Palm Sunday Plea: Let Priests Marry

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One of the best Roman Catholic priests I've ever known, Father Berns, was a widower. He had a mind as broad as his faith was deep; he served a dry martini but never a dry homily. And I've always wondered how large a role the gloriously messy life experience of a wife and children played in making him such an unusually engaging, and engaged, Catholic cleric.

The answer, of course, is that there is no real answer, especially when I consider all the lifelong celibate priests whom I've admired as much as I did Father Berns. Still, he's on my mind right now because of the Catholic Church's latest sexual abuse scandal, playing out in Philadelphia. There, on Friday, April 15, three priests and a former Catholic school teacher pleaded not guilty to charges of raping and sexually assaulting minors. What makes this case different, however, is that for the first time in the U.S., a higher-ranking Catholic official, Monsignor William Lynn, former secretary of the clergy for the Philadelphia archdiocese, is being charged with trying to cover up the abuse. (Lynn too pleaded not guilty on Friday.)

It's that twist that has me thinking of Father Berns — and it has made me more convinced than ever that the Catholic Church has got to drop its celibacy requirement for priests. I say that not because I think letting priests marry would have prevented priestly abuse. Pedophiles prey regardless of marital status. I say it, especially after having interviewed abuse victims, because I think letting Catholic clergy have wives and families may well make the hierarchy, from guys like Lynn on up to bishops and the Vatican, more concerned about safeguarding youths than about protecting priests.

For U.S. Catholics, the arraignment of Lynn and the four other men was a lousy way to kick off Holy Week, which starts today, Palm Sunday, and ends next Sunday on Easter. Then again, what better time than the week that includes Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, to wrestle with it. (And the conservative Catholic League's full-page ad last week in the New York Times — which, astonishingly, blamed much of the abuse crisis on "homosexuality" — is just another reminder why it's so important we keep wrestling with this.)

So since I'm a hack and not a theologian, I'd suggest Catholics could start that process this week by recalling another, more benign scandal that hit the church two springs ago. That was the case of the Rev. Albert Cutié, the Catholic priest and Spanish-language television talk-show star who left the church in 2009 after a tabloid printed photos of him and his covert girlfriend (now his wife) cuddling on a Miami beach. Cutié, aka "Padre Alberto," became an Episcopal priest and, this past December, the father of a baby girl. In the process he's refueled the Catholic debate about clerical celibacy, and the upcoming Philadelphia trial makes his story especially relevant.

That's because Cutié, despite the double life he once led, has forced Catholics to consider a key question: Why did his romantic relationship with a woman — a peccadillo most Catholics shrugged at when the scandal broke — seem to elicit as much if not more outrage from the church hierarchy as the priestly sexual abuse of minors has?

Cutié feels that the hierarchy's overreaction to his indiscretion reflects how celibacy has helped condition the church's lame reaction to the abuse horror. He's of course not suggesting that a man has to have a wife and kids to be sensitive to these issues. But the Catholic Church risks breeding insensitivity by segregating its diocesan priests and bishops from the world of wives, children and the loving sex that begets them. It risks sending the message that those human joys would somehow sully their vocations — that those things are inferior to the priesthood, and so protecting the holy fraternity is what matters most during a crisis like the sexual abuse plague.

If the Philadelphia ugliness isn't enough of a convincer, consider Belgium — where last week former Catholic Bishop Roger Vangheluwe, who has admitted to sexually abusing two nephews, turned stomachs all over Europe by insisting his pedophilia was a harmless "little piece of intimacy." Civil authorities can't collar Vangheluwe because the crimes occurred too long ago. But so far neither the Vatican nor the head of the Belgian church has done a thing to punish him or any of the Belgian priests involved in a string of recent abuse accusations.

Celibacy was not a clerical requirement in the early church — in fact, many popes were married during Christianity's first few hundred years. But as Catholicism became more affixed to the Roman Empire, the church fathers fell increasingly under the influence of Stoicism and its demonization of sex, an attitude the medieval church codified. Today the church would argue that celibacy isn't about demonizing sex but rather nobly sacrificing it as part of being alter Christus, or "another Christ."

I and most other Catholics can respect that — if it's a priest's choice. Unfortunately, we're also aware that mandatory celibacy has led to an unnecessary isolation of our clergy — and, in turn, to the harmful sense of clerical superiority we've seen so much of during the abuse crisis. All I know is, I saw a lot less of it in Father Berns.