A few days back, I reviewed a book by an evangelical megachurch pastor who converted to Roman Catholicism. Towards the end of the book, he issues this challenge to Protestants:
Martin Luther, John Calvin, and King Henry [Henry VIII of England] broke with the Church for reasons that were very important to them. Their decisions broke the unity of the one catholic, apostolic, and holy Church. Since then, Protestants have fractured into more than 33,000 branches and streams of the faith. Examine your own life. Do some reading about beliefs. Take a moment to decide whether you have a really good reason to be separated from the One true Church that Jesus desired for us in His prayer in John 17.
For my part, I believe that the unity which Jesus prayed for in John 17 is not a forced unity that is imposed from the top down, that the boundaries of the One true Church are not concurrent with the boundaries of any human institution or movement, and that the Protestant movement holds to several distinctives that are vital to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. Though Protestants have fought quite imperfectly for these distinctives over the course of history, that does not in any way invalidate these distinctives or make them any less worth fighting for. I intend to elaborate on all of this in an upcoming series of posts which will probably hit this summer.
But for now I would like to zero in on one specific area of concern.
I grew up in the Catholic Church. I have people who are close to me, whom I love and care for very much, who would love to see me come home to the Catholic Church. Just one problem: If I were to come home to Catholicism, I would have to pay a very heavy price by accepting, not just everything that the Catholic Church has always taught as part of the Christian faith, but also everything that the Church has decided to teach at some point along the way, things which it holds as being just as authoritative and just as binding upon the conscience of the Christian believer as the words of Scripture.
One of these things is priestly celibacy.
Father Alberto Cutie has become something of a poster child for this issue. For those of you who don’t know, Father Cutie was the Hispanic Catholic version of Joel Osteen. (Some call him “Father Oprah”.) For a segment of people which hails from a part of the world where the Catholic Church is taking a MASSIVE beatdown due to the vibrant growth of evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, Cutie was a breath of fresh air. Then some reporter found him on the beach with a girl that he was seeing.
Cutie did the right thing. He confessed that he was in fact having a relationship with this woman, then resigned and left the Catholic Church. He is now an Episcopal priest; he and his then-girlfriend are now married and expecting their first child. Cutie has just come out with a new book in which he tells this story; you can read an excerpt here.
Cutie is a casualty of the position that the Catholic Church has taken on the issue of priestly celibacy.
In terms of Christian unity, the priestly celibacy issue does not rank nearly as high in the grand scheme of things as the distinctives which I intend to elaborate upon later. But it is still out there, still an area of concern that is on the table.
Right now, the Catholic Church is SCREAMING for priests, while Protestant, and especially evangelical, seminaries are SLAMMED with students seeking to enter the world of pastoral ministry. (Lots of these are young Calvinists; Calvinism is the new black in evangelicalism.)
Why? These seminary students have sensed what they believe to be a genuine call from God into pastoral ministry as married people. There are some singles in the mix, but I would venture to say that the vast majority of these aspire to be married someday, and believe that they can continue to fulfill their God-given calling as married people when the time comes.
Are all these people deluded?
There are some Catholics running around out there who would say yes, they are ALL deluded. Those who hold to this position are attempting to push the same rock up the same mountain as the atheist who attempts to argue that there has never been a miracle or an answered prayer at any point in human history.
Why do some Catholics hold this extreme position? Because their church teaches that celibacy is the only option for individuals seeking to serve in pastoral ministry.
Even though this is not a dogma.
Even though the Church historically has not always taught this.
Even though Peter, the first leader in the early Church, and whom Catholics acknowledge as the first Pope, had a wife. It’s right there in the Bible. (Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:30-31, Luke 4:38-39)
Even though it is a recent development within the scope of Church history that came about because of unique circumstances which were present at a certain point in history and are no longer present today.
Yet there it is. Right out there in broad daylight. An albatross around the neck of Catholicism in many places, in the western world especially.
And now we have Father Cutie. Young, gifted, called, ordained, unable to keep a vow that is not a command of God but an invention of men under unique historical circumstances that are no longer present today.
The fact that mandatory celibacy was not always taught by the Catholic Church is a real boondoggle. What it boils down to is this: In Year A, God WAS calling married people into genuine, legitimate pastoral ministry. In Year B, God WAS NO LONGER calling married people to pastoral ministry. Why? Because the Catholic Church changed its mind on this issue.
It sucks that Cutie did not keep his vow to the Catholic Church. But I am pleased that he has a Protestant option where he can live out his God-given calling to pastoral ministry with integrity as a married man.
Celibacy for those in pastoral ministry may be a good idea. It may have been necessary at a certain point in history. It may point to Christ. It may free some people up to serve the Church more effectively than they could have as married people.
Even if all of the above is true, it does not add up to a God-binding-your-conscience vow that is inextricably woven into the call to pastoral ministry.
It would do so much for Christian unity, and for the health of the Catholic Church itself, if the celibacy requirement could become an option instead.