Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bending Benedict's Ear


For whatever reason, Pope Benedict XVI has not asked my opinion, even as he is mired in the latest revelations of clergy sex abuse numbering in the thousands...as usual. Pity, as I have my tips on making the Roman Catholic church into also small c catholic, for everyone.

Don't even both backtracking on married priests. Instead, refine celibacy by making it an optional vow. Oh, and permit women priests. Done and done. You're welcome.
Religious disclaimer: I am not and have never been Roman Catholic. I was raised as a Wesley Methodist back when Southern Methodists differed from Southern Baptists mostly is how thoroughly they wet the baby in the initial ritual. Southerners considered us right next to Episcopal, which was right next to Catholic. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and believed in transubstantiation — all the crucial stuff. I got better.
Church politicians from bishops to the top never seem publicly to question either celibacy or male-only priesthood. Certainly Pope Benedict doesn't. A quarter century running what used to be called the Roman Inquisition, may have something to do with creating his inflexible stance.

Most Roman Catholics I know cast a jaundiced eye on those two apects of the church. Yet, even in his most recent not-really-an apology for the thousands of priests who raped children, the Pope never touched on the possibility that sexual abstinence may not work for his guys in dresses. "Trusting in His great mercy towards us, we humbly beg His forgiveness for our own failings" is neither remedial nor prophylactic.

Oddly enough, it might be easier for the Vatican to ease into optional celibacy than to allow women priests. Not only is celibacy a rule and not doctrine, it came to the playbook relatively late.
Background: You can go to a solid source for some history and details, The Catholic Encyclopedia is online for one. Check celibacy, infallibility, and woman for starters. For the latter, women are "in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul" and the justifications go from there. Homosexuals get a better deal, just three years of prayer to ready them for priesthood.
Celibacy is not a light topic nor limited to Roman Catholics. It's just that the vast majority of religions, Eastern and Western and including Anglicans and Episcopals, don't go for it.

As a church rule, celibacy has a basis in a few New Testament verses, mostly on Paul's teachings in passing. Yet, the church didn't mandate a vow of celibacy until 1123 and again in 1139 and 1545 to 1564, to make it stick. It was not a ground upward movement for this rule.

The high-minded say male priests will devote themselves to their church work without the distraction of wife, kids and property. Cynics have long suggested that avoiding property disputes on divorce or death are much stronger drivers for the rule.

Regardless, only the R.C. pols seems to hold that requiring many thousands of men to sublimate sexual urges for their entire adult lives has nothing to do with widespread child abuse in the church. While this again is only a rule and not doctrine, it overlaps with the concept of papal infallibility. The current Pope invariably takes the lead here. Once more, this relatively new concept seems to bite the papacy and larger church repeatedly.

For non-R.C. types, be aware that this doctrine does not claim the current Pope or any previous ones are flawless and omniscient. Rather, from Peter down, the current Pope supposedly has the charismatic ability to infallibly interpret doctrine as needed.

This concept also has some basis in scripture (refer to the Catholic Encyclopedia for starting points), less tenuous than male-only priesthood, but still not specifically stated. Instead, during the Middle Ages, the concept of papal infallibility gained momentum. It was not formal until 1870. To put that in American terms, it's not exactly what the Founding Fathers intended.

Back to Benedict, even someone as rigid as he must know that other churches with married priests and ministers have far less problem with sexual abuse of children or of sexual affairs with adult congregants. His repeatedly supporting the denials of previous Popes and Bishops that there is a link with celibacy puts him at a disadvantage.

As an aside, while I have never had any desire for sex with a cleric, I hear it's quite a common feeling. Priests and ministers I have known have mentioned that adult congregants are forever coming onto them sexually. Many clerics understand the pressures on the numerous disgraced preachers who have succumbed to the offers. Supposedly clerics can be authority figures and opportunities to literally brush up against holiness to pew sitters. Child abuse on the other hand is an opportunistic crime and an extreme abuse of office.

As the Roman Catholic church founders, it is well past time for one of its famous councils to right the ship. Honestly, such fundamental and doctrinaire religion has not been for me since childhood, but I accept that it is for many. For those, optional celibacy and women priests would go a long way to stabilizing the church, to guaranteeing enough dedicated men and women as priests, and to providing a safe and Christian environment for congregants of all ages.

If Benedict XVI gives me a jingle, I'll be happy to discuss those with him. We can hold same-sex marriage for another conversation.

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