Like Joe, I grew up the the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The diocese is currently undergoing a painful time. Prayers for the people, clergy, and bishop are most necessary. As we celebrate the tremendous Feast of Pentecost, Christians of good will should ask for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church in Northwest Missouri and especially for those struggling with deep hurts.
As is the case with any scandal, we all eventually try to wrestle with what changes may need to be made. A disturbing trend that has developed in the midst of the sex abuse scandal is the ongoing attack on celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. One such attack was just published by the Kansas City Star. John Veal, reported as a historian and lifelong Catholic, wrote an opinion piece in which he claims: As I see it, the central problem behind the ongoing clerical abuse scandal is the all-male, celibate priesthood.
Mr. Veal’s opinion is not new. The problem is that it is also not relevant to the scandal at hand. In response to his article, I wrote:
I still don’t understand why a challenge to the all-male, celibate priesthood is brought up in the midst of a scandal that the author himself admits would not be avoided if there were female or more married Catholic priests.
Mr. Veal claims: “The result today is a closed society of men held to a standard Jesus
never established, the apostles did not follow, and many fine priests
Jesus himself is a male, celibate priest. He even calls those who are able to be celibate: “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matt. 19:11–12). Just because Mr. Veal doesn’t see the point of “celibacy for the kingdom” doesn’t mean that Jesus sees no value.
St. Paul was also a male, celibate priest/apostle. His whole seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians is worth reading, but he even notes the value of celibacy among the first generation of Christians: “Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do, but if they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on fire.”
A man is not a “fine priest” if he makes a promise he does not intend to follow or does not see as a valuable gift to his own spiritual development and for the good of the Church. Don’t feel sorry for men who take a promise of celibacy. They know what they are promising and why. Celibacy for the kingdom has been part of the Christian tradition from the beginning. If Mr. Veal is still a practicing Catholic, I encourage him to support the many priests and religious who are trying to live out celibacy for the kingdom today in healthy and life-giving ways instead of making a public proclamation their commitment is useless and non-biblical.
We all want to focus on protecting children in every way possible. Trying to focus instead on issues about priestly celibacy is a distraction from real progress that can be made at a time like this. Vilifying Bishop Finn if he doesn’t advocate eliminating priestly celibacy is misguided. If there is a higher rate of child abuse among those who are married than those who are celibate, what is the point of this column?
At times when real hurts need to be addressed, attacking the practice of priestly celibacy is a red herring of the worst kind. Not only does it distract from real reforms and action that may need to take place, it attacks a valuable gift for the Church. When properly understood, celibacy for the kingdom points to the fact that all our desires must be ordered first to God and we are all made to find our fulfillment in God. Now is not the time to denounce such a gift, but to embrace and better understand it.
Update 6/12/11 at 9:15am: I really try to avoid flame wars online (though I do indulge in reading them). It didn’t take long for the comments on Mr. Veal’s article to move away from addressing the scandal. Red herrings aren’t just a faulty tactic. They really do hurt constructive discourse:
Please show in the Bible where Christ established the RCC.
Me:If you value the Bible so much, please show us the Church that gave you the canon of the New Testament. See…we’ve already lost the original topic at hand and you’ve gone on to show how little help Mr. Veal’s column is to the current scandal. I understand you are not Catholic, but your comments prove the point I tried to make before: the whole discussion of celibacy in relation to the scandal at hand is a red herring. Already you are going on about the validity of celibacy in following Jesus instead of what can best protect children and promote healing now. The Catholic Church doesn’t claim that being celibate is the only way to follow Christ, however, it is still valuable (Mt 19:11-12). Trying to throw celibacy under the bus is simply not helpful right now. Addressing the current hurts is paramount for Christians of good will…grinding a theological axe just isn’t appropriate.
Update 6/14/2011 at 8:50pm:
Phyllis Zagano (who has a beautiful first name shared by my mother) takes this jab at Bishop Finn and celibacy:
For starters, Finn entered seminary in junior high school. As a “lifer” he probably didn’t sneak smokes behind the barn, forget his homework, or go to drive-in movies in a car with a generous back seat.
Did he ever break out of the seminary hot-house? He was at the North American College in Rome. Did he ever get to talk any other women besides his three sisters and his mother?
I rather feel sorry for him. Some of this may not be his fault. Finn is the product a system left over from the Council of Trent, which directed dioceses to create minor seminaries to provide for the diocesan clergy. An all-male environment from the age of twelve can ensure celibacy, but at what price?
If the only way to get celibate clergy is to lock up twelve-year-olds until they are ordained, maybe the hierarchy should reconsider requiring priestly celibacy.
It does not need to be this way, except that the chief chaplains in today’s play — the ones who can make the change — are pretty much all “lifers.”
Bigotry against chaste celibates is so thick that Ms. Zagano also can’t resist bringing it up. She practically crafts a “celibacy makes ’em do it” argument. The good news is that she will be relieved to know that the Church doesn’t lock up seminarians, 12 years old or otherwise. The bad news is that many people will focus on celibacy instead of actual best practices and procedures that need to be assessed at a time like this. Red herrings are just too tasty apparently and they are certainly in season.