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Back to the Future for the Catholic Church?


RELIGION POLITICS - “As it was in the beginning, it now and ever shall be…” pretty much sums up what most of us know about the history of the Catholic Church; it’s always just sort of been there just like it is. 


And priests have always been celibate, so stories about young parishioners being molested have been part of Church history since, well, since forever. 

Not so, in fact. 

The Roman Catholic Church has changed greatly over its long life, and one of the points that has changed is the issue of celibacy for the Clergy. 

Until about the 13th century, celibacy was seen as optional. 

In fact, most priests and other officials in the early Church were married. The first 39 Popes, from St. Peter (AD32-AD67) to St. Anastasius I (AD399-AD401), were married. During this time also, women were ordained to the priesthood; but that came to an end in AD494. 

It was 13th Century Medieval politics that forced the issue. The Church leadership decided that the best way for it to stay out of the nepotism and succession problems was to have an unmarried clergy that was not involved in the fights. 

This might be a good time to explain the difference between priests and clerics. A priest is engaged in a vocation of service, a spiritual calling from God. A cleric occupies an organizational position in the institutional church. A man can be a priest without being a cleric. 

When a priest marries, he is dismissed from the clerical state. But he retains the fullness of the priesthood, since he has been ordained to be a priest, not a cleric. Ordination is permanent (Canon 290 in Church law). He can, as the saying goes, “do the marryin’ and the buryin’,” and should properly be referred to as an “ex-cleric”, rather than “ex-priest.” 

But the issue of mandatory clerical celibacy has actually created three large problems. 

One is, of course, the problem of child abuse by the clergy. Settlements to plaintiffs have exceeded $3 billion in the United States alone (over $600 million just for the Los Angeles Archdiocese), and much more when other countries such as Australia and Ireland are included. 

And this, of course, is money that cannot be used to feed the hungry, maintain the schools, or keep churches open. 

The second large problem actually causes the first. According to people both inside and outside of the Church, the system itself of recruiting, training, and supporting the priests creates the conditions where the priests become abusers; in many cases, the new priests are abused by the priests training them, who may in their turn have been abused by their priests. 

The third large problem created by enforced celibacy rules is a shortage of priests. Thousands of Catholic priests have left their churches when forced to choose between a family and the Church. 

This has left parishes without priests and priests without parishes. There are an estimated 20,000 married, ordained Roman Catholic priests in the United States (many thousands more, worldwide) who would be available and pleased to serve a parish again. 

Stop-gap efforts like Rent-A-Priest are a help, but not a long-term solution. 

Back To The Future? 

Granted, solving others’ problems sometimes seems easier than it really is. But the Catholic Church already has the resources in place to resolve two of the three problems cited above; the lawsuits will have to proceed through the courts. 

The first resource, perhaps not well enough known, is the Old Catholic Church, sometimes known as the Old Catholic Mission Church. It was formed in the late 19th Century when certain Dutch and German Catholics split with the Roman Catholic Church over doctrines like Papal Infallibility. 

Old Catholic priests can marry, and therein may lie some of the answer. Oddly, the once-divisive issue of Papal Infallibility may also hold a key to the solution. 

The doctrine of infallibility holds that the Pope speaks without error when he speaks ex cathedra (literally, “from the throne”, that is, officially). Therefore, the whole issue of enforced celibacy could be nullified with a pronouncement and a signature. 

Then, if it wished, the Church could return to its roots: make celibacy a personal choice, allow-even encourage-married priests, ordain women again, and bring back Altar Girls. 

Until and unless this takes place, Catholics still have the option of attending one of the Old Catholic Churches. 

The second resource is Catholics themselves. National polls show that a majority of America’s 60+ million Catholics prefer married clergy, arguing that they can better understand the issues that the parishioners are dealing with. When this many people speak, the Church leadership is likely to listen.


(John MacMurray is a retired La Habra teacher and former Democratic candidate for State Assembly. He blogs at LAProgressive.com where this column was first posted. A must visit. LA’s most important Progressive voice.)




Vol 11 Issue 17

Pub: Feb 26, 2013


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