Resigning his position because of “advanced age,” 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI announced Feb. 11 that he will step down Feb. 28, the first pope to resign since Pope Gregory XII in 1415. Citing failing health, Pope Benedict passes the baton to whomever the convocation of Cardinals decides to lead the Vatican. When the cardinals met in 2005 to pick 77-year-old German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to replace the late John Paul II, they expected him to carry on the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council [Vatican II], known to uphold conservative Church views on celibacy, contraception, and the ban on the ordination of women. Benedict, who ruled the Papacy for less than eight years, didn’t rock the boat about traditional Catholic practices. While no one knows who will wind up the next pope, Vatican II is long overdue for an overhaul, especially on contraception, abortion and women in the priesthood.
Frontrunners to replace Pope Benedict include 65-year-old Brazilian Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, 62-year-old New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 70-year-old Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 69-year-old Argentine Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and 63-year-old Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, all open to considering changes to Vatican II. Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien believes the celibacy vow, dating back to the First Lanteran Council in 1123 AD, is “not of divine origin.” O’Brien told BBC Scotland that “the celibacy of the clergy, whether priests should marry—Jesus did not say that,” signaling his interest in seeing the 990-year-old rule changed. Understating the problem, O’Brien said that “many priests have found it difficult to cope with celibacy,” not mentioning the worldwide priest sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years.
O’Brien is part of the conclave that will pick the next pope, soon after Benedict steps down Feb. 28. “I would be very happy if others had the opportunity of considering whether or not they could or should get married, “ said O’Brien, though admitting he never considered marriage for himself. Since 2001, the Holy See, the governing body of the Roman Catholic Church, has “considered sex abuse allegations concerning about 3,000 priests going back about 50 years,” according to the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice. Bishop Accountability Office estimated that the Church has paid out $3 billion in settlements to victims of priest abuse since 2012. At least eight Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy since 2004. Five dioceses in the U.S. have filed for bankruptcy protection due to ongoing lawsuits. O’Brien says the next pope will have broad discretion to revise the Church’s celibacy rules.
While not part of any official Vatican rationale or edict, the celibacy vow was supposed to prevent Church members or their offspring from inheriting property. Writing about celibacy, the Apostle Paul said celibacy was based on Christ’s example allowing man to serve the Lord. St. Peter, one of Jesus’12 original apostles, was married serving as the first pope around 1 BC to 67 AD. St. Augustine promoted celibacy throughout his lifetime [354 AD to 430 AD], believing that it was essential to his Doctrine of Original Sin. Sixteen-hundred years later, the Church still deals with the fallout from a practice that forced all-too-human priests into God-like images. Scotland’s O’Brien insists that celibacy was not “basic dogmatic beliefs,” urging the next pope to finally deal with the issue. Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation was in part a rebellion against many conservative Catholic traditions, including celibacy.
Luther was excommunicated Jan. 3, 1521 by Pope Leo X for his 95 Theses, rejecting many old Catholic beliefs and traditions. “We know at the present time in some branches of the church—in some branches of the Catholic Church—priests can get married, so that is obviously not of divine origin and it could get discussed again,” said O’Brien, still not dealing with the fundamental issue related to the celibacy vow: That you can’t change human nature. Years of priest sex abuse prove not that certain priests lack moral character but that artificially thwarting human nature leads of aberrant behavior. When members of the Anglican Church opposed the ordination of women and joined the Catholic Church in recent years, Pope Benedict XVI ordained Anglican clergy as Catholic priests, allowing them to remain married. Dealing with celibacy is the Church’s most pressing challenge.
No matter what the origins of celibacy or past Vatican rationale, the new Pope can’t ignore a major problem threatening to bankrupt dioceses around the globe. Since Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation [1517-1521], it’s clear that other Christian faiths have successfully allowed Church leaders to marry without adverse consequences to various Christian churches. Saying he’s “open to a pope from anywhere if I thought it was the right man, whether it was Europe or Asia or Africa or wherever,” Scotland’s O’Brien seeks the kind of reforms, like the celibacy vow, that are long overdue for the long-term survival of the Church. With priest sex abuse scandals threatening to break the Vatican, the time is ripe to revisit one of the most destructive Church practices. Swearing one’s allegiance to Jesus Christ doesn’t require all-too-human priests to sacrifice all earthly pleasures.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.