Personnel Policies

     I’ve known a lot of people who were and are smarter than average. That comes from working in occupations that require that characteristic. Bluntly, if your duties will necessarily require careful thinking, distinguishing among things and ideas according to their inherent properties, you must be able to do so. Why else would your employer hire you?

     But let it be said at once: Even smart people can be deluded. Even smart people can and will cling to their delusions, especially if those delusions are vital to the maintenance of their self-concept. I’ve said it before: Intelligence is a tool, not a state of grace. It must be called into action for it to have value. And on certain subjects, issuing that call is harder than many will accept. Yea verily, even smart people.

     One mantra used to defend propositions that are otherwise indefensible goes like this: “It’s always been this way.” The unstated implication, of course, is that “This is the way it must be.” It’s a striking non-sequitur, but a great many minds, even among the most capable, can fail to see it…and sometimes do.

     I’m about to shock you, Gentle Reader, so hold on to your seat and brace for impact: That sort of pseudo-thinking is one of the Left’s chief propaganda weapons against the conservative Right. There’s even a joke: “A conservative is someone who thinks nothing should be done for the first time.” And like most effective japes, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Else why would people so reliably become more conservative as they age?

     Churches – institutions formed for the conservation and promulgation of a religious creed – tend to be the most conservative of all institutions, in the “resistant to change” sense. That’s perfectly reasonable. A religious creed must be based on some variety of revealed truth. To alter its preachments in later decades or centuries is tantamount to saying “We got it wrong back then; here’s the real revealed truth.” That would fatally undermine any church and its doctrines.

     But there’s a significant difference between a church’s doctrines and its personnel policies.


     Perhaps you’ve already read about this bit of news:

     Pope Francis said the Catholic Church’s thousand-year-old practice of celibacy could be changed.

In a recent interview with an Argentine publication Infobae, Francis said the ban on priests having sex was only “temporary” and that there is “no contradiction for a priest to marry.”

“There is no contradiction for a priest to marry. Celibacy in the western Church is a temporary prescription,” Francis said. “It is not eternal like priestly ordination, which is forever whether you like it or not. On the other hand, celibacy is a discipline.”

     Straightforward and, despite the divergence from a millennium of Catholic practice, entirely correct. But wait: there’s more!

     The Catholic Church began requiring celibacy in the 11th century because clergy with no children were more likely to leave their money to the church.

     This is not quite complete. Europe’s Middle Ages saw many social and political transformations. Those transformations frequently involved the Catholic Church and its clergy. Catholic clergy had considerable authority in those centuries, including, among others, a de facto power to tax. That power was tacitly upheld by the secular rulers of those places and times. In return for that privilege, royals and nobles expected the clergy to support their claims of authority reciprocally, a factor that could be decisive in times of war.

     It wasn’t a perfectly amicable arrangement. There were some clashes between secular and clerical claims of authority, but for centuries they were usually resolved with a bit of haggling. A more serious problem arose from what we might call clerical dynasties. Married priests would indeed leave their accumulated wealth to their sons, just as did most fathers of the times. But beyond that, those priests tended to leave their clerical positions to their eldest sons, resulting in the accumulation of both financial and temporal power in such dynasties that came to rival the secular royal and noble families. The nobility of the time came to regard that as unacceptable.

     If you’re acquainted with the term benefice, this is hidden in its meaning. It’s closely coupled to the obscenity called simony, which bedeviled the Church for centuries.

     Royal and noble pressure on the Church to end this parallel authority structure mounted as Europe matured politically and economically. Pope Gregory VII was finally persuaded that the best way to prevent the formation of such clerical dynasties was to forbid priests to marry. Thus, they could not have children who would inherit from them. The end of the clerical privilege of taxation followed some decades later.

     But a personnel policy that dictates clerical celibacy cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. Christ never said a word about it. The Apostles had wives, as did the majority of priests throughout the First Millennium.


     Pope Francis, of whom I think very little, is essentially correct in his statement cited above. If the Church were to end clerical celibacy, I doubt God would be offended. Whether it will ever do so is unclear; Francis himself is opposed to doing so. That doesn’t change the availability of the option, should the Vatican someday find it beneficial.

     My opinion is that clerical celibacy should end. Yet I do have some reservations about the matter, owing to my own rather conservative nature. Married priests would be less likely to live together in rectories. They would be less mobile, for the same reasons other married couples frequently experience difficulties in relocating. Pressure would mount on the Vatican to change another of its longstanding personnel policies: its ban on the ordination of women. And of course, the children of married priests would present a new challenge to contemporary systems of education. Unless such children were to attend Catholic educational institutions exclusively, their influence on existing schools could prove fatally disruptive. Though that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

1 comment

  1. Great! Catholics would learn of the terrible problem of “preacher’s kids”, which is a good argument for NOT doing it.

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