When, in future years, we reflect on the current pontificate, the further polarisation between conservatives and liberals in the Church that has developed since 2013 cannot possibly escape comment. We might think of this as a sad fact in itself, but the saddest reality in the midst of the whole situation is that truth – theological and historical truth –almost always gets overlooked. Consequently, little objectivity has been brought to bear on questions of importance, and everything the Church is meant to be – that is, the repository of Divine Truth – has become obscured by rather un-divine squabbling and enmity.
One question around which this has become manifest recently is that of married men becoming ordained. Because it has been mooted by Pope Francis as a possible avenue for exploration, liberals have taken it as a cue for opening up any number of other issues they see as inherently related. Conservatives, meanwhile, seem to have taken it as an opportunity to roll out some of the most trite, reactionary nonsense that has ever tried to pass itself off as theology. And because I believe strongly in Tradition as a touchstone in the Church’s discernment , It is the conservatives I take greatest issue with.
Conservative commentator Caroline Farrow, herself married to a Catholic priest now serving in the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, was recently invited speak at a local event entitled, ‘Why Clerical Celibacy is the Ideal’. The irony of such a position aside, the fact is that, if Mrs Farrow’s posts online are anything to go by on the issue, she illustrates precisely what is most troubling in the current ecclesial context. On one hand, there is simply no theology behind her position; on the other hand, there is the strong scent of a most appalling dualism.
Likewise, Fr Jerome Bertram’s 2016 piece in the Catholic Herald, entitled, ‘A True History of Celibacy’ is a wholly inadequate contribution to the debate. In the article, he fails to point his readers to specific sources, and the hermeneutic he applies to the sources he implies is manifestly biased toward a Roman and dogmatic one. Indeed, the fact that he felt compelled to write about continence as a requirement of ordained married men in the first place seems to indicate an outstanding issue with human sexuality – not with him, personally, I hasten to add, but among some members of the Church he is representing when he writes.
In direct response, the thought of Pavel Florensky is instructive. In a disputation against secular accusations of the Church that her traditions are dualistic, he declares that in fact, it is those who claim to embrace the body and its pleasures who fail to truly understand the reality of things. His position, however, can only be sustained if the Church’s members do not actually accede to the posed dichotomy. Consequently, Florensky reminds us of the Canons of the Holy Apostles, specifically canons 5 and 51, which together make very clear that any cleric who chases away his wife for physical aversion is to be excluded from the priesthood. Florensky further cites the Council of Gangra, a local post-Nicene council called to address the heresies of a certain Eustathius, at which the canons were declared even more clearly. Rule 1 read, ‘If anyone condemns marriage, and has an aversion to a faithful and pious wife who couples with her husband… let him be under anathema.’ This anathema was followed closely in Rule 4, which stated, ‘If anyone who has said about a presbyter who has entered into marriage that he is not worthy to serve communion, let him be under anathema.’
It would not, of course, be appropriate to draw concrete conclusions on the question of married clergy from a single council, no matter how unmistakably the Church’s tradition may have condemned a dualistic fear of the body and its pleasures. It is clear, however, that the question can hardly be distilled down to the reactionary headlining of conservatives. The sort of language being posited by that side, at least, can only serve to bring further accusations on the Church of an unhealthy dualism, and pit Christians among those who would radically distinguish between body and soul. For far too long, such mistaken thinking has been a feature of Church life; far too many people have been hurt and misled by it.
If the Church can stand to be reminded of anything by the Zeitgeist, then, it must surely be her own, true and positive understanding of the wholeness of the person. Similarly, her members must never forget the paramount need to look beyond adolescent polemics toward a genuine and sound theological understanding of married priests, together with any and every other question posed – whether by Pope Francis or anyone else.