Benedict in Vienna: Prodigal Priesthood

To the 800 Priests Who Left to Marry, It’s a Double Standard; to Woman, it Makes the Church Irrelevant

When the wind blew Pope Benedict’s robes up over his face as he stood on the temporary stage outside of Stephansdom, many couldn’t help laughing: It seemed like such a fitting metaphor for the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach of this papal visit, a would-be love fest that fell notably short of expectations.

While the pilgrims who had booked months ahead still came to Mariazell, the city crowds were a half or less than what had been planned for, all of which could not be ascribed to the rain.

Perhaps it was because Benedict had so little to say, confirming for many just how out of touch he is with the realities of their daily lives.

There were several important issues the Pope could have addressed – declining church attendance, the ordination of women, priestly celibacy – were all pressing. He addressed none of them. And while he did a bit of cheerleading for the stalwarts who are still active in church life, he was literally preaching to the converted.

The requirement of celibacy is a particularly hot topic in Austria at the moment because of the ordination in late June of Gerhard Hoeberth, an Episcopal priest who converted to Catholicism and was given a dispensation allowing him to continue as a priest, while staying married to his wife of 25 years with whom he has four children.

He is not alone. Although no figure for Austria is available, there have been 20 such cases in Bavaria over the last 30 years, according to the news magazine Profil, and some 500 world wide.
Erich Leitenberger, spokesman for Cardinal Schönborn, did his best to justify the decision.

“What should we do?” he wondered aloud to a reporter from Der Standard.  “We can’t say to someone who comes out of an established life situation that he should send his family off into the desert.”

No, of course not. And why should they, seeing as celibacy was not a proscription for Catholic priests until the Laterin Council in 1159, and even then most ignored it, apparently, until well into the 16th century.

But the Cardinal could also have perhaps suggested that because of the requirement of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church, the Reverend Hoerberth might have preferred to reconsider his conversion.
Because it is difficult to explain to the some 800 priests in Austria who have given up their right to an active priesthood in the Church in order to marry, why it is that another man gets to “have it all.”

Maybe it’s the conversion thing, a kind of “Prodigal Priesthood” model of rejoicing over the return of the lost sheep.

In either case, it’s hypocritical, pure and simple, and makes the whole institution look foolish.

But a further problem is one that gets discussed less often, and is thus perhaps even more damaging. And that’s what the requirement of celibacy for priests indicates about the Church’s attitude toward women.  Not only are women deemed unworthy to serve in the church’s core roles of sacrament or leadership, but everything about what women are, as mothers, as wives and as sexual beings is labeled by this standard as irrelevant and dangerous to the spiritual life of the men who are – at least in their own eyes – the most virtuous. Which would be comical if it weren’t so damaging.

What could this be about? One guess is that it is simply envy of the power and mystery of child birth, from which they feel closed out, and thus seem to need to control it from afar, or suppress it with lessons of guilt and sin, or simply deny it altogether.

But this still doesn’t seem to explain the bitterness of the Augustinians and rigidness that has infused Church teachings for so many centuries since.

Historians will tell you that one of the best ways to find out how a society spent its time is to look at what it regulated. If nobody’s “doing it,” you don’t need any rules. That’s surely part of it.

It has to do with power. But also with fear. Because when you look at the hot button issues for conservatives world wide, the same things come up again and again: abortion, head scarves, pedophilia, gay marriage… all have to do with the need to control sexuality, to keep things in bounds and under wraps, where men feel safe.

Because what the Patriarchs are afraid of is really not women.

They are afraid of themselves.

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