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Benedict’s Thoughts on Priesthood: Confused, Contradictory.

As I reflect on Pope Benedict’s observations on the priesthood as recounted to Peter Seewald in “Light of the World”, what strikes me most is the range of models that he refers to as determining the essential requirements of the job – and how these shift, depending on the context. But if we take precisely the same models he does, and move them to different contexts, they flatly contradict the established rules for admission, and even undermine the standard approach to dealing with “homosexuals” in the Church, but not in the priesthood.

The first, absolutely rigid, requirement for the priesthood that Benedict discusses in the interview is that priests be male.  “Non possumus” (we are not able), said Pope John Paul II, and Benedict concurs. This argument is derived directly from the Gospels, on the grounds that Jesus himself chose only men for his chosen Twelve. This, they say, makes it absolutely impossible to admit women to the priesthood: the Church is irrevocably bound by the example of Christ himself. It is not that they do not want to ordain women, but they simply cannot.

John Paul’s formulation is very important: the Church has “no authority” to ordain women. The point is not that we are saying that we don’t want to, but that we can’t.  The Lord gave the Church a form with the Twelve and, as their successors, with the bishops and the presbyters, the priests.  This form of the Church is not something we ourselves have produced.  It is how he constituted the Church.  Following this is an act of obedience.

There are many objections to this line of reasoning that have been made by the proponents of women’s ordination, but I will not address them here. Instead, I want to show what happens when we apply precisely the same reasoning elsewhere. Thanks to a perceptive observation by William, a non-Catholic reader here at Queering the Church, I have been considering the question of the married apostles. How many were there?

We know for certain that Peter was married, as he had a mother-in-law. It is also widely believed that except for John (who may be Jesus’ own “beloved disciple”), all or most of the others were also married.  (Some on – line sources even identify the number of their children!)  The precise number though is irrelevant. It is enough to know that just one was certainly married. If the essential principle in setting the rules for admission to the priesthood is the guidelines set by Christ himself, then clearly married men should be eligible. In asking if the Church can exclude married men, then by Benedict and John Paul’s own argument, the only possible response should be “non possumus” – we are not able to exclude married men.  Admitting them should be seen not as a matter of choice, but as simple obedience. Yet, in flagrant disregard of the Gospel example,  the Church does indeed exclude married men (at least for men baptised and confirmed in the Western, Catholic church. For men in the Eastern Church, or originally ordained in another denomination, the rules suddenly and arbitrarily change).

But in justifying the insistence on maintaining the regulation on compulsory celibacy, the insistence on the Gospel example suddenly changes. In fact, there is no justification for the rule directly stated at all – instead there are only allusions and suggestions, and some rather bizarre statements on how to live successfully a celibate life.

I can certainly understand that bishops would reflect on that (i.e. “enabling the service of married men”, given the confusion of the times. But things get complicated when it comes to say what such coexistence would look like.

This looks to me rather as though it is no so much a firm insistence on compulsory celibacy, still less a formal justification for it, as it sounds like some rumination on the practical form this might take. He then proceeds to suggest how celibacy becomes possible:

I believe that celibacy becomes a very meaningful sign, and above all becomes possible to live, when priests form communities. It is important for priests not to live off on their own somewhere, in isolation, but to accompany one another in small communities, to support one another, and so to experience, and constantly realize afresh, their communion in service to Christ, and in renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.

This sounds superficially reasonable for priests living in close proximity to others, as in the Vatican or in the major cities of southern Europe  – but it has profound implications for priests whose ministry leaves them and their colleagues widely dispersed, and also for gay men outside the priesthood. For if a life in community is the way to withstand the sacrifice of celibacy, and a life in community with colleagues is simply not possible, then does this imply that priests in isolated locations, living at substantial distance from each other, should be permitted to marry, so that they could have the support and comfort of wives to sustain and support them in their work? Let us now recall the origins of celibacy in the Church, as a practice which was initially required only of monks living in precisely the types of communities he describes, but not for other priests. Benedict says it “gets complicated” imagining the precise way in which a celibate and non-celibate priesthood can co-exist. But there is nothing complicated about the model which is often proposed by bishops, and exactly parallels this arrangement of the early church: maintain compulsory celibacy for the monasteries and other orders which provide a structure for the necessary community support, and permit marriage for diocesan priests who would otherwise be living alone, in isolated conditions – leaving the decision to the discretion of local bishops.

(As an aside, I note that for gay men, there is another fascinating conclusion here, contradicting church practice, if not teaching. For if, as Benedict is saying, the practice of celibacy is difficult for men living outside of community, why does the Church view gay but celibate men cohabiting or in a civil union in such a negative light? The CDF insists that “homosexuality” is not sinful, but only sexual acts. That being so, the church should be encouraging homosexual Catholics who wish to live strictly within the teaching to form partnerships or communities with others of like mind, so that, as Benedict recommends for clergy, they can support each other in the renunciation of their sexual lives).

Then there is this:

It is something that can only be done and is only credible, it there is a god and if celibacy is my doorway into the Kingdom of God. In this sense, celibacy is a special kind of sign. The scandal that it provokes consists precisely in the fact that there are people who believe these  things.

What he does not say here is what strikes me. He suggests that celibacy is a doorway into the Kingdom of God, and states that there are people who believe it to be so – but he does not state is as fact, only as a possibility: “if”.  Is it possible that in his careful avoidance of stating any firm foundation for the rule on compulsory celibacy, he might be preparing the way for a more formal review of the possibility?

Turning to the exclusion of gay men from the priesthood, the main justification shifts again. Here he once again states a clear reason – that gay men lack a proper sense of “paternity”:

The Congregation for Education issued a decision a few years ago to the effect that homosexual candidates cannot become priests because their sexual orientation estranges them from the proper sense of paternity, from the intrinsic nature of priestly being.

I have already objected strongly to the clear implication that gay men necessarily lack a sense of paternity, which is completely contradicted by the evidence. On further reflection however, I have another strong objection to the argument – the assumption that “paternity” is a primary characteristic of the priesthood. We are familiar of course, with the terminology “father” as a form of address, and of “Holy Father” as a term for the pope himself, but where does it come from?

It certainly does not come from the Gospels. The example of Christ himself, who Benedict clearly identifies as the model when discussing women’s ordination, is not one of paternity, but of service. Indeed, in justifying the exclusion of women, Benedict insists that priesthood is not about “dominion”, but service. So why does he abandon the service model of priesthood when considering gay priests? If we were to stick to the service model, we would surely reach a very different conclusion: simple observation shows clearly that gay men collectively are more than usually drawn to the service professions. Conversely, if the (biological) parenting instinct is paramount, then who better then women, whose maternal instincts are generally pronounced. Other models for priesthood we can legitimately draw from Christ himself in the Gospels, and which I would accept, are those of a teacher and pupils (the direct meaning of the words usually given as “master” and “disciples”), or a shepherd guiding a flock. If there is a description in the Gospels of Christ as “father”, I have missed it.

Perhaps it is not biological paternity that is meant, but then what is it? As Benedict has been careful to insist that priesthood is not about dominion, but service, we may assume that he is not thinking of the Roman paterfamilias, whose role was primarily one of control. Almost certainly though, Benedict’s conception of fatherhood is based on the father as adult, and of children as minors. This I find offensive, and once again point out that there is another phase in the parent child relationship – that of an aging, increasingly frail parent cared for by adult children.

Equally offensive is his other observation about gay men as a supposed disqualification from the priesthood:

For, in the end, their attitude to man and woman is somehow distorted, off centre,  and in any case is not within the direction of creation of which we have spoken.

This is no more than a variation of the “disordered” description which has been widely used before, but here more explicit. The standard defence of the “disordered” term is that it is not to be understood in its common sense, but with a narrow theological intent, as “not ordered to creation”. That defence cannot be made here. There is nothing “distorted” in the gay male attitude to man and woman, except that they do not share the  heterosexual orientation. There is, however, a very great distortion in the attitude of too many heterosexual men to the relationships between men – relationships which are entirely natural.

Taking it all together, the overriding impression I am left with from this presentation of Benedict’s thinking, is one I am often left with when examining Vatican pronouncements on sexual ethics or church regulations: that they are not developed by from fixed, clear principles from which the conclusions follow by clear reasoning. Instead, arbitrary conclusions are defended on the basis of a range of assumptions selectively chosen on the basis of their utility for particular purposes. Benedict says in defence of an exclusively male priesthood that they are powerless, that they cannot arbitrarily make the rules to suit them.

The evidence  of history is that they can, and they do.

(I have posted the full text of Benedict’s responses to questions on the priesthood at Pope Benedict, on the Priesthood )

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4 Responses

  1. Bravo!! What a well-crafted post. I am a ‘lapsed Catholic’ and what has always boggled my mind about the Church is how it adds layer upon layer of complication to so what Jesus made so simple. It is not just “a priesthood of believers”, it is a complex role with so many rules and justifications around it that you hardly know who is eligible to be a priest and who is not. It is not simply “do this in memory of me”, there are rules around how the elements are handled and stored, who can take Communion based on where you were baptized, if you are wearing a rainbow sash, etc. etc. I made a simple request to my diocese earlier this year to add a note next to my name in the baptismal registry that I was no longer a practicing Catholic. I received a two-page form letter in the mail, detailing all these Canon laws and Latin phrases that basically told me I could not NOT be Catholic. Whaaaaaa? I miss the Church sometimes, but I feel like I was always kept at arm’s length from Christ with all the rules, hurdles, and laws. I keep praying for a kinder, simpler Catholic church and maybe one day I will return. I was not strong enough to remain within the Church. God bless you and your work for reform from within the Church.

    • Thanks, Erin. A series I am working on next week is along the lines of “Put Christ back into Christianity” – making much the point you do. What we have far too often in the Church has nothing to do with the Gospels, but what has been gradually added over the centuries, often in a naked power grab.

      I should emphasise though, that I am not interested in anything as grand or ambitious as trying to reform “the Church”. My interest is only in reaching a few individuals, and helping them to see through and withstand the bullying that comes at them from the Vatican, some bishops, and self-appointed Catholic spokespersons.

  2. It is amazing to me that the Pope would speak out against gay priests when so many priests are gay. They don’t want gay men to live as partners and now they don’t want them in the priesthood either. I guess they do think it is OK for them to get married, as long as its with someone of the opposite sex.

    • It is precisely because so many priests are gay that he is speaking out. The problem is that the entire approach is based on fear – fear of the consequences if they really faced up to the consequences of their own thinking on sexuality and its internal contradictions. I think they believe that they can just banish gay priests, and the problem will go away. They can’t – and it won’t.

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