Priestly celibacy holds back the Catholic Church (opinion of Stephen Bowman)
Stephen Sarsfield Bowman is President of Peregrine Senior Living, based in Syracuse.
Some mothers are so full of grace and love that they slowly move forward in their world offering unconditional compassion to all, but seldom see the crisis forming in their own lives. I fear the Roman Catholic Church is an example of a selfless mother who seems reckless and blind to the seeds of her own self-destruction, and remains inert, seemingly paralyzed.
The crisis I am talking about is the disappearance of our priests and the traditional orientation of the church. Over the past 50 years, our number of priests in the United States has almost halved, from 60,000 to about 30,000 today. And of the remaining active priests, 50% are over 70 years old. We are quickly becoming a truncated religious body with dying leadership.
Of course, the unspeakable sex scandal within our clergy has contributed to these falling numbers, but so has the puzzling insistence on celibacy. This was never the rule in the early church, for Saint Peter was married (Luke 4:38) and Saint Paul advised his priests to limit their wives to one (Timothy 3: 2,12). In addition, the Eastern Catholic Church has always allowed its priests to marry and they have always been in “communion” with Rome. (To see the Nicene Creed and his devotion to “one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”). In fact, the celibacy mandate did not become the rule until the first Lateran Council in 1123, and this was motivated more by a concern for the property rights of the descendants of priests than by holiness.
The church seemed to have recognized the practical absurdity of its position in 1980, when Pope John Paul II authorized a special dispensation for priests of the Episcopal and Lutheran faith from converting to Catholicism even if they were married with children. . The first of these converts authorized by Pope John Paul II was a Jew, a convert to episcopalism, married and father of 11 children. Since then, around 100 married men have become priests in this country. To me, it seems intellectually misleading that the church allows married priests today, but only if they are converted.
It became a reality for me this summer when my wife and I vacationed in Maine. I saw a man with a priest’s necklace on a hot day. We started talking and it turned out to be a Catholic priest, convert, married with six children. Two things really stood out in my mind. First, he was incredibly happy. A smile never left his face, and he beamed. Second, he couldn’t help it and bragged about the quality of his wife and the joy of their marriage.
Of course, I was enchanted by her joyful vocation and also by her beautiful marriage, but I was also saddened by the thought of my many friends who left the priesthood because their love of marriage equaled their love of Christ. These two loves became their essence, but in the church today, these loves were irreconcilable.
This does not seem to be a lost point for Pope Francis. After all, his namesake Saint Francis, in a time of corruption, was ordered to rebuild the church, and perhaps this pope took this warning to heart. On the feast of Saint Francis in 2019, the Pope summoned the Pan-Amazonian Synod to explore “new avenues for the church”. One of those topics was to be the ordination of married men to the priesthood, where shortages in Brazil leave many to wait literally years to see a priest. Unfortunately, the acrimony that followed left the topic unanswered, but at least it made the order of the day. (But if you want to read brutally anti-Christian attacks on the Pope, do your own Google search.)
If the Roman Catholic Church were serious about our priesthood crisis, there is a lot it could change. We could allow married men to become priests, and they could welcome women to the seminary. (By the way, I know of a priest in Buffalo who wears an “ordain a woman” button at every mass.) We could also consider raising married deacons to our priests, or we could allow our former clerics to take over. the roles. Many of these ancient clerics remain spiritual giants and would fill gaping holes in our deteriorating church.
But the reality is that as our world becomes more secular and materialistic, our society is crying out for more spiritual guidance and direction. In my opinion, the Catholic Church needs to become more proactive and owe us more comfort and healing as we rapidly approach an era where priests will increasingly rarely occupy the altar on Sunday. It could become a lonely trip for my children and grandchildren.
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