death.

But what many forget is that being pro-life is more than being anti-abortion. It is to support life from womb to tomb. It is to seek to do all we can to protect and enhance life outside the womb as much as inside the womb.

This is known as having a consistent ethic of life – that, as Christians, we support everything that is pro-life and oppose everything that is anti-life. The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago described this stance as ‘the seamless garment’ approach to life issues. Christians believe that all human life is sacred because every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. And so, for us, all issues to do with life are of one piece, like a “seamless garment” (a reference to the garment Jesus wore before his crucifixion which was woven seamlessly from top to bottom).

Life issues are interrelated, interconnected, seamless. As Cardinal Bernardin put it: “Those who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us: the old and the young, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.”

If we are committed to “preserving life” (opposing abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, etc), we should also be committed to “enhancing life” (supporting social justice, care of the earth, those on the margins). In other words, being pro-life is all-embracing.

That is where most in the Republican Party and in other right-wing parties get it wrong. It is certainly where so many conservative Catholics and evangelicals get it wrong. Already the newly inaugurated right-wing, evangelical president of Brazil is opening up the Amazon to even more exploitation and is rolling back hard-earned rights won by minority groups. Where is the Christianity in that?

Last chance saloon for the US bishops

This week the US Catholic bishops are making a retreat together in a centre outside Chicago. It is an unusual occurrence. At the request of Pope Francis, they have gathered for a silent retreat to discern God’s will for the church in the United States.

The retreat is in response to the terrible year that Catholics in America have suffered. Revelations about the appalling actions of former Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (and their cover up) as well as the fall out from state-level investigations into clerical sexual abuse have had a devastating impact. Many in America thought that, after the crisis had first blown up in Boston in 2002, the bishops had got a handle on it. The fact that someone like McCarrick could have been promoted afterwards, and that many of his colleagues turned a blind eye, has shattered trust between people and their bishops.

And so the US bishops were asked by Pope Francis to go on retreat together to pray and prepare to take action to deepen their commitment to keeping young people safe.

Bishops from around the world will then gather in Rome with Pope Francis from February 21-24 to discuss abuse and child protection. A lot is expected from this February summit. If nothing decisive comes out of it, if it is back to business as usual for bishops’ conferences and individual bishops throughout the world, if the Vatican itself does not act more decisively, then those who have remained loyal to the church through the trauma of the last 25 years will feel utterly betrayed.

This is last chance saloon time for the church to get it right. We can only hope the US bishops’ retreat and the prayers of the rest of us will move those in church authority to do what they should have done all along.

Three ways to be a good news person

There’s been so much bad news over the past year, indeed over the past decade, that it can feel overwhelming. It’s a situation made all the more toxic by the Trump White House and the Brexit mess.

Aware of the prevalence of bad news stories, and the impact they have on readers, The New York Times newspaper decided some time ago to introduce a feature called The Week in Good News. This weekly newsletter, it explains, is meant to send the reader into the weekend with a smile, or at least a lighter heart. It includes little items of good news that readers otherwise might have missed, little stories that act as a welcome counterpoint to the surfeit of bad news that fills the rest of the paper.

A good approach to the new year would be for us to focus more on good news and less on bad news, those stories or opinion pieces that agitate or divide. While we can’t avoid the news if we wish to be informed, we can choose how to process it.

My advice to self this January is to remember three words beginning with  the letter ‘c’ that I hope to incorporate into my daily living:

1. Be clean. English is a rich language with about one million words. We don’t need to use bad language to express ourselves, even if an image of Trump or Jacob Rees Mogg pops up on the screen.

2. Be courteous. Use only words that are respectful, that honour rather than dishonour the other. This is hard to do, especially if we get angry easily or suffer from road rage, as I do.

3. Be constructive. Use words that are positive, not negative; that build up rather than knock down, that are life-enhancing rather than life-diminishing. This means resisting the urge to gossip or to damage another’s character, which is also hard to do, especially in the highly inflamed social media world of today.

The power of language is extraordinary. We should try to use it in a positive way.

Five little wishes for 2019

Nothing too ambitious, of course:

For an end to the stupidity that is Brexit. That sensible politicians on all sides of the House of Commons will insist on a People’s Vote, which will lead to a reversal of the decision made on the basis of lies and disinformation in June 2016.

For an end to the treachery that is the Trump administration. That publication of the Mueller report will finally force Republican members of Congress to realize that the rule of law and even personal self-interest far outweighs loyalty to a president who is loyal to no one but himself and his crooked family.

For an end to the scandal of homelessness in Ireland. An economy that is doing as well as ours should have no problem providing shelter for all its people. What is missing is the will to do it.

For an end to the sin of racism and xenophobia. That the increase in racism that has been enabled and encouraged by trumpism, Brexit and the growth in right-wing populism will be resisted and repelled by all right-thinking people at home and abroad. Calling out racists and shaming them on social media is a good way to go.

For an end to the culture of clericalism and cover up in the church. Despite Pope Francis’ best efforts, unreconstructed clericalism continues to do untold damage to the body of Christ. The careerists in the Curia are simply biding their time until Francis is gone. What is needed is a new council of the church, Vatican III, an assembly where voting rights would extend to lay men and women and not only to ordained clerics, to consider the mountain of pressing issues – vocations crisis, sex abuse scandals, the rights of women, mandatory celibacy, financial transparency, sexual ethics and attitude to those who are gay – that confront the church and threaten its future in large parts of the globe. It’s unlikely to happen this year, but then back in January 1958, no one expected that John XXIII would call a council that year either.

Miracles do happen, as the Limerick hurlers showed last year. And so we hope.