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Clerical error: look east for reason why celibacy vow should be axed


Joseph Wakim

"For the first millennium, married priests were commonplace in all churches".

"For the first millennium, married priests were commonplace in all churches". Photo: Michele Mossop

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 matrimonial or paternal responsibilities.

Their capacity to empathise and advise is actually enhanced by 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 anyone to be ordained must first pledge celibacy, as ordination marked the end of married life - "priests [must] first escape from the clutches of their wives". This was enshrined during the First Lateran Council in 1123, when Pope Calistus 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 flourishing in Australian congregations, and harvesting a new generation of priests, both 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 so that it is 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 abuse their power.

Being close-knit communities, any suspect behaviour cannot be dealt with by relocation 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 also 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 is likely to attract fewer recruits among their faithful flock.

While the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, hopes a royal commission will 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 cull.

But this may be the perfect time for in-house renovations 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 that the Vatican revisits 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 used to be the norm for priests in 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 unchartered terrain, but a return to the roots of the church and a grafting with the Eastern branch of the same tree. It would open the doors to a pool of clergy with a wider diversity of life experiences. They would inevitably enrich the clergy culture and it would also help close the doors to opportunistic paedophiles who traditionally sought shelter under the branches of ''forgiveness''.

In all my encounters with Eastern Catholic clergy, there was never a hint of suspicion about sexual predators or grooming among married or celibate priests. Yet the celibate Christian Brothers who taught me seemed 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 something from the East, where it all began.

Joseph Wakim is a founder of the Australian Arabic Foundation and a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

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  • Jesus was a radical Jewish preacher, demanding the restoration of the relationship between ourselves and a loving Father God.

    As a devout Jew, Jesus was obliged to marry and start a family.

    How can the priests who claim to follow His teachings demand celibacy? Perhaps they are "Catholics", but not "Christians".


    Date and time
    November 15, 2012, 8:37AM
    • According to the 'official' gospels, Jesus never married. He probably did, though (assuming he ever existed, which is probable, although his life would have been nothing like the hagiography set out in the New Testament).

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 10:22AM
    • Actually there was no obligation whatsoever for Jewish males like Jesus to get married.

      But yes of course he did. Now that we know that the Catholic Church engages 8 foot tall albino monks from Opus Dei to run round in the dead of night assassinating heretical nuns with a handgun, I think that we should wait for the next factually authorative and historically correct Dan Brown novel to clear up all this silly Jesus singledom status once and for all. Nail the 12 whilst he's at it perhaps?

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 10:48AM
    • The gospels are quite open about Jesus' friendships with women.

      Marriage is a reasonably significant life event and it is unlikely that such an event would have been missed. On the cross, he asked John to take care of hjis mother, and it is unlikely that he would have neglected the needs of his wife if he had one.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 10:49AM
    • No of course he never existed. That would be why he was referred to by several non-Christian historians like Josephus as having actually existed. But let us not let facts get in the way of good ol atheist viewpoints.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 10:53AM
    • Agree Ian but was he even that. There is no Jewish record of JC nor Roman record, which is remarkable given the Romans recording of most events. Its funny how someone that drew such large crowds and produced so many miracles that the Romans would have no record, yet there are records of John the Baptist and the crowds that he drew. The only record of JC being the New Testament.
      But the profound issue is that Christianity and Islam are all rooted in Judaism and that possibly makes them sects of Judaism. How is it then that so many groups have such strong contempt for the other.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 11:03AM
    • Indeed, these points are often made:
      1. The wives of famous men are seldom mentioned in antiquity.
      2. It would have odd for him not to have married.
      3. Whether he was married or not is utterly irrelevant to his work,
      and celibacy didn't seem to matter for the next 1000 years, so why
      on earth must priests be lonely now?

      Partner up, folks. It makes a happier world.

      Byron Bay
      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 11:23AM
    • @Jace - why do you say Jesus "probably" married? Do you have some evidence for this, or are you just speculating/thinking wishfully?

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 11:24AM
    • @ Ian. For a start Catholicisim and Christianity should not be confused and second all so called Christians are not real followers of 'Jesus' who was in fact Jewish.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 11:44AM
    • @Jace. Oh the gospels, riiight. I wonder what the other 32 gospels said about Joshua, that were removed in 312 AD. Oh of course you didnt know that.

      Date and time
      November 15, 2012, 11:46AM

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