The second-highest ranking Vatican official said priestly celibacy “is not a dogma.” What might that mean for the Catholic Church?
In an interview with Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, Archbishop Pietro Parolin — the newly-appointed secretary of state to the Vatican — threw open the doors on one of the touchiest issues facing the Roman Catholic Church: celibacy.
“Celibacy is not an institution but look, it is also true that you can discuss [it] because as you say this is not a dogma, a dogma of the church,” Archbishop Pietro Parolin said. “The efforts that the church made to keep ecclesiastical celibacy, to impose ecclesiastical celibacy, have to be taken into consideration. One cannot say simply that this belongs in the past.”
As secretary of state, Parolin heads the Curia — the bureaucratic underpinning of the Church — and is the head of government. He is second only to the pope in terms of power and authority at the Vatican. While Parolin’s comment means little in terms of tangible action, it opens up a new line of philosophical thought of the issue of Church tradition.
“In truth, Parolin’s comments represent what might be termed the moderate Catholic line – priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma, and can therefore be revised,” wrote John L. Allen, Jr., senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. “But it nonetheless has value, and the church is not a democracy but it can and should be more collegial.”
These conversations have come at an apt time. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostate at Georgetown University, the number of total priests in the United States has fallen by a third since 1965 — from 58,632 to 39,600. The number of priest ordinations has dropped from 994 to 511, while the number of permanent deacons has actually increased — from 898 in 1975 to 17,325 in 2013. The American Catholic Church has seen, as well, about 30,000 priests abandon their ordinations to pursue a relationship.
“[Parolin’s] comments are real and sensible and obviously in tune with the needs of the church in the modern world. The reality is that vocations to the Roman Catholic priesthood are disappearing,” said Father Brendan Hoban, spokesman for the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland. “The church has been in denial about this problem, so it’s good to see that a new note of realism is being struck. Celibacy will be looked at because priesthood has to be re-imaged for a different world.”
Many feel that discussions of the issue are healthy, if not altogether productive. “That celibacy is disciplinary, not doctrinal, is obvious from the fact that there are married priests in the eastern Catholic Church, like the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,” said NBC News’s Vatican affairs expert George Weigel, explaining that discussions on celibacy goes on in the Church “all the time.”
Pope Francis had previously shot down the notion of a change in the Vatican’s policy on priestly celibacy in a 2012 interview for the book “On the Heavens and the Earth.”
“In Western Catholicism, some organizations are pushing for more discussion about the issue. For now, the discipline of celibacy stands firm. Some say, with a certain pragmatism, that we are losing manpower,” said the then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in the translated interview. “If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option,” he said at the time. “It is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change.”
Some, however, hold on to hope that the fact that the secretary of state mentioned it means that the pope is, at the very least, open to the idea.
Traditions and the Catholic Doctrine
The notion of traditions in Catholicism is a difficult and controversial issue. Based on biblical passages — such as 2 Thessalonians 3:6, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us” and 1 Corinthians 11:2, “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” — the Church has held that traditions should bear weight in the way the Church operates as much as biblical interpretation and Church dogma.
The idea in play is that the Church is eternal. A person can enter a church and hear the same sermon that his grandparents heard and their grandparents heard. This sense of continuity has been interpreted as lending the Church strength and temporal stability — it’s “a rock through all times.”
Protestants, notably, reject the notion of traditions, claiming that only the Bible itself can define the course of the church and its actions.
Many, however, interpret the Catholic Church’s reliance on traditions as inflexibility. According to a 2013 Pew Research study, fewer American Catholics identify with the Church in 2012 than at any other time during the study’s 38-year examination period. Conversely, more Protestant Americans identified with their churches in 2012 than in any other time during the same polling period. Among the protestant churches, the “non-traditional” churches — the Black Protestant churches and the evangelical churches — outpaced the mainline Protestant churches by at least 20 percentage points. The study stated:
In 1974, Catholics were more likely than Protestants to report attending religious services at least once a week (47% vs. 29%). By 2012, the situation had reversed: Protestants overall were more likely than Catholics to say they attend church weekly or more often (38% vs. 24%). Similarly, in 1974 “strong” Catholics reported going to church more frequently than did “strong” Protestants (85% vs. 55%), but in recent years “strong” Protestants have reported attending church about as often as “strong” Catholics do (60% vs. 53% in 2012).
Among lapsed Catholics that have been interviewed about why they left the Church, many expressed legal issues, such as the Church’s handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal. Others have expressed disdain for political issues, such as the Church’s recent support of conservative issues and candidates — including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ criticism of the Obama administration for mandating employer coverage of contraception in employee health insurance plans and the controversial “Test of Fire” video that was released by Catholics Called to Witness.
However, most left the Church on the basis of doctrinal issues — such as the Church’s stance on homosexuality, birth control, the refusal to ordain women or grant them titled offices in the Church and the question of the admission of remarried or divorced Catholics at Mass — or the Church’s perceived insensitivity.
“One respondent said, ‘Ask a question and you get a rule, you don’t get a “let’s sit down and talk about it” response,'” said Charles Zech, who conducted a study on church doctrine entitled “Empty Pews.” “They feel no one is willing to explain things to them.”
Religion is ultimately a coping tool. It’s how individuals make sense of their place in the world. A church that cannot or will not meet the needs of its congregation may ultimately be doomed to fail. In light of a seemingly recalcitrant on issues such as the clergy sex scandal and the Vatican Bank scandal, the Church may not be able to afford being seen as standing still.
Oddly enough, priestly celibacy is a relatively new idea. The First Lateran Council of 1123 was the first Church act that made priestly marriage both invalid and excommunicable. As the Church has responded before to the need of its community and institution, it must respond again. Ultimately, the Church must make an effort towards being welcoming if it wants to welcome its parishioners back.
“The Protestants have something very important to teach us,” wrote Monika Hellwig for AmericanCatholic.org. “They have been trying to tell us something for 400 years, and at Vatican II we finally began to listen to them. What they wanted to say can be put this way: To know what is helpful in our Christian traditions built up over the ages and what is really a hindrance to the Christian life, we must constantly look at all we do in the light of God’s Word in Scripture. Because we were so busy arguing with them in the 16th century, we did not really hear what they had to say — and they did not really hear us. After 400 years we can discuss it better and learn a great deal from each other.”