April 5, 2002
AND NOW, having read the sordid details from the police report, we regard the pathetic pastor of St. Clement I Catholic Church, caught in a lie of fear and desperation, his license to practice suspended, his whereabouts for a week known but to his attorney and, one assumes, God. All because he did that which his vows forbid him to do, and allegedly lied to a Baltimore County police officer to cover it up. Another one bites the dust, and while the development was decidedly regrettable, one assumes there were sighs of relief among Father Steven Girard's superiors that a little boy wasn't involved.
Something has been terribly wrong in the Catholic priesthood for many years, and I have for many years wondered when we would get around to dealing with it.
But the Roman Catholic Church being a global religious institution -- and not a democracy -- the idea of "we," meaning the lowly laity, "dealing" with anything is absurd. "We" have nothing to do with the grand and mysterious designs of the Church. I don't recall ever being asked for my opinion about anything. I can't think of a single time that any issue -- the celibate priesthood, for instance -- appeared as a question on a ballot. I can't remember the Church asking anyone in my family for anything except contributions.
Certainly no one from the scandal-scarred Archdiocese of Boston, my boyhood home, has called to ask whether any of the priests for whom I served as an altar boy ever touched me inappropriately. (They didn't, and I can't recall the now-defrocked Father John Geoghan ever showing his face in the sacristy at old St. John's.) So the idea that we, the lowly laity and struggling faithful, might be called upon to "deal" with the current mess is a foreign idea. And thus my long-standing reluctance to offer an opinion about matters Catholic. What difference does it make?
Only recent events -- the awful and demoralizing force of scandal, the flood of stories about sexual assault by priests and cover-up by bishops -- seem to have opened a slight crack in the door of the duomo.
I'd like to quote a letter to the Corinthians from an early pope, Clement I, for whom Father Girard's church in Baltimore County is named: "Owing to the suddenly bursting and rapidly succeeding calamities and untoward experiences that have befallen us, we have been somewhat tardy, we think, in giving our attention to the subjects of dispute in your community, beloved."
And yet, tempting as it is to give my attention to the subject, I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place on celibacy.
Raising the issue now, at a time of sexual scandal, suggests that I believe male priests who are married or openly engaged in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will not become abusers of children.
I am neither saying that nor asking anyone to make such an illogical leap.
But what I've wanted to say for a long time is this: The vow of celibacy is unreasonable, irrational, based in dubious theology and threatening the future of the church. I have fantasized about debating this with the pope, but, of course, no one debates the pope, and, besides, His Holiness has designated celibacy an untouchable matter.
Too bad the church hierarchy remains oblivious to any connection between the preservation of celibacy, that relic, and the decline in the ranks of priests. In the United States, there are more Catholic priests over 90 than under 30. We close churches and chapels -- two in Baltimore within the past few months -- in part because of the lack of priests to celebrate Mass in them.
But this never seems to bother anyone in Rome, and I don't recall any American bishops or cardinals raising the issue.
This is not just a numbers game. It's an issue of quality. Every Catholic can tell you a story of a priest or nun who is no longer in the life, and sadly missed. One of my favorite Baltimore priests, a man capable of giving superb homilies and of stirring parishioners to charitable deeds, disappeared a few years ago and turned up married.
Too bad he had to leave the priesthood to find happiness.
A good priest -- one who serves humbly and enthusiastically, who relates to families facing the problems of modern life, who leads by example and who teaches with intelligent, relevant words -- can carry a parish for a long time, and through hard times. Every Catholic can name a man who would make a good priest but for the celibacy rule and the restrictive, lonely life it demands. And every Catholic can name -- though not all are willing -- a woman who would make a great priest, if not for the rule against that.
Had celibacy been thrown upon the Vatican scrap heap 40 years ago, in the time of John XXIII, would the Catholic priesthood have been infested with fewer predators of children?
I'll defer to the Almighty on that and say God only knows.
But I've a feeling that, had there been repeal of celibacy, there would have been more priests and, with more priests, less pressure on church hierarchy to recycle deviants back into parishes. The scandal would not have been of the scale it is -- in its April 1 issue, Time magazine estimated that as many as 2,000 priests have been accused of abuse across the country -- and the credibility of a church that performs so much good throughout the world would not have been so profoundly damaged.
St. Clement, patron saint of sick children, watermen and stone cutters, was correct -- we have been too late to give our attention to subjects of dispute in our community, and by "we" he meant the leaders of the church. That was 1,900 years ago. Not much has changed, and too bad.
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