In February 2013 a most remarkable thing happened – the Head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal O’Brien, called for an end to the requirement that Catholic priests be celibate, and urged the next Pope to allow them to marry. The insistence on celibacy, he said, left many priests struggling to cope with the demands of their ministry. The burdens of being a priest were too much to bear alone, without the support of a companion or a loving family*.
Obviously this was not the first time a senior Catholic had urged reform, nor the first time that Pope Benedict XVl, true to form, refused to consider change. But many priests hailed his comments as a brave contribution, and, of course, most other religions and Christian denominations have no problems with non-celibate, married clergy. Moreover, former Anglican priests opposed to the ordination of women have been allowed to transfer to the Catholic Church if married.
But the most interesting thing about his comments is this: the Cardinal fully recognised that the tradition of celibate priests did not come from the man in whose name the Church exists, Yeshua ben Yosef. The Gospels clearly state that he was strict on divorce and adultery, but are silent on celibacy. Indeed, coming from a culture in which family and children were highly valued, it is most unlikely that he saw marriage as undesirable or celibacy within marriage as commendable. ‘It (celibacy) is obviously not of divine origin,’ said the cardinal. He’s quite correct.
Of course, any suggestion that Yeshua was ever married or ever had sex is quickly dismissed by the church hierarchy as ‘heresy’ even though there is the strong possibility that he did both. But the early church, driven no doubt by Jewish tradition and with the words of Paul or Tarsus ringing in its ears, made sure that the role of women in the early church was downplayed and any writings referring to Yeshua as a normally functioning male suppressed.
Celibacy has been a requirement for Catholic priests only since the 12th Century, although the thinking behind it comes from a rich tradition of despising the body and condemning women and sexuality as distractions from spirituality. After the religion was taken over by the Roman authorities in the fourth century, the body came to be seen as inherently evil and paying it any attention as sinful. For over a thousand years some Christians chose to deprive themselves of all physical comforts and even beat themselves thinking this would bring them closer to their G-d. But that was not Yeshua’s teaching. Why would he have bothered to heal people if he had not considered the body important?
Moreover, the church realised that there were gaps in the Gospel accounts of his teachings, and took it upon itself to plug them. That’s how teachings on such matters as the Holy Trinity, purgatory, the Mother of G-d and infant baptism came about.
Neither of the words ‘celibate’ or ‘celibacy’ appear in the Bible. There’s an old tale of two elderly monks who had spent a lifetime making copies of copies of the Bible by hand. One day, the first monk said to his colleague, ‘I’m going down to the library to look at the originals, to remind myself what they look like.’ A few hours later he reappeared, ashen faced. ‘What’s the matter?’ asked the second monk, ‘you look as if you’ve seen a ghost!’ ‘I checked, and it says celebrate,’ he replied.
Cardinal O’Brien has highlighted one way (of many) in which the church has made a mockery of history and distorted the teachings of the man it claims to represent. But there’s a twist. A few hours after he made his remarks, the news broke that he had been accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour’ by a number of individuals, including ‘inappropriate contact’ with several priests thirty years before. Shortly afterwards, he resigned, without admitting guilt.*
As the prayer says, ‘Lead us not into temptation.’ G-d sure works in mysterious ways!
©David Lawrence Preston, 5.4.2016
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* Two weeks’ later it was clear why the Cardinal made these remarks – he admitted that his sexual conduct had ‘fallen short of what was expected of a Cardinal, Archbishop and priest’ and that some of this behaviour had been more recent. The Catholic Church announced an enquiry, although if they remain true to tradition, it is unlikely the full facts will ever be known.