Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Celibacy Not Required

The next pope may turn out to be antimodern, but he's not likely to continue John Paul II's insistence on celibacy for the priesthood. According to Nicholas Kristof ("The new pope will let fathers be fathers," International Herald Tribune, April 11, 2005), the coming pope "will allow married men to become priests . . . [as] a matter of survival . . . [because] the Catholic Church is running out of priests."

Interestingly, Kristof notes in passing a couple of points that resonate with my previous post, which mentioned the growth of Christianity in Africa:

"Christianity is at its most dynamic in Africa, but [Catholic] clergy in Africa have often complained that the effort to attract priests there is hobbled by a cultural emphasis on having children. In central Africa a few years ago, an Italian priest told me of a local bishop's children. I thought he was speaking metaphorically abut the parishoners, but the missionary shook his head.

'No, he has a wife,' the priest said of the bishop. 'Celibacy just runs against the culture here. In fact, if we find a priest who sticks to just one wife, we promote him to bishop.'"

That restriction on those promoted to the office of bishop likely follows from a literal reading of 1 Timothy 3:2, which rules that a bishop must be the "husband of one wife" (Revised English Bible, 1989). This suggests that regardless of the Vatican's official position, the Catholic Church has begun revising its practices to accomodate local conditions while retaining some semblance of scriptural foundation.

Excursus: Protestants have faced a related problem in Africa.

Walter A. Trobisch (in William A. Smalley, ed., Readings in Missionary Anthropology II (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1978), 233-235), tells an anecdote about meeting a polygamous man in Africa whose three wives attend a Protestant church without him because the church refuses to admit polygamous men. The man explains that his first wife wanted him to take a second wife because she needed help around the house. A third wife came his way when one of his brothers died. As a brother, his duty was to care for the widow and her children (a practice, incidently, consistent with Old Testament norms).

This polygamous man comments on the sort of church that develops when a pastor refuses to adjust to African culture:

"I feel sorry for the pastor," he said. "By refusing to accept all the polygamous men in town as church members he has made his flock poor and they shall always be dependent upon subsidies from America. He has created a church of women whom he tells every Sunday that polygamy is wrong."

For Protestants, this would potentially mean losing men to Islam, which allows for polygamy and often competes for converts in the same regions.

Trobisch's story probably reflects the circumstances back in the 60s or 70s, for his article was published in 1978, so practices may have changed enormously since then. How so? Because statistics show that Christians have grown from 60 million in 1960 to over 360 million today. It's therefore a good bet that Africans have largely appropriated Christianity to African conditions. This has, in fact, happened and has entailed the unstated, or even explicit acceptance of polygamy.

Evangelicals, and especially pentecostals, are perhaps especially flexible on such matters because their non-hierarchical organization readily allows for the reflection of local circumstances. Certainly, they have sprang up quickly in Africa. From Philip Jenkins's recent book, The Next Christendom, it would appear that evangelicals, particularly of the pentecostal variety, have been doing very well among Africans, for he shows that most of the Church growth there since 1960 has been been fueled by charismatic Christianity.

Which returns us to our original topic: the next pope.

Kristof thinks that pentecostalism is part of the reason that the coming pope will allow married priests:

"Faced with . . . [the] choice worldwide [between decline and transformation], losing ground to Pentecostals, the next pope will be forced to choose transformation."

Kristof reminds us that the early church had married priest and points out that not until the 11th or 12th centuries were "the rules for celibacy . . . formalized."

From this long perspective, I suppose that even a policy allowing married priests could be considered antimodern.

Indeed, it'd be downright pre-medieval.


At 6:01 PM, Blogger lirelou said...

The strange truth is that the Catholic Church does allow married priests under certain conditions. First, the Eastern Churches (Coptic, Syrian Catholic, Lebanese Maronite) all allow married priests. In fact, they prefer married priests for cultural reasons. If the standards are what I was told by Brother George in my first year of catholic high school, in his home (he was a "Syrrrian" with thick Scottish brogue), priests were recruited from among the parisioners, who recommended good candidates. Usually, he was a young, married, respected businessman. The parish then contributed the funds to send the candidate to seminary, and when he finished, he returned to the parish to minister. Quite a shock to us young Catholics, but Brother George insisted that his own brother was a Bishop. A vow of celibacy was a requirement for any unmarried individual who took holy orders, but not for those already married. It is the Roman rite that demands celibacy, but not all catholics are Roman rite. Second, I've been told (not verified) that former Anglican priests who "return" to Catholicism are allowed to keep their marriages intact.

There have been previous traditions of married priests in Western Europe, notably in the Celtic church, where Bishops were not only married, but often clan heads whose title passed by primogeniture, with all the abuses that you might imagine. It is my understanding that St. Patrick's reforms helped kill it off.

The church may be able to settle the celibacy issue by adopting the practice of the eastern churches, but it will embrace polygamy at its peril. I am not an anti-polygamist (used to live in Utah), but it is not a catholic institution. The church must either have standards, or it has lost its raison d'etre. The eastern church practices have been with the church for nearly two thousand years. Regarding Africa's polygamists, the question arises: Are they catholics, an African version of the Tai Ping, or some new brand of Christians who really belong in a church of their own?

At 4:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lirelou, thanks for the additional information. Kristof also mentions a couple of categories of married priests. I remember speaking with a married Lutheran minister about 25 years ago who mentioned his own interest in becoming a Catholic priest. I expressed surprise and wondered if he would be able to do so as a married man. He then told me about married priests in the Catholic Church.

As for polygamy, I suspect that even evangelicals will never officially accept it (whatever "offially" might mean for a movement that has no overarching structure) and hope that it eventually disappears among African Christians.

If I recall, Charlemagne had more than one wife (and many concubines), but Church pressure eventually persuaded the Carolingian dynasty to adhere to Church teaching and have only one wife. Offically, anyway.


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