The Other I

January 24, 2012

Addendum to Catholic thinking

Following my post yesterday, Leanna politely pointed out that, despite her Catholic socialization, she is what I think Jung would have called someone who put feelings or what I called experience, ahead of thinking.

It made me realize that I was so focused on analyzing my own thinking that I failed to make it clear that not all Catholics are thinking types, nor are all thinking types Catholics.  What I would also like to say is that neither thinking or feeling types are better or worse.  We need both, and as we mature, we need to learn to do both.  But I tend to agree with Jung that we are born with a disposition toward one or the other.  I have been a thinking type for as long as I can remember, which is about the age of two, and I was analyzing how being socialized as a Catholic thinker has shaped me.

In this context, thes issue of thought and feeling is closely related to the question of which comes first – religious teaching or personal experience.  The Roman Catholic Church has historically taken a pretty strong position on this issue in favor of thinking.  Dogma comes first.  Galileo looked through his telescope and concluded with Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun, not vice versa.  Rome hauled him in and said that his observations contradicted dogma.   Under threat of the rack, Galileo publicly – if not privately – recanted.

This issue remains alive today.  Evangelicals, for instance, reject many of the findings of science on the grounds that it contradicts Biblical truth.  There is, for them, an over-riding idea that cannot be contradicted under any circumstances, whatever they experience, whatever conclusions may rationally be suggested by science, or whatever anybody else might think.

I suspect that Catholic theologians more often tend to be thinkers in a way that many Protestant theologians are not for two reasons.  The first is Rome’s doctrine of papal infallibility.  Under pain of excommunication, one cannot reject teachings which Rome has declared to be infallible.  The virgin birth, the immaculate conception, the assumption, the resurrection and ascension, original sin, the trinity of God, for instance, have all been declared to be literally (not just metaphorically) true.  Catholic theologians cannot not publicly take another position, whatever their conscience may require.  At this very time, a Catholic priest has been excommunicated by Rome because he publicly supports the ordination of women, a position that Rome has forbidden Catholics to defend.

I think that celibacy also contributes to a continuation of a one-sided emphasis on thought among Catholic thinkers.  Celibacy is defended on the grounds that it represents a higher calling than a sexual partnership and raising a family.   I was taught this and entered the convent with this conviction.

My experience no longer supports this view.  I think a close sexual partnership is one of the most demanding experiences of human life.  A committed, enduring partnership with another person with different preferences, different points of view, different strengths and weaknesses requires a diminution of ones own egocentrism in the way nothing else does.  I emphatically do not agree that a life of celibacy is more difficult.  In fact, I think celibacy often permits the celibate (or at least the uncommitted if not celibate) priest to blithely proceed on a path of self-diagnosed belief in the superior rightness of their personal beliefs.

This is not to say that Catholic doctrine in itself tends to produce this outcome.  I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus tend to turn us into thinkers at the cost of feeling.  Nor is Catholic doctrine the only system of thought that can give us a sense of righteousness.  I have seen scientists as rigidly committed to their theories as any theologian in Rome.  Science, however, in the end is committed to the primacy of using experience to validate thought.  Rome, with its position of infallibility, emphatically is not.

This is an extremely complex question, and although I obviously have thought about it a great deal, my discussion began as one of self-exploration, and I don’t want it to suggest that I think all believers are rigidly bound to a single system of ideas.  They are not.

I would be particularly interested in comments on this topic.  If you agree, disagree, or think I’m missing something significant, I’d hugely appreciate your saying so.



June 22, 2008

Re-assessing celibacy in the Catholic Church

Since the documentary last week about Father Cleary, I have been re-evaluating my thoughts about clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.  Despite the fact that recent popes have adamantly refused to consider a married clergy, it is worth remembering that even in the RC Church, clerical celibacy did not become a requirement until the 13th century, when it was imposed in an attempt to control wide-spread abuse.  Additionally, it is a practice which has never been introduced by the Orthodox Catholic Church, and a requirement which is not being universally imposed on some converts from among the Anglican clergy who are already married.  So clerical celibacy is not in that circle of doctrinal beliefs like the divinity of Christ, for instance, or the Trinity of God, which Rome believes could not be changed.

The traditional argument in favour of clerical celibacy with which I grew up, and which is still the principle defence used by the Church, is that celibacy frees the priest from the demands of a wife and family, giving him greater freedom to respond without limits to the needs of the Catholic community which he serves.  I pretty much accepted this view as I was growing up, including the corollary that celibacy was a higher calling demanding greater sacrifice than marriage.  This puts the celibate on just a little higher level than the ordinary laity who have succumbed to the more basic needs of human life.

Examining this view in the light of nine years experience as a nun, and thirty-five years of marriage, I humbly suggest that this view of celibacy is a little off the mark.  Marriage is not easier than celibacy.  It is not a series of riotous romps in bed night after night.  On the contrary, living full time with another adult with opinions, evaluations, goals, and traditions different from ones own is one of the most demanding experiences life can offer.  Raising children together makes the task doubly demanding.  In my view, there is no other circumstance in life that puts greater demands on one’s personal egocentrism.  You just cannot make a marriage last without being willing to re-examine and frequently to relinquish many of your pet practices, assumptions, even, on occasion, convictions.

Sex can bring great pleasure.  But it often does not.  The divorce rate makes it clear that sex in itself does not hold a marriage together.  In any case, making a marriage work sometimes is simply impossible.  But even in the most successful marriages, there are days when it seems unachievable at any cost, or at least more difficult than is worth it.  I like being married.  It is one of the best things that I have ever done, and my husband is one of the most wonderful things in my life.  But it has not always been easy, and it is I who have made it difficult as often as my partner, as we each attempt to stretch and grow and reach across that great space that exists between the human consciousness of two separate human beings.

So I think is marriage potentially one of the most maturing and rewarding of all human endeavours.  At the same time, I think celibacy is frequently a dangerous state in which the self-centered egocentrism of childhood remains unchallenged throughout adulthood.  As a result a tremendous number of celibate priests remain immature, cursed with the arrogance that comes with a life-time of never being challenged, lacking the courage that comes when one enters into a close enduring relationship with an equal adult.

I fear this childish arrogance and unexamined self-satisfaction often reaches deep into the  Roman Catholic hierarchy itself.  Many in the hierarchy also strike me as incredibly naive about sexual matters, placing all sexual indiscretions in the same shameful category.  Homosexuality between consenting adults is just as sinful as paedophilia, which is equally as perverted as transvestism or having an affair with a woman, married or not.  An underlying assumption is that these problems occur because some men simply do not have the strength of character and self-control to maintain their vow of celibacy.  Sexual indiscretions have been treated with such cowardice and secrecy and their discovery the source of such shame that serious help for the errant priest to face and deal with his problems has often been effectively unavailable.

Of course, just as marriage is not a fail-safe map for growth and maturity, celibacy is not an inescapable curse of immaturity.  But having lived both life styles, it’s going to take a lot to convince me that celibacy is the higher road.

Thinking it over, I think the Roman Catholic Church would benefit a great deal more from a married clergy than a celibate one. 

June 17, 2008

Priests who don’t grow up

Last night I watched a BBC programme about Father Michael Cleary, an Irish priest who was a national icon in Ireland a little over a decade ago.  He had several best-selling record albums, a regular radio show, made frequent TV and disco appearances, and famously introduced Pope John XXIII to an cheering mass audience in Dublin.  He was charismatic, outgoing, loved to play cards, smoke cigarettes, and was adored by almost every Catholic in the country.  He frequently discussed and fiercely defended the importance of celibacy for priests and the Church’s insistence that sex should be limited exclusively to one’s marital partner.  (To his credit, I did hear him say, though, that if you were not going to adhere to these strictures, for heavens’ sake, use a condom.) 

Fifteen years ago, at the height of his fame, Father Cleary died of cancer.  Within weeks the news broke that the son of his housekeeper with whom he had been living in the parish rectory for the last fifteen years was also his son. 

The programme we watched began with a young BBC reporter who had lived in the rectory for some weeks the year before Father Cleary died and who at the time suspected absolutely nothing untoward.  After his death, she took the tapes and hid them for fifteen years in her father’s attic.  Now she’s gone back and interviewed the son, and many of the relatives and friends who knew Father Mike.  Some knew when he was still alive about his secret, some still refuse even to speak to his son, so appalled are they by this terrible revelation.  Father Cleary himself died without being able to acknowledge his son as belonging to him.  He said his greatest concern before he died was to heal the rift between his two sisters who were not speaking to each other.

The Catholic hierarchy in Ireland responded with tone-deaf silence.  Priests and bishops who had praised Father Cleary just weeks before for his bravery in the face of death, for his integrity, and wonderful openhanded sharing of the Word of the Lord had nothing to say to reporters who banged at their church doors.  They tried to deny the stories and did their best to hide the embarrassing housekeeper from public view.

For me, Father Cleary was writ rather larger than most priests I knew, but I recognized the type instantly.  Charming, gregarious, confident, they accept with easy graciousness the adulation and hospitality that is given so open-handedly to them by lay Catholics.  My first thought at the end of the programme last night was that he was a more grandiose version of the many hypocrites I’d met, another priest who wants sexual favours without the responsibility of a committed relationship or caring for children.

But I think now the problem of Catholic celibacy goes deeper than randy clergy.  To explain the route by which I have arrived where I am now will take more than one post.  Tomorrow I will write about the priests I knew as I was growing up. 

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