Thursday, December 21, 2006

Development of doctrine and priestly celibacy

There is currently a discussion about the history of marriage restrictions in priestly and religious life in the Church going on in the Bible and Christianity forum over at ISCA. One recent post briefly summarizes the nature and history of consecrated life; in the penaultimate paragraph, a few apparently androgynous mystical experiences are cited, and the piece ends with the following paragraph:

Why does the Catholic church still insist on celibacy and male-only priests? Their justification is still largely sacerdotal purity, though inheritance issues also drove the demands for celibacy in the 11th and 12th centuries. They claim that as priests are the representative of Christ on Earth, he cannot be represented by a woman. But the Catholic church is reaching a crisis point; many diocese are terribly underserved, as older priests retire and die and as the church weathers the storm of child abuse scandals. It's likely that, within our lifetimes, we will see a change on these fronts, but the pontiff will have to be forced into accepting it. If there aren't enough priests to maintain a parish, something has to give. Either accept married priests in the ranks or ordain women.

Some of the flaws in the argument are obvious. Two thousand years ago we learned the significance of a distinct, ordained male priesthood; one thousand years ago, we learned the value of a priesthood not divided between parish and family. These benefits aren't just practical; you don't solve a pragmatic problem by compromising principles. I can see a relaxing of the rules preventing married men from getting ordained, but not anytime soon; the tradition, though not the rule, of celibacy is two millennia old, and orthodox seminarians are on the rise. As for the pope being forced into accepting anything, the user who posted the article apparently doesn't understand papal infallibility; from the Church's perspective, a pope couldn't contradict Ordinatio Sacerdotalis even if he wanted to, and from an external perspective, the doctrine of infallibility itself would shield him from political pressures for compromise.

I've seen this pattern in the Church before, and I don't think it's a coincidence. Five hundred years ago, there were nascent Protestant movements promoting iconoclasm and simplicity of worship. What was Rome's response? St. Peter's Basilica. John Paul II was the most ecumenical pope to date, and what was one of his most favorite topics? Mary, perhaps presently the greatest stumbling block to Protestant dialog with the Church.

Why does the Church not take more opportunities for emphasizing common ground? Is schism not worse than heresy?

Well, it is, but perpetuating the scandal of heresy just to end schism isn't much of a bargain. My point is that this crisis is not a sign from God to the pope that the doors in all the seminaries and iconostases need to be flung open. I think it's an opportunity to emphasize how important a celibate, male priesthood is. In a time when the priesthood is at a nadir in number and quality (sorry, but the pedophilia angle is usually invoked by now), insisting on admitting only single men into the seminary is a dramatic sign of what the priesthood is.

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