Friday, July 3, 2009

Married to God?

___Most Catholics my age or older remember parishes full of nuns and priests. The nuns ran the school and the priests ran the parish. There was always a young priest, maybe 26 or 27 years old, and he was a magnet for the young people in the parish. He might coach CYO or moderate the teen club. The iconic young priest would be Bing Crosby in "Going My Way". He loved sports and taught the boys how to sing and he was beloved. Every so often he would be asked about whether he wanted to get married and have a family; and the answer he would give is that he is a bridegroom, and the Church is the bride. He doesn't marry so that he is free to minister to everyone. Nuns too were called brides of Christ who also did not marry. At the time, most of us didn't give the answer a second thought. It was the way it was. Priests did not marry or have sex. They were celibate and it had always been that way.

___Since those days in the late 50's and early 60's, things have dramatically changed. Women realized that there were an infinite number of ways to minister and serve God, including being married with a family. The numbers of women in religious communities dropped in large numbers. As modern feminism took hold, and women realized the Church had closed them off from any role of power; they moved on to other forms of ministry more satisfying. At the same time, the number of men entering seminaries dropped precipitously; and priests were quitting in ever larger numbers. There were many reasons for the change, including disagreement with the Church's stand on birth control as put forth in the encyclical "Humanae Vitae", and the desire of many men to marry and have families. The situation today is quite dire. There are few if any parishes with a young priest. The average age of the Catholic priesthood in America is over sixty. Many parishes have to share priests with other parishes because there are not enough to go around. If priests retire, as expected in the next few years, some parishes will not have Sunday Mass every week. There is talk of importing priests from Africa to fill the gap that is occurring in this country. According to new polls, the Catholic Church is losing four people for every person who joins; and if not for the huge influx of Hispanic immigrants, the Church's numbers would be down significantly. There are many who equate the nosedive in vocations, the aging priesthood, and the increasing loss of adherents to the Church with the policies of celibacy, prohibition of a married clergy, and the refusal to allow women to be ordained.

___In the news recently was the sensational case of Father Cutie. He was photographed on a Florida beach embracing and kissing a woman. Father Cutie is called Father Oprah. He had a popular radio and television program. He is described as handsome and charismatic. He is in his mid-thirties, which makes him rare in the ranks of Roman Catholic priests. He was beloved in his parish for his advice and concern for his parishioners. He was a rising star. Now that is all on hold. He has admitted , on CBS, that he is in love with a woman. He has been suspended from his parish. He is in limbo trying to decide between the love of his life and his ministry, which is supposed to be the love of his life. I will not be surprised if he leaves the priesthood and opts to get married. It is the logical thing to do, but it doesn't have to be that way.

____Celibacy has no scriptural basis. There is nowhere in the Christian scriptures that mandates that a priest or nun be celibate. In fact, in scripture we see St. Peter in the home of his mother-in-law. However, from early Church history on, there was a strain of belief that being sexually abstinent was a higher form of life. Early Christians thought the Second Coming of Christ was going to happen soon, so you should not be distracted by sex or wife or family. Sexual intercourse was how original sin was transmitted. While not prohibited, it was felt that the less you engaged in such behavior, the better. Mystics, hermits, and early monasteries stressed sexual abstinence, but they were not the rule. Throughout the first thousand years of Christian Church history, a non-celibate married clergy existed. After the schism with the eastern Church, that tradition was carried on and still is to this day. Priests in Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox Churches etc., are allowed to be married and not celibate. In the western Church, celibacy was not formalized until 1214 and the fourth Lateran Council. Even after that there are plenty of examples from the Pope on down of priests engaging in sexual activity and fathering children. It is said that a wing of the Vatican was built just to handle the children of Popes. There are many historians who believe that across-the-board celibacy was pushed in the Roman Church out of fear that the children of priests and bishops and Popes could make property claims against the Church.

When seminaries were finally introduced, celibacy became a requirement for anyone wanting to be a priest. At no time, however, has the discipline of celibacy ever been justified through the use of scripture, nor has the Church ever claimed that this was a policy given to the Church through any revelation from God. In fact, celibacy has no greater claim to scriptural authority or divine inspiration than did the prohibition of eating meat on Fridays.

There is no reason Father Cutie couldn't remain a priest and love and marry a woman. The only argument against this is tradition. Tradition is a very shaky justification at best. Traditionally the American Catholic Church was in favor of slavery. Traditionally the American Catholic Church believed that you went to hell for eating meat on Friday. The traditions of the Church over the years have not stood the test of time well. Traditionally the Roman Church has allowed Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism to

join the Church and bring their wives and families with them. Throughout the United States today, married Catholic priests with children are serving in parishes, saying Mass, preaching and administering the sacraments. If it is acceptable for them to have wives and families, why not Father Cutie? The current shortage of priests could be reversed quickly if the American Church would just be consistent. If former Episcopal priests can be married and have a family and be able to say Mass etc., there is no reason any other priest cannot marry and still be a good and faithful servant. The majority of Catholics, in poll after poll, approve of a married clergy. Father Cutie was loved for his compassion, sensitivity, and loving advice. How much more effective could he be in counseling couples, talking to young people, giving marriage instruction if he was doing all this as a married man himself? Jesus had no problem with his disciples and apostles being married, why does the Roman Catholic Church?

There are some who argue that celibacy has an economic component. Currently, priests in the San Francisco Bay Area make between $1200-$1500 a month. They get free room and board, but still the cost of supporting a priest is quite reasonable. If priests were allowed to marry and have children, parishes would have to raise a lot of money to pay them a living wage to support that family. Celibacy saves the Church a lot of money.

Father Cutie should be given the same option as his Episcopal brothers. He should be able to marry the woman he loves and continue to minister to his parish. Who would lose under such an arrangement? Unfortunately, I don't expect that to happen. He will be forced to choose. If he chooses the woman he loves, the Church and his parishioners lose. If he picks priesthood, the woman he loves loses and so does he. How effective he would be as a minister after that no one would know.

American Catholics are ready for a married, non-celibate clergy. American Catholics are ready for a female clergy too. American Catholics are leaving the Church in large numbers; and much of that loss can be directly linked to the lack of priests, an aging priest population, a tired priesthood lacking the charisma and power of former days, and a Church that seems to ignore these realities.

My children will find it very difficult to stay in a Church that lacks native priests and greets them with foreigners on Sunday, continues to view families as a lesser way of life than a celibate ministry, and tells women they have no access to the priesthood and decision making power in the Church.

Perhaps the lack of vocations and the dwindling numbers are the Holy Spirit's way of sending a wake-up call to Rome. The question is will they listen? What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to

1 comment:

  1. The continual reduction in the number of church members may be partially due to the reasons you have discussed, but there are other factors involved. Anyone who reads widely is frequently confronted with convincing arguments as to why it makes no sense to believe in notions of the supernatural that lack any supporting evidence. The young people of today are much less religious than previous generations, and the number of people who self-identify as atheists is steadily growing.

    I grew up in a religious tradition, one that I am glad to have left in my distant past. The only thing I miss about religion is the sense of community. I miss singing songs with other people. Former clergymen who have been put out of work by evolving worldviews could put their trained social skills to good use by organizing people into groups devoted to advancing humanism. An excellent model of this sort of refocussed skill set is Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Barker is a former minister and evangelist who now puts his knowledge of Christianity to effective freethought use.

    I always look forward to listening to the weekly Freethought Radio and Podcast breadcast by Dan Barker and his FFRF cofounder wife Anne Laurie Gaylor. Their program is broadcast nationally on Air America, and every one of their past programs is archived at the FFRF web site.

    Dan Barker uses his skill as a pianist to incorporate music into the program in a manner that is reminiscent of chuch music. For me, this broadcast perfectly combines the religious sensibilities of my upbringing with my subsequent commitment to rationality.

    It would be great if someone could load up an mp3 player with all of the past programs archived at and then send them to the Lion so that he can listen to them. I look forward to hearing what he thinks about the ideas put forward by the FFRF. From the point of view of civil liberties, I think the Lion has a lot in common with Barker and Gaylor.