The current meeting of the world’s Synod of Catholic Bishops in Rome to discuss “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment” will clearly have an eye to the vast decline in vocations to the priesthood, particularly in the Western world. Its deliberations come shortly after the recent appeal by the Australian National Council of Priests (ANCP) for Pope Francis to call an end to compulsory priestly celibacy.
The ANCP request issued so close to the bishops’ meeting is clearly intended to put some pressure for change on the bishops, and it is merely the latest example of the drive for change in this area of Catholic commitments that has been gathering force in the last ten years or so. Moreover, this challenge is the tip of an iceberg of a movement for radical reform within the Church.
Part of the demand for change on celibacy is pragmatic. It is based on the massive decline in numbers of priests in the West over the last 50 years. The case presented thus rests in part for its prospects of success upon recognition of the crippling shortage of priests, especially in certain parts of the Western world—in the present instance in remote parts of Australia.
But it would be a mistake to view the significance of the celibacy issue too narrowly as merely a pragmatic question or, for that matter, as solely about the requirements of priesthood. It is rather part of a more general crisis concerning the nature of Catholic Christianity, a crisis that has been building since the reforms of Vatican II and the papal backlash against their impact in the subsequent papacies of Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XV.
The beginnings of the crisis lies largely with Paul VI’s disastrous condemnation of artificial contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, that “celebrated” its 50th anniversary recently this year in July. The Pope reaffirmed standard teaching against the advice of his expert commission that had overwhelmingly favoured change, and his decree was met with consternation throughout the developed world by all those lay and clergy who had been comforted by the accurate, leaked reports of the Commission’s findings that there was no serious theological, scientific or pastoral defence for the existing teaching.
The current turmoil in the Catholic Church has a further salient cause in the ghastly, continuing revelations of sexual predations by Catholic clergy upon children supposedly in their care, and the duplicity of so many church authorities in concealing, minimising and too often turning a blind eye to criminal behaviour and the suffering it caused. The recent exodus from the Church and the distaste felt by so many who remain merely continues the trend set by Humanae Vitae and subsequent Papal entrenchments.
So the clerical celibacy issue is just one more challenge to much that has been regarded as standard teaching. Further challenges include: the nature of the teaching authority of the Church, the character of Christian marriage, the meaning of clericalism and the place of laity within the Church, the dialectic between religious ethics and natural reason, and the rights of women within the Catholic dispensation.
An urgent review is also needed of standard moral teaching on matters of sexuality and areas related to it such as women priests, homosexuality, divorce, clerical celibacy, pre-marital sex, and even abortion. Polling data show that existing Church teaching on all of these is either ignored, conscientiously rejected, or questioned amongst very many of the faithful, especially in the West.
More broadly what is damaged, probably fatally in the longer term, is what I have elsewhere called “The Picture” of Catholic faith. The Picture portrayed the Church as a proud monolith firmly grounded in an array of crucial doctrines, disciplines, and ageless, immutable moral teachings that united all Catholics behind the Pope in a posture of certainty against heresy and the numerous errors of outsiders.
The Picture is a distortion of Church history. Changes in disciplines and doctrines hitherto regarded as fixed have been common in the past and as recently as August 2 this year Pope Francis announced a change in Catholic moral teaching about capital punishment. The death penalty was considered morally permissible in various circumstances over the centuries but is now completely condemned. Over time, firm Catholic moral teaching against usury (taking interest on loans), on slavery, on freedom of conscience and religious toleration, and much else has slowly evolved beyond recognition or just simply changed. Most such changes were driven by belated recognition of the concrete experiences and conscientious choices of the laity. Various identity-defining disciplines, such Friday abstinence, forbidden attendance at “non-Catholic” services, were abandoned by the Second Vatican Council, as was effectively the keystone doctrine “no salvation outside the Church”.
The current state of the Catholic Church in the West is often understandably seen as parlous, but the evident disarray as The Picture fades could be an opportunity for genuine reform and renovation. This would have to include systematic restructuring of the Church’s antique governance procedures to bring them into line at last with what is good in contemporary democracy, as well as more intellectual openness to valuable modern developments in moral understanding and historical and scriptural scholarship.
That is the optimistic part of a possible outcome. The pessimistic part concerns the reluctance that powerful elites have for modifying or abandoning their positions. This is reinforced in religious authorities by sincere convictions about their Divine mandate to control the destinies of “the faithful”. Changing course on so much also means admitting that traditional teachings like the ban on contraception, the denunciation of homosexual acts, and the prohibition of divorce, caused much unnecessary misery to many faithful Catholics. That admission will be hard for the clerical leadership to make.
It also means admitting responsibility for the damage caused to the fight against AIDS, by the misguided campaign against condoms. This damage has been particularly severe in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Fortunately, that situation is starting to change as evidenced by the Kenyan government’s recent promotion of a very successful campaign to encourage the widespread use of contraception in clear defiance of Kenya’s hitherto influential Catholic bishops.
Pope Francis has shown courage and pastoral concern on a range of questions including entrenched attitudes in the Vatican bureaucracy itself, and he is known to be sympathetic to changing the received teaching on the access of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. How far he is prepared to move on celibacy and to promote more extensive change and how far he will be constrained in attempting to do so by elements in the Church who view his Papacy as disastrous and even heretical is the jackpot question. The answer may decide the future of the institution he leads.
Tony Coady is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne and an Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. He was co-editor (with Max Charlesworth) of the Australian Catholic Worker in the early 1970s. His related article “Catholic Identity and Strong Dissent—how compatible?” appeared in Philosophers Take On The World, ed. David Edmonds, Oxford University Press, 2016.