The many recent columns and letters about Catholics and their rules reminded me of the time in about 1971 that I hitched a ride on the Massachusetts turnpike with a Catholic priest. I was shaggy, Jewish, footloose, curious, full of wild oats, and on my way to visit my free-thinking Catholic girlfriend at her college.
He was friendly, collared, and indulgent of my questions, which included, “Why in the world does the Church have a celibacy rule for priests?” To me it was the craziest rule that any human institution had ever invented, especially given the “be fruitful and multiply” idea I had learned as a boy, and especially since I thought we were living in enlightened times. I also knew that other Christian denominations did not subject their clergy to such self-denial, albeit restricting the act to wedlock.
His explanation probably went in one ear and out the other, as I’m still puzzled by the celibacy rule, but I do remember his confirmation that indeed there is nothing in the bible that requires it. I asked him why, then, in the 1970s, so many centuries after the Dark Ages, the Church didn’t change it. He explained that American Catholics probably would not have a problem with that modification, but that Catholics in other, less modern places, such as Latin America, would not tolerate the change and would lose faith in the Church. If they lost faith in the Church, they might lose faith in God.
Although political, patronizing, dubious, and something of a dodge, the reasoning did not deter my celibate companion from accepting it, living with it, and striving to do good in the world. For me at about 20, the candid word of the priest was an eye-opener, a revelation: So that’s how it works.
Now about 40 years later, in the midst of the most retrograde national political conversation I can remember in my country, I have another question: Will the Catholic Church, which has certainly contributed significantly to the backward thinking that animates much of today’s political fervor, ever become a modern institution, or will it continue to wage war on modernity for eternity?
Steven Gevinson is a non-Catholic resident of Oak Park and a citizen of the United States.