Hardly a day goes by when I fail to see some news report or op-ed on the advisability of the Catholic Church to end the male-only priesthood, the mandatory celibacy requirement, the ban on contraception and abortion, or its view of homosexuality.
Usually, the story is set against the backdrop, imagined or otherwise, of declining Mass attendance, diminishing vocations, widespread use among Catholics of contraception, growing alienation among women and young people, or stories about priests who have abused children.
Recently, however, several stories have contained quotes from Catholic bishops who are asking some of the same questions. For example, two Belgian prelates, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt and Bishop Jozef De Kesel of Bruges, raised questions about mandatory celibacy for priests.
It’s one thing when your local Voice of the Faithful chapter gets in the news; it’s quite another when bishops are the mouthpiece.
Bishop Hoogmartens told Belgian VRT radio, “I can imagine two sorts of priesthood. Those who live celibately and those who have a relationship — are married.”
Bishop De Kesel is newly installed in Bruges following the previous bishop’s revelation that he had sexually abused a nephew of his for years. The new bishop of Bruges was quoted in the same story saying, “People for whom celibacy is humanly impossible should also have a chance to become a priest.”
The disconnect between the problem of male priests who sexually abuse boys and a male priest wanting to marry a woman is so obvious, one must wonder why the bishops brought it up. In the same interview, Bishop Hoogmartens admitted ending the celibacy requirement wouldn’t solve the problem.
In both the United States and Europe, Catholic bishops and the media have not been on the best of terms for many years. The recent series of attacks by the New York Times on Pope Benedict XVI is the latest case in point. Bishops must be weary of constantly dealing with a hostile press and a laity stirred by the barrage of stories constantly raising the thornier points of doctrine and tradition.
I wonder if some bishops have gotten to the point of wondering how they can win back some sort of credibility in the eyes of the media.
Perhaps that was the motive behind the comments last week by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, the leader of the Church in England and Wales, made to a BBC interviewer while sitting on a panel next to two academics. The first was an Anglican homosexual professor of Church history at Oxford and a professor of “Catholic Studies”; the other, a specialist on gender issues and a well-known dissenter on abortion and marriage.
Archbishop Nichols denied that the Church was opposed to the political objectives of homosexual activists. “That’s not true,” he said. “In this country, we were very nuanced. We did not oppose gay civil partnerships. We recognized that in English law there might be a case for those. What we persistently said is that these are not the same as marriage.”
If this wasn’t jaw-dropping on its own, Hilary White of LifeSiteNews reports that Archbishop Nichols implied that Benedict himself holds the issue of marriage as a low priority. Here is how Nichols explained that remark:
I think it’s very interesting, and I don’t think for one minute it’s accidental, that when the pope wanted to raise this question [in his address at Westminster Hall], where are the moral standards on which we base our activity, he chose as his example the financial crisis. I think that’s very important and not to be overlooked.
No one mentioned that supporting civil partnerships for homosexuals implies support for the sexual acts within those relationships. (Or is the position of the archbishop to support only those civil partnerships that remain chaste?) John Smeaton, longtime director of the Society for the Preservation of Unborn Children in London, responded to Archbishop Nichols, noting that this is not the first time the archbishop has left the door open to homosexual unions. He called the archbishop’s remarks “clearly at odds with Catholic teaching,” citing the Catechism at 2357.
If Archbishop Nichols or the Belgian bishops are trying to win back some favor with the media by intimating a compromise on controversial issues, they are mistaken. This will only increase the scorn of those who pummel the Church by adding the odor of weakness to the offense of their “outdated beliefs.”
Or, perhaps, these bishops actually believe the future of the Church lies in the direction of pursuing such changes. This is the kind of moment when we can hope the bishops’ commitment to collegiality will keep such speculations from gaining any traction.