"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

What was left out at the Synod

As expected, the most widely discussed and publicized topic of discussion at the recently concluded Synod on the Eucharist in Rome was the shortage of priests. As expected, the proposed solution of relaxing the celibacy requirement in the Latin Church was rejected. To me, though, the interesting thing about the exercise was the stance supporting the alternatives proposed in the relevant, published proposition (#11):

The centrality of the Eucharist for the life of the Church means that the problem of the great shortage of priests in some parts of the world is felt very acutely. Many faithful are thus deprived of the Bread of life. In order to meet the Eucharistic hunger of the people of God, who are often forced to go without the Eucharistic celebration for considerable periods, it is necessary to implement effective pastoral initiatives.

In this context, the Synod Fathers affirmed the importance of the inestimable gift of ecclesiastical celibacy in the Latin Church. With reference to the Magisterium, especially to Vatican Council II and to recent Pontiffs, the Fathers requested that the faithful be given adequate explanation of the reasons for the link between celibacy and priestly ordination, in full respect for the tradition of the Eastern Churches. Some reference was made to viri probati, but it was decided that this was an untenable hypothesis.

Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that, in offering the Eucharistic gift to all the faithful, the Christian quality of the community and its force of attraction have a decisive influence. It is particularly important to encourage pastors to promote priestly vocations, ... raise awareness among families, ... ensure (by bishops, with the involvement of religious families and maintaining respect for their charism) a more even distribution of the clergy, encouraging the clergy itself to a greater readiness to serve the Church wherever the need arises.
The referent of viri probati is older, married men who have proven themselves exemplary Catholics. Even the proposal to ordain some of them was rejected. Why, then, is celibacy considered so important that even such a modest relaxation of the current norm was considered "untenable"? Why did the proposed ways of addressing the priest shortage boil down to saying: "the same as before, only better"? For that is in fact what it comes to: the recommendations are no different from those that have always been given.

For the general theological rationale of priestly celibacy, there are no more useful sources than Pope Paul VI's Sacerdotalis Caelibatus and John Paul II's Pastores Dabo Vobis. Even those popes, however, freely admitted that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood: the arguments for it are ad convenientiam, not demonstrative. Yet they assume, as do the bishops of the Synod, that the fittingness of priestly celibacy carries a pastoral weight so great that the Church ought, by retaining the discipline, to risk leaving many Catholics without regular access to the Mass. That assumption makes no sense in purely human terms; from that point of view, it's bad personnel policy. And for many people, that's a decisive reason to drop the discipline. But to me, the human foolishness of it only raises the question whether the discipline makes sense in supernatural terms. I believe it makes perfect and tremendous sense for the world today—but not for the reasons Catholics usually give.

The reasons usually given are purely practical: time, energy, and money. A celibate, single man has more time and energy to devote to priestly duties, and needs less money, than a married man (especially one with young children). That's all true. But given the level on which such reasoning operates, one could make a strong case that such advantages of celibacy are outweighed by the disadvantages, well-known to the bishops, of limiting the priesthood to celibates. It's all a matter of calculating utility: is the net utility of the current discipline greater or less than its net disutility? Reasonable people can and do disagree about that; indeed, debate conducted on such terms will never be settled. Yet the real point of celibacy remains and outweighs all such considerations even as it subsumes them.

The real point of the discipline is to symbolize, and thus facilitate the reality, that the priest is an icon of Christ the Bridegroom of his Bride, the Church. The priest is married to the Church, whether or not he is also married to a particular woman. By focusing attention on that, the celibacy discipline helps to make concrete the reality thus symbolized. And why is that so important? Because failure to appreciate the nuptuality of Catholicism is probably the main cause of dissent and indifference in the Church today. People do not understand why and how marriage is the most visible, and sacramental, analogy of God's love for his people or how the spiritually fruitful and central analogy is replicated, on a collective scale, in the hierarchical nature of the Church herself. That is why most of the dissent and indifference in the Church today have to do with questions of sex, gender, and power.

If the baptized in general understood that they belong to the Mystical Body of Christ, which is one with a divine Person as spouses are one body with each other, they would actually appreciate why true marriage must be indissoluble, why the husband is head of his wife, why sexual intercourse must be limited to marriage and not closed to new life, why the clerical hierarchy exemplifies the same sort of spiritual reality—and thus why its members fulfill their role so much better as celibates. A married man, ordained or no, has to put the welfare of his wife and family first: his marriage to a particular woman must take precedence, if and when there's a conflict, over his marriage to the Church. That's why the utilitarian considerations are relevant even if not in themselves decisive. They point to the real spiritual issue I have described. And that issue is absolutely vital. Without the insights consequent on understanding that issue rightly, people will continue to view the Church primarily as an institution and her norms about sex and marriage primarily as life-denying. With those insights, the Church comes to be seen primarily as a bride and her norms about sex and marriage come to be seen primarily as ways of describing how the nuptial reality of the "economy" of salvation is lived out in those areas. By the same token, priestly celibacy will be seen as a way of affirming and supporting marriage, not as a way of denigrating it. All of that is essential to the Church's mission of evangelization in the world today because the most important means of evangelization is Catholics who appreciate and live their faith in its fullness, even as the biggest obstacle to evangelization is the failure of Catholics, lay and clerical, to do so. That is why retaining the celibacy discipline is so important.

I've explored such themes more deeply in past posts. So if the Synod Fathers, from the Pope on down, expect "the inestimable value of celibacy" to be made clear to the faithful, that's where they need to focus. It's an immense catechetical task best conducted in terms of "the theology of the body" (see the link in the sidebar). Yet I detected no awareness of that in the Synod proceedings. The bishops still seem, as a body, clueless about the means to their admirable end. Nothing substantial will change until they get a clue.
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