Me Da’s A Bishop

I was going to lay off the Catholic Church, but Pope Benedict just called me a Nazi, so I will say what’s on my mind. The scandal of child abuse by priests is probably a matter of opportunity and unchecked authority. It’s not unique. Various group leaders and Scout masters have been convicted of crimes against children, and, of course, the majority of abuse is inflicted by relatives. Opportunity and authority.

Catholic priests differ in that their calling demands that they be celibate. However, there is no unequivocal evidence that this sexual abnormality increases the chances that a priest will commit sexual offences. It is odd though.

I read a definition of celibacy as “sexual anorexia”, which made me smile. I do like food analogies. Gluttony is one of the deadly sins, but hunger is not. And surely even the strictest Puritan wouldn’t mind you having the odd sandwich.

Priestly celibacy seems to have emerged by about 300, before the reign of Constantine when Christianity would be decriminalised. The Catholic Church maintains that there was a much earlier tradition of celibacy, but then, they would say that, wouldn’t they? In fact, the Church has a problem in that it’s clear that early Christian leaders were married. Even St. Peter, whom they retrospectively claimed as the “first Pope” was married (his mother-in-law was cured of a fever by Jesus).

The letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians is often quoted as justification for priestly celibacy, but actually, it says nothing of the kind. In 1 Corinthians 7, he says “I wish all men to be even as I myself [am]” (celibate, presumably) “but each his own gift hath of God”, meaning that he accepts that others are different. (Later in the passage he says that unmarried women are only interested in being holy, while married women must deal with mundane things. Clearly, he had never heard of handbags, shoes and boys.)

Pope Benedict himself quotes Jesus in defence of the practice, from Matthew 19:12, the one about eunuchs. (I’m a SVR4 fan myself). Again, it’s nothing to do with priests; and it’s also a passage where the translation has changed over time. Old translations (including Martin Luther’s from 1545 – it’s good, clear German: the Pope should read it) say that it is good to make yourself a eunuch in order to think more about God. Modern versions substitute the wording that it’s good not to marry. But again, that applies to everyone, not priests.

One hypothesis on the evolution of clerical celibacy suggests that Christian priests sought to emulate, and then surpass, Roman priests. Actually, priestly duties were a requirement of every Roman male above a certain social class, and it was necessary to be “ritually pure” before making a sacrifice or holding a ceremony. This involved fasting, or restricting your diet, and abstinence from sex (often just for one day). You can see how a Christian might absorb this notion of purity and not want to be seen inferior. Another idea is that Church leaders found that the sons of priests were assuming the right to inherit their father’s position and property (Church property, in fact) and introduced celibacy in order to regain control.

Technically, the Church calls clerical celibacy a “discipline”, distinct from a “doctrine”. What that means, apparently, is that a Pope could decide to rescind it without theological repercussions. In fact, the Pope does, on a case by case basis, admit married priests to the Catholic Church, men who have been ordained in other segments of Christianity. (I assume the principle of Apostolic Succession is involved, which is a whole other kettle of worms.) I don’t believe that these married priests are seen as inferior within the Church, or less holy, which surely undermines the justification for the remainder.

Personally, I welcome the present Pope’s strict stand on celibacy, the ordination of women, oppression of homosexuals and defence of child-raping priests. They way I see it, the more hard-line the Church is, the more side-lined it is by society. Pope Benedict doesn’t like secularisation, but he doesn’t know why it’s happening. We do.

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