Friday, November 20, 2009

Understanding the Catholic priesthood

With recent articles about the Roman Catholic Church accepting religious and laity from the Church of England (Anglican, Episcopal), among the usual hype and accusations arises again a fundamental misunderstanding about the Catholic priesthood being reserved, except in the case of converts, for celibate men. There is some historical perspective that is needed (of course) that I've alluded to before, but I had the idea to condense it to one point, well, OK, maybe two points :-) in this posting to help. I especially hope this helps young people (hi again!) who have been deprived of so much factual history, say nothing of the deprivations of faith history.

Like the similar subject of infant baptism (which I have written a fair amount about here) there is the misunderstanding that the practice, due to either doctrine or tradition, of celibate men setting themselves aside for the worship of God is some sort of invention of the Catholic Church. That simply is not true and here are the facts you need to know.

During the time leading up to the birth of Jesus, and certainly during his childhood and adulthood, many Jewish men remained single and celibate by choice. In fact, these were individual decisions. Thus these were not priests who are following rules to be celibate, it was a grassroots movement of many individuals making that decision. Instead of being among the married Jewish priesthood, these men tended to set up a place for themselves as hermits and itinerant preachers. This is where another "Catholic" "invention," of hermit celibate monks and also "holy women" also derived from, by the way. In the times of Jesus there was a rich tradition and grassroots movement of many men individually deciding to 1) be celibate and have no family or intimate relations and 2) dedicating their lives to contemplation, prayer and preaching of God.

It was from this rich and vibrant large population of men that yes, you guessed it, John the Baptist arose. He is the "where is that in the Bible" source for understanding a man who when he became of age did not marry or have intimate relationships and instead left his family behind to be an itinerant preacher and/or a hermit.

When the Catholic Church explains that its doctrine and tradition of a celibate male priesthood is modeled after Jesus Christ, they are correct. But here is where the listeners of that statement often make the wrong conclusion. They conclude that the Apostles are the "models of the priesthood," not Christ himself. The Apostles and disciples are the models for the celebration and worship of the Christian/Catholic faith and much of the structure, of course, especially through the writings and admonitions of St. Paul. But notice what I am saying carefully because too many people are defensive/attacking on this subject and they miss the point. Jesus Christ is the model of the celibate priest, not the Apostles or the disciples.

So now you can understand there is three "generations" of celibate males who dedicate themselves solely to sanctification and serving God:

First generation: Jewish men who remain single, celibate and become hermits and/or preachers, dedicated entirely to God.

Second generation: John the Baptist, who elects all of the above in that first generation, but he is specifically preparing the way for Jesus Christ.

Third generation: Jesus Christ, who elects all of the above but is also the first priest, since he IS the sacrifice that priests offer to God (that's their "job" description) and he is the third "generation" of the celibate man devoted entirely to God's work.

It is that logic and understanding that the Roman Catholic Church realized in the centuries after Jesus died and resurrected, which is why it "didn't happen right away" and thus is "not in the Bible."

Young people, you in particular need to understand a point about "what's in the Bible" and "not in the Bible" (and the same for the Qur'an, if you are Muslim) since that's what you hear a lot of Christians hurtling accusations against each other (not to their credit or to the faith's honor, by the way). Here's the bottom line. It is essential that God be believed and understood strictly by what is in the Bible (or the Qur'an if you are Muslim). But regarding religious practice and doctrine, Jesus did not spell out everything in A-B-C as if he is the new dictator and future generations are all dummies. Jesus left plenty of room for common sense. So here I will give you an example to use to remind yourself when you must go "by the book" and when it is expected that common sense be used.

Where in the Bible does it say that youth ministries and children's Bible study be established? I can't find it anywhere in my Bible! ;-)

Yet the very people who are often the harshest critics of Catholics for "making up" "stuff" that is "not in the Bible" have "Sunday school" divided not only by adult or children but also by "seniors," "singles," etc. Instead of attending the main Sunday service children go to their "own" Sunday school groups. Um, where's that in the Bible? In fact, that is contrary to how doctrine would have been taught to any Jewish child during the time of Jesus. How do we know that? "That's in the Bible." Children went to the same Temple and watched the same sacrifices, said the same prayers as the adults. They did not go into a separate room where they were shown cartoons, videos, and watched a "pretend" sacrifice of a plush toy "bull."

Jesus did not say "Let the children come to me, but have them attend a watered down 'age appropriate' worship service in a separate room, and be sure to make the Bible 'fun.'" In fact, that is no where in the Bible and it is a fact that children were never kept away from even the most "icky" and difficult of the services, such as the sacrifices of animals on the altar.

But would I not be an annoying prig if I ran around to all the well meaning denominations and chided them for having age and marital status segregated Sunday school classes AND for allowing children to skip the adult or, rather, as is my point, the one and only worship service? Would I not sound a little intolerant?

That is my whole point. When people hurl the same accusation toward the Roman Catholic Church, which has pondered and structured itself based on both scripture and tradition (including common sense) for two thousand years, these people who accuse are ignoring the same "common sense" things that their denominations chose to do that are not in the Bible, such as separate worship service (aka the Bible is fun playtime) for children.

Here is where you have to use faith and reasoning, as I've given you other examples before, young people. If the Bible does not say it is now "OK" to separate children from the main worship service, why do so many churches do so today? And is that the "right" thing to do, even if it sounds "logical?" So to exercise your faith and logic, when you have such a situation, think of why the opposite just might be true. Might God have always intended that just as the Jews in the time of Jesus brought the youngest to observe even the most solemn and difficult of the religious rite that God still, in the time of Christianity (and Islam) still indicate through his silence and "no change in policy" that children are supposed to worship at the same service as the adults, period? Might God not know better than human beings do? Might God not know better that faith is stronger if children have the integrated undiluted weekly worship service as the adults, crying babies and all? Might God never wanted people to dummy down and use cartoons and videos and "fun games" and song and dance for children "praise and worship?"

This is where you have to understand that the Bible states all that there needs to be known about God, about understanding and serving him, but that neither God nor Jesus tells you how to get dressed in the morning and how to tie your own shoes. (The Bible does emphasize modesty). The priesthood is exactly the same situation. People are expected to derive common sense conclusions based on what is in the Scripture AND what is religious tradition.

So far from being a deviation and a veering off, celibate men who devote themselves in a sanctified way to God is a mainstream common practice brought into perfection by first John the Baptist and then bringing forth the perfection of Jesus Christ, first priest. The Roman Catholic celibate priesthood is modeled on Jesus Christ, who is the "descendant" of a vibrant recognized status of holy celibate men who are dedicated to doing only God's work. Thus the evolution of Jesus Christ as first perfected model of the celibate Christian priest is not a sudden idea that popped into someone's head centuries later. It is the recognition that there is a calling, a traditional, God given calling to be 1) a priest and 2) to be celibate and sanctified only to God. They are two branches of tradition (the Jewish priests and the celibate holy hermit/preaching males) that fused in Jesus Christ's personage and person.

I have no problem with charitable questioning, debate and discussion and I understand that some are too committed to their own wisdom to accept the traditions and doctrine of others. But I have always had a real problem with religious or "spiritual" hypocrisy. Believe me, I'm not being hard hearted when I question to myself why in the world do so many denominations have segregated praise and worship when that is most assuredly not in the Bible (except for separate seating in the synagogue for men and women and that is for reason of modesty). Much of the Bible (see especially proverbs) involves the teaching of God to children, but it's not done via song and dance and cartoons and Sunday school, but by direct participation from birth in the mainstream and only worship practices. Notice Jesus did not go to the "kiddies section" when as a twelve year old boy he went to the Temple and Joseph and Mary lost track of him for several days. There was no "kiddies section." So please, do not tell me that the "celibate priesthood" is not in the Bible, and then go down the hall to your properly assigned segregated by age and marital status worship experience!

Young people, I hope you understand what I have written here and think about it because it really is about something near and dear to your hearts, which is truth, choices, freedom and authenticity. How is pressuring the Catholic Church (which they will never do) to eliminate the doctrine of a celibate unmarried priesthood anything but an attempt to eliminate a choice? Can you imagine what John the Baptist would say if he were alive today and were told that? Tell him and the thousands of other celibate hermit/preaching Jewish males who made their own choices that some people think that "priests" can't "really understand" the "problems of the people" unless they are married, or even actively gay? What would John the Baptist say? Something like this: "Priests are not supposed to understand the 'problems of the people,' they are supposed to serve God and help the people to understand God, not themselves."

This is a long and complicated topic, which is why I am not going into all the other points that are necessary to a full understanding (such as the "job description" of the priest who conducts sacrifice to God rather than leads a "praise and worship" experience, and the difference is fundamentally important). The purpose of this particular posting on this subject was to focus on two things:

1. There is a historical and Biblical tradition of celibate holy Jewish men, and Jesus was a continuation of that rather than a "first" and,

2. The hypocrisy of "it's not in the Bible" is almost ridiculously easy to refute, as I did with the example above that no one questions today, so rife has it become as a non-Biblical "common sense" deviation, which is to separate children from adult worship, and/or create based on marital status segregated Sunday school classes, even choirs, etc. LOL, where's that in the Bible?

I hope that you have found this helpful and please pray for the strength, comfort and dedication of the many good Catholic priests, rather than contribute to misunderstanding at best or at worst demonizing and tearing them down. That is certainly not "in the Bible" either.