Yet another case of a teen molested by a priest. Only this time it was a Republican in high public office who was molested as boy. The priest of course has been banned from ministerial duties but this hardly addresses the larger question. Is there something indemic to the Catholic approach to priesthood that is fundamentally flawed? My answer to this question is yes.
The requirement (not merely the option) of a celibate priesthood is unBiblical. At a minimum it should be optional at best. It's time for the Catholic Church to have a more Biblical approach to persons in ministry. Even the OT priests were not celibate! This is simply a relic of pre-medieval and medieval asceticism. And behind that earlier asceticism is unfortunately an inadequate theology of the goodness of human sexuality. And yet today's paper informs us that Catholic bishops are about to meet and provide new guidelines for ministering to gay persons. This may well be helpful, but the Catholic priestly hierarchy really needs to put their own sexual house in order before telling priests how to minister to gays appropriately. They need to look deep into their own souls and ask--- What is wrong with us? Here is the link to today's story--
What would a healthy approach to these sorts of issues of human sexuality look like that neither endorses sexual sin and calls it good on the one end of the spectrum nor endorses unBiblical forms of asceticism on the other? My answer to this is several fold, and it starts with 1 Cor. 7, and its frequent mis-interpretation.
Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul has been dealing with problems in the Corinthian Church. 1 Cor 7 is no different, and clearly enough what is happening in 1 Cor.7.1 is that Paul is quoting some views that Corinthians have about human sexuality, and he is critiquing and qualifying them in various ways. Notice how the verse starts--
"Now concerning the things about which you wrote 'It is good for a man not to touch a woman.'"
The 'you' here is not Paul, but rather the person's who wrote to him. Someone or someones in Corinth held an extremely ascetical view about male-female relationships. It is possible that the term 'touch' here is a euphemism for 'have sexual contact with' just as we use the euphemism 'sleep with' to mean roughly the same thing.
Notice Paul's response--- at a minimum, because of sexual sin "each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband". The word 'each' will later be qualified by Paul's discussion of the fact that there are some people (a minority) that have the gift of being able to remain continent and single. But the drift of the argument is clear enough that Paul thinks this is a minority of persons. This is one reason why he starts with the bold assertion "that each one of you should have...." Now notice the context. The context is sin-saturated Corinth. Paul was a good pastor, and he knew the temptations in Corinth were as grave as they are in our own sex-saturated environment. Were Paul here today I have little doubt he would be telling Catholic priests to get married right, left and center UNLESS they were one of those rare persons whom God had blessed with the gift of celibacy in singleness. We would have a lot less messes in the church today, especially the Catholic Church which is the only large denomination that requires celibacy of its ministers, if the celibacy requirement was dropped altogether.
Secondly, notice 1 Cor. 7.4-- Here Paul says something radical. He not only says that the wife's body belongs to the husband (which was the conventional wisdom of the day) startling every man he wrote to in that patriarchal culture with the sexual double standard he says that the husband's body belings exclusively to his wife. No messing around with call girls (called 'companions' back then) prostitutes, or other men's wives. Paul is balancing the ledger, and the eqality he is building into the marriage relationship stands out from the norm in the larger culture. Paul was not just another endorser of the old patriarchal status quo.
Thirdly, notice 1 Cor. 7.5-6-- "Don't deprive each other of sexual relationships except during a time of prayer, but after that come back together again". Paul, far from being in the least bit ascetical is encouraging a robust and repeated sexual sharing as normal for a Christian couple. And his standard for ministers was no different than his standard for everyone else he was writing to in Corinth. This was advice for all Christians there. Notice in 1 Cor. 9.5 he says that he has the right to have a wife and travel with her just as Peter and the Lord's brothers do. So much for the notion that the first 'Pope' was celibate. But back to 1 Cor. 7.
Sometimes 1 Cor. 7.6 has been totally twisted out of its context. The context makes reasonably clear that the exception or Pauline concession is not to HAVE sex, but rather to abstain from sex for the period of prayer. He is not conceding sex, he is conceding abstinence for a brief period of prayer time. That's all.
But what of 1 Cor. 7.7? Here we get to the nub of the matter. Paul does indeed wish that more people had the gift of celibacy so they could devote themselves wholly and solely to Christ and his ministry. But he recognizes that that is not everyone's 'charisma'. The Greek word 'charisma' from which the English word comes does not mean what it means in English. It means a 'grace gift' a gift from God.
What Paul says is that Christians should not ever make decisions about sexual relationships or abstaining from them on the basis of what they think or feel is 'natural'. Grace trumps nature when it comes to these issues. And so for Paul it requires a special gift of God's grace to remain faithful in marriage and it also requires a special gift of God's grace to remain celibate in singleness. Nothing is said here about natural inclinations and the like. Christians should make decisions about such matters on the basis of what God has given them the grace to do and be. And Paul recognizes that only a few like himself have been given the grace gift of remaining celibate in singleness throughout the rest of his life.
If the Catholic church could only listen to and live by this one Scripture when it come to requirments for the priesthood, things would not have gotten so out of hand in a sex saturated culture. There are many wonderful talent persons in the Catholic church whom God is calling to ministry, but has not gifted to be celibate. And since the church allows already for married priests, if their call to ministry comes after their marriage vows, its time to fix the rest of this flawed system.
I am under no illusions that this will solve all of the sexual problems in the Catholic Church, and I am also well aware that we Protestants have just as many problems as well, but for different reasons. We have not listened to the 1 Cor. 7.4-6 portion of this teaching well enough. Infidelity is rampant because marriages are not being nurtured as they should be.
There is an old saying of Chaucer from the Nun's Priest's Tale--- "if Gold rusts what then will iron do?" How in the world could either Catholic or Protestant clergy expect their parishoners to behave, or to have a good and healthy theology of human sexuality if we do not model it as well as teach it? We truly need to get our own house in order. We need to pluck the plank out of our own eyes. Jesus told us a long time ago that there were only two legitimate sexual options-- celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage (Mt. 19.1-12). Whether we are happy about this or not it means the sexual sharing is limited in the Bible to monogamous heterosexual marriage relationships. That's all. And if we cannot handle that, then we must pray for the grace gift of continence which God gives to some and not to others, and God does not decide this issue on the basis of whether he has also called the person into ministry.
Its time for the whole church to stop sending mixed messages like "Sex is dirty and unholy, save it for the one you really love and marry". The message needs to be "sex is a beautiful and precious gift of God. There is nothing remotely unholy about it. Indeed it is such a precious gift that it should indeed be saved for the context of unconditional love and an unlimited life time commitment." Unfortunately, however this great truth about human intimacy is one even much of the church and even too much of the clergy can't handle as things now stand. So what shall we do about this malaise? Inquiring minds want to know.
If you want to read more about the Pauline sexual ethic, pick up my Conflict and Coommunity in Corinth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) and read the relevant bits.