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NEW POPE, NEW DIRECTION?

Updated on March 9, 2013

NEW POPE, NEW DIRECTION?

The news that Pope Benedict would be stepping down on February 28 stunned the world, but I found it to be the most positive step taken during his term as pontiff. I have no personal animus against his holiness, but the Catholic Church needed a strong and forceful leader to confront its sexual abuse scandal, and Benedict was not that man. It did take courage, however, to admit he was no longer up for a job where you are expected to serve until death. His departure once again presents the Vatican with an opportunity to more honestly face its problems, thus allowing for a fuller healing to take place. A new pope may also begin to break the bonds of antiquated traditions that inhibit the Church from reaching its true spiritual potential.

Foremost among these is the only unmarried, supposedly celibate men can serve as priests mandate, which undoubtedly played a large role in the epidemic of sexual abuse. Permitting married men and women to become ordained ministers, along with single people of both sexes, might reduce the chances of abuse occurring, while there are historical precedents and spiritual considerations to support such a move as well. Opening the clergy to everyone obviously increases immensely the pool of talent available to the Church, and comes closer to Jesus’ creed that all are welcome and should be apostles spreading the Good Word. One only needs to look at the Gospels to see the major role played by women in Jesus’ ministry. They were among his most ardent supporters, stayed with Him during the agony of the Crucifixion (while all his male disciples ran away), and were the first to whom He appeared after the Resurrection.

Historically, the practice of married clergy has a longer tradition than the rule of only unmarried priests. From its foundings until the 12th century, the Catholic Church permitted clergy to marry, from the pope (some 39 pontiffs are known to have been wed), through cardinals, archbishops, bishops, down to the parish priest. The Lateran Council of 1139 forbid priests in the future from the institution of marriage. The impetus for the change to celibacy was more economic than spiritual. The Vatican wanted to gain control of land that married clergy owned, thus increasing Rome’s power and prestige. It also did not want property holdings of priests to be given to their sons who were not members of the Church. By taking over collective ownership of the clergy’s lands, the Vatican received the money from it, not the individual priest. Eliminating marriage for ministers would prevent property from leaving Church hands, as a cardinal or bishop could no longer place land in the care of a child not in the Church, thus keeping personal possession of it in the family.

A good start for the conclave of cardinals would be to perhaps look outside Europe for the next pope. Africa, Asia, and Latin America are all worthy, and could bring a fresh perspective to Rome. Maybe Latin America deserves first consideration as it has the longest tenure of service besides Europe, and was at the forefront of Church activism during the last 50 years. Liberation theology grew in response to the brutal dictatorships in Central and South America, but its call for greater Church involvement in combating the social and economic woes of the poor and oppressed was much needed, not only there, but throughout the world. It was nice to hear an Argentine cardinal arriving at the conclave say the Church has to take a serious look at the role of women, with the goal of expanding it.

Whoever the cardinals pick, I can only pray it is someone ready and willing to lead the Catholic Church down a new and brighter road.

P.S.- You may have noticed, or perhaps not, that I did not bring up the matter of gay clergy. To me, sexuality is a non-issue, thus saying the Church should allow married clergy includes both heterosexual and same-sex couples, as well as accepting single, gay priests- men and women.

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