Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Consequences of Mandatory Celibacy (Part I)

The last couple days, I've been reading a collection of short essays by Joseph Girzone, the retired Catholic priest who attained fame thirty years ago as author of the popular Joshua series of books.  I've never read the Joshua series because, after a single glance many years ago, I thought they sounded cheesy.  I still don't know whether they're worth a read or not.  Based on how much I've been reading Girzone's nonfiction work, My Struggle with Faith, the Joshua books may well deserve a second look.

In one of the last chapters in My Struggle with Faith, Girzone considers mandatory celibacy for priests within the Catholic tradition.  He first makes a good case for how the celibacy requirement has resulted in a shortage of priests in the modern church, which manifests itself most acutely in the reduced access that many Catholics have to the sacraments, including Sunday Eucharist.  Girzone writes:
Churches are closing.  Many people have difficulty finding a church wehre the Eucharist is celebrated by priests.  Old folks find it almost impossible to find a place to worship.  Priests are overworked to the point where it can only serve to shorten their lives, as more and more responsibilities are laid on them at a time in their lives when responsibilities should be lightened, not weighed more heavily on them.  The sin is that nothing is being done to respond to the needs of the people.
Girzone is right on target; his analysis (published in 2006) is up-to-date.  I can't imagine a patient who is about to undergo emergency surgery, or someone who is in hospice care, would have an easy time finding a Catholic priest (rather than an ecumenical chaplain) to celebrate the annoiting of the sick or reconciliation (confession), both important healing sacraments for any Catholic, but particularly the individual who is in great pain or near death.  The teenager who is pregnant or suicidal or who has just discovered a parent's infidelity is out in the cold; priests don't have time to be there to listen, to offer perspective.  (Not that many priests probably feel comfortable these days spending much time with individual young people of either sex.  But that's another post.)  Many parishes are overseen by a priest who has three other parishes to tend to, and the priest has limited time to spend at each parish, with only one weekend liturgy (at best) to celebrate at each location.  Catholics are being deprived of easy access to the sacraments (not to mention the guidance and spirit of friendship that a good priest, frequently on-site, can bring to a parish).

Girzone continues his analysis,  however, in a tone that I can only guess is meant to be tongue in cheek.  He writes:
 I know it is not cowardice that prevents bishops from speaking out and forcing change.  I know they really care about their people's need for Mass and the Eucharist.  I know it is not fear of censure or of losing a promotion that paralyzes them from taking a bold stand.  I know they realize that there are hundreds of thousands of faithful people who are being deprived of the Eucharist and the sacraments in hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes.  What I cannot understand is why they are doing nothing to provide priests for our people.
Seriously?  It's not cowardice that keeps priests and bishops from speaking out about the consequences of mandatory celibacy?  Surely Girzone, who has kept up with the political culture of the church as the church grows ever more conservative in the last few decades, understands that John Paul II did his damnedest to stifle even the hint of debate around both celibacy and women's ordination to the Catholic priesthood.  JP2 attempted to take the topic off the table.  Bishops dare not speak up, neither in the national conferences of bishops nor in interviews, for fear that they will end up with a coadjutor bishop being appointed to help run their diocese.

Bishops like the late Ken Untener, who did dare to speak up on both celibacy and women's role in the church, faced large-scale opposition from ultra-conservative, traditionalist groups, and it's easy to imagine that his twenty-four tenure as bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, was born not only of his love for the people there (which I have no doubt was sincere) but also from the refusal to the hierarchy to consider him for appointment as an archbishop anywhere.  Dissenting bishops unfortunately do not get a proper hearing as the prophets they may in fact be.  Instead, they end up getting squashed -- or, if they're lucky, simply ignored.  Certainly cowardice is one of the consequences of the church's refusal to reconsider the thousand-year-old tradition of celibacy for priests.  Smart people who hold leadership positions in the church know they cannot discuss in any detail possible changes to the celibacy requirement.  Those changes have been ruled out of bounds by the Vatican (except, of course, when it comes to married Anglican clergy whom the Vatican hopes to poach).

Girzone is back on track when he observes:
I cannot believe that the Holy Spirit is not calling people to the priesthood.  Maybe we are rejecting many whom the Holy Spirit is calling.
Indeed, it's all too easy to see this as the most significant consequence of the church's intransigence.  The church has made itself wiser than the Holy Spirit.  The church dismisses the calls of people with a vocation to marriage -- as well as women, as well as people who are gay -- to serve as the priests God may very well be calling them to.  "Can't happen," the church says.  "Not possible.  They aren't really called."  Even though all things, of course, are possible in Christ.

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