Who Says the Church Can't Change?

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This crisis is all the more appalling because it rests on differences about doctrines that are not central to the faith. No one is disputing anything in the creed we recite each Sunday. The issues that have led to this gulf between hierarchy and laity, between institution and people, are not integral to what it means to be a Catholic. The ban on birth control — reaffirmed by fiat by Pope Paul VI after many leading theologians and church officials seemed poised to reverse it — is not an issue as vital as, say, the divinity of Christ, the fact of the Resurrection or the miracle of the Mass. A celibate priesthood — one of the many reasons why vocations have collapsed — is an administrative matter. It was not mandatory for the first 11 centuries of the church's existence, and was imposed primarily to rescue the church from the corruption of priests bequeathing church property to their heirs. Several past Popes have been married. Mandatory celibacy does not exist in the Eastern Orthodox church, which is formally in communion with Rome. Former Anglican priests who have converted to Roman Catholicism are allowed to function as priests while staying married. As with most Catholic administrative matters, exceptions are made. So why cannot one be made now, where the church is faced with the greatest threat to vocations in its history?

On sexual morality, the same practical exceptions apply, but to a lesser extent. Divorce is forbidden, and divorced remarried Catholics are barred from the sacraments. But annulments are plentiful — if you can prove that your marriage was from the outset so dysfunctional it wasn't a marriage at all. So complete failures can be rescued, but human messes are unforgivable, and fresh starts for the imperfect ruled out of bounds. Similarly, homosexuals are informed that they are born that way, but no sexual intimacy is permissible, because it cannot lead to procreation. But the infertile are married every day; postmenopausal spouses are allowed active sex lives. Only lay Catholic homosexuals are given no option for sexual intimacy. They are required to live up to standards of self-denial that, among others, only priests are required to fulfill. Yet unlike celibate priests, gays are not even provided a divine rationale for their sexual and emotional imprisonment.

Most priests don't even try to convey these cruel inconsistencies. In almost 40 years of regular churchgoing, I have yet to hear a homily defending the church's positions on birth control, women priests or homosexuality. My suspicion is that the priests don't believe the teachings themselves. In the confessional, I have found that priests, while not condoning homosexual relationships, find it hard to condemn them. They know from pastoral experience, in ways that the hierarchy doesn't seem to accept, that we are all human, and that the laity's real experience dealing with bad marriages, homosexual orientation or contraception is often as morally valid as the arid proscriptions issued from on high. But they cannot say so publicly. This dissonance is a little like the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The hierarchy pretends to preach these doctrines and the laity pretends to believe them.

Does this mean that the church should take a poll on its doctrines, or change its rules on celibacy or sex overnight? Of course not. On this, some church conservatives are surely right. The church is not a democracy. Any change on administrative matters needs to be reflected on, examined in the light of Scripture and tradition. In the end, the hierarchy exists for a reason and will make the final call. Obedience matters. But real obedience requires respect; and until the hierarchy listens, makes its case, cleans up its own act, obedience will be difficult, if not indefensible.

The conversation goes both ways, of course. Many of us in the church have found it extremely difficult to engage in real conversations with our priests and bishops about these matters. We are too deferential or embarrassed. After Mass on Sundays, I can recall having animated conversations with fellow parishioners about these issues, but then, when we leave the place and shake hands with the pastor, we find it hard to say anything but "God bless you, Father." But as lay people, we can increase lay involvement in church affairs. We can tell our priests and our fellow parishioners what we find hard to believe, what we need more of — liturgically, pastorally, emotionally. The clerical closet must also end. If there's nothing wrong with being a celibate homosexual priest, why are so many priests silent about their sexual orientation? And if such priests do come out, then parishioners must support them against threatened discrimination by the hierarchy.

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