14th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Celibacy

The power of the Catholic Church is something that cannot be denied. Throughout the ages, the exercise of this power has been the source of many things: first and foremost - the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because of her far-reaching influence, the Church has fostered ages of enlightenment - the worldwide spread of education and art - and has always striven for the betterment of mankind. Yet the zealousness of some were also responsible for the Inquisition, the waging of the Crusades, and both revolution and Schism.

The Church has been blessed by leaders, who have had great vision and courage, and who thus were able to transform the world. But She has also been led and influenced by human beings who have the same makeup and all the faults of other human beings, and throughout the centuries some of these have led to major catastrophe.

I had planned, as I always do, to share some thoughts this week about the Sunday Gospel... to talk a little about the mission of the seventy-two, about the harvest being great and the laborers few. But two events of this past week diverted my attention.

The first, of course, was the television special entitled "Celibacy" which was aired on HBO, June 28. I had hoped that the documentary would be a little more balanced and less one-sided. The question of mandatory celibacy is indeed one that needs to be addressed, but not because of its connection to the sex-abuse scandals that continue to ravage our Church, as British filmmaker Anthony Thomas would have us believe.

In the classic view, the priest is the man of the sacred, separated from the world. In a hierarchical structure, he is a man belonging to a priestly corps at the Church's disposal, specially trained for that purpose with a language, a shape and a mentality of its own, all inherent to the clergy. In the classic view, lay-people are commissioned to work within the world and to transform the world; and this view has never given the impression that marriage could be an important value for priestly ministry. A two-class system has developed with celibacy seen as a higher spiritual value than marriage.

Sociologically each community or group needs a leader to inspire, to animate, to lead the way. But our priests are members of the community; they live in the community, they work in the community, they experience the full measure of the community - and to lead effectively, they cannot be apart from it. Priests remind us of God's presence in our lives, and they act as witnesses to the Gospel mandate to serve and to love.

But so do our lay people.

Celibacy is a legitimate charism, a gift from God. But it doesn't seem to make sense to require a person to accept a gift that may not have been given him, in order to accept priesthood. A gift is not a gift if it has to be mandated. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Church history and theology knows that celibacy is not intrinsic to the call of priesthood. Even the Council Fathers of Vatican II stated "Indeed, it (celibacy) is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches, where, besides those who with all the bishops, by a gift of grace, choose to observe celibacy, there are also married priests of highest merit." (Presbyterorum Ordinis, #35)

The Church is indeed in crisis; and not just because of sexual-abuse. More than 10% of our American parishes are now without a resident pastor; the numbers are closer to 50% worldwide. In 1965, there were over 48,000 seminarians; today, 6,500+. As the Church enters the new millennium, there are 24,000 priests to cover 19,000 parishes. Statistics show that four out of ten newly ordained priests are needed just to replace resigned priests; and the other six won't even begin to fill the vacancies created by retirements and deaths. To date, almost 23,000 priests have left active ministry in the United States; close to 150,000 worldwide.

If there are 150,000 married priests in the world, we cannot believe that all these men are superficial, inconsequential. To believe this is an offense to the human person, and to God Himself, Who is constantly present in their lives, in their prayers, their sacrifices and in their study.

Some of our bishops and many of our theologians recognize this as a pastoral crisis. Some have even formally requested the Pope consider a married priesthood. Those who have left the priesthood are barred from working officially for the Church in full-time ministry. Many have transformed their seminary training into other careers (lawyers, physicians, accountants, social workers, health service directors, etc.) Today's Catholics face complicated issues; there are no easy or simple answers. And many of these "married priests" help people find God in all aspects of their lives, as do those holy and celibate men who have remained within the canonical priesthood.

Mr. Thomas' "Celibacy" documentary would have been more enlightening had he spent more time interviewing married priests and their families, as he did with Ralph and Linda Pinto. Perhaps we could then have seen that these folks are just as committed to the Gospel, just as much in love with The Lord and His Church today as they were on the day of their ordinations and religious professions.

There are now many organizations and reform groups which are actively working to persuade the Holy Father to look at how the priesthood is actually lived out the Roman Catholic Church, worldwide. The Holy Spirit lives, breathes and works within the "institution" of what we call "church," but is currently at work, "outside the established norms" as well.

The Church is more than just an ecclesial institution or governing body - it is a community of people… educated, adult people, who do not need to be treated as if their level of understanding of God is at a fourth-grade level. Authenticity is not determined by the demand for blind obedience from those in power, but by how that power is put to use. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus used His Power to heal, to reconcile, to bring together and to build up. And He always allowed people to question, to think for themselves and to seek answers.

I am a loyal Catholic and I love the Church. I do not always agree with our Church's practices and policies, but I obey and adhere to them. This is part of what membership entails. But I am also a concerned Catholic. It is troubling to hear that the decline in vocations has steadily increased. It is troubling to see that there are more than twenty million "displaced" Roman Catholics in the U.S. today (that number represents the second largest "religious denomination" in this country). It is troubling to see 65 parishes close in the Archdiocese of Boston, knowing that they could be staffed tomorrow by married priests, along with their wives - and that they would probably do it without a salary. And it is troubling to know that all discussions concerning the structure of clerical priesthood, optional celibacy and women's ordination are not to be tolerated.

I cannot imagine a future of not being able to celebrate the Eucharist as often as I do now. The mere idea of this is more than disturbing - it is catastrophic. We are community only by gathering together, listening to the Word, preparing the table and the meal, praying the Church's prayer, Breaking the Bread, sharing that meal together and going out to live as Jesus did - as bread for the world.

The issue to be faced is not what we are to do in the face of crisis, but why a crisis exists in the first place. Celibacy is not the real issue here; the real problem lies in our understanding of what priesthood and ministry is all about. Jesus took seventy-two of his followers and sent them out to "spread the Word." These were ordinary people and He put no demands on them. He just told them to go out and serve. And they did.

The Church needs to take a new look at the people and ministries within its community, with the needs of the People of God and the universal mission of the Church as the starting point for any discussion. To the extent that each person attempts to live out the spirit of the Gospels, is the extent to which his or her life-style enriches the church's basic mission in the world.

And finally: the day after the "Celibacy" special aired, we celebrated the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Interesting concept here... Peter, the bedrock of the Church, symbol of tradition and unity; Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, innovator and defender of "Gentile rights." Peter, married with a family and Paul, celibate.

Somehow this all seemed to work back then.