Letters to the Editor: November 2007

To the Editor,

(In response to “Benedict in Vienna, Prodigal Priesthood,” Oct. 2007)

In response to the commentary article, “Prodigal Priesthood,” it is fairly obvious that the author has some deep personal disagreements with the Catholic Church, and though I completely disagree, I do not want to get into an emotional exchange over opinions that seem to be so well entrenched (the author’s, as well as my own). That said, I believe the reason for much of the criticism of Catholic Church doctrine – of the type reflected in the article – has to do with some fundamental misunderstandings of what that doctrine actually teaches and why.

To begin with, it is necessary to understand that some Church doctrines are based on traditions which are malleable or changeable over time, and others are based on the teachings of Jesus Christ which are taken to be literal in their meaning (not symbolic) and therefore unalterable. For example, the Holy Eucharist (the consecrated, unleavened bread distributed and consumed at the mass) falls into the latter category. It is taken by Catholics to be the “actual” Body of Christ (not just a symbol of it). Many protestant Christians disagree with this doctrine, interpreting the Eucharist merely in symbolic terms. Yet if you did not know that Catholics take it literally, you would obviously not understand why many virtually fall to their knees at the very sight of a displayed Eucharist.

The same is true of the misunderstanding surrounding the male priesthood. It is commonly believed that Catholic priests are required to be men because they are symbolically representing Jesus – who was a man. This is not true. According to Catholic doctrine, Catholic priests are required to be men, because they are “literally” (not symbolically) taking the place of Jesus at the sacrificial altar. This is a spiritual mystery, and one of the core doctrines of the Catholic faith. Of course it is possible to deny that this mystery exists, to question it in various ways, etc., but the fact is that it is a part of unalterable Church doctrine. Therefore, railing against the Church for not being more open to a change in this doctrine is a little like criticizing a university for not abolishing the teaching side of its mission; it is actually a contradiction.

As far as priestly celibacy is concerned, the article has some valid points as well as some mistaken views. It is correct in implying that priestly celibacy falls into the category of theoretically alterable Catholic tradition. However, that tradition dates back far earlier than the 12th century Laterin Council, or even the Council of Elvira (306 A.D.). It derives from the time of Jesus’ spoken words in response to the apostles’ query as to the advisability of not marrying (as quoted in Matthew, Chapter 19, verses 11 and 12). His answer is open, but clearly pointed in the direction of the spiritual value of celibacy to “those who can accept this teaching.” Resultantly, the Elvira and Laterin Councils merely codified a discipline that was widely practiced from apostolic times. Still, far from forcing celibacy on its priesthood, the Church provides a number of options for men seeking the priesthood who would not be willing or able to “accept” the celibacy discipline. This is reflected in the fact that of the nine different “rites” or branches of the Catholic Church, five of the nine presently do not require priestly celibacy after ordination.

As for the case of Gerhard Hoeberth – the Lutheran minister who was allowed to become a married Latin Rite Catholic priest – this is not a surprise to informed Catholics. The Latin Rite Church allows exceptions to its celibacy rule in rare cases. These cases normally involve individuals like Fr. Hoeberth, who were raised in a different Christian tradition and converted to Catholicism after marriage. The logic is that these individuals did not have the same options as a typical unmarried, Catholic man contemplating priesthood in the Latin Rite. As with the other rites of the Church, however, the rule is that if the married priest’s wife dies subsequent to his ordination, he is required to remain celibate for the duration of his priestly life.

Given this logic and the rarity of such cases, I believe it an extremely far stretch to characterize the Latin Rite Church as “hypocritical.” I also hope this clears up any confusion over the above-mentioned doctrines and I welcome response.

 

David Reichardt

Vienna

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