The Catholic Church October synod was surprisingly successful. Unlike previous synods the discussion was open. The focus was pastoral rather than legal. Questions like Communion for divorcees, living together without being married, homosexual relationships, contraception are now on the table. The objective is to seek solutions to complications rather than repeat the rules that most Catholics do not accept. Common sense won over ideology.
For the first time in thirty five years the hierarchy are catching up on the rank and file who have been solving these dilemmas in practical terms for decades. The laity solved the contraception issue in the 70s. They decided that Paul VI was wrong about contraception and changed their behaviour accordingly. Papal authority was undermined, Mass attendance became more casual and confession became a thing of the past. Over recent years many ordinary Church members have become open to unmarried couples living together and see divorce and homosexuality as normal. Communion in these conditions is not an issue.
A negative attitude to sex underlies all the synod questions. This has been significant in the Church since its beginnings. In “The Body and Society” Peter Brown shows that extolling virginity emerged early in Christianity even though it was counter-cultural. St. Augustine linked sexuality with sin and that bias has lasted ever since. A Western guilt culture emerged after the Black Death as Jean Delumeau shows in “Sin and Fear”. This, in turn, was a major factor in the Reformation due to Martin Luther’s sexual scruples. Enthroned over all this was clerical celibacy. Clergy are even more arcane because they have renounced sex.
Most cultures have sexual rules. This gives power to any group that articulates these rules and enforces them. In Catholicism the clergy claims this right. This gives them enormous power. And power is the great motivator of clergy.
The argument is that these rules accord with Natural Law.
The theory of Natural Law is that every being has its own nature. If you use right reason to reflect on the nature of any being you can work out the rules that govern its purpose. Right reason reflecting on the nature of the human being leads to discerning behavioural rules that a human person must follow. Since God is the author of human nature this Natural Law is a facet of Divine Law. The result is that where there is lack of clarity about any natural law precept the Church can intervene and make it clear.
The problem is that the natural law argument is defective, not well understood and often badly interpreted – as in Humanae Vitae. In any case the rank and file do not accept it. This means it is not received – an essential component for authentic Catholic teaching.
Like it or not the bishops are in the box seat for setting the rules. They are one group that even a pope has got to get on side if his stance is to prevail. That is why this Synod was so important. But therein lies a problem. The bishops have a vested interest in the outcome.
For the last thirty five years a key part of the search for any bishop has been his acceptance of the official Vatican line on contraception and homosexuality. This was a high priority under John Paul II and Benedict. So, if they are even going to discuss these issues let alone change their mind they have to abandon positions they have previously publicly embraced.
But above all they are officially celibate. They have renounced sex. Furthermore their celibacy is the icon of their clerical state. With these vested interests is this the best group in the Church to be deciding on these issues?
The Synodal process opens the door to two other issues – clericalism and mandatory celibacy. Pope Francis has already referred to clericalism as a cancer. How, then, do we eliminate it from the Church’s leadership? Abolishing clerical celibacy would be a first step.
But there are other reasons for revisiting mandatory celibacy. Paul VI called it a “brilliant jewel” in his 1967 encyclical on Priestly Celibacy”. But it has a darker side. It occasions an abnormally high proportion of homosexuals in clerical ranks. It aggravates the seriousness of inappropriate sexual behaviour by clergy. It makes a negative statement about sex which is culturally normal for everyone else. It creates an isolated environment for clergy which more easily leads to narcissism, loneliness, depression and alcoholism. It skews the profile of candidates for the priesthood. Finally, it is the most obvious badge of identity of the clerical class. If clericalism is the cancer that Pope Francis thinks it is the abolition of mandatory celibacy must come up for consideration.
Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest who lives in Melbourne. This article has also been published in ‘The Swag’ the journal of Australian Catholic priests.