‘Liberal’ move by Benedict XVI?

VATICAN-POPE-ORDINATION-PRIESTHere’s a question for you, as we move into the follow-up reports on the Vatican’s move to open a door that will allow flocks of Anglo-Catholics to enter the Church of Rome, while retaining many elements of their own rites, music and traditions.

The question: Are the Eastern Orthodox churches more “liberal” than Rome because they allow priests to marry before ordination?

Would it make any difference for you, when making this journalistic choice about this label, to know that the Orthodox (and Eastern-Rite Catholics, of course) are following a tradition that is actually more ancient than mandatory celibacy for priests? Yes, the tradition of married priests, with celibate bishops (often drawn from celibate monastics), is actually the older and, I would assume, more “conservative” tradition — if you insist on using these labels.

I urge reporters not to fall into that labeling trap. There is no need to go there. This is an important question, since the “here come the married priests” angle seems to be the template for the next stage of coverage.

Take, for example, the latest story from the New York Times.

ROME – In making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to become Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI once again revealed the character of his papacy: to reach out to the most fervent of like-minded believers, even if they are not Catholic. Yet some observers wonder whether his move could paradoxically liberalize the church — or at least wedge it open — on a crucial issue: celibacy.

In a momentous move on Tuesday, the Vatican said it would help Anglicans uncomfortable with female priests and openly gay bishops join a new Anglican rite within the Catholic Church.

The invitation also extends to married Anglican clergy. And so some have begun to wonder, even if the 82-year-old Benedict himself would never allow it, would more people in the Roman Catholic Church begin to entertain the possibility of married Catholic priests?

OK, I like the “wedge it open” qualifier. But back to the original question: What does the tradition of celibate priests have to do with basic liberal vs. conservative issues of Catholic doctrine? Does it change how one views the creeds and the catechism? Does it affect one’s views of the Resurrection? The Incarnation? How about sexual morality?

Ah, there’s the rub.

You see, there are liberal Catholics, in terms of doctrines, who want to see a married priesthood. There are also (ssssssshhhhhh) conservative Catholics who want to see the option of married priests, many of whom have started slipping into Eastern-Rite parishes. Why? They believe that the option of marriage may help weaken what they believe is, statistically, a gay subculture in the Catholic priesthood. Are they right? That is certainly debatable. That debate needs to be covered.

There are Catholic conservatives, of course, who want to see mandatory celibacy in the Latin Rite defended. There are liberals who feel that way, too.

So can we drop the labels on this question? Reporters can cover the options, quote interesting and informed voices on both sides, doctrinal liberals and conservatives, without having to call the option of a married priesthood a “liberal” change. Just tell us what is happening and who is saying what. Please.

Meanwhile, the labels may apply to other parts of the story. For example:

Many liberal Catholics in the United States lamented that the decision over the Anglicans again demonstrated that Benedict reached out only to the most conservative elements on the Catholic spectrum, not the more progressive ones.

And many experts noted that the decision also reflected a similar tendency inside the Vatican: as in the case with the schismatic bishops, the arrangement with the Anglicans was hammered out by doctrinal offices, generally staffed by more conservative clergy, without close consultation with the office responsible for ecumenical dialogue, whose staff members tend to be more moderate. Many saw it as yet another sign that the true power of Benedict’s papacy lies in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the doctrinal office, which he oversaw for two decades before becoming pope.

Some of those labels make sense. Some of them.

Be careful out there, folks.

Photo: An ordination service at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    Without getting into whether journalists should use the terms, there is no necessary disconnect between “liberal” and “traditional.” Liberal democrats who back Obama’s expansion of federal power to the hilt are traditional in that they are consistent with the positions taken by FDR. Reagan’s conservative position that markets could regulate themselves was a radical departure from traditional Republicanism. “Liberal” and “conservative” have meanings indepedent of the rich variety of human tradition.

  • Jerry N

    Did anyone catch this doozy of an indirect quote from Fr. Thomas Reese: “Would unmarried Anglican priests who want to become Catholic priests have to take a vow of chastity?”

    Because it is not a direct quote, I can only imagine that Fr. Reese said celibacy rather than chastity, but that the reporter mixed up the wording a bit. I have understand that the latter is binding on all people.

    I’m very curious to see how the married clergy will play out. I think one reason why the original document seemed to leave open whether new married clergy could be ordain is to give the Roman bishops time to adjust–they’ve felt threated by married Eastern Rite priests before, so festina lente.

    We should not forget that the religious communities in the Roman Church that are thriving are also the most traditional ones, and a charism for one of these communities does not necessarily translate to one for a married priest (which has its own headaches for cleric and wife alike). It’ll be very interesting to see how this plays out!

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  • John R.

    It is amazing that liberal journalists don’t do their homework because the Catholic Church has allowed married convert clergy going back to the 1950s when Pope Pius XII allowed married Lutheran clergy to become married Catholic priests. Not to mention John Paul II created the Pastoral Provision in 1980, which already allowed married Anglican clergy to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

    In the end, the Roman Church will not change its discipline of priestly celibacy because it is its tradition, and it will not do so to satisfy conformity to secular dogma. This is a concession to Christian charity in welcoming a community of separated Christians into the bosom of the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church.

    Not to mention,this is what Vatican II was aiming for when it issued its decree on ecumenism Unitatis Reintegratio, literally the restoration of unity. This is what true ecumenism is all about, not singing kum bay yah with a bunch of people who want to feel good, but have little interest if visible corporate unity.

  • michael

    While you’re in the business of exhorting your fellow reporters to avoid traps, I wish you would try to persuade them that the ‘here come the married priests’ angle, while it is theologically and juridically important and of obvious interest to a public obsessed with sex, should not be the central theme in ‘the next stage of coverage’. It is hardly the most significant thing about all this, and heretofore the press has shown little evidence of being able to cover this angle well in any event. Does anyone understand the meaning of celibacy any better as a consequence of this obsession?

    But then, I wonder how much journalists qua journalists, as opposed to journalists who may happen to have certain theological and historical sensibilities, are capable of discerning what is significant about this.

  • Jerry

    So can we drop the labels on this question?

    NO! It would be nice, of course, but you’re fighting human nature which is to first label and then demonize or laud depending on your ideological preference.

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  • http://mattspoon.org CoffeZombie

    More fully, the Eastern tradition has historically been that priests are not allowed to get married, but married men may become priests.

    In other words, if you’re married before ordination, you stay married. If you are not married before ordination, you would then never marry. Likewise, a priest whose wife has died (or divorced him) would not remarry. As I have heard it said, this is cause of much anxiety among senior-year seminarians. ;-)

    I think that this is an important point if the journalists are going to be going for the “married priests” angle. If this is the way married priests are going to be handled, then the Catholics are just hearkening back to an earlier tradition (one which, I suspect, is already alive in the Catholic Church in the Eastern-rite parishes).

    However, if the new Anglican rite is going to allow priests to get married after ordination, or to remarry, etc., then this truly is something new, and, perhaps, “liberal” or “progressive” would be appropriate labels.

  • http://newsy.com Lauren

    Just how much is the Catholic church willing to sacrifice to attract converts?
    http://www.newsy.com/videos/the_pope_beckons_anglicans

  • michael

    Lauren,

    I dunno,perhaps the 99 sheep who did not go astray?

  • Brian Walden

    It’s not the stance one takes on married vs. celibate priests that is either liberal or conservative, but the reason why people hold that position. The majority of people who want to do away with celibacy for priests in the Latin right, do so for progressive reasons (abolishing the distinction between the clergy and laity, undermining the church’s authority, creating a stepping stone to women’s ordination, etc.) – that’s why it get’s classified as a liberal issue.

  • rick

    Allowing married priests isn’t much of a sacrifice since priestly celibacy is a discipline not a dogma. Disciplines can change. Even allowing an Anglican Use Book of Divine Worship is not a sacrifice. Many parts of it are actually a fairly conservative translation of the traditional Latin Mass. Before the Reformation there were many liturgical variations and uses in the Catholic Church. This is a bit of a move toward re-establishing liturgical diversity united by a common faith. I think this is a move to preserve faith not to preserve adherance to specific disciplines.

  • http://dantoujours.blogspot.com toujoursdan

    Speaking as an Anglican, while many including maybe the Pope himself, think that the only real difference between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches is gender and sexuality issues, the reality is that the two church cultures could hardly be more different.

    Anglican/Episcopal priests are used to having a lot more freedom to think and do what they want. Episcopal priests are mostly called by their parishes and generally serve at their will. It’s pretty hard for a bishop to remove a priest, unless (s)he commits misconduct.

  • http://dantoujours.blogspot.com toujoursdan

    And its a misnomer to call these Anglican priests “traditionalist” Anglicans. The only distinctive thing about “traditional” Anglicanism is the rejection of Papal authority. The 39 Articles say:

    As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

    They may be against the changes many Anglican churches have made on sexual and gender issues, they aren’t traditional on doctrinal issues. So maybe conservative is better.

  • Salaam

    Terry, your point is taken, but I think you should have included a couple of points, for the sake of journalistic completeness.

    While you correctly mention that the Orthodox tradition is older, I think you should have mentioned Rick’s point that priestly celibacy is a ‘discipline’, not dogma.

    Second, there are ‘conservative’ Catholics who want to go the Orthodox route, not as a response to a ‘gay subculture’, but precisely because it is the older, more original, and sensible tradition.

  • Julia

    the reality is that the two church cultures could hardly be more different.

    You are so right;and I’m sure Benedict understands that.
    Various Anglican groups even use or ignore Creeds and Articles. Some use all 39 and others ignore one or more – or even re-write them. Catholicism is much more specific.
    At least they won’t have to deal with the large ethnic variety in the Roman Church – only have to deal with fellow English. I’ve seen that discussed among Anglicans as an issue in the years leading up to this Provision. No Polish plumbers – as they say in England.

    The public reading the newspaper or watching the TV news is not understanding that it’s more than gender issues.
    I really hope any potential converts spend some serious discernment time before they convert. I’m perusing a lot of Anglican blogs to see the reaction and many express erroneous ideas of what the Catholic Church actually teaches.

    On the reaching out to “conservatives” rather than “progressives”: hopefully, the Anglo-Catholics who convert are more or less agreed on existing Catholic doctrine. The “progressives”, Anglican and Catholic, want to change ancient doctrines.

    I’m wondering if this network of formerly-Anglican parishes will be free to not accept other Catholics as parishioners.

    There’s tons of cultural differences and lots to work out.

  • http://keyboardtheologians.blogspot.com KKairos

    Agreeing with #4 and #11, on the point of the HERE COME THE MARRIED PRIESTS thing, and the fact of it being a discipline issue rather than a complete and utter non-negotiable.

    What I’ve found most funny about the reporters saying “here come the marrieds!” is that while quantities might change, exceptions to that discipline have been present for years, at least, if not centuries; Eastern Orthodox married priests who convert can still be priests, and at least one or two Anglican priests have also done so (think especially of Fr. Dwight Longnecker, who’s become a sort of fixture in St. Blogs.)

  • Julia

    Salaam:

    Why is the Orthodox tradition older? You mean the liturgy and the married priests or doctrine?

    I went to an Orthodox open house once. In response to a question from a Baptist, the priest conducting the tour and Q & A session said that the Orthodox liturgy is almost like the Catholic Mass used to be – and then he grinned at me. A Lutheran friend tells me Catholic liturgy is not distinguishable from their Sunday services. I listen to KFUO [soon to be gone] on Sundays and the LCMS service that is broadcast sure does sound awfully much like the Novus Ordo. Not surprising since 6 Lutheran ministers from Germany helped Bugnini craft it in 1969.

    Many CAtholics are hoping the liturgy to be crafted from the Book of Common Prayer or other books the Anglo-Catholics use now will spill over to the current Catholic Mass which uses 5th grade level English.

  • Julia

    Re: “liberals” v “progressives”

    I’d think the Anglo-Catholics who intend to convert don’t accept all the 39 Articles. Maybe that makes them “Progressive” or “Liberal”.

    Check it out – many castigate the Pope and Catholic errors.

    http://anglicansonline.org/basics/thirty-nine_articles.html

  • bob

    It would have been very easy to miss the “Pastoral Provision” clergy who began to be in 1980. That’s because Rome has allowed about 75 total, acording to the website for the organization. Kind of a homeopathic dose to cure a clergy shortage. The ones who were thus ordained were kept way out of sight and sometimes simply forbidden to serve by the diocisan bishops who in the process were rejecting papal decisions. That is, each one was vetted by Rome before ordination. I gather this means the terrifying ultra, super conservative Pope Benedict is actually alot more progressive than John Paul II. A good bit of the fun here is that *no one* expected HIM to do something like this!

  • str

    Just a small bit of nitpicking, tmatt:

    “Yes, the tradition of married priests, with celibate bishops (often drawn from celibate monastics), is actually the older and, I would assume, more “conservative” tradition — if you insist on using these labels.”

    That’s not actually true. Yes, married priests (married before ordination) is older then clerical celibacy – but that includes bishops as well. Chosing only celibate priests as bishops in the East came later than insisting on priestly celibacy in the West (which was in the late 4th century).

    And taking monks as bishops came even later and is actually an aberration as being a bishop is not actually what a monk should be.

  • str

    Lauren & Michael,

    the Pope is sacrificing exactly nothing. The Good Shepherd did not “sacrifice” the 99 sheep which he left safely in their place.

  • str

    Jerry N,

    “Did anyone catch this doozy of an indirect quote from Fr. Thomas Reese: “Would unmarried Anglican priests who want to become Catholic priests have to take a vow of chastity?”

    Because it is not a direct quote, I can only imagine that Fr. Reese said celibacy rather than chastity, but that the reporter mixed up the wording a bit. I have understand that the latter is binding on all people.”

    You’re absolutely right! To take a vow of chastity is nonsensical – how about taking a vow of morality?

    And priests do not “vow” celibacy – they promise it. It is monks that take vows because poverty, obedience and celibacy is part of the core of their vocation. Not so with priests.

    And the fact that priests have never been allowed to marry after their ordination also answers Reese’s question. Former Anglican ministers are ordained under the same provisions as other priests.

  • michael

    str,

    Believe me, I concur–and I’m ecstatic about this. I don’t think it’s a sacrifice at all but an act of extraordinary (if we’re allowed to use that word) generosity that is characteristic of Benedict as a pastor. I actually thought about the problem w/ the notion of ‘sacrifice’ before responding to Lauren, but I was hoping the parallel with the 99 sheep would cast that notion in a different light.

    Obviously not.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Tmat and commenters—New, deeper historical research seems to be exploding the claim that all the Orthodox practices concerning clerical celibacy are the older and original practices of the early and undivided Church. Apparently there was a strong impetus or trajectory toward mandatory clerical continence starting even in the New Testament as can be seen in the writings of St. Paul and the example of Jesus.
    One of the recent and deepest researched books along these lines is “Celibacy In The Early Church–the beginnings of a discipline of obligatory continence for clerics in east and west” by Stefan Heid (Ignatius Press).
    The book has strong and apparently conclusive arguments that clerical continence was a common requirement in both East and West for bishops, priests, and deacons from APOSTOLIC times. I’m not a professional Church historian, but Heid’s historic sources and arguments therefrom seem irrefutable.
    Reporters and journalists are always looking for controversial topics and arguments that “go against the grain.” It would be interesting to see some articles based on presenting the deep roots of celibacy in the Church, both East and West.

  • Ralph Howe

    The terms liberal and conservative in the contemporary American lexicon are wildly contrary to historical realities. Conservative has come to mean one who is addicted to Adam Smith with no holes barred, but historically, Adam Smith was known as a liberal because he expressed a rationalist viewpoint rather than a traditional intellectually humble perspective about human knowledge and the value of community and relationships espoused by conservatives. Actually, Ronald Reagan was the consummate economic liberal, while Barack Obama is some what more conservative because he supports communitarian values over unrestricted capitalism.
    Similarly, in the church, liberal theology, while long ago repudiated by historical events, lives on in those who perpetuate modernism and rationalism over traditional biblical approaches to the faith. But some evangelicals who espouse a deeply rationalist reading of Scripture are also modernists and hence philosophically liberal, even though they assert that they are conservative in terms of biblical interpretation, having reductionist biblical constructions and single verse theology.
    So, when it comes to celibacy vs married presbyters, the press is merely echoing the fundamental misapprehension of liberal/conservative labels used by the populace. It is quite true that married presbyters were normative in the early church, but there were married bishops as well, like Peter!
    The Holy Father is actually crafting a radical document that may draw into the fold not only orthodox Anglicans, but many Lutherans. How he deals with the role of the Queen or other heads of state viz the church will be a model for how he plans to integrate the Chinese church, and how he proposes to deal with the nationalism of the Orthodox churches.
    This document is about far more that the atrophy of the Anglican communion—it will set the stage for the Vatican’s approach to many other schisms in the One Holy Apostolic Catholic and Orthodox Church. It should be a joy to see God’s hand in all this! Unfortunately, it also portends a long struggle for Methodists who have firmly endorsed female and married clergy and bishops—a struggle that places us dangerously close to those who want to see homosexual clergy, “marriages,” etc. For those of us who share in the truth of Charles Wesley’s positions that have labeled him progenitor of what became the Anglo Catholic Tractate Movement the future looks yet more challenging as the sex debates continue to rage and church declines.

  • Ralph Howe

    May God bless those who respond to Jesus’prayer for unity.

  • dalea

    tmatt says:

    There are also (ssssssshhhhhh) conservative Catholics who want to see the option of married priests, many of whom have started slipping into Eastern-Rite parishes. Why? They believe that the option of marriage may help weaken what they believe is, statistically, a gay subculture in the Catholic priesthood. Are they right? That is certainly debatable. That debate needs to be covered.

    Interesting thought. Is this a public strategy or just a supposition? I would agree to the statement that statistically, there is a Gay subculture in the RC priesthood. But, I would further maintain that it goes back quite a ways. I have personally met Gay priests who were ordained back in the 1920′s. Gay people discuss the subject under the heading: Construction of the Closet. And bring a great many facts and memories to bear.

    Conversely, it would be useful for the press to discuss the place of Gay people in what is being called ‘conservative Anglicanism’. My understanding is that this consists of Anglo-Catholocism and its popular expression, the High Church. Every Gay Episcopalean I have known was High Church. Every Episcopal Mass for Integrity I have ever attended was High Church. I suspect that the conservativism here is mainly centered around liturgy, not on other issues. There were also a number of Anglo-Catholic intellectuals also known to have been Gay men.

    One thing I have noticed in the coverage of the Anglican split is that the focus is on the issues or on the doctrinal differences. What I see is a split between urban and suburban, with rural going both ways. Beginning in the late 60′s, many urban areas began to see gentrification which has a large Gay component. Episcopal Churches in these neighborhoods began to see an influx of the new middle class to their services. Churches that had gone thru a long period of decline now began to grow again. A large number of GLBT were part of this. The suburban churches did not have the same experience. Rural churches were mixed; those near colleges and art colonies did begin to grow again. This is something the press has consistently overlooked.

  • Filipe

    “Why? They believe that the option of marriage may help weaken what they believe is, statistically, a gay subculture in the Catholic priesthood.”

    Hardly. Some of us “conservatives” who would like to see an end to mandatory celibacy, base it on the fact that it is evident that the vocation to the priesthood and to marriage are not mutually exclusive (ergo married priests in the eastern traditions), so it is a question of basic justice that one should not keep a man with both these vocations from fulfilling them. Being forced to chose between them can lead to a feeling that one didn’t reply to the call of God, or then to a miserable priesthood.

    The gay culture thing miht be true, but it’s definately of lesser importance.

  • Karen

    I believe the common wisdom on why the Roman Catholic Church began the tradition of celibate priests was because priests were not supposed to have personal property and so could not pass inheritances to their children. Or rather, attempts to pass along wealth to children put them in conflict with the church, who was ostensibly the owner. I haven’t seen any report yet that answers the question of how the church deals with this issue now, or how they might if married priests became common.

  • Dave

    Karen, the version of this that I’ve heard is that the Church wanted to prevent priestly dynasties within its structure — possibly after bad experiences with same.

  • str

    Karen,

    “because priests were not supposed to have personal property”

    Huh? Says who? Why?

    I know it is a theme of the “The-Church-is-too-rich” people from the Franciscan spirituals to those that charitably relieved the Church of her property but that doesn’t make it true.

    What is true that the danger that church property (as opposed to the property of priests) could be treated as personal property was a factor that the celibacy, in the rule book since the 4th century, was decidedly enforced in the 11th. But it was merely one factor among many.

    and so could not pass inheritances to their children. Or rather, attempts to pass along wealth to children put them in conflict with the church, who was ostensibly the owner. I haven’t seen any report yet that answers the question of how the church deals with this issue now, or how they might if married priests became common.

  • str

    Karen,

    “because priests were not supposed to have personal property”

    Huh? Says who? Why?

    I know it is a theme of the “The-Church-is-too-rich” people from the Franciscan spirituals to those that charitably relieved the Church of her property but that doesn’t make it true.

    What is true that the danger that church property (as opposed to the property of priests) could be treated as personal property was a factor that the celibacy, in the rule book since the 4th century, was decidedly enforced in the 11th. But it was merely one factor among many.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Speaking as an Anglican, while many including maybe the Pope himself, think that the only real difference between the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches is gender and sexuality issues,

    The Bishop of Long Island is making no attempt to dispel that impression.
    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/liberal-episcopalians-unimpressed-by-vaticans-bid/

  • dalea

    Will’s link is a very good report on the beginning of pushback from US Episcopalians:

    http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/liberal-episcopalians-unimpressed-by-vaticans-bid/

    The sort of urban renewed church I refered to, in my comment at #28 above, is Holy Apostles in Chesea:

    A good example is the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea, which for four decades has had a large number of gay and lesbian members; they now make up more than half the congregation. Here, the election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire as the church’s first openly gay bishop and the blessing of gay unions were met with celebration, said the Rev. Elizabeth G. Maxwell, the associate rector.

    And here, the rancor over the inclusive approach to gays within the 77 million person international organization and the 2.3 million person American branch has led to concerns that what felt like advancement would soon feel like retreat.

    For these reasons, Ms. Maxwell said she did not expect the Vatican’s announcement to have much of an impact in her church, which also runs the largest soup kitchen in Manhattan. “The people that are a part of the congregation that I live and work and pray with are really happy with the direction that the Episcopal church is going,” she said.

  • http://ilovedogma.blogspot.com David Charkowsky

    “Liberal” and “conservative” aren’t the most useful words in our vocabulary. They are so highly charged with emotion, personal identification, and private conceptions as to their meaning and values that they are almost incapable of delivering information.