Monday, March 15, 2010

Cardinal Schönborn Still Has a Job!

Europe is playing catchup with the United States, but in a game no sane person enjoys. From Ireland to Germany, public accusations of sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic clergy are being made, in previously unheard-of numbers. We gather it's a bit of a shock over here; they haven't had a decade or so to become inured to the pain.

This is all hard to talk about, for many reasons. First, there is the sheer awfulness of it -- the betrayal of a sacred trust, the psychological and spiritual harm done to the victims as well as to the church at large. But then there is the cascade of lesser difficulties: the matter of distinguishing predatory behavior from "mere" (and sometimes consensual) vow-breaking; of separating genuine claims from spurious; of treating both accusers and accused fairly; of how far church discipline can be trusted and when the civil authorities must be involved; of just how transparent a church can stand to be. And on and on, always ending at the same neuralgic and perhaps unanswerable question: Who was really to blame?

"Who" is not -- entirely -- the right question. Oh, these crimes, like any others, are the actions of individuals, and those individuals must be held responsible. But as Americans have learned, over and over, the abusive priests were abetted (if not inadvertently encouraged) by a complex network of persons, practices, and even theological convictions which made their crimes unlikely to be prevented or punished.

But here's a curious part of the puzzle. Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, has taken a couple of recent steps to sort out the strands of this network, and among those he has named is one usually off-limits to priests of any stature: clerical celibacy.

In his archdiocesan magazine, Schonborn called for an examination of the root causes of the abuse, including

... the issue of priests’ training, the question of priest celibacy and the question of personality development. It requires a great deal of honesty, both on the part of the Church and of society as a whole.

Needless to say, the official response was swift. Both Cardinal Hummes (of the Congregation for the Clergy) and Schonborn's own spokesman have said that the Cardinal does not in any way man to question the celibacy rule, as indeed he may not.

But on the other hand, consider this:

He is an ordinary — or bishop — to Austria’s Eastern Rite Catholics, whose priests are allowed to marry ... Last year in Rome, Cardinal Schönborn, who has always been close to the Pope, presented a petition signed by leading Austrian lay Catholics calling for the abolition of the requirement for priestly celibacy.

Cardinal Schönborn told Vatican Radio last year that he did not agree with the petition’s conclusions, which also included a demand for women deacons, but added: “It is important for someone in Rome to know what some of our lay people are thinking about the problems of the Church.”

So the cardinal is clearly keeping some distance between himself and the ideas in the petition. And yet somebody who was truly appalled by the idea that mandatory celibacy somehow contributes to the problem of wayward priests might very well have rejected the petition outright, and refused to be connected with it at all. And a less prominent churchman -- say, a teaching theologian who promoted these ideas -- might find himself deprived of his faculties, canonically speaking.

It may seem obvious to members of the Reformation churches, who dispensed with the celibacy rule quite near the beginning of things (and who are heir to generations of scurrilous-but-amusing propaganda stories about randy friars and bawdy nuns). We take for granted that human beings possess sexual drives which, if denied their customary outlet, will sometimes find alternative outlets which are inappropriate at the least, and destructive at the worst. (See Augustine, keyword "concupiscence.")

But this idea is not readily apparent to much of the Roman Catholic world, and especially to the hierarchy. Doctrinal decisions, after all, are made by celibate men, the vast majority of whom have succeeded in remaining celibate or, if not, in having consensual relations with uncomplaining partners. "If I can do it," you imagine them mumbling, followed by, "and maybe the guy slipped once or twice. But he knew it was wrong, gave his confession, and is moving on." And they keep saying this, until all evidence from all over the world accumulates, suggesting that their idealism and naivete have done vast harm to the cause of the Gospel.

So if one of the brightest and best-respected (not to mention youngest) members of the College of Cardinals is trying to slowly and carefully put the question on the table, even in the face of naivete so idealistic that it is nearly disconnected from reality, we wish him the very best of luck.


PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

Good for the honesty and discussion, etc., but if celibacy were part of the root of the problem, then married clergy and others in positions of authority wouldn't be slipping is such great numbers in all fields. Or are there more problems in the Catholic priesthood?

Father said...

I agree, and I don't think that celibacy is "the" problem in any definitive way. Nor, I'm willing to bet, does Cardinal Schonborn. What impresses me is his willingness to admit publicly that it might even contribute to the problem -- the company line has been to just deny this possibility.

Anonymous said...

No-they ordain married men; they don't let ordained men (priests)marry. If a priest's wife dies or they get an annulment, he can't have another wife. It's basically the same setup as the Orthodox.

Father said...

Did you perhaps leave this comment in the wrong box? it seems like a non-sequitur.

I'm not sure who you mean by "they." Roman Catholicism (as opposed to the various "Oriental" churches in communion with Rome) does not ordain married men. The few married Latin Rite priests of whom I am aware are converts from Anglicanism or Lutheranism.