Congress reflection: The difference between married and female priests

In addition to Mr. Davidson’s inability to present logically consistent statistics, he made a distinction when talking about the adherence of US Catholics to Church teaching that really hit a nerve with me.  He divided Church teaching into two categories: Core and periphery.

The first thing about this that bugs me is that it reflects the mind set of “Cafeteria Catholics”, those people who pick and choose which part of the faith that they think are important.  That of its own right bugs me.  But something specific bugged me even more: one of the items he put in the periphery category.

In the core section were appropriate things like the divinity of Christ, the importance of the Sacraments, the Real Presence, the virtues of faith, hope and love, the need for social justice, etc..  In the periphery section he put things like labor union support, male priests, priestly celibacy, birth control, the death penalty, and specific religious obligations (I’m assuming Holy days of obligation, no meat on Friday, etc.).

Let’s play a game, shall we?  “Which one of these is not like the others”.  We all learned it while watching Sesame Street when growing up.

The issue of only ordaining male priests is the correct answer (and partial credit goes for birth control).  While the rest of the issues have to do with jurisdictional authorities and fallible moral judgments, priestly ordination of only men is an issue that is settled by both Tradition and Scripture.  Let’s go through the items one by one (in order of least firmly defined up):

1. Priestly celibacy: This has always been a matter of Church discipline.  Not only does the Church believe that married priests are morally acceptable, for over 800 years of the Church’s 2000 year history most priests were married.  In fact, there are currently approximately 450 married priests in the US, TODAY!  These are mostly pastors from other Christian churches that converted and went through the priestly formation process.  This is obviously not an infallible issue.

2. Labor unions: While the concept of a just wage is a principle of Catholic social teaching, the specific implementation of that principle is open for much interpretation.  The traditional support of labor unions by the Church was a discretionary one based on specific priests and bishops fallible understanding of how to advance this principle.  There is nothing infallible here.

3. Church obligations: This one is fairly obvious.  The list of Church obligations changes all the time.  The number of Holy Days of Obligation is at a historic low, the no meat on Friday rule has been reduced to only being during Lent, the definition of fasting has been loosened, etc..  While we as Catholics are bound to observe the obligations in place at the time, it is self evident that the Church has the right to change what these obligations are at any time.  Again, nothing infallible here.

4. Death Penalty: While the Pope did strongly condemn the use of the Death Penalty in the western world, he also made clear that this was a moral judgment which could not be made infallible.  He made it clear that the Death Penalty was still morally licit for the purpose of protecting a society.  What the Pope questioned was whether it was necessary in western society for this purpose.  His conclusion was that it was not.  That said, this is a prudential judgment and one that can be (albeit unwisely in my opinion) argued against in good faith as a Catholic.  John Paul’s statements in this regard not only do not carry any infallible weight but there are already infallible statements by the Church stating that the death penalty can be licit in certain cases that he can not contradict.

5. Birth Control: Now we’re getting into some murky water.  While Pope Paul VI did not make a infallible declaration when he released his now infamous encyclical Humane Vitae, anytime an encyclical is released with a singular issue to be addressed, the conclusions of that encyclical should be taken pretty seriously by Catholics around the world.  Additionally there is some debate as to whether the Magisterium has previously infallibly defined birth control as morally impermissible and Humane Vitae is only a reaffirmation of that.  I’m willing to accept that this is not yet a matter of the infallible teaching of the Church, but it is very firmly taught and in my opinion is not part of the periphery of the teachings of the Church (although I am willing to allow that my opinion is debatable).

6. Male Priests:  Finally, we come to the subject that sparked this post!  I will quote from John Paul’s Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (and the entire letter is worth reading): “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”  To me, language like “a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself” does NOT sound like the periphery.  The reality is that the teaching that men and women have different roles as defined by God and that the role of priestly ordination is a role reserved for men is a settled matter of the faith.

I went through this list not to be a thorn in anyone’s side, but to point out that there is a lot of confusion with many Catholics as to what makes up the infallible teaching of the Church, what is core but not yet infallibly defined and that which is still in development (and may never be central to the faith).  One of the key results of the Second Vatican Council was that it is important that lay members of the Church not blindly follow the directives of the Magisterium but that they embrace the teachings of the Church through a deeper understanding of these teachings.  With this revelation, the father’s of the Church knew that they were opening the door to more people actively questioning the faith.  However, we’ve gone far beyond questioning when we are unable to articulate just what is core and periphery.

I pray that we can delve more deeply into the nature of our Church and the Truths revealed to us through Christ.

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