In the wake of the royal commission into child sexual abuse, Christian churches in this country need not only radical reform of their principles and practices, but also ways of recovering their integrity. For the Catholic Church, with its patriarchal structures, ordaining women to the priesthood is one way to achieve this.
In 2016, Pope Francis appointed a commission to report on women in the early church, asking the question of whether women could be ordained as deacons. (Deacons are the first level of ordination in the Catholic Church before priesthood.)
Now the pope has said the commission was divided on the issue. The commission agreed there were women deacons in the early church, but disagreed on whether they had any power. The pope has handed the report to a gathering of the heads of female religious orders, and may call the commissioners back for further input.
Note that, in all this, the Catholic Church has not even begun to debate the question of whether women can be priests (the second and more powerful level of ordination in the church). Yet if we look closely at the Bible and the history of the church, there are very good reasons why women should hold these positions of high authority.
As the mother and grandmother of Catholic children, it pains me that women cannot be ordained in the Catholic Church. I can tell my grandson that he might think about becoming a Catholic priest when he grows up, but I cannot say the same to my granddaughters.
As an Anglican priest, I have seen ordained women of extraordinary capacity working in the Anglican Church and exercising authority. I know women deacons, women priests and women bishops, and can testify to the marvellous work of ministry they are doing.
I also know scores of Catholic women who would make truly remarkable priests. They are loving, self-giving, intelligent and responsible, with spiritual depth and wisdom. They would do much to restore the church’s integrity.
LGBT Catholics from Oscar Wilde to Farm Street Jesuit Church
On 18 May 1897, Wilde was released from prison after serving two years for ‘gross indecency’ for being in a same sex relationship
by Benjamin Smith
On 18 May 1897, the writer Oscar Wilde was released from prison after serving two years for ‘gross indecency’; imprisoned for being in a same sex relationship. One of his first acts upon gaining his freedom was to write to the Jesuits at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London, asking for a six month retreat. Perhaps because they feared scandal, or because they were sceptical of his commitment, the Jesuits refused his request, instead telling him to ask again after a period of discernment. Wilde left for France shortly afterwards, and never returned to London. The story of LGBT Catholics doesn’t end there, however; London has been the scene of many more encounters between the Church and LGBT people; notably in recent times the journey of the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster (formerly Soho Masses) community.
The spring of 1999 was a time of mourning for the LGBT community; on the evening of Friday April 30th 1999, a neo-nazi had detonated a bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, killing three people, including a pregnant woman, and injuring 79. The law which had been used to convict Oscar Wilde had been repealed in 1967, but homophobia was still common throughout society, and although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had condemned violence against “homosexual persons’ in their 1986 document “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, many LGBT people did not feel welcome in Catholic churches. In this atmosphere of fear and distrust, the Helpers of the Holy Souls opened the doors of their convent in Camden Town to the LGBT Catholic community, and the first Mass welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends, was held there on Sunday 2nd May 1999.
Last Saturday (27th April 2019), the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster commemorated both of these anniversaries with a prayerful walk, beginning at the Oscar Wilde memorial and finishing at Farm Street church, which is now our home parish. Along the way we heard readings from scripture and from Catholic authors who had struggled with their sexuality, such as the priest Henri Nouwen and the poet Dunstan Thomas. We prayed for the victims of hate crime, the activists who have worked tirelessly for LGBT inclusion in the Church, and for the Pope and the Church as a whole. The stops on the route included the Admiral Duncan pub, the church of Notre Dame de France, where the first public conference on Catholics and Homosexuality was held in 1976, and two churches which have hosted our community over the years: St Anne’s Anglican Church, on Dean Street, and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street.
The Convent of the Helpers of the Holy Souls was sold in 2001, and the LGBT Catholic community moved to St Anne’s in the heart of Soho. Over time, the size of the community began to outgrow the space available, while at the same time the diocese of Westminster was looking for a way to offer outreach and support to LGBT Catholics, and in 2007 the community was invited by the diocese to attend Mass at Warwick Street twice a month. The community flourished, many members travelling long distances to attend the Masses. For many people, including myself, this was the first time we were able to openly identify ourselves as Catholic in an LGBT community that often seemed to view Catholics with suspicion, and openly identify ourselves as LGBT in a Church that often seemed to view LGBT people as a problem that needed to be solved, rather than embraced as part of God’s creation.
The news of the move to Farm Street in 2013 was met with some trepidation by the Soho Masses community: would we be accepted or shunned? Would we be swallowed up by a larger parish and lose the sense of identity and community we had worked so hard to build? However, as we discovered, both the clergy and parishioners at Farm Street take pride in the welcome they extend to all, and their response to the LGBT Catholic community was no exception. As well as worshipping together regularly as a community, LGBT+ Catholics Westminster are integrated into the life of the wider parish; serving at the Masses with music, reading and ministering, and contributing to the parish’s social and charitable activities. Our inclusion as part of the Westminster Diocese chaplaincy to LGBT people has also allowed us to start reaching out to others who may need support, with events for young people still struggling to reconcile their faith and sexual or gender identity, or for Catholic parents of LGBT people. Coming out is always challenging, and the journey of LGBT+ Catholics Westminster has been no exception, but each step we have taken has give us new opportunities to witness that LGBT people have a home in the Catholic church.
As a scholar specializing in the history of the Catholic Church and gender studies, I can attest that 1,000 years ago, gay priests were not so restricted. In earlier centuries, the Catholic Church paid little attention to homosexual activity among priests or laypeople.
Open admission of same-sex desires
While the church’s official stance prohibiting sexual relations between people of the same sex has remained constant, the importance the church ascribes to the “sin” has varied. Additionally, over centuries, the church only sporadically chose to investigate or enforce its prohibitions.
Even within those, apparent references to same-sex relations were not originally written or understood as categorically indicting homosexual acts, as in modern times. Christians before the late 19th century had no concept of gay or straight identity.
It took centuries for a Christian consensus to agree with Philo’s misinterpretation, and it eventually became the accepted understanding of this scripture, from which the derogatory term “sodomite” emerged.
He could not have been delivering a blanket condemnation of homosexuality or homosexuals because these concepts would not exist for 1,800 more years.
Gay sex, as such, usually went unpunished
Early church leaders didn’t seem overly concerned about punishing those who engaged in homosexual practice. I have found that there is a remarkable silence about homosexual acts, both in theologies and in church laws for over 1,000 years, before the late 12th century.
If a man took on the passive role in a same-sex act, he took on the woman’s role. He was “unmasculine and effeminate,” a transgression of the gender hierarchy that Philo of Alexandria called the “greatest of all evils.” The concern was to police gender roles rather than sex acts, in and of themselves.
Church councils and penance manuals show little concern over the issue. In the early 12th century, a time of church revival, reform and expansion, prominent priests and monks could write poetry and letters glorifying love and passion – even physical passion – toward those of the same sex and not be censured.
Instead, it was civil authorities that eventually took serious interest in prosecuting the offenders.
The Third Lateran Council of 1179, a church council held at the Lateran palace in Rome, for example, outlawed sodomy. Clerics who practiced it were either to be defrocked or enter a monastery to perform penance. Laypeople were more harshly punished with excommunication.
It might be mentioned that such hostility grew, not only toward people engaging in same-sex relations but toward other minority groups as well. Jews, Muslims and lepers also faced rising levels of persecution.
While church laws and punishments against same-sex acts grew increasingly harsh, they were, at first, only sporadically enforced. Influential churchmen, such as 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas and popular preacher Bernardino of Siena, known as the “Apostle of Italy,” disagreed about the severity of sin involved.
Today, the Catholic Catechism teaches that desiring others of the same sex is not sinful but acting on those desires is.
As the Catechism says, persons with such desires should remain chaste and “must be accepted with respect and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Indeed, Catholic ministries such as DignityUSA and New Ways Ministries seek to serve and advocate for this population.
Yet gay priests are in a different category. They live and work under mandatory celibacy, often in same-sex religious orders. Pope Francis I has encouraged them to be “perfectly responsible” to avoid scandal, while discouraging other gay men from entering the priesthood.
Many fear retribution if they cannot live up to this ideal. For the estimated 30-40% of U.S priests who are gay, the openness of same-sex desire among clerics of the past is but a memory.
A string of sex abuse scandals have rocked Christian communities recently: In the Roman Catholic Church, revelations related to sex abuse by priests continue to unfold across the globe. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., media reports have brought into public view allegations of sexual abuse dating back decades.
Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.
Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.
Traitors during Christian persecution
Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.
The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.
While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.
Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”
Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.
Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.
The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.
In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.
The Donatist schism
Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.
They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.
They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.
In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.
Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.
Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.
In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.
Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.
Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”
By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.
The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.
“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.
In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.
Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.
What can be learned today
Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.
This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.
Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.
However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities about the risks to the integrity and cohesion of institutions when they shield the abuser rather than protect the victims.
The Vatican’s Sexual Abuse Summit ‘Failed Miserably’
The recently concluded Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the church was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, and theology were excluded. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Roma locuta; causa finita est, attributed to Augustine, means: “Rome has spoken, the matter is closed.” So it is. Sordid details emerging of Australian Cardinal George Pell’s conviction on “multiple historical child sex offenses” are no great shock. They only confirm the general consensus that the recent Roman summit was a dismal failure of nerve and justice at a time when only nerve and justice will suffice.
Survivors of sexual abuse, women religious, LBGTIQ advocates, and some journalists made impressive showings during the recent “Protection of Minors in the Church” meetings in Rome. Pope Francis, cardinals and bishops, not so much. The Vatican had lowered expectations going into the meeting once it became clear that Catholic people around the world demand action not just words. From all that I saw and read—talks and press conferences were live streamed; press coverage was extensive—the clerics came in well below even their own low bar.
As I surmised beforehand, the meeting was “held at the wrong time with the wrong people about the wrong issues.”
Just imagine if the meeting had been held in September 2018, right after the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued with its shockingly large number of victims and offenders. That would have also been right after reports came out that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused countless seminarians and priests. The Vatican crowd could have saved themselves a lot of grief.
Think of what would not have been on the table. Many terrible revelations have emerged since September:
Lists of hundreds of credibly accused priests from dozens of dioceses and provinces of men’s religious orders are now public.
A report on the many children who have been fathered by the fathers, as it were, is under review.
The sordid details of the McCarrick saga are clear, including his abuse of someone in the confessional, which was a major reason for his subsequent defrocking.
Reports of clerics sexually abusing nuns in India and elsewhere are now common knowledge.
A page-turner of a study of the incidence of allegedly gay, sexually active, but most of all duplicitous priests in high positions in the Vatican entitled In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy opens another vista.
Report of the Apostolic Nuncio to France, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, under investigation for molesting a government staffer just surfaced.
In fact, all of that data was part of the backdrop of the meeting, but no one peeped about most of it. Maybe next time the clerics will learn to act faster for their own good.
Pope Francis gathered 190 heads of bishops’ conferences as well as ten women religious who lead their orders and their equivalent in men’s congregations for the summit. But the real action was in the streets and surrounding buildings, where scores of sex abuse survivors and their supporters protested, told their stories, and gave interviews.
The more the clerics droned on in endless platitudes and careful parsing in lieu of implementing policy, the more the survivors garnered credibility and sympathy. A skilled facilitator would have invited the survivors into the hall, paired them each with a bishop, and invited them together to lay out constructive next steps for the church. Alas, no such forward-looking person was in a position to do so, least of all the much-touted and deeply disappointing pontiff.
Instead, the official meeting featured videos of survivors at yet one more remove from the bishops, many of whom had never listened to survivors in their own dioceses. It’s no wonder. These stories are hard to hear. One woman in a video told of being forced as an underage teen into sex with a priest; he paid for her three abortions. Some bishops expressed genuine shock, leading observers to wonder where they have been for the last two decades.
Still others continued to externalize the problem as a Western issue, suggesting, for example, that problems like child soldiers demand equal time. No doubt, good brothers, but the stated focus of the meeting was on the protection of minors, with the implied tagline “from priest/bishop abusers.” There are many actionable forms of abuse of children, but this time the focus was on that perpetrated by and covered up by clerics. The Vatican was not trying to solve the world’s problems, but to look at its own.
By many measures it failed miserably. The gathering was too homogenous to be useful. It was framed in the same old top-down way that’s at the heart of the problem. Lay people, both women and men, experts in the law, psychology, theology, and the like were excluded. Clerics met in small groups to talk with other clerics. What could be more wrong with this picture?
Pope Francis in his final statement captured the egregious miss that was this meeting. He started off generally: “Our work has made us realize once again that the gravity of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors is, and historically has been, a widespread phenomenon in all cultures and societies.” Then he went on to contextualize clerical abuse by talking about the high incidence of abuse at home. He’s right, of course, but the difference is that families don’t have as their reason for being the well-being of the world’s people. That is the Church’s (now empty) claim.
He painted a broader picture of pornography, sex trafficking, and other precipitating forces that make up “the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable.” There is no mystery here. His priests and bishops abused minors and some covered it up. What’s so mysterious about that? A large number of minors have been sexually abused by a large number of clerics. Period. Full stop. It’s simply the beginning of a hideous story that includes the abuse of seminarians, nuns and other women, children of priests, and more, all of whom merit summits of their own.
Francis’ discussion of power fell flat. He claimed that the sexual abuse of minors is an abuse of power. He completely passed over the structures of vastly unequal power between clergy and laity that are the bedrock of this power differential, a causative factor in church-related abuse. Without changing those structures the chances of eradicating sexual abuse of minors by clergy are nil.
Francis concluded with nothing new, concrete, or effective, using vacuous terms like “impeccable seriousness” and “genuine purification,” highly spiritualized notions that might ground new policies. I do not think so. And I know that few are going to wait around to find out.
Survivors and their supporters left empty handed while bishops toddled off to their dioceses without clear direction. On the one hand, one can applaud Francis for not imposing new laws by fiat, for inviting people to a “personal and communal conversion.” But “zero tolerance” is hardly a new idea or something around which consensus has to be built. It does not mean someone must leave the church as the McCarrick case proved, only that the person be dealt with by civil authorities and leave ministry where the possibility of abusingpower remains. Is that too much to ask in the face of mounting evidence of criminal behavior and cover-ups?
On the other hand, Francis’ approach might mean that church teachings and polity will be handled locally as abuse cases are. Catholics can rejoice that such moral sticky wickets as abortion and homosexuality, and such disputed matters of ecclesiology as the ordination of women and married men to the diaconate and presbyterate, will soon be announced as local options as well. I doubt sincerely that this is in the cards, but it follows logically. Logic was at a premium in Rome during the summit.
This dilemma, this selective use of papal power, points to the fundamental problem at hand. It’s the need for new ecclesial structures rooted in a realistic theology that would mitigate power inequities and begin to reshape the global Catholic Church into safer, more participatory communities with the full participation of women and lay men in every facet of church life.
To that end, the undisputed highlights of the meeting were the three presentations by women. Some of the clerics expressed surprise that Canon Lawyer Linda Ghisoni, Nigerian Sister of the Holy Child Jesus, Veronica Openibo, and longtime Mexican journalist, Valentina Alazraki, had such powerful and well-grounded analyses, and that they minced no words in their articulation. Apparently the men have been asleep for the last four decades when Catholic women have developed such competencies with no help from the institutional church.
Dr. Ghisoni challenged the overuse of official forms of secrecy in the Vatican, the so-called “pontifical secrets,” claiming that much of what had been hidden for the sake of protecting good names and the institution was relevant for public discussion. She knows that Canon Law can and must change. Pope Francis’ bizarre comment about feminism being “machismo in a skirt” following her talk suggests that she might have struck a little close to home.
Sister Openibo asked the clerics why they had persisted in silence for so long: “Why have other issues around sexuality not been addressed sufficiently, e.g. misuse of power, money, clericalism, gender discrimination, the role of women and the laity in general? Is it that the hierarchical structures and long protocols that negatively affected swift actions focused more on media reactions?” She concluded with the need to “be proactive not reactive in combating the challenges facing the world of the young and the vulnerable, and look fearlessly into other issues of abuse in the church and society,” marching orders for those who want to solve this problem.
Valentina Alazraki, a veteran Vatican journalist who has worked during five pontificates over four decades taking 150 papal trips, was equally frank. She left these words ringing in the ears of the assembled: “… we journalists are neither those who abuse nor those who cover up. Our mission is to assert and defend a right, which is a right to information based on truth in order to obtain justice. We journalists know that abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, but you must understand that we have to be more rigorous with you than with others, by virtue of your moral role.”
She recommended that the clerics turn over a new leaf with the new onslaught of information about the abuse of women in the church. This time, she counseled the institution to “play offense and not defense, as has happened in the case of the abuse of minors. It could be a great opportunity for the Church to take the initiative and be on the forefront of denouncing these abuses, which are not only sexual but also abuses of power.” Nothing that emerged from Pope Francis’ finale, nor from the final press conference that included Vatican spokespeople, indicated that this would happen. Nonetheless, the women speakers pointed the way forward.
No one expected a miracle or a magic solution to the deeply entrenched problem of sexual abuse of minors at this meeting. Given that the abuse of women, including nuns, has not been addressed at all, and that the cases and lists of perpetrators continue to roll out (along withthe conviction of George Pell, Pope Francis’ handpicked leader of the Vatican’s finances), there’s little reason to expect anything at all from Rome.
There’s solace in the strength of survivors, the savvy of these women speakers, and the solidarity of people around the world. When asked for bread, the Roman Catholic Church can no longer get away with giving a stone (Matthew 7:9). Roma finita est.
Year after year, we seem to reach new depths of priestly depravity in the Catholic church’s “ministry” to children in its charge. After 16 years of bad news on that front, a Pennsylvania grand jury reported last August that more than 1,000 children had been molested by more than 300 priests in that state. And now the attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, has revealed that 500 cases of alleged molestation were kept hidden by Catholic authorities. They were rejected as unproven by their own investigation. But Madigan says these were not real investigations at all, since the clerical bodies involved “will not resolve the clergy sexual abuse crisis on their own.” Civil authorities are needed where spiritual guidance has been nothing but misguidance.
The first instinct of bishops in these scandals was to “lawyer up,” and the first instruction of lawyers was not to show compassion or admit to any accusation. Large amounts of money are at stake here — millions already paid in settlements, with more millions to come. Madigan rightly says: “The priority has always been in protecting priests and protecting church assets.” I have a priest friend who went to console a family he knew when their child reported an abuse, but he was told by his religious superiors to cut it out. He was just lending credibility to the accuser.
The church response has consistently been to doubt, dismiss, or minimize reported acts of abuse. How, we have to wonder, can men dedicated to the Gospel allow or abet such a response? Have they never read the Gospel of Matthew (19.13-14)? When children were trying to reach Jesus, the disciples held them back, prompting Jesus to say: “Release (aphete) the children, do not hinder them from reaching me, since the heavenly reign belongs to those similar to them.”
Some say that an untenable demand for priestly celibacy fosters such crimes. But it would be unfair to the priests I know and admire to think they are covering up the crimes merely because they have some sympathy with the criminals, or that they are protecting the rule of priestly celibacy (which some have blamed for the crimes). They have a better motive (though a wrong one): They are trying to protect the aura of the priesthood that has been built up over the years. They fear that any loss of respect for priests will prevent them from doing good in service to their “flock.” The molestations diminish that respect.
Five years ago, when I wrote the book “Why Priests?”, some people criticized it because I did not include the pedophile scandal, even though it was filling the news. That was deliberate on my part. I did not want to give the idea that if only the sex scandal could run its course, all would be well with the priesthood — or that some reforms like removing the celibacy rule or ordaining women would make the priesthood work again. I don’t think it should work again. The priesthood is itself an affront to the Gospel. Jesus told his disciples: “You must not be addressed as ‘Rabbi,’ since you have only one Teacher, and you are brothers to each other. . . . And you must not be addressed as leaders, since you have only one Leader, the Messiah” (Matthew 23.8, 10).
There are no priests in the Gospels, except the Jewish priests, some of whom plotted against Jesus. Jesus is only called a priest in the late and suspect anonymous Letter to the Hebrews, where he is made a priest in the line of a mythical non-Jew, Melchisidek — and even there he is the sole and final priest. Peter and Paul never call themselves or any other Christian a priest. Outside the Letter to the Hebrews, the only New Testament titles for service to the community are episkopos (overseer), presbyter (elder), apostolos (emissary), and diakonos (servant), never priest (hiereus). None of these offices gave any of them a pivotal role in what would later become the seven sacraments.
Baptism was, from the outset, the entry ritual for the Christian community, but it could not originally be administered by priests, who did not yet exist. As the priesthood was gradually developed in the Middle Ages, it tended to subordinate all Christian activity to priestly superintendance — from childhood (baptism), to adolescence (confirmation), to mid-life (matrimony, sacred orders), to devotions (eucharist, penance), to the end of life (last rites). No wonder church leaders would try desperately to protect this imperial rule over the whole of Catholic life, trying to mute or erase any demeaning revelations of priestly predation.
The grip of the priests on Catholic life was illustrated for me when discussing “Why Priests” with Stephen Colbert on his earlier show (“The Colbert Report”), where he asked, “Don’t you really want a priest to be with you when you die?” I said no, even though I was brought up thinking that if you died with a mortal sin on your soul you would go to hell unless there was a priest at hand to hear your confession. Colbert also asked me if I believed that the eucharistic bread and wine were the literal body and blood of Christ. I did (and do) not. At the last supper, when Jesus handed out the bread and said “Take and eat,” his real body was there, offering bread as a symbol. If they were to eat the real body, they would have to chew on the offering hand not the offered bread. Augustine knew, in the fourth century, that the eucharist was not the real body of Jesus: “The visible [symbol] is received, eaten, and digested. But can the body of Christ be digested? Can the church of Christ be digested? Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course not.” (Sermon 227).
But Catholics are so convinced that only a priest can perform the miracle of transubstantiation that, if no priest shows up at a Mass, there is nothing for believers to do but go back home. There is no miracle without the magician. Colbert said to me after that show, “You are no better than a Protestant.” Right. I am no better than a Protestant. All Christians are brothers and sisters, whether or not priests show up at their gatherings. Many Catholics think they cannot do any real worshiping without priests. But why not? Peter did without priests. So did Paul. And all the early Christians.
Some Catholic women are calling to remove the barriers that prevent them from reaching the highest positions in their church’s leadership.
They say women should be able to vote in major policy meetings. They want Pope Francis to act on his promise to put more women in leadership positions within his administration, known as the Holy See. And some women want to become priests.
“Knock, knock! Who’s there? More than half the Church!” a group of Catholic women shouted outside the Vatican on October 3. That was the first day of this year’s meeting, or synod, of bishops from around the world.
The meeting brings together some 300 bishops, priests, nuns and other members of the church. Only about 35 are women. Not surprisingly, the position of women in the Catholic Church has been a major issue at the month-long meeting. The subject has come up in speeches on the floor, in small group discussions and at news conferences.
Only “synod fathers” are permitted to vote on the meeting’s final policy suggestions. The suggestions are then sent to the pope, who will take them into consideration when he writes his own document. Others involved are non-voting observers or experts.
Some of the attendees have pointed to what they say is a problem with these rules.
For example, this year two men who are not officially priests are being permitted to vote as leaders of their religious orders. But Sister Sally Marie Hodgdon is the leader of her religious order, and she cannot vote.
“I am a superior general,” Hodgdon told reporters. “I am a sister. So in theory … you would think I would have the right to vote.”
The membership of female religious orders is about three times larger than that of male orders.
An internet-based petition demanding that women have the right to vote at synods has collected 9,000 signatures since the start of this meeting. It is supported by 10 Catholic organizations seeking change in the Church. These changes include greater rights for women and homosexuals and greater responsibilities for non-priests.
“If male religious superiors who are not ordained can vote, then women religious superiors who are also not ordained should vote. With no … doctrinal barrier, the only barrier is the biological sex of the religious superior,” the petition reads.
The effort has won some powerful supporters.
At a news conference on October 15, leaders of three major male religious orders expressed support for changes in synod rules. Leaders of the Jesuits, the Dominicans and one branch of the Franciscans asked that women be permitted to vote in the future.
Support also came from Cardinal Reinhard Marx. He is the archbishop of Munich, president of the German Bishops Conference and one of the most influential Catholic leaders in Europe. In a speech to the synod, Marx said the church’s leaders must answer the questions young people have about equal rights for women.
“The impression that the Church, when it comes to power, is ultimately a male Church must be overcome in the universal Church and also here in the Vatican,” he said. “It is high time.”
Women in the Vatican
Five years ago, Pope Francis promised to put more women in leadership in his administration and Vatican City. Women are eligible for top positions in 50 departments, but only six hold such roles. None leads a department.
In June, Francis told the Reuters news service he had to “fight” resistance within the church to appoint 42-year-old Spanish reporter Paloma Garcia-Ovejero. He made her deputy head of the Vatican’s press office.
But the pope’s critics say he is moving too slowly. Sister Maria Luisa Berzosa Gonzalez is taking part in the current synod. She thinks it is time for change — in the synod, and in the wider Church. The 75-year old Spanish nun has spent her life educating the poor in Spain, Argentina and Italy.
“With this structure in the synod, with few women, few young people, nothing will change. It should no longer be this way,” she told Reuters.
The Catholic Church teaches that women cannot become priests because Jesus chose only men to help form the religion.
But supporters of a female priesthood say Jesus was just following the rules of society at the time. Kate McElwee is the Rome-based executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a U.S. group. She organized the protest on the synod’s opening day.
“Some women feel called by God to be priests … just as men do,” said McElwee.
As Catholic leaders from around the world rush to draft a document summarizing their monthlong deliberations on reaching out to young people, they have consistently struggled with what may seem like a simple question: how to refer to gay people.
The issue has come up repeatedly in briefings and interviews with the nearly 270 bishops and cardinals, as well as 72 nonvoting observers – including some 30 young adults – who have been debating a range of issues at this global summit, known as a synod, which is taking place under the aegis of Pope Francis, who wants to see open discussion of difficult topics.
Francis himself sparked the discussion about the church and homosexuality soon after his election in 2013 when he was asked whether gay men could be priests – something his predecessors sought to bar. Francis responded: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
That last phrase became a virtual meme of this papacy. But just as momentous was the fact that Francis was the first pope, and the rare Catholic leader, to use the term “gay.”
Church leaders and official church documents almost always use the more clinical word “homosexual,” or “same-sex attracted.”
“If the church continues to use antiquated, outdated and overly clinical terms like ‘same-sex attracted’ rather than the name the group uses for itself, the church will simply make dialogue more difficult and make these Catholics feel even less welcome in what is, after all, their church too,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about how the institutional church and LGBT Catholics can promote a constructive relationship.
“Besides,” Martin added via email, “if Pope Francis can use the word ‘gay’ so can everyone else.”
For the synod, this debate over vocabulary is fraught because conservatives fear that using terms such as gay or LGBT could signal an official approval of homosexuality and could undermine church teaching and the church’s public policy stands against gay marriage, for example.
“There is no such thing as an ‘LGBTQ Catholic’ or a ‘transgender Catholic’ or a ‘heterosexual Catholic,’ as if our sexual appetites defined who we are,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a U.S. delegate to the synod and a leader of the conservative camp, told the assembly in a speech to the floor earlier this month.
“It follows that ‘LGBTQ’ and similar language should not be used in church documents, because using it suggests that these are real, autonomous groups, and the church simply doesn’t categorize people that way,” he said.
The problem is that the working document that served as the blueprint for discussions in fact used the term LGBT (the acronym stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and it often includes “Q” for queer) because it drew on input from young people and church leaders whose views were solicited by the Vatican over the previous year.
“The youth are talking about it freely and in the language they use, and they are encouraging us, ‘Call us, address us this (way) because this is who we are,’” Cardinal John Ribat, a synod delegate from Papua New Guinea, said at a press briefing on Saturday (Oct. 20).
The inclusion of LGBT in that document triggered anxiety in some quarters. Conservative media outlets have pressed cardinals and bishops at every turn to clarify whether the terms would be included in the final synod document, which is scheduled to be voted on this Saturday.
The spotlight has clearly left many synod fathers, as the cardinals and bishops are called, uncomfortable as they struggle to respond to questions without using terms like “same-sex attracted.”
They know that would alienate not only gays and lesbians but also young people who are increasingly accepting of LGBT people. Using the term “gay” at press briefings and in interviews could also be interpreted as pressuring their more conservative colleagues, who are already irked at what some refer to as a “gay lobby” they say is using the synod as a vehicle to change church teaching on homosexuality.
This dynamic strongly suggests that the final document will not use the terms gay or LGBT because each paragraph must receive a two-thirds approval vote to be included and that does not seem likely if the hot-button words are included.
Instead, bishops appear to be favoring terms such as “inclusive” and “welcoming” to describe a general attitude of openness not only to gays but to everyone. Others are stressing that everyone, gay or straight, is a sinner in need of God’s grace, and all are called to conversion – though what gay people, in particular, have to convert to is not always spelled out.
Even that compromise language, which would essentially leave each bishop free to decide what that means in his diocese when it comes to LGBT people, might not please conservatives. And just throwing out a broad-based “welcome” mat may not please gay advocates, either.
“Francis said ‘welcome’ five years ago. The synod is supposed to be a time of discussion, to move things forward. I think we have to move forward from welcome. The fact they are using that term is not bad, it’s just not specific enough,” said Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for LGBT Catholics.
“What are you going to do with LGBT people after you welcome them?” added DeBernardo, who is in Rome for the month reporting on the synod and the approach to LGBT issues. He noted that gay Catholics continue to face discrimination — a church worker in San Diego resigned last week after months of abuse — and others are routinely fired when bishops or church leaders discover they are gay.
DeBernardo did feel the fact that the synod was trying to discuss the issue openly was a positive development.
Previous popes, he said, “painted themselves into such a corner on LGBT issues.”
“I think Francis and meetings like this are at least allowing them a way out of that corner,” he said. “It’s the first step out of that corner. But it can’t be the last step because it’s not answering the problem.”
It has been a season of anguish and rage for Catholics. Sixteen years after the BostonGlobe uncovered widespread clergy sexual abuse in a city where the church’s powerful influence once defined a brand of swaggering American Catholicism, those chilling words—“predators” and “cover-up”—are again back in the headlines. The first explosion went off in early summer. Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington and a prominent church leader who traveled the world on social justice missions, was removed from ministry after an investigation found credible allegations that he sexually abused a teenager as a priest. Reports also surfaced that McCarrick, who now holds the ignominious title of the first American to resign from the College of Cardinals, routinely sexually harassed seminarians. Not even two months later, a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed a horrifying history: More than a thousand children and young people were abused by hundreds of priests in six dioceses across the state over the past seven decades. This staggering scale of institutional evil shattered any lingering illusions that the abuse crisis was isolated. The culture of abuse and cover-up is systemic. After consulting with the FBI, the grand jury described the way church officials acted as “a playbook” for concealing the truth. The bombshells didn’t end there.
The latest eruption landed with even more impact, and has sparked perhaps the most bitter round of church infighting in the history of the U.S. Catholic Church. On a Sunday in late August, conservative Catholic media outlets in the United States and Italy released a stunning 11-page letter from the former Vatican ambassador to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. The testimony, as the nuncio described it, made a series of sweeping allegations without documented proof, the most dramatic being that Pope Francis ignored Viganò’s warnings about McCarrick’s behavior. In the late 2000s, he alleges, Pope Benedict XVI had ordered McCarrick to “a life of prayer and penance,” prohibiting him from saying Mass or speaking in public. Francis, the retired nuncio wrote, not only disregarded that supposed order but made McCarrick a “trusted counselor” who helped the pope appoint several progressive-minded bishops in the United States, including Cardinals Blase Cupich in Chicago and Joe Tobin of Newark—both viewed as prominent Francis allies. Most audaciously, Viganò urged Pope Francis to resign “to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses.”
Pope Francis, addressing reporters during an in-flight press conference after the news broke at the end of his recent visit to Ireland, essentially dismissed the allegations, encouraging journalists to uncover the truth. “I think this statement speaks for itself, and you have the sufficient journalistic capacity to draw conclusions,” he said. Reporters from multipleoutlets have already pointed out discrepancies between Viganò’s testimony and the historical record. While the former ambassador claims that Pope Benedict XVI ordered McCarrick to never say Mass and withdraw from public view, reporters quickly produced photographs, videos, and other evidence of the disgraced cardinal presiding at Mass, including in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica during Benedict’s papacy. McCarrick continued to attend papal functions during Benedict’s tenure, received awards from Catholic institutions, sat on the board of Catholic Relief Services, and made dozens of international trips. In a 2012 photograph, Viganò is seen congratulating McCarrick at a gala dinner sponsored by the Pontifical Missions Society in New York. More recently, the former ambassador has backpeddled, telling LifeSiteNews, one of the conservative Catholic media outlets that originally released Viganò’s letter, that the alleged sanctions imposed on McCarrick were “private” and that neither he nor Pope Benedict XVI were able to enforce them. The retired pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, told the Italian media outlet ANSA that reports of Benedict confirming some of the accusations in Viganò’s testimony were “fake news, a lie.” Last week, in a letter obtained by Catholic News Service, a top official from the Vatican’s secretary of state office acknowledged receiving allegations about McCarrick’s behavior with seminarians as far back as 2000, during the papacy of John Paul II. A statement released this week from members of the pope’s advisory council of nine cardinals expressed “full solidarity with Pope Francis in the face of what has happened in the last few weeks,” and noted that the Holy See is “formulating possible and necessary clarifications.”
While the daily developments and details of Viganò’s claims should be thoroughly investigated no matter where they lead, there is no way to understand this saga without recognizing how the former ambassador’s claims are part of a coordinated effort to undermine the Francis papacy. The Viganò letter is as much about power politics in the church as it is about rooting out a culture of abuse and cover-up. A small but vocal group of conservative Catholic pundits, priests, and archbishops, including the former archbishop of St. Louis Cardinal Raymond Burke, have led what can be described without hyperbole as a resistance movement against their own Holy Father since his election five years ago. Pope Francis, the insurgents insist, is dangerously steering the church away from traditional orthodoxy on homosexuality, divorce, and family life because of his more inclusive tone toward LGBT people and efforts to find pastoral ways to approach divorced and remarried Catholics. These conservative critics, many of whom essentially labeled progressive Catholics heretics for not showing enough deference to Pope Benedict XVI, are not discreet in their efforts to rebuke Francis. Last year, in a letter to the pope from the former head of the doctrine office at the U.S. bishops’ conference in Washington, Fr. Thomas Weinandy accused the pope of “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” the faithful, and creating “chronic confusion” in his teachings. “To teach with such an intentional lack of clarity, inevitably risks sinning against the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth,” the priest wrote in remarkably patronizing language more befitting a teacher correcting a student than a priest addressing the successor of Peter.
Viganò’s testimony therefore should not be read in isolation or as an aberration, but as the latest chapter in an ongoing campaign to weaken the credibility of Pope Francis. Political, cultural, and theological rifts among Catholics are nothing new in the church’s 2,000-year history, but Viganò’s call for the pope’s resignation has set off the ecclesial version of a street fight. “The current divisions among Catholics in the United States has no parallel in my lifetime,” Stephen Schneck, the former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, said in an interview. Bishops who usually take pains to show unity in public have issued dueling statements on Viganò’s letter that reflect this discord. Cardinal Tobin, who was appointed by Francis, sees Viganò’s accusations being used by the pope’s opponents to gain leverage. “I do think it’s about limiting the days of this pope, and short of that, neutering his voice or casting ambiguity around him,” the cardinal told TheNew York Times. Some conservatives in the hierarchy have cheered Viganò. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, issued a statement just hours after the letter was made public and ordered priests in his diocese to read his statement during Mass. “As your shepherd, I find them credible,” the bishop wrote in response to Viganò’s allegations.
In part, the letter feels like a manifesto written with all of the standard Catholic right talking points and grievances. This is especially the case when it comes to how the church approaches sexuality. The former nuncio, who consulted with a conservative Italian journalist before releasing the text, writes about “homosexual networks” in the church that “act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.” Viganò laments church leaders “promoting homosexuals into positions of responsibility.” This language and demonization echo the arguments some Catholic conservatives have made for years in an effort to blame the clergy-abuse crisis on gay clergy, and more broadly to challenge the advance of LGBT rights in the secular culture.
Viganò is not a newcomer to these fights. During his time as nuncio in Washington, he broke with ambassadorial norms of carefully avoiding becoming publicly enmeshed in hot-button political disputes by appearing at an anti-gay rally in 2014 organized by the National Organization for Marriage. Speaking at the event outside the U.S. Capitol, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone said Viganò’s participation “signifies the presence and support of Pope Francis.” But it was during Pope Francis’ 2015 trip to the United States when Viganò really went rogue, working with Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group, to enlist the pope into American culture wars by hastily arranging a meeting between Francis and Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The brief meeting, at the nuncio’s residence, blew up into a fiasco that threatened to spoil the pope’s successful first visit to the United States. Conservative leaders in the church attempted to frame the meeting as the pope choosing sides in the Davis controversy. Vatican officials immediately denied that and distanced themselves from Viganò’s decision to orchestrate the meeting. Instead, the Vatican highlighted a meeting the pope had at the embassy with a gay former student and his partner.
In his letter, Viganò specifically names the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and prominent editor at America magazine, as an example of how the church’s teachings about homosexuality have been derailed under Francis. In his writings, television appearances, and most recently during a speech at the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, Martin has urged the church and LGBT Catholics to dialogue together. Even though he doesn’t call for a change in church teaching on same-sex marriage and has the backing of several American cardinals, the media-savvy priest, who has a wide following on social media, is a bogeyman for a network of Catholic right groups. Last fall, the seminary at Catholic University rescinded a speaking gig for Martin because of the manufactured controversies surrounding the priest. “While the contempt directed at gay clergy is coming from just a handful of cardinals, bishops and priests, as well as a subset of Catholic commentators, it is as intense as it is dangerous,” Martin recently wrote in America. Two American bishops, responding to Viganò’s letter, give credence to Martin’s argument. “It is time to admit that there is a homosexual subculture within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church that is wreaking great devastation in the vineyard of the Lord,” Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, wrote in a letter to Catholics in his diocese. Cardinal Burke told a conservative Italian newspaper that a “homosexual culture” has “roots inside the church and can be connected to the drama of abuses perpetuated on adolescents and young adults.” A detailed study of the causes and context of clergy abuse, led by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice after the Boston scandals erupted, found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely to abuse minors. A witch-hunt mentality toward gay clergy nevertheless persists. Viganò’s letter only energizes that ugly tendency.
There is a certain irony that Archbishop Viganò wants to target a supposed “homosexual culture” in the church and claim the mantle of truth and transparency on clergy abuse. His record and credibility on those counts are checkered. Two years ago, when documents were disclosed as part of a criminal investigation of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, a memo from a Catholic priest alleged that in 2014 Viganò ordered two auxiliary bishops to end their investigation of then-Archbishop John Nienstedt over his alleged misconduct with adult men, including seminarians, when he was serving in another diocese. The memo stated that a local law firm’s investigation into the allegations found compelling evidence against the archbishop, and that archdiocese officials agreed that Nienstedt should resign. But after Nienstedt allegedly met with Viganò to persuade him those claims were made by critics who disagreed with his vocal opposition to same-sex marriage, the memo said, the nuncio ordered the investigation to end quickly and told the archdiocese to destroy a letter from auxiliary bishops to him objecting to that decision. Viganò has recently denied those charges. Citing his own failure of leadership, Nienstedt voluntarily resigned in 2015 after prosecutors accused the archdiocese of repeatedly ignoring warning signs of an abusive priest. That priest was later defrocked and sent to prison for abusing boys in his parish.
The swirling accusations and counter-responses surrounding the former ambassador’s letter highlight the influence of a close-knit, well-funded conservative Catholic network. Viganò’s letter was not first reported on by secular news sources or down-the-middle Catholic media. He released the text to the National Catholic Register and LifeSiteNews, two outlets that have often served as a hub for Catholic commentary critical of the pope’s reforms. The Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, is a leading critic of the Francis papacy, and the Register’s parent company, Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), mixes traditionalist Catholic programming with conservative political and religious commentators often more aligned with Donald Trump than Pope Francis.*
The New York Timesreported that before the letter was published, Viganò “shared his plan to speak out” with Timothy Busch, a wealthy Catholic lawyer, donor, and hotel magnate who founded a Napa-based winery where conservative bishops, philanthropists, and the occasional Republican politician meet each summer for prayer and networking. Busch is also on the board of EWTN. “Archbishop Viganò has done us a great service,” Busch said in a recent interview with the Times. “He decided to come forward because if he didn’t, he realized he would be perpetuating a cover-up.” Busch should be viewed with skepticism when it comes to this recent interest in holding church leaders accountable for clergy abuse. His own Napa Institute employed the services of Archbishop Neinstedt even after the archbishop resigned in the wake of clergy abuse scandals in Minneapolis. In a recent email sent to Napa Institute supporters, Busch denied that he was consulted on the letter before publication.
It still remains to be seen how many of the accusations leveled by Archbishop Viganò will stand up under scrutiny. His letter is part and parcel of an anti-Francis movement. Some Catholic networks on the right, which baptize themselves self-appointed watchdogs of orthodoxy and want to undermine the pope and his allies, will continue their campaigns. None of this gives a pass to any church leader, especially Pope Francis, on the sex-abuse crisis. Even Francis’s allies acknowledge that while he has spoken out for victims, he has not created systems to hold bishops accountable for enabling a clerical culture where abuse and cover-up flourish. If the Catholic hierarchy is able to emerge from this crisis with any credibility, it will only happen when a patriarchal hierarchy recognizes that nothing less than radical reform is needed. This reality includes making sure that lay people, especially women, are empowered. Kerry Robinson, founding executive director of the Leadership Roundtable, which began after the sexual abuse revelations in Boston, asks the right question. “How compromised is the Church by failing to include women at the highest level of leadership and at the tables of decision making?” she told me. “This is a matter of managerial urgency.” Internecine fights between Catholic factions that weaponize the abuse crisis to advance agendas might be inevitable in a deeply polarized church, but only deepen the wounds of survivors and prevent future abuses. The Catholic Church must radically reform a culture where clericalism privileges secrecy and abuse of power. Dismantling that system will require an uncomfortable shift away from an institutional mentality that views clergy and bishops as a special caste. Catholics at the grassroots, on the left and right, will need to lead this revolution together.
The recent report of widespread sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania has fueled increasing turmoil within the leadership of the Catholic Church. In July this year, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, resigned following allegations against him.
Opponents of Pope Francis are urging him to resign in light of allegations that he knew about McCarrick’s behavior.
At a moment when a culture of secrecy, and what appear to be systematic cover-ups are leading to a crisis of faith, some people are asking whether priestly celibacy is at the root of these scandals.
The fact is for a long time the Catholic Church struggled with its interpretation of Scriptures on priestly celibacy. It wasn’t until the 12th century that priestly celibacy became mandatory.
Scriptural basis for celibacy
In the middle of the first century, Paul, the most influential apostle of the early Christian movement, wrote a letter to a congregation of Jesus followers in Corinth, Greece. It contains the earliest record of a discussion about celibacy and marriage among “believers,” as Christians were called at the time.
Apparently, the members of the church had written to Paul what appears to be a simple and specific argument in favor of celibacy: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” they write. We do not know who wrote these words to Paul or why they made this claim.
But Paul’s response to their claims provides a basis for later Christian views on marriage and celibacy, sex and self-control, and ethics and immorality.
“Because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. … Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set of time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command.”
For Paul, marriage was a concession: He appears to view it reluctantly as merely an acceptable choice for those who cannot control themselves.
He goes on to say, “I wish that all were as I myself am,” implying at the very least that he is not married. And he confirms this in the passage that follows,
“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Marriage, in Paul’s view, is the lesser choice. It is for those who cannot control themselves. Although difficult, remaining unmarried and choosing celibacy, seems to be the higher ideal.
Interpretations of Paul
As a a scholar of early Christianity, I know that Scriptural interpretations are always dynamic; Scripture is read and understood by different Christians in different time periods and places. So, it is not surprising that a short time later, Paul’s writings found new meaning as asceticism – the practices of self-control that included fasting, celibacy, and solitude –began to spread within Christianity.
A second-century expansion on the story of Paul, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, a largely fictional story about Paul’s missionary efforts in what is now modern Turkey, casts Paul primarily as a preacher of self-control and celibacy. In this story, Paul blesses “those who have wives as if they have them not.”
Such a phrase may sound strange to modern readers. But as monasticism grew within Christianity, some married Christian couples were faced with a problem: They did not want to divorce their spouses, because Scripture spoke against divorce. And yet they wanted to choose the life of celibacy. So these Christians chose to “live as brother and sister,” or “to have wives as if they had them not.”
At the same time, stories of failures to keep vows of celibacy abounded: stories of monks and nuns who lived together and bore children, stories of monks who took mistresses, and stories about behaviors that today would be considered sexual abuse.
These stories emphasized that temptation was always a problem for those who chose celibacy.
Celibacy and crisis
In the Middle Ages, the celibacy of the priesthood became a source of conflict between Christians. By the 11th century, it contributed to the formal schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
But the issues were far from resolved. Divergent views on mandatory celibacy for priests contributed to the reform movements in the 16th century. Martin Luther, a leader of the Protestant Reformation, argued that allowing priests to marry would prevent cases of sexual immorality. He drew upon Paul’s letters for support of his views.
On the other hand, leaders of the Catholic Church’s “Counter-Reformation,” a reform and renewal movement that had begun before Martin Luther, did not advocate marriage, but sought to address corrupt practices among the clergy.
Desiderius Erasmus, for example, a 16th century Catholic scholar, wrote a powerful critique of corruption in the Catholic Church. His views may well have been shaped by the fact that he himself was the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest.
One of the most important developments in this period was the creation of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, which sought to reform the priesthood in the face of accusations of sexual relations and corruption by, in part, improving the education of priests. In the founding rules of the Jesuit order, emphasis was placed on the importance of celibacy, training and preparation for missionary work, and serving the directives of the pope.
Pope Francis too is a Jesuit and has a long church history and tradition that he could draw from. The question is, at a time when the church is facing a crisis, will he show the way towards renewal and reform?