The celibacy tradition for Catholic priests is around for about a thousand years. Prior to that the church had different rules governing priests’ sexuality. This blog leaves no doubt where this struggling Catholic stands. What is your opinion? My blog on the subject is at wemustbetalking.com.
In an interview after retiring as president of Fordham University, the late Fr. Joseph O’Hare warned Catholics against thinking that the beliefs and rituals of their faith are static and set in stone. He warned that “you can betray your faith by trying to hold on to some frozen moment from the past.”
The Catholic church is in crisis largely because of the division between those who want to change and adapt to contemporary life and traditionalists who fight every movement towards modernity, clinging tenaciously to what has been handed on in beliefs and observance.
The issue of inviting divorced and remarried church members to participate in the eucharist provides a good example of what we are dealing with here. Church law – Canon 915 to be precise – states clearly that a person who is living in serious sin should not receive communion. A cohabiting couple where one has been divorced indicates that, according to church rules, they are in an adulterous relationship and so they are both prohibited from going to the altar rails for communion.
Other theologians assert that sacramental grace is especially appropriate for – and needed by – people who are struggling with difficult personal situations while they try to respect church dogmas and mandates. Indeed, these spiritual writers claim that depriving any churchgoer of the sacraments should be seen as a negative act, hostile to the spirit of the New Testament.
Very few Catholics would want a fellow congregant at mass to be excluded from participation in the communion service, but in Rome four senior cardinals, two German, one Italian and Raymond Burke from America, formally notified the pope that, based on his statements on this issue, he seemed to be guilty of a breach of church doctrine.
When Francis refused to acknowledge their letter, a combination of sixty bishops and scholars publicly accused him of promoting no less than seven heresies. Battle lines were clearly drawn with those claiming that they were following tradition getting substantial minority support throughout the church and especially in the United States.
Accusing the pope of multiple heresies demonstrates how protective traditionalists are of what they view as unchanging church teaching. They identify relativism – the thinking that what is right or wrong often changes because of new cultural and academic insights – as the downfall of modern Catholicism.
This relativist reasoning was the bete noire of all the popes in the 19th century – and beyond. Until Pius X11 the Vatican vehemently rejected a central philosophical insight of the Enlightenment, which asserted that all the community stories in the bible have to be interpreted not as containing a series of absolute truths but have to be understood in terms of various literary genres and according to the culture of the time when they were written.
Another modern example of the clash between tradition and modernity can be seen in Pope Paul V1’s controversial 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which disallowed the use of contraceptives even by married couples. In rejecting the advice of the clear majority of his own chosen advisors, the pope allied himself with his predecessor, Pius X1, who in 1930 condemned outright the use of any form of birth control – a decision that was seen then as delineating Catholic teaching from Protestants who at their Lambeth Conference in the same year had permitted the use of condoms in limited circumstances.
Paul felt that breaking with the ruling of his predecessor would lessen the credibility of the Vatican. He wondered how he could explain a papal declaration condemning all contraceptive use changing to approval of birth control by Rome forty years later. Whatever the entanglements of the Pope’s difficult decision, few Catholics follow his proscription in this area and the standing of the papacy has been diminished by the unreal teaching on contraceptive use in Humanae Vitae.
When Francis was asked about allowing the ordination of women in the church, a major and growing issue, he answered along similar lines, explaining that John John Paul 11 had ruled that out in a definitive statement so it is a closed issue for him.
According to the gospels and church tradition, Christ did not preach about sexual topics except in expatiating on divorce when he was commenting on Jewish practices at that time. Instead, his sermons focused on promoting a new and humane vision for the people with special emphasis on ending the marginalization of the poor. It is amazing how so much time is spent in church pronouncements over the centuries harping on what they call sins of the flesh. Surely, an ecclesial tradition that has developed because of cultural biases over the centuries but without any basis in the New Testament!
Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, and his conservative followers tend to view the church from on high, with clear moral principles directing all aspects of church life. The sincere belief in God’s sublime greatness remains the cynosure of their eyes. While always affirming the importance of salvation for all people, they tend to be pessimistic about modern culture and accept that only a small minority of Catholics heed their call promoting a holy lifestyle aspiring to spiritual perfection.
On the other side of the pews we have Pope Francis who preaches an inclusivist vision of a universal church open to all humanity. From this perspective we are all sinners on a pilgrimage. This is a theology surging up from below, anchored on a church that reaches out to suffering humanity, to people who in Shakespeare’s powerful words are confronted “with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Francis believes that when the church confines itself to the sacristy and the pulpit it gets sick from stuffiness. Instead, he repeatedly urges Catholics to smell the sheep and respond joyfully to the needs of the poor.
Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit scientist and philosopher, is a hero in this company because, just as Darwin explained biological evolution, he promises that spiritual progress is also natural and indeed inevitable – a very positive religious perspective on life.
The French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, following a strong traditionalist line, condemned the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) and he founded the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) in Ecole, Switzerland in 1970. He promoted the Tridentine Mass, performed in Latin with all the traditional regalia, rejecting as unacceptable the modern vernacular version of the liturgy in common use since Vatican 11.
By 1975 he was ordaining SSPX priests and consequently was suspended by the Vatican from church ministry, and in 1987 when he ordained four bishops, he was excommunicated by Rome. The authorities in the Vatican have been extremely tolerant of the Tridentine movement, and in 2009 – eighteen years after Lefebvre’s death – Benedict, in a surprise decision, lifted the excommunication of the four bishops only to find out that one of them, Richard Williamson, was a virulent anti-Semite who denied that the Holocaust ever happened. This left the pope and his advisers with mud on their faces trying to explain – especially to the Jewish community – how nobody in the Vatican had checked out the beliefs and credentials of the wayward bishops before inviting them back to the fold.
The Society continues outside of the church to promote its version of traditional Christianity. In 2016 they claimed to have 613 priests, 215 seminarians and 195 sisters scattered over thirty-seven countries.
Conservative Catholics nearly always support the mandate that priests should remain celibate. The sexual abuse crisis and the major decline in the number of seminarians have led to a serious crisis in the priesthood. Many progressive theologians argue that prohibiting priests from choosing a partner in his work and insisting that he can’t marry and have a family have done immense harm. The bible says that “it is not good for man to be alone.” Isolating priests from normal family living has not served the church well.
Ironically, Christ did not choose virgins to accompany him on his journey, and married priests served the church until the Lateran Council in 1139 when the assembly foolishly imposed the celibacy rule for all the clergy. Surely, the traditionalists, those who bow to the wisdom of the past, should favor restoring a married priesthood.
In the early centuries of the Christian story the people selected their priests and bishops from their community as some Protestant churches do today. The current selection system gives very little weight to the people or the priests in a diocese. Again, it would be logical and appropriate for traditionalists to look to the practices and wisdom of the early church to get away from a power structure that has often served the church poorly. Let the people select their leaders and hold them accountable.
In Matthew’s gospel Christ utters a strong admonition to his apostles: “can you not discern the signs of the times?” The way things have been done for centuries no longer meets the needs of the 21st century.
GerryOShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com
The sea change that has happened in attitudes to homosexuality during the last half-century marks this era as a time of massive cultural movement. Fifty years ago people often denigrated men and women who were gay; in fact, for most people talking about same-sex attraction elicited incomprehension and, too often, condemnation.
Today the gay lifestyle has been accepted as an added welcome dimension of Western culture. Same-sex marriage is part of life now, best explicated in this country by a mayor of a small town, Pete Buttigieg, who introduced his husband at many of his rallies and who made a positive impact on the Democratic race for the party’s presidential nomination. While polls showed some resistance to the mayor because of his sexual orientation, most Democrats claimed that his marriage arrangement did not influence their voting preference.
As late as the 1960’s and into the 70’s, the scientific community, led by psychiatrists in this area, viewed the intimate behavior of homosexuals as a clinical disorder. Many recommended a treatment called aversion therapy, a method which often included administering shocks designed to change the sexual orientation of the recipient. This approach usually included prescribing nausea-inducing drugs to be taken by the “patient” before watching same-sex erotic videos.
Apart from being cruel and harmful, this approach was ineffective. Such crude therapeutic methods are rarely used anymore, especially since 1973 when homosexuality was officially removed as a disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – known widely as the DSM.
Most Christian churches have not really changed in their declarations on this issue. Catholic church leaders have condemned discrimination against gays and admonished their members against showing prejudice based on sexual orientation, but over seventy gay employees in Catholic institutions were fired when they openly declared their sexual preference.
Early in his papacy Francis responded to a question about this matter by issuing a plea for broadmindedness and magnanimity: “Who am I to judge?” he declared. Since then he seems to have veered back to a more traditional perspective by recommending that young men who are deemed to have gay tendencies should not be admitted to any seminary.
This kind of thinking goes away back to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and, in fact, to a brilliant Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who lived a few centuries before Christ. They both wrote about the natural law and made it the cornerstone of their moral code.
Thomistic reasoning, grounded in Aristotle’s philosophy, is straightforward and understandable in the area of sexuality. Men and women obviously function differently for the purpose of procreation. Their bodies complement each other leading to pregnancy and the continuation of the species.
No argument so far, but Aquinas concludes that only heterosexual behavior is natural and thus ethically permissible. All other kinds of sexual activity, and certainly same-sex intimate behavior, are condemned as sinful. Thus, successive popes have denounced romantic activity between people of the same sex as deviant and intrinsically disordered.
“There’s the rub” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says in his famous soliloquy because that conclusion about homosexual behavior is the major point of contention. Promoting a moral code based on conjoining the natural and the moral is highly questionable. And telling members of the LGBTQ community that they are valued members of the church – while describing an important part of their lives as unnatural – leaves many gays alienated from the institution and all its rituals.
Logicians write about the naturalistic fallacy which is at the heart of this debate. They assert that promoting moral imperatives based on what is seen as natural behavior breaches correct thinking. What is deemed natural should not be determinative of what is morally right or wrong.
What does modern science say about the issue? What decides a person’s sexual orientation? Biological factors such as genetics and pre-natal development largely explain why about ten per cent of humans – irrespective of culture – are gay. By the time that teenagers are awakening to their sexuality, the dye is already set. A clear majority wants to deal with the opposite sex, but a significant minority realize they have a different orientation. The young man or woman has no choice in the matter because genetic codes are not reversible.
There is no record of Christ commenting on the reality of homosexuality in his lifetime. Biblical scholars believe that if he had spoken about the issue, one of the gospel sources would surely have noted his views. St. Paul, who never met Jesus, does make some condemnatory comments, which carry a lot of weight with all the Christian churches.
The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, which was finalized with its present content around 500 years before the birth of Christ, concerns itself mainly about rituals and rules for the Jewish people. There is no doubt about their opinion on same-sex relationships: “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, they both have done what is detestable and must be put to death.” Suffice to say that all the books of the bible, Old and New Testament, must always be understood in terms of the culture and behavioral expectations of their time.
Devout Christians speak of God’s providence as all-encompassing. From this perspective, a person’s sexual inclinations reflect the divine will. Would God create a person with strong sexual desires that could not be fulfilled? Perhaps we should be humbler and more circumspect when making pronouncements about the inscrutable designs of the Judaeo-Christian deity.
A majority of Catholics today have no problem with the gay lifestyle. They seem to take a live-and-let-live approach with no regard for what goes on in anyone’s bedroom.
This view is supported in an important statement by the German Catholic bishops. After a wide-ranging consultation they affirmed that homosexuality should be seen as a normal part of human development. This discussion took place under the aegis of the Commission for Marriage and Family of the German Bishops’ Conference last December. They wisely included several outside scientific experts in their deliberations.
The Conference concluded that “the sexual preference of humans is expressed during puberty and assumes a heterosexual or homosexual orientation at that time. Both belong to the normal forms of sexual predisposition that cannot be changed.” Later they add that the debate on the church ban on “practiced homosexuality is still timely and has been a hot topic just like the question of the legitimacy of using artificial contraceptives in marriage and by unmarried couples.”
These discussions are part of the Synodal Way in Germany where the various crises in the church are being seriously examined by a group of clergy and laity. They plan to report in the end of next year. Not surprisingly, the four areas of synodal concentration include a section on priestly celibacy and another on the impact on the church of the modern understanding of sexuality.
The church – like all human institutions – doesn’t like to admit that it is wrong on any issue. Think of the 400 years it took the Vatican to apologize to poor Galileo. The church leaders then felt that they couldn’t be in error because the Book of Genesis said the earth was the center of the universe. Many leaders in the Vatican are stuck today in old Thomistic reasoning about what is natural and unnatural behavior. The people have moved on and the German synod is showing the way to avoid another Galileo embarrassment.
GerryOShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com
The “church tax” in Germany has no equivalent in the United States. It involves the state collecting up to 9% of income from members of the different religious denominations and passing on the money to the various churches. Because of this lucrative arrangement the Catholic Church in Germany has a deep treasury and supports many major charitable ventures as well as sending millions to the Vatican every year.
That is an important source of real power in Rome where big cheques carry a lot of weight. In addition, since the Reformation 500 years ago, German intellectuals have been central to theological developments in the church. Most recently, Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich before becoming Pope Benedict, was a leading theologian in the liberalizing Second Vatican Council before going on to lead a conservative papacy.
The sexual abuse scourge has devastated the Catholic Church. The idea that members of the clergy took advantage of their privileged position to prey on innocent young people disgusted the Catholic faithful to such an extent that they have left the church in droves.
The German exodus numbered over 100,000 annually from 1990 onwards, and then in 2018, following an especially egregious scandal involving a boys’ choir with a connected boarding school, a massive 216,000 cut their ties with the church which many of them spoke of as beyond reform.
People were especially shocked at the ineptitude and unwillingness of the hierarchy to take responsibility; in diocese after diocese the bishops engaged in a shameful coverup of this deplorable conduct by so many priests and religious brothers.
This huge leakage of members finally elicited a meaningful response, and a major two-year review of church policies in four vital areas started in December last year. The process, which so far is confined to Germany, is called The Synodal Way, and the four areas of concentration have been named:
1 Expanding the roles women play in the church.
2 How sexuality is understood and preached in the church community.
3 The job of the priest, including discussion of the celibacy tradition.
4 The use and abuse of clerical power locally and universally.
This synod will have about 230 members, all committed Catholics, with a fair balance between men and women and between clergy and laity. Four working groups of 35 will meet to deal with the agreed major topics. Their research and recommendations will be submitted to the entire gathering for approval or rejection.
The full participation of women in exercising power and authority, including accessing priestly ordination, will be debated and there is a strong expectation that the door will be opened – perhaps slightly – for this radical change favoring female ordination.
Unlike recent synods in Rome where no woman was allowed to vote on the important issues being discussed, the rules governing the German experiment actually prevent the passage of any proposal that does not enjoy majority female approval.
The synod is supported by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and one of Pope Francis’ close advisors. The cardinal believes it is imperative for the church to welcome what he calls repeatedly “new thinking” if it is to thrive again. Continuing in the old ways will lead even more Catholics to look to other churches that have embraced modern perspectives on the big issues of our time, especially in the area of sexuality.
In the other corner, from Cologne, the archbishop of that area, Cardinal Woekli, views the synod as a challenge to traditional church beliefs and sees it as a mistaken effort to align church teaching with popular moral stands.
This is especially true about demands for change in the important areas of the use of contraceptives and the acceptance of same-sex marriage, complete no-no’s in Woekli’s teaching. He argues that “throughout history, Christians have never been in sync with the world. I do not want to support a German national church. We should not pretend to do better than the wider ecclesial body.”
Meanwhile only 8% of Catholics in his archdiocese attend weekly mass, highlighting a malaise of very low church attendance that is not confined to his city.
Priestly celibacy was instituted by Pope Gregory close to 1000 years ago. Prior to that, going back all the way to the apostles, most priests married. One reason for the change related to property claims by priest’s children, a situation that surely could be remedied, certainly in our time, by a legal contract.
However, the major reason for Gregory’s actions relates to his vision that a priest had to be separated from his congregation, that he should be seen as a “special” man, endowed with an indelible sign of holiness at ordination.
The Catholic Church has been marked by a destructive clericalism mainly because of this attitude of moral superiority claimed as a result of ordination. This pervasive culture of setting a priest apart from the community he is serving, encouraging people to view his ordination as identifying him as worthy of special respect and even adulation, has been very damaging for the whole church but especially for priests.
Placing pastors on a high pedestal with unreasonable expectations explains how so many members of the clergy failed their parishioners. Progressive Catholics make a strong case that this clericalist culture that isolates priests explains the origins of the sex abuse crisis.
Synod participants set the tone for the proceedings by insisting that the bishops not wear their formal regalia when entering the cathedral in Frankfurt for the opening ceremony. Their message was clear, emphasizing that the synod is a serious undertaking by the whole church in Germany with no place for assertions of pomp and importance.
Female members displayed signs at the opening procession demanding full equality. Seating was based on the alphabet, not on anyone’s title or sense of self- importance.
One other issue on the agenda in the synod’s deliberations concerns the place and treatment of gays in the church where the two ends of the ecclesial spectrum, left and right, do not agree. From the traditionalists’ perspective, natural law is clear: same-sex intimate engagement is always wrong and immoral.
Modern perspectives on homosexuality have changed dramatically in Western countries in the last few decades. Being anti-gay or intolerant towards that lifestyle is seen as somewhat backward, representing prejudices of another era.
While most dioceses follow the Vatican’s condemnatory rhetoric on this issue, Cardinal Marx allows the blessing of same-sex marriages in the Munich archdiocese. More important, the majority of Catholics in Germany and beyond have no problem with the gay lifestyle and are happy adopting a live and let-live attitude.
On the ordination of women, Cardinal Marx as president of the German Bishops’ Conference informed the faithful in his country that Pope Francis had told him that he is opposed to any change in this area of church discipline. The cardinal went on to say that he sees nothing wrong with opening the issue for discussion and it is on the agenda for the Synodal Way.
In the United States where most of the hierarchy is much more in tune with traditional values and mandates, it would be difficult to find a parish that would allow an advocacy group like Women’s Ordination Conference(WOC) to lead a discussion on the possibility of female priests, even though successive polls have shown that people in the pews have no problem with a woman preaching and administering the sacraments.
Two years from now, this German synod will not be issuing a gobbledygook report affirming past practices and traditions. It is a high-powered body that is likely to recommend radical changes in the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the outgoing president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops(USCCB) opined recently that the climate change crisis is “not urgent,” directly contradicting Pope Francis who in his encyclical Laudato Si pleaded that saving “the common home” must be a top priority for the church and indeed for all humanity.
DiNardo and a majority of his episcopal colleagues in the USCCB continue to identify abortion as the “preeminent” – their language – issue of our time, meaning that it supersedes all other concerns.
These church leaders have mainly pursued a legal remedy to the widespread termination of pregnancy in the United States. Reverse the Roe v Wade decision and they claim we are more than half way to solving the problem.
Archbishop Sample of Portland, Oregon, supporting this perspective, expounded last month about our times being particularly propitious to achieve their goal because “of a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle, given the changes to the Supreme Court.”
Opponents of this approach, including about one third at the Bishops’ Conference, focus instead on a much larger agenda than the legal and political considerations of the 1973 Roe decision by the Supreme Court.
In line with Pope Francis, they preach about the prevalence of injustice in American society. They quote Francis who without decrying in any way the church’s teaching on abortion wrote: ”Equally sacred are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned, the underprivileged.”
The pope also insists that the travails of refugees must be at the top of the Christian agenda and not in his words “a lesser issue” as if their plight doesn’t figure in the central message of the gospel.
Does it make moral sense to give exclusive “preeminence” to the abortion issue when thousands of children are forced to live in holding cages on the Mexican border?
The Oregon archbishop’s political assessment may well be right and five of the nine Supreme Court justices may vote to overturn the 1973 decision. That seems likely with the present composition of the court.
What happens then to a woman who chooses not to continue her pregnancy? If she is living in a state where the procedure is declared illegal she will have to travel to one where it is allowed – provided she can afford the air or train fare and other attendant costs.
This brings back sad memories of the thousands of Irish women who, over many decades, had to travel to England for an abortion until the people voted convincingly in the 2018 referendum to make the service available at home, ending the hypocrisy of fobbing the problem off to clinics in Liverpool or London.
Recent Irish history is very illuminating about the failure of legal strategies in dealing with the abortion issue. In the early 1980’s when there were no abortions allowed in any clinic or hospital anywhere in Ireland, nor was any of the major political parties advocating for change in this area, a group of very religious, fiercely anti-abortion people warned that judges could allow the procedure to be introduced in Ireland as, in their view, happened in the United States.
To block any possibility of this occurring these sincere Catholics, supported by the hierarchy, successfully launched a constitutional crusade and in a referendum in 1983 they copper fastened the existing legal prohibition by adding an amendment to the Irish constitution which was meant to settle the abortion issue beyond the power of liberal judges or left-wing legislators. In Shakespeare’s words, they were determined “to make assurance doubly sure.”
That referendum was carried by a majority of about two to one; the same percentages that in the 2018 referendum, less than forty years later, legalized abortion in the South of Ireland.
This is a major challenge for leaders on all sides of this issue: In the event that the Roe decision is reversed how should American society deal with women who want to end their pregnancies?
Archbishop Sample’s already-mentioned political calculation clearly associates his church with the Republican Party – a dubious ecclesiastical strategy, taking sides between the two political parties, especially at a time when the country is deeply divided on so many political and moral issues.
Emotions are running high on a number of impending decisions by the highest court, not only on Roe but on crucial judgements about privileges claimed by the current president as against the powers asserted by the co-equal branch in Congress.
Do the Catholic bishops really want to be involved in these political entanglements at a time when their own congregations are pulled in both directions?
Of course, they should continue to make their case from the pulpit and counsel women against pregnancy termination, but this should be done in a balanced way, especially by seriously addressing the multiple causes, many of them economic, that drive women to opt for abortion.
The Trump administration whose budgetary policies gave more than a trillion dollars in tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations also plans to cut a billion, a piddling amount by comparison, from food stamps for the poor.
No doubt about the obvious ethical incongruence in these figures between the treatment of the rich and the poor, directly clashing with the moral norms laid down by many of the prophets in the Old Testament and by Christ as revealed throughout the four gospels.
Consider the issue of paid maternal leave from work for women after they give birth – a clear pro-life enactment that exists in most Western European countries. Recent progress on this issue in Washington giving federal employees twelve weeks paid leave is a significant step in the right direction, but what about private sector workers? Those with little or no savings, estimated to include up to 50% of American women, will have to be back at work a few days after they leave the hospital with their babies.
Abortion is a tragedy for a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. It is important to stress again that this is not primarily a legal problem and, as was demonstrated clearly in the Irish situation, is not amenable to a legislative solution.
The Catholic Church as a major institution in America can provide a significant platform for exploring holistic approaches to dealing with this issue of unwanted pregnancies.
The Catholic Church has a very commendable record in the vital area of economic justice going back to Pope Leo XIII’s radical encyclical supporting the need for trade unions nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. In the 1960’s John XXIII advocated in his ground-breaking encyclical Mater et Magistra for shared ownership of corporations between workers and owners, and Francis has repeatedly scoffed at the so-called Trickle-Down Theory of economics, a staple of conservative theorists.
These vital anti-poverty teachings have been subsumed and minimized in recent years, especially in America, by what the majority of the bishops in the USCCB identified again at its November meeting as the “preeminent” issue of abortion.
About 700,00 people leave the Catholic Church in America every year. These are not lapsed Catholics who drift away from their religious roots, but members of the church who choose to leave the belief system they were raised with.
There are multiple reasons for these unprecedented numbers, but the most important consideration centers on the dismal failure of the church in dealing with women’s issues.
Talking recently at a symposium titled “The Women the Vatican Couldn’t Silence” in Trinity College, Dublin, former Irish president Mary McAleese, who spent six years in Rome earning a doctorate in theology, bemoaned how “women were deliberately made invisible and programmed to stay invisible” because of church structures that are “designed to create and maintain the invisibility and powerlessness of women.”
Speaking to the same packed auditorium, Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun from Pennsylvania and author of nearly thirty books on various aspects of the spiritual life, was even more damning in her assessment of the church’s attitudes to females: “Silence is the only role a woman has in the Catholic Church. We make good window dressing. What I see in the the Catholic Church is a totally-owned subsidiary of pious males. We are not full members of the church. We are an outside edge.”
The Christian church has a history of misogyny going back to the earliest days. Tertullian lived in the third century and he is often spoken of as a father of the church and is viewed as a prominent moralist and theologian. In his mind, sins relating to sexual desire occupy a special corner of depravity, and he preached that women were the devil’s source of men’s downfall.
Thomas Aquinas, a Doctor of the church whose teachings were the bread and butter of all Catholic seminary theology courses until very recently, lived in the 13th century and wrote bewildering stuff about women, asserting, for instance, that females are really defective males and that they are “necessarily in a state of subjection.”
In the 11th century Pope Gregory introduced clerical celibacy partly to avoid legal claims to church property by priests’ children, but the main reason for this unfortunate change in church discipline related to the arrogant assertion that a priest was not an ordinary human. Instead, according to Gregory, he should be viewed as someone existing above the earthly sphere in a kind of exclusive spiritual cocoon, with celibacy as the main mark of his difference from the general population.
The seeds of the current ecclesiastical sexual abuse crisis can be clearly seen in this foolish perspective that camouflages the priest’s human vulnerabilities and sets him apart from his community.
Moving ahead to our own times, the charismatic John Paul ll’s leadership extended into this century and he was canonized just four years ago. In his book Love and Responsibility he wrote “For the purpose of the sexual act it is enough for a woman to be passive and unresisting, so much so that it can even take place without her volition while she is in a state where she has no awareness at all of what is happening – for instance when she is asleep or unconscious.” Understandably, most women feel diminished by this statement and wonder how the church could canonize a man who seemingly approves of engaging in sexual intimacy with a sleeping female.
A distinguished Irish theologian, the late Fr. Sean Fagan, called the pope out on this appalling statement asking: “Can this really be Catholic Church teaching? It sounds like rape.” Of course, the pope never meant to give credibility or approval to any physical abuse of women, but his words provide a clear testament to the hubris and wild imaginings which so often accompany compulsory celibacy. It is also noteworthy that it was John Paul who issued a solemn edict ruling out women’s ordination to the priesthood – ever.
Church leaders like Tertullian and Gregory and Aquinas were reflecting the prejudices of past centuries and that perspective undoubtedly explains why they expounded some outrageous beliefs about women. Finding any rational explanation for John Paul’s ruminations on sex and love, viewed through the prism of our own time, is much more problematic.
But even today, under a progressive pope, the church seems unable to move away from old paradigms. Francis has assembled three church synods in the last year or so, bringing together ecclesiastical leaders from all over the world for serious consultations about major issues.
The conclusion of each synod involved a series of votes on a final document. Not one woman was allowed to cast a ballot on these recommendations. Only celibate males, mostly well on in years, could participate in this embarrassing effort at church democracy.
A major problem in the church derives from the fact that in their world all authority flows from ordination. Pope Gregory from a thousand years ago certainly left his mark on promoting clericalism which was assiduously cultivated by nearly all the popes since. Power is always seductive and corrupting and men have found spurious arguments to hold on to their prestige in the church, even when the whole edifice is crumbling around them.
Mary McAleese reads the situation clearly and truthfully. Preventing women from being ordained is based on “codology dressed up as theology.”Finding reasons to restrict ordination to men provide classical examples of the fallacy of rationalization, clerics coming up with arguments to bolster traditional practices that do not hold up under close logical analysis.
Francis appointed a commission to examine the roles played by female deacons in the early church and to investigate what functions they performed then in the Christian community. The experts could not agree on these historical matters so the debate goes on. Meanwhile communities all over the world are deprived of pastoral leadership.
This stultifying equivocation about the exact role of deacons two thousand years ago, blocking progress on an issue that has almost universal approval in the pews, is the modern maddening equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.
Most Catholics want to deal with the problems they face in this century when women provide top leadership in every phase of modern life. That is real progress in civil society in our time while Rome prevaricates about even minor changes in church discipline. John XX111, the last great pope, talked in the 1960’s about opening the windows of the church to allow the fresh air of a new magnanimous spirit to blow through. That metaphor applies even more urgently in our time.
The often-acrimonious debate about the morality of the gay lifestyle continues in the Catholic Church. In most parishes members of the LGBT community feel more comfortable keeping a low profile, not making demands, while the majority of pastors avoid preaching about the knotty and complex issues of same-sex relationships.
While Judaism, as represented in the Old Testament, strongly condemned homosexual activity, you will search in vain in the four gospels, which tell of Christ’s sermons and lifestyle, for any criticism of same-sex relationships. His main message focuses on the primary importance of love and compassion among his followers, calling for special care for the poor and oppressed.
How then did these matters become so important in the teachings of the Catholic Church and indeed in most Christian denominations? The answer lies in what the theologians call natural law. Proponents of this approach to morality assert that any sexual activity other than between male and female is against the natural order. They point to the obvious way that men’s and women’s bodies complement each other as telling proof of nature’s intentions.
The problem with this logic arises because it ascribes a moral value to natural acts. The Catholic Church preaches that any sexual activity outside of the male-female variety is unnatural and thus “inherently disordered” and sinful.
This belief that same-sex romantic behavior is inherently depraved goes back centuries and has caused a great deal of suffering to the minority of the population that is gay. These men and women were frequently seen as freaks because their sexual interests and needs diverged from those of the vast majority of the population.
In the early 20th century a distinguished British philosopher named G.E. Moore wrote about a mistake in reasoning that he named the Naturalistic Fallacy. In a word, he argued that just because something is natural does not make it morally good or desirable. Applied to the area of sexual morality, the alleged naturalness of any intimate behavior should not determine its morality.
To explain their thinking Moore’s followers sometimes use a simple example by pointing to a mother who chooses to bottle feed her baby rather than the clearly natural method of breastfeeding. Would anybody argue that the decision to use a bottle formula to feed a newborn is somehow a breach of the natural law and thus immoral?
There has been a major shift in attitudes to homosexuals in Western society. Gay marriage, which was unthinkable to most people a mere generation ago, is now legal in the majority of European countries as well as in the United States and Canada.
However, the Catholic Church has maintained a hard line against the gay lifestyle, even though various professional studies suggest that a disproportionate number of the clergy at all levels of the church is homosexual. In a recent book In the Closet of the Vatican, the author, Frederic Martel, claims that the Vatican curias or departments are rife with homosexuals, closeted and barely hidden.
Traditionalists in the church blame the sexual abuse crisis on gays. They point to the fact that most of the children abused are boys, proof, in their eyes, that gays are mainly responsible for the depredations of so many priests and brothers.
Progressives reject this thinking and explain the provenance of male victims by pointing to the easier availability to predators of boys rather than girls in sacristies and playgrounds. They identify the huge accrual of power over centuries by the clergy as the main source of corruption in the church. Such unchecked authority leads inevitably to clericalism and, unfortunately, to the reprehensible clerical behavior.
Liberal commentators argue further that the exclusion of women from nearly all positions of ecclesiastical power sidelined an important voice that might well have cried stop, which the male hierarchy failed dismally to do.
Pope Francis, a man of great compassion who lends a willing ear to all oppressed groups, seems to have taken both sides in this church debate. Shortly after his election as pope he was asked about gays in the church and replied magnanimously “who am I to judge?”Also, in dialoguing with a gay young man, Juan Carlos, a survivor of clerical sex abuse from Chile, he assures him “God made you like this and loves you like this. You have to be happy with who you are.”
However, Francis has issued official declarations opposing same-sex unions and he has spoken against adoption by gay couples. More important, he urged bishops not to admit to their seminaries young men with “deeply-rooted homosexual tendencies.”
Such a vague policy is wide open to abuse. Who plays the role of Solomon in determining what level of “tendency” disqualifies an applicant?
The pope had a friendly meeting recently with Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit theologian who lives in Manhattan, whose recent book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity is a heartfelt plea for a closer dialogue between the church and homosexuals.
Martin urges that the disparaging description of gays as “intrinsically disordered” must be dropped. How do you build a positive relationship with anyone if your calling card includes a demeaning trope? Instead he suggests the non-judgmental description “differently ordered.”
That would be a great start, but many church traditionalists, led by the American Cardinal Burke who heads the anti-Francis brigade, say that Fr. Martin’s book “upends the teaching of the church, legitimizing relations between persons of the same sex.”
There is no guarantee that James Martin’s humane and thoughtful approach will prevail, but it certainly accords with the opinion of most Catholics and with the gospel values that should surely underpin all beliefs in the Christian community. Gerry OShea blogs at Gays in the Cat
A basic axiom in the ancient wisdom of the native American community states that any laws or ordinances passed by their governing councils must meet what they call the Seventh Generation Test, meaning that the impact of any new regulation should not harm people who will live long years in the future – a deeply enlightened and spiritual insight that provides a valuable perspective on the global warming crisis.
In his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis makes the same argument: “We are not God. The earth was here before us and it is our common home which has been given to us”. He reminds us that we are just custodians, morally obliged to pass on a functioning planet.
From this perspective the treatment of the environment in particular by the huge oil and fuel industries, especially in the last half-century, has been ruinous for the world’s oceans and rivers and thus profoundly at variance with any positive ethical standard. The thoughtful people demanding that economic growth should be balanced with ecological husbandry were shunted aside in favor of corporate profits.
During the First Industrial Revolution in the 19th century the poet William Wordsworth bemoaned the damage to natural beauty caused by mass industrialization in memorable words that still resonate today: “Getting and spending we lay waste too much — we have given our hearts away – a sordid boon.”
Who is advocating for the common good while our climate is warming at an alarming rate? Who is making the case for bequeathing a healthy and safe environment for future unborn children – to the seventh generation? In truth there are leaders, headed by Pope Francis, who are seriously addressing the problem, but it is disconcerting that only seven of the 195 countries who signed the modest Paris Accord are close to meeting their goals.
Our situation is dire. Scientists tell us that the oceans and temperatures are heating faster than was anticipated a mere decade ago, leading inevitably to crop failures, freshwater shortages and violent and unpredictable weather.
The crisis is already abundantly evident. Just consider the scourge of wildfires in California. In 2017 two thousand square miles were burned in some of the worst fires ever recorded. This damage was matched in 2018 where a giant network known as the Mendocino Complex, a horrendous blaze that grew to cover an area bigger than New York, destroyed almost half a million acres of land.
Every year wildfires in the United States burn an area twice larger than they did fifty years ago, and that figure is conservatively estimated to reach 20 million acres per year by 2050. Burning forests release vast amounts of carbon; one major fire in California can eliminate the environmental value of the commendable local policies that significantly reduce emissions.
And that is just California. Similar disastrous happenings in places like Greenland and Sweden do huge damage in the Arctic Circle where soot and ash from these fires blacken the ice sheets which then absorb more solar heat and melt faster.
A hundred thousand fires burned across the Amazon last year. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s reckless policies of opening the massive forests there to “development” is estimated to add a similar amount of carbon to the atmosphere as the combined annual emissions of the two biggest polluting nations, China and the United States.
Vast areas of polluted ocean brought about mainly by warming seas and sewage pollution and identified by a cover of green soup-like bacteria have caused what are appropriately called dead zones. There are more than 400 of these ugly stagnant areas stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Oman. Taken together these expanding dead ocean areas at present amount to the size of the European continent.
By 2050 the United Nations estimates that climate change will result in mass migration of up to one billion people moving from hunger and desolation for a chance of some kind of livelihood. The few million migrants of recent years that caused such political unrest in Western countries will be seen as a drop in the bucket by comparison with the massive surges of destitute and homeless refugees trying to find a place to live.
Ironically, the poor who did least to cause this crisis suffer the most. Millions of small farmers driven from their land burned by the sun or overwhelmed by tidal waves will be forced to leave their humble lifestyle and move to higher and less arid ground. They didn’t burn much of the coal and gas and oil that caused most of the damaging pollution, but their lives are far more likely to be disrupted than the people who did. Already, half of the children in Delhi suffer from lung damage from breathing the air.
Amazingly, President Trump says we don’t have a problem. For him, climate change is just a hoax. All the scientific evidence is disregarded. Talk about Nero playing the violin while Rome burns! It is hard to imagine a more immature and dangerous response to a pending catastrophe.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that if emissions continue at the present rate, by 2100 the earth will be largely uninhabitable. Young people realize that they will be the generation saddled with an ecological disaster and they have started to organize and make demands. Green parties are growing all over Europe and some of the candidates for the Democratic nomination are offering serious radical proposals costing in trillions.
The 2020 American Presidential election will provide a clear choice between the current leader in the White House who identifies the environmental crisis as liberal bunkum and a Democratic opponent declaring that global warming is our most compelling and immediate problem.
The United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, believes that we only have a year to implement policies that could move the world away from dependence on fossil fuels. The IPCC contends that global mobilization on the scale of the Second World War is urgently called for.
Up to now, talk of a Green New Deal is associated with extreme political factions and activist groups outside the American mainstream. That will surely change and those whose views on global warming are deemed extreme now will be seen as moderate before we vote in November next year.
Only a moral crusade, anchored in a new respect for Mother Nature, that calls on people everywhere to rally around saving the environment as a first priority, can move the international community to adopting radical new conservation policies. That is a massive challenge and it won’t happen without credible American leadership.
Gerry O’Shea blogs at wemustbetalking.com
During the early centuries of Christianity, Christ’s followers met – often secretly – to honor his memory by community prayer including the sharing of bread in remembrance of the importance of togetherness in the Passover meal at the Last Supper.
They met in each others’ homes for their prayer services just as Amish worshippers do in their communities today. They had no priests, again replicated in Amish services in our time where leaders are chosen by the community and given no perks.
In fact most historians contend that Christ had no plans to start a new religion. He was critical of the legalistic formalism that dominated the Jewish rabbinical establishment of his day, but he is best understood as a charismatic Jewish rabbi with an inspiring message.
The records show that these early Christian groups were egalitarian, with men and women chosen by their peers for leadership positions not only for their prayer and communion services but also in their charitable outreach to help poor and needy members of their developing community.
Then in the early 4th century the Roman Emperor Constantine allowed Christians to assemble without any hassle and to worship freely. The Emperor himself asked to be baptized on his deathbed after years preparing as a catechumen. He made Christianity respectable, giving it the Roman stamp of approval.
For the first time a clear pecking order was established as the hierarchical structures and trappings of the Roman Empire were transferred to the growing Christian church. For example, a diocese, a Roman administrative unit, was transmuted to a basic governing part of the church; a basilica, the Emperor’s majestic hall, became an important place of worship for the members of a burgeoning religion.
The church moved away from its original emphasis on the equality of all members by assigning authority based on offices held in the community. In the new hierarchical structures decision-making was vested in priests and bishops. With the gradual growth over centuries in the prestige of the papacy, a hundred and fifty years ago Pius 1X brought the acquisition of power to a new and dubious level by claiming infallibility when pronouncing on faith and morals.
Over the years this hierarchical system led to the development of a powerful church organization that did outstanding work with people of all ages in every part of the globe. The Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, providing food for the hungry and medical care and education for millions who would be cast aside without the services of the heroic Sisters, Brothers and priests who stood with them, opening the door to a chance for a better life.
But there was a serious downside to the growth of the church as a major center of political power, influencing and participating in wars, a long way from a universal religion of peace and goodwill. The church was an important player in religious battles in Europe and in leading crusades to make the cross dominant in Jerusalem. The institution forgot its humble founding principles and responded to political developments with generals and armies similar to other European powers.
Women and married men were excluded from any position of church authority which was vested entirely with a male celibate clergy. They continued to dress in gowns and top hats and other similar gaudy apparel, symbols of importance back in the days of the Roman Empire and still setting the church leadership class apart from the hoi polloi in the pews.
Augustine, a reformed libertine, who lived in the same century as Constantine, promulgated a poorly-researched theory that the so-called original sin was a sexual act initiated by Eve. She was responsible in John Milton’s later words in Paradise Lost “for all our woes with loss of Eden.” This baseless Augustinian rationalization combined with the deplorable misogyny in all the major cultures of that time led to a negative and unhealthy attitude to sexual behavior and especially to the subsidiary role assigned to women in the church.
That situation has not changed. When Pope Francis convened an important international synod last February to make recommendations on how best to deal with the ongoing crisis related to sexual abuse by clergy, he invited a few hundred aging church leaders – all male – to the Vatican to deliberate on these crucial matters.
From a church with over a billion members not even one woman or young person voted on the final recommendations. Hardly an adequate response in 2019 to dealing with the biggest crisis in the church since the Reformation 500 years ago.
The Second Vatican Council convened by the last great pope, John XX111, attempted to deal with the clericalist culture by stressing that all church leaders at every level are meant to be servants of the people and certainly not lording it over them. The Council pronounced that the church should always be seen as consisting of its full membership, the people of God, with the mysterious Spirit inspiring lay and cleric alike, without regard to human pecking order. Surely Beginners’ Theology 101!
Unfortunately, after the Council ended in 1965 the caste system re-asserted itself. There was little change in the blatant misogyny, the cult of secrecy within the clerical club and the institution-wide sexual repression.
Starting about 50 years ago, the pandemic of sexual abuse by many priests and Brothers and some nuns was gradually revealed in all its enormity. People were shocked that widespread maltreatment of children by men wearing Roman collars and by women displaying crucifixes was not only tolerated by church authorities, but these predators, instead of being dismissed or reported to the civic authorities, often were just transferred to a different parish where they inevitably found new victims.
Pope Benedict pointed the finger of blame for the sex abuse crisis at the new liberal ideas about sexuality that gained provenance in the 1960’s. Other conservative clerics blamed the Western culture sympathetic to the gay lifestyle as the culprit.
Most commentators agreed that clericalism, which encourages people to view priests and other church dignitaries as different and exempt from the rules and consequences that apply to everyone else, is the core problem leading directly to the deep crisis.
Commenting on a White Paper titled “Confronting the Systemic Dysfunction of Clericalism” prepared by the Association of Catholic Priests in the United States, Cardinal Cupich from Chicago described the damning research findings as “a catalogue of horrors, chronicling imperial pronouncements, putdowns, claims of privilege, entitlements and exemptions from accountability .”
The pope and the cardinals, bishops and priests still speak for the church on all matters of religion or morality. The hopes of many progressive theologians during Vatican Two and since that the life experiences and spiritual insights of “ordinary” people would be valued and incorporated into church thinking has not happened.
Despite all the heartbreak caused by clericalism, the congregation in the pews is still not heeded. Sadly, the traditional establishment built around an elite clerical class continues to call the shots in the Catholic Church.
Thomas Aquinas, the famous Dominican priest and theologian, promoted natural law as a sound basis for ethical teaching. This approach followed the great Greek thinkers and in particular Aristotle who used human reason alone to deduce binding rules of moral behavior.
Major problems have arisen as a result of the limitations of this natural law thinking when dealing with sexual morality. It was central to Pope Paul V1’s controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae which banned the use of condoms or the contraceptive pill even for married Catholics, basically because, following Aquinas’ model, the moral order dictates that one may not stymie or interfere with the natural procreative purpose of sex.
This papal edict was disregarded by almost 90% of Catholic couples as impractical. It has the distinction of being the first Vatican encyclical honored, in Shakespeare’s words far “more in the breach than in the observance.”
In the late sixties – at the time of the pope’s letter – the prevailing culture was hostile to gays. Queers were often dismissed as dysfunctional deviants, stigmatized as engaging in aberrant behavior which disobeyed the laws of nature.
Mainstream Christian teaching condemned homosexual acts as a clear breach of natural law and thus morally wrong.
Since the 1970’s societal attitudes to gays have changed dramatically. Most Western countries now propound the humanist belief system that eschews judging the sexual behavior of others and is comfortable with the philosophy of live and let live.
The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Global Attitudes Survey finds “broad acceptance of homosexuality in North America, the European Union and much of Latin America.” In many countries, including the United States and Ireland, gay marriage is now accorded the same protections and legal standing as male-female unions.
Sociologists are amazed by the speed of this massive change in attitude across the western world. It is correctly seen as a major paradigm shift in a short time frame from ignorance and intolerance of homosexuality to widespread acceptance of what is now often spoken of in terms of a different lifestyle.
The Christian churches in Europe and the United States face a major dilemma. Should they go with the new spirit of tolerance or revert to the old sermons that reflect the outright condemnation of homosexuality as an abomination, a viewpoint that is asserted in the books of Genesis and Leviticus as well as in the harsh epistolary reflections on same-sex relationships by the apostle, Paul?
Many theologians and biblical scholars point out that, whatever about the validity of assertions of divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments, all the books of both represent the thinking of the historical era when they were written with authors who reflect the beliefs and prejudices of their time.
True to this perspective, the Bible contains prohibitions against eating shell fish and has strange injunctions ordering the stoning of adulterers as well as those who work on the Sabbath, not to mention mandating the same treatment for awkward and disobedient children. And much more of the same!
Clearly these were tribal rules designed to deal with real situations thousands of years ago. It is close to blasphemous to suggest any divine input in such writings. Also, while Paul of Tarsus was fluent in advising Christians, especially women, on sexual matters, Christ had little to say about these issues. There is no record in the gospels of him even commenting on same-sex romantic behavior, suggesting strongly that it didn’t figure prominently in his sermons.
The Catholic Church responds to the new perspectives on the gay lifestyle by supporting laws that ban discrimination and by affirming the rights of homosexuals to a full social life free of any discrimination. However, the Vatican also asserts that same-sex intimate behavior is “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law.” It is a very tall order for a gay person to establish a positive relationship with a powerful institution that tells homosexuals, male and female, that they are loved but are also objectively disordered.
Some prominent conservative leaders in the church point to the prevalence of gays in the priesthood as the main reason for the clerical abuse crisis. This reasoning, based on an unfounded vision of out-of-control gay clerics with unnatural tendencies, is vehemently opposed by most commentators who point to clericalism, a hierarchical system that gives excessive and undue power to men wearing Roman collars, as the systemic root of the problem. The power of the clerical garb gave these immature men permission to act out their corrupt and evil fantasies.
Recent disturbing pronouncements from the highest levels in Rome about admission criteria to seminaries suggest that openly gay candidates are too risky for ordination and should be excluded. Advocates for a non-judgmental church, with the principles set down in the Sermon on the Mount as their guide, fear that gays are being scapegoated again. It is indeed inviting to point the guilty finger at queers and load the blame for the worst and most damaging church crisis since the Reformation on to their shoulders.
It should be noted that Cardinal Reinhart Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, stated in an important interview last year that blessing of same-sex unions is allowed in German Catholic churches. Some Austrian dioceses follow the same protocol.
Note to Cardinal Dolan: If it is OK in Germany why not in New York where so many wonderful gay couples live, most of whom, unfortunately, feel alienated from the Catholic Church?
Protestant churches have similar internal differences about this thorny moral issue which can be appropriately seen as pitting tradition against modernity. Many are comfortable with the natural law argument and preach strongly against any diminution of the traditional Christian condemnatory stance.
They bolster their position by pointing to the biblical story about the denunciation of the sexual sins in Sodom described in Genesis as clear proof of God’s condemnation.
As long ago as 1963 the Quakers in England, who were very prescient in their analysis of the human issues involved, recognized the authenticity of same-sex relationships. The United Church of Christ celebrates gay marriage while some Anglicans and Lutherans provide a formal wedding blessing. The United Methodist Church elected a lesbian bishop in 2016, but two years later the Council of Bishops reversed the church’s liberal policy and today their official position opposes same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly-gay clergy.
Finally a word about Sodom which has come to represent the most glaring example in literature of lecherous debauchery because of the shameless sexual behavior associated with the biblical story about that ancient city. Many erudite modern scholars say that the Sodom message is not primarily about sexual depravity. They argue, based mainly on comments in later books of the Bible, that the Genesis authors wanted to convey that the worst sins that were committed in their powerful story reflected the shoddy welcome shown to the visitors in a Hebrew culture where generous and open hospitality was considered a paramount virtue.