It would take visitors from outer space about ten minutes on earth to realize that we humans are having real difficulties with our sexuality. A brief glance at TV, the movies, the internet, and the local magazine rack would give our visitors a quick sampling of our unbalance. Advertisers use sex to sell products. TV and movies use sex to shore up poor ratings. Singers use sex to mask their lack of musical talent. Talk shows are obsessed with sexual aberrations. Porno magazines display kinky sexual behavior. And tabloids delight in making up sexual absurdities to attract a larger reading public. Once our visitors learned the extent of prostitution, adultery, group sex, pedophilia, and spousal abuse, they would soon conclude that these earthlings haven't got a clue about why they were created male and female.
For much of our society, sex is seen as something people use for entertainment, for selling products, or for manipulating others. The problem is not just sexual aberration and exploitation. The real offence against human sexuality is that it is trivialized. People experience sex as something that is pleasurable but devoid of meaning. Sex becomes a shallow activity for humans, intensely involving the body but offering little connection to the soul. Sexual encounters engage physical organs but not the person. People settle for sex appeal, when what is possible is self-realization. People settle for technique, when what is possible is transcendence. Very simply, what was designed to reach the very core of the human soul has been relegated to the surface.
As some people surf the net for self-diversion, others surf sexual relationships for self-distraction. What was meant to free people from their egos has instead entrapped them in the realm of self-centeredness. There is no commitment. There is no trust. There is no love. They have forfeited much of life and don't realize it.
In the midst of this mess, to whom can we turn for help? Logically, people should turn to their ordained spiritual leaders for guidance. Ah, here is the problem for Catholics. A medieval law still in force in our Roman Catholic community requires all bishops and priests to be celibate. No doubt there are many great people among these bishops and priests. Even brilliant people. But we all lack in the one basic, -- a lived experience of married love.
All the good will in the world doesn't make up for this lack of experience. As spiritual leaders we priests haven't "walked a mile in the shoes" of the married people we are meant to lead. We are lacking the sexual experience that is possible within marriage. We can preach about the should's and should not's of sexual morality. And we can certainly say a lot about abstinence, denial, and sublimation. But what do we know of the human wholeness and spiritual holiness that can be achieved in the bonding of body, heart, will and soul through the sacrament of marriage?
A lot has been written about the need for a married priesthood so that the Catholic faithful are not denied participation in Sunday Eucharist (e.g. my article in THE TABLET, July 14, 2001). This is an internal church issue. The recent "Letter to the Bishops" by a hundred and sixty-three Milwaukee priests focuses on this. But there is a much larger picture that demands attention. Our world, more than ever before, is in critical need of a healthy vision of human sexuality. Young people especially need believable pacesetters in sexual maturity.
The church needs to proclaim from the rooftops that it has a better message about sex than the culture offers. We priests, who are the most visible wisdom figures, who are ordained to be teachers and sages, need among our number those who will give prophetic witness to the goodness and beauty of married love.
Approach married couples in a typical Catholic parish and ask them: "When was the last time you heard a Sunday homily about married spirituality?" Most likely, they will scratch their heads, think for a while, and then respond, "Maybe once last year," or "A long time ago," or even, "Never."
Most of the people in our pews are either married, have been married, or will one day be married. They live much of their life practicing their faith and finding their path to holiness through the sacrament of marriage. They could certainly use some guidance, direction, and even leadership in their holy vocation. So, logically, they should be able to turn to the Church's main spiritual leaders for help.
Unfortunately, they cannot get much help from their priests because we are all celibate. Let's be honest. In the eyes of the faithful, we are very limited in what we can preach. Our homilies and other teachings are narrowed to life as seen through the eyes of a celibate.
The result? At best, there is a vast population of married people floundering about with sparce spiritual direction for a major part of their lives. Many turn to other churches where a married clergy understands their experience and speaks their language. At worst, there are dysfunctional families, a high divorce rate, spousal abuse, and a large array of other problems that are compounded when there is no effective conjugal leadership from our pulpits.
The first moral statement in the bible proclaims, "It is not good for the man to be alone." Where do we find the Church proclaiming by word and example the goodness of God's plan for sexuality? Where does our ordained leadership witness to communion with the Creator through communion with one's spouse?
The Catholic Church needs to give clear spiritual direction, by word and the example of its spiritual leaders, who will guide married couples on their sacramental journey to God.
The Catholic Church needs to promote respect for the human body, teaching by word and the example of its spiritual leaders the dignity, nobility and sanctity of human sexuality.
The Catholic Church needs to show our youth, by word and the example of its spiritual leaders, the power of chastity to prepare the human heart for a trust-filled and lifelong union.
The Catholic Church, in stating its position on homosexuality, needs to show by word and the example of its spiritual leaders what it truly believes about marriage between a man and woman.
To fulfill this mission is the urgent challenge before our church today. In the early days of his pontificate, John Paul II wrote eloquently about the "Theology of the Body." But words alone are not enough. It is time for visible witness. I believe it was St. Francis who advised his followers, "Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words." He knew that people learn by observing. Our world needs no more "words, words, words." It longs for leaders to "show me" by the power of example what the Creator intended in creating sexual beings.
"Do we not have the right to marry a believing woman like the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" (1 Cor 9:5) (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6)
To sum up, a return to our apostolic roots and opening up ministry to a married clergy would be an eloquent profession of faith by our Church that married couples are called to holiness of life. Married priests would be able to preach believable homilies about the sacrament of marriage. They would be able to provide believable spiritual direction to couples preparing for and living out the vocation of marriage. They would be able to share how they struggle to find God through the committed love relationship of marriage. They would understand the mysticism that is possible when God becomes the very atmosphere of conjugal life. They would give an example of how the loving union of marriage leads to genuine experience of the holiness of God.
The first and best argument for married priests is that our married couples have the right to meaningful, reliable, experience-based help in their coupled journey of faith. And parents need highly visible "masters of love" to point to when explaining married life to their children.
It would make no sense to mandate that priests marry, any more than it makes sense to mandate celibacy. The vocation of marriage should not be imposed but should be a response to a call from the Lord. In view of the reasons above, now would be the perfect time to bring back to active ministry all those ordained that went on to answer a further call to married life.
It is not difficult to find people who have the courage of their convictions. What is rare to find are people who have the courage to reexamine their convictions. St. Peter, the first pope, had this second brand of courage. He went through much of his life regarding Gentiles as unclean. He thought they were unworthy of his association. This was part of his tradition. But new circumstances (and a dream) forced Peter to reexamine his convictions. And he came to a new conclusion. "I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality."(Acts 10:34) This was such a significant change for Peter that Luke relates it twice in the Acts of the Apostles.
After reading the letter from the one hundred and sixty-three Milwaukee priests (and soon there will be other groups), I pray that our American bishops will somehow find the courage to reexamine their convictions. They are being asked to reexamine if they "teach as dogma mere human precepts."(Mark 7:7) The Lord had much to say about this.
Then, inspired by the bravery of our American bishops, I trust that the next pope will have the courage to reexamine the church's rule requiring celibacy. Yes, it will take courage to change. But twenty-first century pastoral needs cannot be answered with an eleventh century law. Spiritual leaders laden with mandatory celibacy are powerless to reverse the mentality of our present culture's sexual sickness. It is time for a change.
I believe a new Pentecost for the Catholic Church will be realized, a renewed excitement about human sexuality in the context of conjugal love will be experienced, when the words preached by priests are spoken in a language and mirrored by example finally understood by married couples, -- and young people on the way to marriage.
Alan Phillip, C.P.