Like many other non-Catholics around the world, I have been following with interest the events unfolding in Rome these last few days. Given the media’s obsessive-like coverage of the election of Pope Benedict XVI’s successor, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, anywhere, Catholic or non-Catholic, could have remained ignorant of, or even completely indifferent to, what has been taking place in the Eternal City. On Tuesday, as white smoke issued from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel announcing that the next Pope had been chosen, I stood glued to the front of my TV set–like millions of others, I suspect–watching intently to see who would appear on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. Would it be another Italian? An African? The Canadian cardinal? I couldn’t even venture a guess. Then the new Pope appeared, and, to the surprise of many, it was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I would wager that many cardinals were secretly relieved not to be chosen as Benedict’s successor, given what awaits the 266th Pope. The “pomp and circumstance” of the last few days has provided a fascinating and colourful distraction–but a temporary distraction only–from the uncomfortable reality that the Catholic Church is a in a state of crisis: a crisis brought on in large part through the scandalous actions of pedophile priests and their enabling bishops. And their number appears to be Legion. No community seems immune, even my own. A few days before the 115 cardinals began their deliberations, the daily newspaper in my hometown reported the upcoming sentencing date of a local parish priest convicted of sexual misconduct with a young person. Similar allegations had been made previously against this same priest in another diocese, but no charges were ever laid, and so the perpetrator was moved to an unsuspecting parish far away. This scenario, or something similar, keeps happening, challenging the very moral authority that the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself.
What can the new Pope Francis (as Cardinal Bergoglio is now known) do about the problem of sex abuse? It is said that Cardinal Bergoglio chose for himself the name “Francis,” inspired by the medieval reformer Francis of Assisi. If Pope Francis is intent on healing the Church, then, like other reformers before him, he must go back to the beginning. Today’s Catholic Church with its insistence on priestly celibacy bears little resemblance to the 1st century Church. The apostle Peter, believed by Catholics to be the first Pope, was a married man. In Matthew’s Gospel, we read how Jesus entered Peter’s home and healed his mother-in-law of a fever (8:14-15). Bishops and deacons in the early church, moreover, were married men with families. In his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul sets out the requisite qualifications for the aspiring bishop and deacon. Two of those requirements have to do with wives and children: A bishop or deacon was to be the husband of one wife, and was to manage his children and household well (1 Ti 3:2, 4, 12). It is clear that the first church leaders were married men with children.
Over the course of the next four centuries, the Church’s attitude towards married clergymen changed. Canon 33 of the Council of Elvira held in Spain in 305 provides the first textual evidence of this changed attitude. Canon 33 shows that, while married men were still being accepted as priests, they now had to agree to abstain from all sexual contact with their wives once they received their orders. The first Pope to issue a decree mandating clerical celibacy was Pope Siricius (384-399). In his Directa Decretal issued in 385, he ordered priests to stop cohabiting with their wives, reminding them that a precondition to their ordination was adherence to the lex continentiae, ‘law of abstinence,’ which forbade all conjugal relations with spouses after ordination. (The fact that he had to issue such a decree shows just how well that idea was going over!!) I doubt that the apostle Paul, although celibate himself, would have approved of the lex continentiae. Although he may have wished that everyone was celibate like he was, Paul regarded his celibate state as a gift, not a rule to be enforced (1 Co7:1-7).
The insistence on priestly celibacy now in evidence in the Fourth Century was the result of theological error that had crept in, namely, the notion that the sacrament of Holy Communion was a continuation of the Old Testament sacrificial system. The thinking of the Church was: Just as the Levitical priests had to be ritually pure by abstaining from sex while they served in the temple, so too must the priests who ministered the Church’s sacraments be. However, the writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews makes clear that there is no such continuity with the former sacrificial system. Everything that came before, including the Levitical-style priest, has been superseded by the unique priesthood of Jesus. In Jesus, Christians have gained a unique high priest and a perfect sacrifice.
Mandatory clerical celibacy–something that came about through theological error–has created grave problems for the Catholic Church. Some priests may see celibacy as a gift, as Paul did, but others must lead desperately lonely and sexually frustrated lives. And, all too obviously, some priests are pedophiles who have taken shelter within the walls of the Church, unsuspected until they abuse a child. Because mandatory clerical celibacy does not involve Catholic Church dogma, the new Pope has the power to end mandatory celibacy and allow married men into the priesthood. This is the reform that is so desperately needed. People say the new Pope is humble, and kind. Let’s hope that he is bold as well.