Let Priests Marry

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The little dog Toto takes the curtain in his teeth, tugs it aside and gives the world a glimpse of the Wizard of Oz. The wizard in this case turns out to be a pretty seedy character. To claim supernatural powers and then be caught in sordid acts--sexually abusing children or, even worse, shielding the abusers--is not only a moral problem. It is a near fatal professional error. I wonder if the hierarchy knows how gravely the Roman Catholic Church, especially the American church, has been wounded. There's massive internal bleeding, a hemorrhage of credibility--yet, in the face of all that, a squirming official attitude mixing anguish and evasion. At least Jimmy Swaggart had the good grace to bawl on television and beat his breast and otherwise oblige the audience with the theatrics of repentance. Last week the Pilot, the newspaper of the archdiocese of Boston, did ask several questions that it admitted are "out there in the minds of Catholics"--an interesting phrase, by the way, that suggests some of the problem: a hierarchy that sees "the Catholic mind" as something "out there" and the embattled clergy as being "in here." Among the questions: 1) Should celibacy continue to be "a normative condition for the diocesan priesthood"? 2) If celibacy were optional, would there be fewer scandals of this nature in the priesthood? My answers would be: 1) No. 2) Yes.

There's no panacea, as the Pilot said. Catholics have to think through strong arguments for and against celibacy--and for and against the ordination of women as priests. But the current debacle will be compounded if the debate becomes a merely technical discussion of fixes and ignores the overall danger to the church. A Catholic Church that is losing so much ground around the world (to evangelical Protestants in Latin America, Africa and Asia, for example) and has such difficulty in recruiting new priests cannot afford the caviling, obdurate smugness of centuries past. Allowing priests to marry, and ordaining women, would do an important thing: begin to change the culture of the priesthood--a culture that needs very considerable changing. It would help cleanse the sometimes fetid atmosphere of the rectory.

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Sexual crimes against the most innocent lambs in the flock are a catastrophe for the authority and moral geometry of the church. Faith ascends on a vertical axis to God. The vertical is supported by a horizontal axis--trust, which is the everyday, stabilizing dynamic of a living church. If trust dissolves into doubt and disgust, if God's representatives on earth turn out to be, many of them, child molesters and protectors of child molesters, then who will ever see such men at their priestly work--consecrating the body and blood of Christ, or whispering through the grill in the dusk of the confessional--without suspicion and unbidden loathing?

In 1431 a church tribunal demanded that Joan of Arc submit to the authority of the church. She shrewdly answered that she submitted to the authority of God, since "our Lord and the church are the same." The church ought to have learned, after all these years, not to push Catholics toward the place where, in their disillusioned hearts, they will, like Joan, listen for the unmediated voice of God and decide that the church, with too many squalors and secrets, is untrustworthy and perhaps an irrelevance.