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Place in History for the New Pope

I am blessed to have many Catholic friends in my community. At times we have engaged in discussions about faith matters and we have even had opportunity to worship together. Last year Trinity Baptist Church and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church held a joint Ash Wednesday service. I hope we can begin the season of Lent with our Catholic friends in this way again in the future.

I have felt great empathy for my Catholic friends in the loss of their leader, Pope John Paul II. I must confess I have learned more about this man’s life in the last two weeks than during the 26 years he served as Pope.

Tomorrow 117 Cardinals will meet and ballot until a new pope is chosen. Odds are, the next pope will be another Italian. After all, Pope John Paul II was the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years. The next pope will likely be as conservative as John Paul II, as most of the cardinals choosing the next pope were appointed by the deceased pontiff.

Although conservative, part of John Paul II’s legacy will be the part he played in the reforms made during Vatican II, specifically the efforts made by the Catholic Church to be more inclusive of the Christian church worldwide and John Paul’s particular stamp of embracing religious freedom and respecting and embracing people of all religious faiths.

Yet, beyond the reforms of Vatican II, John Paul II played out a very conservative hand theologically: no women priests, no change in the requirement of priests to remain celibate and no varying from the church’s position on birth control.

It seems that most Catholics in the United States are hungering for a pope to validate a lifestyle where birth control is already widely practiced. Many Catholics in third world countries see birth control from a much broader perspective than just controlling the size and timing of family. Birth control measures would help stem the tide of AIDS in third world countries where the disease is high even among heterosexuals.

Although I’d like to see the new pope make changes in this area, it would require a lot of changes or rationalizing in church theology. A more comfortable change, requiring less theological maneuvering, but having a huge impact upon the church, would be to drop the requirement for priests to make a vow of celibacy. The new pope could find a rationale for making such a change biblically, traditionally and even culturally.

First of all, based on a Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:16-19, Peter was the first pope. We know from Matt 8:14 that Peter was married. So there is a biblical foundation for supporting the marriage of priests.

Second, early Catholic tradition supports the marriages of priests. It wasn’t until Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) that the first effective enforcement of clerical celibacy was put in place. It wasn’t until the Second Lateran Council in 1139 that the first written law made it impossible for a cleric to get married. At the Council of Trent after the Protestant Reformation, the celibacy tradition was reaffirmed, but it was stated that this was not a law from God but a Church tradition that could be changed.

Perhaps that time has come. The church has traditionally seen celibacy as having great value because in renouncing marriage, priests could dedicate themselves totally to serving the kingdom of God. It seems that more and more Catholics now believe priests ought to be given a choice, especially during times when the numbers of priest continue in steady decline. Celibacy is being seen as more and more of a burden to carry rather than a gift to the church.

Finally, there is a cultural rationale for the pope to lift the ban on celibacy for priests. It’s a little known cultural loophole the church has created that actually allows some Catholic priests to be married. Although a priest who breaks his vows of celibacy can lose his position, an individual who serves as a priest in another denomination such as Anglican or Lutheran who happens to be married and converts to Catholicism can petition Rome and be accepted as a priest in the Catholic Church. About a hundred such priests serve in the United States and thousands more throughout the world.

The new pope will struggle to find a place in history against such a saintly figure as John Paul II. Indeed he may never be able to match his credentials. Yet, in spite of the greatness of the man himself, one cannot deny that the Catholic Church has had its share of problems under the pontiff’s reign, especially here in America. Among them are the declining numbers of priests and the sex scandals.

Giving priests the freedom to marry would be one way for the Holy See to bring fresh life into the Catholic Church that has biblical, traditional and cultural precedents. Many more men would answer the call to minister within the Catholic Church. Seminaries would be flooded with new applicants. Parents of these young men would be delighted their sons have answered a call to the priesthood. Think about it–they’d still have hope of having grandchildren!

Perhaps indirectly, such a change would correct the sexual abuse problems the Catholic Church has had with priests across the country. It’s obvious that the pressure of celibacy has taken its toll in deviant sexual patterns with many priests.

If the next pope were to allow priests to marry, the Catholic Church would change and I believe it would change for the better. If nothing else, the new pope would carve a name for himself in the history of the Church.

Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His column appears in The Moultrie Observer.