Unwisdom of the Ages
By Patrick F. Cannon
I was baptized a Roman Catholic and educated in its schools through the eighth grade. Except for one lay teacher, all my teachers were nuns. For several of those years, I was an altar boy (no girls need apply). In the upper grades, I also served as a Patrol Boy (again, no girls), the then equivalent of crossing guards. It’s difficult to imagine today’s parents trusting their darlings to some officious kid.
Most of those years – the late 1940s and early 50s – were spent at St. Phillip Neri parish in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. Day by day, the Dominican nuns there were the Catholic Church to me. Although I served at mass, the parish priests – and there were four in those halcyon days – were on another plane. They were friendly enough I suppose, but seemed to us to be higher beings, a status the nuns encouraged us to believe.
None of the priests there or at any parish I belonged to before or later ever tried to molest me. And none of the priests I have known since have – at least to my knowledge – been accused of this most despicable of crimes against children. Yet, we know that some priests did, and were protected in many cases by church leaders who seemingly were more concerned to protect the institution than the children put in their care.
I recently watched, for the second time, Spotlight, the movie that told the story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the Archdiocese of Boston’s cover up of decades of priestly abuse; eventually Cardinal Law was forced to resign for his role in the scandal. More recently, we have seen news stories about hundreds of cases covered up in Pennsylvania. Those of us in Chicago, of course, are aware of similar cases here.
One remedy often put forward would be to permit priests to marry. While I’m in favor of a married priesthood (and ordaining women too), it would do little to solve this particular problem. It seems that the percentage of priests who molest children is no higher than that of men in the general population. It is true that the percentage of homosexual priests is higher than the general population, but there is no evidence that homosexual priests are more likely to molest children that heterosexual ones.
The real scandal then has been the cover up. For hundreds of years, the church has been run primarily by old men. And not only old men, but old men reluctant to change anything in a church they believe to have “eternal” practices and dogma. Of course, much of what they think is eternal has been no such thing. It was only in 1139 at the Second Lateran Council that it was decided that priests could not marry. This rule was so widely flouted that they had to reinforce it in the 16th Century. I have heard many arguments for a celibate priesthood. None, it seems to me, is convincing.
The one put forward most often claims that a man must be married only to the church and his flock. A wife and children, it is said, would be a distraction that would prevent the priest from fully carrying out God’s work. And then, they throw in the clincher: after all, Jesus wasn’t married! Granted, he probably wasn’t, but on the other hand almost all the great men in history managed just fine with a wife and kiddies.
I would argue that the best reason to permit married men and women in the priesthood is purely practical. How many parishes now depend on one priest instead of the four who once served St. Phillip Neri? Indeed, how many churches have closed simply because there was no priest to serve them? If almost every other religion manages to support a married ministry, why not the “one, true” church? Alas, what seems logical to logical people, seems unthinkable to the old men who stubbornly wander the corridors of the Vatican. While they mutter over their beads and argue arcane points of theology, Roman Catholics everywhere have stopped going to mass, or have left the church altogether. The church continues to count them among the faithful, but can no longer count on their support.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon