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The End of the Celibacy Rule

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There are many ways of looking at the on-going turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church. Coming from my expertise in Russian studies, which perforce included "Kremlin Watching" as a necessity, the way the Vatican behaves and responds to events is not all that different. We really did not have any spies in the Politburo, and we don't have any in the College of Cardinals. You have to make assumptions about what is made apparent, the most salient of which is that there are few, if any, accidents. What you see and hear has been vetted and discussed and tossed around the table by persons with differing views, strongly held, with various alliances and agendas, and--like any large corporate structure--aspirations for advancement. On top of all of that there are theological issues--metaphysics--which are rhetorical constructs with their own internal and not necessarily consistent logics.

So this week we hear that Austrian Cardinal Chrisoph Schoenborn has come out for a non-celibate clergy, or at least a relaxation of the rule devised at the Second Lateran Council nearly 900 years ago. The first thing you have to accept is that Austria and Germany are similar but not necessarily identical cultures with lots of communication between them, including the communication between Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, and Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn of Austria. Had the "wild" idea come from South America or Portugal or some other place not close culturally to Benedict, then you might easily decide that it was NOT a test balloon being sent up by the Vatican. Schoenborn, on the other hand, can be protected from hostiles better than any, if this idea flops ... and there will be adversaries, intelligent and otherwise.

As James Carroll (and I hitch-hiking on his analysis) have said, nothing could be better timed and more useful to the Church than the elimination of mandatory celibacy. It is the root cause of the sex crimes being perpetrated and then covered up by the existing clergy. It is no longer effective against the accumulation of property by clergy. It no longer makes sense as a tool of power over an illiterate "black clergy" upon whom the Church was dependent for a thousand years. It does not square with the sheep-shepherd view taken of an overwhelmingly illiterate laity. It just does not make sense and it causes problems and provides sustenance to criminals within.

How the Church will read the response to Schoenborn is critical. It will be hotly debated and some will say that the lack of furor indicates assent, while others among the Cardinals will say it indicates ignorance. The fact is that there has been no furor reported so far. It is the sort of issue that must percolate downward to be understood at the highest levels. It will take time, but I am confident that the issue will be resolved correctly. The icing for this cake has been in production for a long, long time. Theological issues are not basic, but Church Rules are. They have to find a way to treat the impending change with intelligence. The paragraph above, the historical reasons for imposing celibacy (which were taken in extremis, by the way) are sufficient as answers to the question of Authority, which is, of course, the paramount issue to Benedict and his Cardinals.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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