laetare

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Mar 18, 2007

Part of the background to a puff piece on the ordination of a married Anglican convert for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles:

In the 12th century, when the Catholic Church adopted a celibacy requirement, it was as much about protecting property as it was committing priestly intimacy to God, said the Rev. Thomas Rausch, a Jesuit professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University. "The church was worried about church property going to the descendents of priests," he said.

Historically accurate? Somehow I doubt it's the whole story.

Note the topspin on the shot: the insinuation that the spiritual reasons for celibacy are a pious myth and the real explanation (for those not afraid to look at the facts) is to be sought in economics. This is the sort of reductivist account our parents might have heard from a Marxist professor of history; we get it from the senior clergy.

A young man whose father tells him that monogamy is, at bottom, a ruse concocted by women to get their housekeeping expenses paid will surmise that his father's own experience of marriage was not especially gratifying, and that, to the extent his father was a faithful husband to his mother, this fidelity was motivated less by love than fear. By the same token, when Catholics hear from celibate priests that celibacy, at bottom, concerns property control, they are unlikely to believe that such priests find the "religious side" of their lives fulfilling. We can imagine a man taken in by a scam in his gullible youth who later come to see through the hoax; but once the fraud was exposed, who would continue to play the dupe except a profound cynic or a weakling?

Some of us, perhaps, are old enough to feel residual shock at the profane apathy of the conciliar generation of clergy who, like Waugh's Dr. Beamish, are "much embittered by the fulfillment of their early hopes," and who console themselves with animal comforts or politics. Younger Catholics, I find, either accept the world-view of the 1970s liberals (in which case they drop the institutional-religion-thing altogether) or else they reject the programmatic cynicism and -- by employing a severe ex opere operato theology -- make use of "massing priests" to confect the sacraments (for lack of an alternative) while directing their spiritual attention elsewhere. Jody Bottum's article in last October's First Things touches on the same subject:

A few years ago, I was out in Southern California, visiting a school in Orange County. I can't remember the name of the parish to which the students took me for Mass, but what has stayed with me ever since is the conversation as they drove me back to the hotel. Talk about the homily's content didn't interest them; even talk about the homily's lack of content didn't interest them. "I just kind of tune it out," the driver said, and the others all agreed. "I just go to church for confession, to pray, and to take Communion," added the young woman in the back. "At least the priests can do that."

[chop]

"You remember how, you know, the old hippie types used to say, 'Never trust anyone over thirty'? Well, they were right. Only it was their own generation they were talking about," the thin, quiet one in the back announced as we pulled up to the hotel. "You can see it clearly out here in California. That whole generation of Catholics in America, basically everybody formed before 1978, is screwed up. Left, Right, whatever. ...The best of them were failures, and the worst of them were monsters."

Is this dismissiveness an instance of the impatience that every emergent generation displays towards the failings (real or perceived) of its predecessor? In part. But as Bottum points out, "These were serious Catholic kids -- daily communicants, pro-life marchers, soup-kitchen volunteers, members of perpetual-adoration societies." In the 1950s, a young Catholic could purchase esteem by partaking of these activities; to be recognized as a participant would gratify almost everyone whom it was important to gratify. But today such allegiances come at a cost. They put the Catholic at odds with profs, with fellow students, with prospective employers, sometimes with parents and pastors as well; they teach him what it's like to be an outsider -- at least an outsider to those on the make, to those who are "upwardly mobile."

In view of this, I don't think the priestly disparagement of celibacy will do much damage in the long term. It's patronizing. And young people hate to be patronized. Those who have paid a price, however modest, for a stronger-than-required religious fidelity are simply not interested in the worldlings' boredom with spiritual realities -- or, indeed, in their opinion on anything else.

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