A Catholic Priest in the Hot Seat – Answers to Controversial Catholic Questions

A Catholic Priest in the Hot Seat – Answers to Controversial Catholic Questions August 19, 2013

Today I interview my friend Dwight Longenecker about Pope Francis and some Catholic traditions that Protestants don’t quite “get.”

Dwight is a Catholic priest.

Tell us how Pope Francis is different from the last two popes.

Dwight Longenecker: John Paul was the first pope to be a true global evangelist. He is best known for his dynamic style, his ability to communicate the Catholic faith in a traditional, yet modern way, and his work to bring about freedom from communism and tyranny.

Benedict XVI was a first rate theologian and Biblical scholar, he was also a music lover and a man of prayer. Benedict led the church with a gentle, but strong intellectual basis and a deep spirituality. He taught the church in areas of worship and deepened the church’s intellectual traditions with his scholarship.

Francis is a man of the people, a heartfelt pastor and passionate advocate for the poor. Some people have compared the three popes to the three great virtues St Paul speaks about in I Corinthians 13: John Paul II showed us Hope. Benedict taught us Faith and Francis shows us Love.

Many Protestants and evangelicals don’t quite understand the rule of celibacy for priests. Can you explain the reasons and origins of it?

Dwight Longenecker:  Celibacy for priests is a discipline of the church–not a doctrine. Doctrines develop and grow, but they can’t be changed. A discipline of the church can be changed, however.

The Catholic Church does not insist that all priests must be celibate. The priests of the Eastern Rite churches like the Chaldean and Maronites are allowed to marry. That’s also why an exception is made for people like me who convert from Anglicanism to the Catholic faith. The Pope gives permission for an exception to the rule allowing me to be a Catholic priest even though I’m married and have four kids. We know that St Peter was married: Jesus healed his mother in law. We know that St Paul allowed priests to be married. He says “a bishop should be the husband of one wife.” In the early church priests were allowed to marry, and theoretically, the Pope could change the rule tomorrow.

There is also a strong teaching in the Scriptures in favor of celibacy. Jesus says some people will become “eunuchs” for the sake of the gospel. In other words, some people will give up marriage to serve God completely. Jesus was unmarried and so was Paul who said, “I wish that you would remain unmarried as I am.” We also know that there was a Jewish tradition of celibacy amongst the prophets. Elijah, Elisha and John the Baptist were all unmarried.

In the early church, therefore both teachings were honored. The unmarried men and women lived in communities which eventually became what we know as monasteries and convents. As the church developed certain difficulties and scandals grew up amongst the married clergy and celibacy came to be preferred. Also, in the early middle ages monasticism grew in strength and more and more of the celibate monks began to assume leadership in the church. Eventually the rule came in that celibacy was mandatory for priests.

Maybe the Catholic Church will eventually adopt the Eastern Orthodox position whereby married men may be ordained, but men who are already priests and are single should remain that way. It could happen.

Do you think the rule of celibacy will be changed? If so, why. If not, why not?

Dwight Longenecker: The rule is reviewed regularly. A few years ago there was considerable discussion at high levels in the Catholic Church about the possibility of older married men being allowed to be ordained. This would connect with Paul’s rule that an elder should not only be the husband of one wife, but that the marriage should be sound. Older married men would have to show that their marriage is stable and secure.

There are practical problems with changing the rule completely. The Catholic system is set up to deal with single men who can be moved from job to job as required. Many of these men receive very little financial remuneration. A very different infrastructure would need to be in place to accommodate  younger men with families and provide for them.

There is also one matter no one discusses: Catholics are not supposed to use artificial means of birth control. A priest would have to live according to Catholic teaching. Assuming the young priest and his wife are fertile they could have a very large family. Would a man with umpteen kids be able to cope with the demanding job of being a priest? Would Catholics be ready to build them a big house to live in and pay him enough to send his kids to college?

What is your own view of the rule of celibacy.

Dwight Longenecker: I can see advantages and disadvantages to both celibacy and married priests. The celibate priest is totally sold out for God and can serve the Church as a front line soldier giving his all. As Paul says, “a married man has to think how to please his wife.”

On the other hand, I have known wonderful Christian couples in which the husband and wife work together as a team to serve the Lord. They not only serve him in ministry, but they give a great example to the whole flock of God of what a Christian marriage and Christian family look like.

On the other hand we have all known clergy marriages that are disasters. The man or woman’s ministry is destroyed and their family is a horrible example of a Christian home.

In many ways the whole question of celibacy or marriage is unimportant. A more important question is, “Is this man learning how to live sacrificially and becoming a living image of Christ’s own sacrifice? He could do that as a married man or a single man–or he could live either married or single and be completely selfish. We’ve all known single clergy and married who are examples of both.

What is the Catholic teaching on contraceptives presently and do you see this changing at all?

Dwight Longenecker: The Catholic Church teaches that sexual intercourse is only allowed within marriage and that the sexual act has two dimensions: the procreative and unitive.

The procreative purpose is to co-create children with God. The unitive is to build up the love and union of the husband and wife. Any sexual act which does not have both purposes is illicit. Therefore, to use artificial contraceptives is to separate the sexual act from its primary purpose of procreation. In other words, artificial contraception makes us believe that sex and babies are not connected.

The consequences of widespread use of artificial contraception is that we now have a culture where sex is not connected in many people’s minds with babies. Sex has become a pleasurable past time…kind of like tennis–it’s fun if you have a good partner.

The Catholic Church’s document on this subject is called Humane Vitae —which is Latin for “human life”. That document, published in 1968, predicted that the contraceptive culture would bring about increased pornography, destruction of marriage, degradation of women, increased divorce, increased sexually transmitted diseases, illegitimacy, abortion and homosexuality. When you think it through you can see why these things are the result of a contraceptive mentality. If sex does not mean babies and is for recreation not procreation, then these terrible things are the result.

Another long term result of contraceptive culture is a dwindling birth rate. We’re not replacing our population fast enough and our culture is therefore committing a kind of slow suicide.

It is important to remember that the Catholic Church does not make up its teachings according to what seems popular or expedient. We maintain this teaching because its true, not because its popular, and we will not change the teaching even if the whole world tells us it is wrong.

On the other hand, we also realize how complicated modern sexuality is and we understand the demands on modern families and we attempt to uphold the teaching with as much compassion and pastoral care as possible.

How does the Catholic Church respond to women who wish to have an abortion after being raped?

We teach that abortion is always a serious crime. It is the taking of an innocent life. We do not believe that one crime is put right by committing another crime. The raped woman and her baby are the victims. We do not solve other crimes by murdering or abusing the victim.

We would do everything we can to help and support the woman who is pregnant through rape and we would encourage her to make a choice for life–either to keep the child or offer it up for adoption.

I was watching a news program recently and an openly gay priest was being interviewed. Is this priest part of the Roman Catholic Church? If so, does that mean they have changed their policies regarding gays?

Dwight Longenecker: There are Catholic priests who are homosexual. As they have taken a vow of celibacy they should be sleeping alone–just like the heterosexual priests. A Catholic priest who experiences same sex attraction is just as obliged to refrain from sexual relations as a priest who is attracted to women.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that  homosexual people are to be accepted but homosexual actions are not: So in paragraph 2537 it states,  “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved. The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

What changes do you foresee Pope Francis changing if any?

Dwight Longenecker: With a new pope there are always changes in style, but not in substance. One of the pope’s jobs is to define and defend the historic Christian faith. He can change certain elements of church discipline and he can emphasize certain teachings more than others, but as Pope Francis has said, “he is a son of the Church”. We should therefore expect a fresh style, a new emphasis and a new expression of the ancient faith, but there will not be any major changes on the historic doctrine and moral teaching of the Catholic faith.

This is because we believe the Christian faith to be revealed, not relative. The Scriptures teach us that God has revealed his truth to the human race. Jesus said that he would build his church on Peter the Rock, and Catholics believe that Peter’s successor is now a man called Jorge Bergoglio from Argentia. The Catholic faith will continue to blossom and grow, and it may do so in ways that are fresh and surprising, but it will not become something different.

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