Saturday, March 27, 2010

Optional celibacy for single Fathers

There have been better times to be a church administrator.

In the late 1960s the Catholic Church, especially in America and Europe, was in disarray following Pope Paul VI’s rejection of modern birth control methods and attitudes.

Pope Paul VI had assembled an impressive group of theological and scientific experts to study contraception issues. Those experts reported to the pope that the traditional teaching should be significantly updated. The pope rejected their advice. The pope’s reaffirmation of traditional thou-shalt-nots for Catholic families was spelled out in July 1968 in an encyclical called Humanae Vitae, which dismayed huge numbers of lay and ordained Catholics. Some described the encyclical as choosing biology over morality.

A decade later the Catholic Theological Society of America commissioned a study of human sexuality, which said that “the Bible does not provide us with a simple yes or no code of sexual ethics.” Now, 45 years after the encyclical was published, it is supported by conservatives and largely overlooked by others.

Sometime in the mid-1960s Cardinal Lawrence Shehan appointed me to a panel he called the Abortion Committee of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It included a noted doctor and a famous theologian. Among other things we were to develop recommendations for Cardinal Shehan and the doctor to take to Rome, where they were to serve on the papal commission.

The encyclical was eventually announced to press and public by one of the commission members, Ferdinand Lambruschini, who later became Archbishop of Bologna. I interviewed him at his home, where he told me that he and Cardinal Shehan were members of the commission majority who voted against the position Paul VI finally chose.

After defiance of the new encyclical had made newspaper headlines day after day, Cardinal Shehan one day looked up from his desk and said, “Oh, to be a bishop in Ireland!” He could not have foreseen the year 2010, when Irish bishops were resigning in disgrace.

Since Shehan’s time Catholic attention to human sexuality has taken on a new edge. In the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Germany, Denmark, Brazil—well, you name it, there are numerous accusations of priestly pedophilia. Nobody knows the ultimate cost to the victims, mostly boys, or the long-term effect on the credibility of the church.

This is not a new issue, but it is newly publicized. A few decades ago a Catholic might risk excommunication by suing for damages after a fall on the church steps. Catholics didn’t sue the church. They seldom reported abuse. When I was a police reporter the paper did not consider the arrest of priests on sex charges to be suitable news for family reading, and they were not reported.

When an Italian journalist said that Paul VI was gay, virtually everyone denied the possibility that one so highly placed could ever lapse from celibacy. Since then accusers have named cardinals and bishops. Lawsuits have cost billions of dollars in settlements and fees. Some dioceses have filed for bankruptcy.

When Cardinal John Cody was Archbishop of Chicago in the 1970s, sexual activities by priests were top secret. I was a member of the Archdiocese of Chicago Finance Committee at that time, but was given no information about possible cases or costs. The cardinal was preoccupied with resisting a federal grand jury’s curiosity about other matters, while also resisting efforts to dislodge him from his post and trying to shrug off tense relations with the press.

Many of my friends are priests, bishops, deacons and religious—exceptional people, devoted to Christ and always ready to serve him. Some of these friends are gay, some are not. Some take a kind of refuge in a celibate priesthood, where nobody nags them about getting married. If celibacy were optional, like vegetarianism, the beautiful humanity of the ordained and the religious could move beyond Don’t ask, Don’t tell, without reference to gender inclinations people are born with, or to the color of their eyes, hair or skin.

Let the church, especially its clergy and religious, replace celibacy with renewal. Let the church get back to doing the things it does best, things nobody else can do.

No comments: