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Deacon did a lot without compulsory celibacy

First of all I will blow my own horn,” this man writes. He wishes to trumpet that he has been a deacon -- make that a married deacon -- for the past 25 years. He did wakes, marriages, Marian devotions, Lenten devotions, homilies, penance services, AIDS ministry, the list goes on. Then he gets to the point: “What is important is that I was not celibate.”

Think of him as writing from Seattle, which is a lie, but the church is much the same everywhere, and so is human nature, so let’s just call him Someone because his wife thinks he’s notorious enough already.

He has big reservations about compulsory celibacy.

Here we should take time out to clear the air. There is no need to dismiss Someone’s comments on celibacy as church-bashing or disloyalty. That would allow us not to take him seriously. The time-out needs to be taken because letter writers and other smear campaigners are saying to the pope that he should up the ante on loyalty; that those who don’t parrot every Vatican thought on everything are disloyal Modernists, Americanists or whatever (such people are experts at name-calling). This is a pathetic excuse for Christianity, which for centuries has boasted not only of divine inspiration but of the ability and freedom to use our heads.

This Someone, after all, gave a big chunk of his one and only life to the church, helping people, no angles or ideology. And anyway, he has nothing against celibacy, he simply doesn’t believe compulsory celibacy has worked.

He has no big thesis, just writes a letter that wanders about. “Leaving the ministry, for priests, is a kind of dying -- for the leaving priest, for relatives, for priests who remain. ... So many thousands of priests who have left the active ministry need reconciliation.”

One pastor told him, “Priests who leave are rank materialists.” This gets Someone going about priests he knows with cozy cottages by the beach or up the mountain. One has “a Lincoln for everyday car and a Jeep for beach driving and his suits custom-made by an expensive tailor.” Someone has lots of anecdotes.

Then he recites from the Council of Toledo in 655, which “decreed the enslavement of the offspring of clerics. Later, the wives of clerics shared the same fate.” Once the church decided on celibacy, it went at it with gusto. This has caused all kinds of broken hearts for centuries.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, in an article in America, Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska, suggests the U.S. bishops write a letter on mandatory celibacy (NCR, March 27). When Hurley ordained a married former Methodist minister two years ago, people began asking why could Protestants become married priests while pristine Catholic priests could marry only over everyone’s dead body.

And Hurley suggests -- a refrain one hears with growing frequency -- that if the bishops were to get together and get courage to speak out, “we would win more public respect and appreciation for priests and at least a better understanding of the church’s mandatory vow of celibacy.”

He’s 79 now, this man is, and the least we could do is allow him his 15 minutes to add to the sensus fidelium.

We’re confident readers recognized the headline on page one, “Ill fares the land,” as a quotation from poet-playwright Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village.” The stanza is as relevant today as when Goldsmith wrote it over two centuries ago:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

Hilary Clinton is right: It takes a village. The deserted village is a poignant sign of our times. We walk amid the ruins of yesterday’s villages, whether in American malls, in burnt-out hamlets in Bosnia, in the tortured countrysides of changing Latin America (cover story) and Africa (editorial), in the shantytowns of the misplaced wherever big wealth has forced the peasantry off the land that was theirs since time began.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 1998