The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI is 78 years old, the College of Cardinals having chosen to go with an elderly leader who continues the conservatism of his illustrious predecessor, John Paul II. Those who feel the new pope is too old to be really effective should keep in mind that it is only we in the decadent West who so glamorize youth and treat age as a decrepit disease.
In the Bible, King Solomon describes his youth as his winter and his old age as his summer. In his youth, he was prone to the biting cold of errors and egocentrism. When he grew older, he was warmed by the light of wisdom and hence experienced a thaw. It is only we who live surrounded by a plastic pop culture who treat the elderly as withered animals that ought to be sent out to pasture. In times gone by, the elderly were respected as pious mentors. It is good to see us returning to a time when a man almost 80 can become the most venerated religious leader alive rather than be confined to a sundeck in Florida.
But 78 does mean that the new pope will have to act quickly if he wishes to leave a lasting legacy and help revitalize the church, especially in Europe, its first home, where it is in sharp decline. And after wishing my heartfelt congratulations and sincere good wishes to my Catholic brothers and sisters on the election of their new pope – and amid the recognition of the proper humility by which a member of another faith gives advice to his Christian brethren – I must sound off on what I feel is the greatest issue confronting Catholicism, namely, the issue of clerical celibacy.
Religion is, above all else, about the family. It’s about a man and a woman practicing love to each other in a Godly framework, and bringing children into the world who will lead a Godly life and continue in the pathways of the religious tradition. All this is contradicted when the very leaders of the church are not allowed to marry or have children themselves.
As we try and create a society where women are respected by men, where the fairer sex are treated as beings who domesticate and civilize men, what message does it send that those who run the church can live without a woman? How can a priest properly convey to his flock that sexuality can be sanctified and that love is holy, when it appears as though he must remove himself from the possible corruption of a physical relationship since he is wholly consecrated to God? Will young boys learn to respect and venerate women if they never witness the dignified affection between a priest and his bride? Is a good woman not a conduit, rather than an impediment, to God?
And is it not unrealistic – not to mention inhumane – to ask a man who wants to serve God and the community with all his heart to go through life without a companion, to know only the external love of congregants rather than the intimate love of a soul-mate? Is it fair to ask a man to have no real home, no real warmth by which to be nurtured, to give and give, but never to receive?
It has been my honor to have been a rabbi since the tender age of 21. The rabbinate is my life’s calling, being a teacher of Judaism and biblical values my highest passion. But I declare unequivocally that if the pursuit of this calling had forced me to give up marriage or the possibility of children, I would never have considered it in the first place. I could not bear the loneliness or the cruelty of a life in which my most private self could never be shared, where my deepest self could never be known. And I would have been angry at God for having demanded so ungodly a sacrifice.
And if my communal responsibilities began to seriously interfere with the health of my marriage or my availability to my children, then I would have to curtail those responsibilities and put my family first. I realize that this is one of the arguments as to why priests should not marry, so that they may focus all their energies on their communities. But when you have a family, you are given ever greater energies. When you have children, you learn a far deeper form of love then you ever thought possible. And then you can share that with your congregants.
Amid all the coverage on the death of the Pope John Paul II, and the commentary on the global outpouring of grief occasioned by his passing, almost no one commented on the tragedy of this great man having no immediate family members present at the time of his illness or demise. He was mourned as a pope, as an institution, as a warm and caring leader. But he was not mourned as a man, as a husband, as a grandfather. One can only imagine, and commiserate with, the extreme loneliness of the pope as he suffered through illness without the gentle touch of a wife, or the warm embrace of his own child, to give him the intimate caring that only family can provide.
And can Catholicism really hope to grow in the West if priests are not allowed to marry? I refer not only to the terrible dearth of priests in Europe, the sharp decline caused primarily by most young men’s refusal to embrace clerical celibacy. Indeed, as the New York Times recently reported, in all of France last year, only 90 priests were ordained, compared with 566 in 1966. But I refer even more to the inability of a celibate priest to really impact on a community. When a priest cannot have a family that invites congregants in to see a living example of a faith-based family unit, his effectiveness as a spiritual leader is severely compromised.
As a rabbi, I know that the best way to bring people into the faith is to have them over to your home, to share with them a warm family dinner, to have them interact with your kids and show them that the religious life is one suffused with abundant and infinite blessing. In the Jewish religion, a rabbi who doesn’t open his home to his community is sure to fail at his vocation. He is much more successful laughing with congregants over a warm meal than delivering even his best sermon from the pulpit. The principal forum for religion is not the church or the synagogue, but the home – the place where spiritual values can be married with everyday living. But Catholicism deprives itself of the ability to directly impact on congregants by denying priests real homes to which they can invite their flock.
I also believe that clerical celibacy is the factor that was most responsible for the pedophile priest scandal, but not for the reasons you’ve already heard. It’s not that priests are denied sex, and therefore act out in an aberrant fashion – a silly argument which suggests that sexual violence is a product of sexual denial. Less so is it a function of the priesthood attracting pedophiles in the first place who think that the clerical orders will cure them of their dangerous predisposition – another silly argument that in reality is a disguised and unjust attack against Catholicism. Rather, I believe the issue is that since Catholicism insists that priests not marry, a priest is forced to interact with children as an individual rather than as the head of a household, as a person rather than as a family man. As such, these attachments become too personal and too close.
As a rabbi, when I counsel couples, women or even kids, it is almost always done at my home, where my wife and kids are present, even though they may not in the room at the time of the counseling. Hence, there is a general family atmosphere, and the person who comes to see me gets to know the family just as they get to know me. But a priest has no such environment and the counseling he offers women and children is therefore always between two individuals rather than between a family and an individual. There is no wife to protect the priest from attachments that grow too intimate.
As the world’s most populous religion, the health of Catholicism directly impacts the health of every other religion. And it is therefore my sincere hope that Pope Benedict XVI will succeed where the great Pope John Paul II did not, namely, in reviving church attendance and affiliation in the great democracies of the West. He can begin by tackling the issue of clerical celibacy head on.