provisional celibates & tactical christians

By Diogenes (articles) | May 25, 2005

Along with the news of the death of Scotland's famously philandering bishop, we are treated to more "leadership" from St. Andrews-Edinburgh:

The leader of Scotland's Catholics has risked reigniting a row over married priests by predicting the Vatican will eventually relent and allow the practice. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, said the success of married deacons in the church means the change is likely. ...

Asked if he believed married priests will become a reality, he said: "Having seen something of the apostolate of married deacons, I can foresee the day when there will be married priests."

Note the reasoning: "Having seen something of the apostolate of married deacons" -- i.e., that they do their jobs well -- "I can foresee the day..."

O'Brien's hidden premise is that the Church's reluctance to allow priests to marry stems from a belief -- which empirical evidence now renders false -- that married men cannot perform such-and-such set of tasks adequately. Contrast this with the language of Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis which followed the Synod on the Priesthood:

The synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church's firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite. The synod would like to see celibacy presented and explained in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness, as a precious gift given by God to his Church and as a sign of the kingdom which is not of this world."

Not only has O'Brien failed to present and explain celibacy in its "biblical, theological and spiritual richness," he almost certainly doesn't see this richness himself, otherwise he couldn't have so casually predicted its obsolescence. Not a word about chastity as a gift offered to God in imitation of Christ: the married priest, like the cordless microphone, is an idea whose time has come. Whence the message sent to the faithful celibate dragging his 50 years of priesthood toward retirement is, "You lose, old boy! Enjoy your stamp collection."

I don't want to be too hard on the Cardinal. Obviously he feels the spiritual responsibilities of his job are an obstacle to the really important business, and the inroads made by secularism into the clerical life bring problems in the temporal order that, to such a mind, call for solutions in the temporal order. And we should admit that his own seminary formation didn't prepare him for leadership of a presbyterate that spends more on protease inhibitors than on incense. The Cardinal looks out on his clergy and sees an aging platoon, gapped by defections, despondent, enfeebled by alcohol and unnatural vice, and he extends them compassion from the bottom of his social worker's heart: "Once they're married, poor buggers, at least they'll get a decent breakfast."

Now suppose you were a seminarian for one of the Scottish dioceses, having heard from the principal hierarch that celibacy is on the way out and that it's only a matter of time before the Church changes the discipline. You watch your lay friends as they date, as they fall in love, as they marry, as they have children -- all the while believing that next year, or the year after, the green light might be given to you as well. Is it psychologically possible to make a total commitment in these circumstances? Perhaps -- but only for those with the guts to reject the "escape clause" spirituality at the outset. By his cheery capitulation, the Cardinal has not made chastity easier for anyone.

Richard Cross holds a doctorate in psychology, who has taught at the university level, including at Franciscan University. He is currently an educational researcher and consultant in the field of psychology and related disciplines.
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