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Policies of mandatory celibacy must be reviewed

Date

Joseph Wakim

It is time to revisit the beginnings and allow clergy to marry, JOSEPH WAKIM writes.

The royal commission into institutional responses to child abuse will not have the authority to review one vexed issue: the mandatory vow of clergy celibacy.

While we should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation, one compelling question cannot be avoided - why do Eastern Catholics and other churches with married clergy rarely encounter claims of child sex abuse?

As a Maronite Catholic, with an uncle who was a married priest with four children, this choice of celibacy or marriage has been functional since the church's foundation. Catholic churches in the East, the birthplace of Christianity, have always had married clergy.

There is no evidence that the reverence or sanctity of their clergy is compromised by their matrimonial or paternal responsibilities. Their capacity to empathise and advise is actually enhanced by their first hand experience.

The ordination of married men as priests may not directly redress the child abuse stigma that has dogged the church hierarchy.

But it may inject a new breed of 'fathers' who should be instinctively protective of children, and thereby permeate the culture of the clergy.

For the first millennium, married priests were commonplace in all churches. Then in 1074, Pope Gregory VII announced that anyone to be ordained must first pledge celibacy, as ordination marked the end of married life together - ''priests (must) first escape from the clutches of their wives''.

This was enshrined during the First Lateran Council in 1123, when Pope Callistus II decreed that clerical marriages were invalid.

At that time, the Roman Catholic church in Europe was understandably concerned about illegitimate children tainting the priesthood and children of married priests inheriting church property.

Today, the Roman Catholic church allows married men to become deacons, yet their freedom to marry does not compromise their commitment.

Another compelling question cannot be avoided: why are Eastern Catholic churches experiencing a flourishing in Australian congregations, and harvesting a new generation of priests, locally and abroad? They are sowing seeds in fertile soil that is aerated with a healthy mix of celibate monks and married priests.

In many of their Masses for youth, the pews overflow with standing room only. Roman Catholic visitors are perplexed at how their Eastern counterparts seem to be swimming against the tide.

The Eastern Catholics are not tainted by the litany of abuse scandals, and many of their priests are family men who have much more to lose than their priesthood if they dare to abuse their power.

Being close-knit communities, any suspect behaviours cannot be relocated to other parishes as the global grapevine grows all the way back to the home country.

To be fair, the healthy growth and spiritual glue of Eastern Catholics may be attributed to the geographic proximity to the birthplace of Jesus, the recent canonisation of several saints, the leaning on pillars of faith to survive wars, and the post 'Arab Spring' prayer that Christian minorities do not become an endangered species.

In the short term, the royal commission revelations are likely to deter Australians from pursuing priesthood, and the clergy are likely to attract even fewer recruits from among their faithful flock.

While Cardinal George Pell hopes a royal commission may ultimately vindicate the Catholic church canopy and shed any remaining bad apples, the tree trunk and its branches may become a no-go zone during the culling.

But this may be the perfect time for in-house renovation and reform.

Although the Vatican may have no 'appetite' for reviewing clergy celibacy, Cardinal Pell could whet his appetite by revisiting the vibrant Eastern Catholic churches.

He could then respectfully request the Vatican visits the question of celibacy among the clergy.

Rather than argue the case for married priests, as if this was a dangerously radical idea, his proposal could be to revisit what was the norm for priests for the first half of the church's history.

Rather than asking why married men should be allowed to become priests, the more pertinent question is why not?

This is not some risky venture into an unchartered terrain, but a return to the roots of the church, and grafting with the Eastern branch of the same tree.

It would open doors to a pool of clergy with a wider diversity of life experiences. They would inevitably enrich the clergy 'culture' and help close the doors to opportunistic paedophiles who traditionally sought shelter under the 'forgiving' branches.

In all my encounters with Eastern Catholic clergy throughout my life, there was never a hint of suspicion, predators or grooming among married or celibate priests.

Yet I cannot say the same about the celibate Christian Brothers who taught me - some seemed so incomplete and craved affection.

Married men are already in a position of responsibility and authority, and should therefore be less likely to crave positions of power.

Even Jesus chose a wide cross-section of people, many of whom were married men, to be His ministers to the four corners of the world. If married priests can provide hope as both small f and capital F fathers, then this may be the perfect time to learn from the East, where it all began.

Joseph Wakim, a former Multicultural Affairs Commissioner, is a Sydney writer.

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