Wednesday, March 13, 2013

While waiting for a new Pope: In defense of celibacy

I heard a Charles Osgood segment on the radio yesterday morning in which Francis Cardinal George of Chicago and Evanston's own Garry Wills, professor, author, and former seminarian, were both interviewed on the subject of priestly celibacy.

Mr. Wills and Cardinal George are both brilliant, whip-smart men and I could only hope they might someday condescend to converse with a middlebrow like me. But they probably shouldn't be invited to the same party.

Cardinal George defended celibacy by saying it is a sign of total commitment -- give all that you have and follow Me -- or, as Matthew put it (10:29-30), "[T]here is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come." The priest is supposed to put his vocation ahead of everything -- family, friends, possessions -- and celibacy is a sign of this.

Mr. Wills scoffed. If this were so, he argued, why would anyone go to a married doctor? He or she is not fully committed to the profession. Why would anyone allow their children to be instructed by a married teacher? He or she is not fully committed either.

With all due respect to Cardinal George, Mr. Wills gets the best of this exchange.

We all know the Church imposed celibacy on the priesthood in the Middle Ages, as much to preserve Church property as for any other reason. Down through the ages, celibacy has been winked at, if not outright ignored, by many priests, bishops and (yes) even a few Popes. And a public vow of celibacy provides some cover for child predators who have disguised themselves as priests. On the other hand, allowing priests to marry would be no guarantee of child protection: Jerry Sandusky was married, for example.

But I would not be too quick to encourage a relaxation of the rules against allowing priests to marry.

The parish priest has too much to do to have a healthy family besides. Sure, he can make many of his sick calls during the day, and some meetings can be scheduled during the business day. But most of his work is of necessity done at night, when the laity are home from work and can attend board and committee meetings that keep the community going. Instead of helping his own Timmy with his homework, Father would have to meet with the parish school board and discuss the revisions to the math curriculum. Tomorrow it's the Bible study group. The Parish Council needs to talk about the budget again. The next day the Holy Name Society meets. And Father would be well-advised to make an appearance at the girls' volleyball tournament and the boys' basketball game. There's a wedding rehearsal on Friday. And the phone will ring at the oddest hours, because Death and Sickness keep their own schedules. There are Sunday's homilies to plan, and homilies for the upcoming weddings and funerals, and he still has to say Mass daily, usually more than once a day. Maybe he can even find a little time to pray.

Of course, the solution to this crushing workload is to divide it up among many priests -- but vocations are few.

Well, say the advocates of married clergy, wouldn't vocations increase if priests could marry? (Might it not double if women could be priests too?)

I can't deny the possibility -- but marriage takes time and effort -- and even if the workload were more equitably distributed there would still be calls at odd hours and meetings. Some married clergy would succeed and some would, inevitably, fail. In a church that does not permit divorce, what do we do when the marriage between Father and Mrs. Smith breaks down irretrievably? And, you know what...? Those pesky property problems that motivated the Popes in the Middle Ages would rear their ugly heads again: The parish church might not be left to be divided between Father Sam's son and daughter, but a wage would have to be paid that allows Father to support his family (and could we pay enough for him to afford Catholic schools?) and there would be retirement and insurance expenses.

If the new Pope were to call me for advice, I do have something to suggest. If we're still waiting for white smoke tomorrow, perhaps we can talk about it then.

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