A bishop on the West Coast entertains his candidates for Holy Orders by regaling them with tales about his dealing with other bishops and then informs the candidates that he would not be surprised to see the issues of married clergy and female clergy raised again for reconsideration by the church.
Jesuit Father Michael Buckley, speaking to a class of soon-to-be deacons, shares his opinion that Pope Benedict will give the idea of married clergy a fair hearing and maybe even revisit the idea of women in Holy Orders. Father Donald Cozzens, the former Cleveland seminary rector, tackles mandatory celibacy in a new book, calling it burdensome and unnecessary. Mary Testin, liturgical consultant who claims experience as a lay preacher, writing this month in Ministry and Liturgy, commends parishes that broke the law in permitting altar girls before Rome sanctioned them. Sexism was thus undone "at least a little bit" by their disobedience.
A friend from Connecticut, examining the web page for Rent-A-Priest (why was she doing that?), came across a name familiar to the two of us. A classmate from grammar school and former Rhode Island priest, now married, was listed there as ready to offer sacramental services to disaffected Catholics.
The issue of married priests and women priests continues to be raised in the Catholic Church by persons who are influenced more by a modernist/feminist agenda than by any real appreciation of Catholic teaching on these subjects. The authentic meanings of priestly celibacy and the male priesthood are never really addressed in the popular media. Exactly why priests are celibate and exactly why priests are men are questions that are never actually answered in a fashion that the average Catholic can grasp and appreciate. Rome, of course, has addressed these topics in both a thoughtful and a scholarly manner; but the Vatican's offering on these core concerns is rarely explained in the popular press or from the parish pulpit.
The current handling of the married priest/woman priest discussions may be a sad repetition of the contraception controversy of the 1960s. The secular understanding of birth control was readily espoused by a number of celebrated voices on the Catholic scene. These spokesmen received all the attention and all the sympathy from the media. The real issue - the insightful instruction on family planning re-affirmed by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae - hardly saw the light of day. The same scenario seems to be repeating itself 40 years later. The harm done to marriage by ignoring the church's teaching on family planning could now find a reflection in the harm that could be done to the celibate male priesthood if its true character is not explained to and appreciated by the average parishioner.
Ironically, the two issues of reproduction and ordination coalesce in the nuptial theology that wends its way through both the Old and New Testaments. The images of bridegroom and bride are abundant in the Scriptures referring to God and Israel and certainly to Christ and his church. Yet, this rich nuptial theology is untapped in popular church discourse. The unisex mentality ¬ or worse, the same-sex mentality ¬ that permeates today's society could not abide the distinct but complimentary roles of groom and bride envisioned in Scripture. Christ and his priests as groom and the worshipping faithful as the brides of Christ would be too provocative a division for the equal rights agenda that is fashionable today. Apparently diversity is to be celebrated everywhere but at the altar. There all roles are interchangeable.
In today's Gospel, the prodigal son abandons the stability of his father's home to seek fulfillment elsewhere. Having squandered his inheritance on worldly pursuits, he returns to his father, hat in hand, realizing now where true riches lie. Many voices in the church today are mouthing phrases that bespeak the agenda of the contemporary world much more than they echo the foundational teachings of the Scriptures and tradition. It is time for present-day church trendsetters to forego their theological loose living, return to their Father's house and realize the treasures of wisdom and knowledge that have been there all along but which they have left behind.
(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)