"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 24, 2014

Catholic Priests As Husbands And Fathers–A Bad Idea

Henry Talbot was a priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. Church membership included the best and the brightest of the Capital.  The Pre-School program was widely acclaimed and the waiting list was long.  Admission to St. Paul’s did not guarantee admission to St. Albans, Cathedral, or Sidwell, but it certainly helped. The litany and services were High Church but Talbot’s sermons were appropriately progressive and socially oriented.  Congregants were impressed by the clerical formalism and ecclesiastical rigor and never felt hectored about sin or salvation.

Henry Talbot was a neighbor of mine, and I often saw him playing with his children in the back yard or supervising them in the alley behind his house.  He was often up on the roof hammering in new shingles, rattling downspouts to test their plumb and flow, and mowing the lawn. 

Henry had learned about small motor design and operation when he was growing up in Ohio.  The residents of Hopewell were so impressed with his uncanny ability to get even the oldest mowers, trimmers, blenders, and hairdryers and gave him so much business that the local repair shops in town felt threatened.

Hankie, as he was called as a boy, was never quite sure what he wanted to do with his life; and after a modest undergraduate career at Kenyon, took an entry-level job at a small advertising agency in Cleveland.  Although McKee & Rosewall had only local clients, they were very good at promoting everything from downtown jewelers to the new IGA supermarket.  Talbot learned quickly.  He seemed to have a sense for selling – less a Glengarry Glen Ross or Tin Men hard sell than an intuitive sense of what ordinary Ohioans wanted.  When he wrote copy for Adams Appliances promoting their new line of Amana refrigerators, he felt he was talking to his mother’s friends. Whatever he touched, turned a profit.

Despite his successes, Hankie Talbot knew that advertising was not for him.  He wanted to remain in sales and marketing, but did not want to remain forever in the world of stoves and freezers.

He could not recollect when he made the decision to enter the Episcopal seminary and train as a priest.  He had no epiphany, no moment of enlightenment or sudden conviction; but simply thought that being an ordained minister was as interesting and secure a position as there was. Job security was assured, thanks to the nature of the job and the spiritual entitlement that was conferred on all priests. Selling Jesus Christ was challenging and rewarding, for he knew that out of 100 congregants no more than 50 really believed in Him.  The rest were in church to fulfill their civic duty or to be a part of a like-minded assembly. Managing a church and responsible for attendance, finance, and ancillary activities like a school, would give the job rigor and responsibility.

Although he never openly admitted it, the real reason he became a priest was because the life was easy.  Unlike the Southern Baptist preachers who had to work every Sunday to whip up the faithful into a religious ecstasy, Episcopalian priests spoke to a more logical, intelligent, and skeptical audience. Hankie would be able to read the Washington Post and the New York Times and prepare a thoughtful sermon on war, peace, treachery, deceit, and venality without even leaving his living room.  He would minister to women in bad marriages; but in the upper middle class communities in which most Episcopal churches were located, wife-beaters and child abusers were rare indeed.  At the worst, these ladies would cry about their husbands’ minor indiscretions.  Enough information to make the day interesting, but no Eugene O/Neill grand guignol by any means.

Henry Talbot was a cipher.  After all our meetings in the alley, his backyard, or at neighborhood block parties, I found nothing whatsoever behind his pleasant, modest, and unassuming demeanor.  He was never interested in talking about The Book of Job, The Grand Inquisitor, or Milton.  I tried to engage him on matters of morality, will, and existentialism; but he quickly turned the discussion to children, his wife Betty, and the inefficient public services of the District of Columbia.

I once asked his wife what his duties as a priest at St. Paul’s were. “Well”, she said, hesitating and searching for the right and most appropriate answer, “you’d have to ask him.”  She was even more of a cipher than her husband. “I know he ministers to people though.”

It was right then and there that I decided that the Catholic Church was right.  Celibate Catholic priests had one mission and one mission alone – to act as the divinely ordained representatives of God on earth.  Their job was to celebrate the Mass, transform bread and wine into the Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, invoke God’s pardon for our sins, to evoke Christ’s suffering on the Via Dolorosa and death on the cross as examples to us sinners, and to offer the hope and promise of redemption through Him.

Catholic priests had no nagging wives to contend with.  They had no roofs that needed re-tiling, chimneys to be repointed, or downspouts to be righted. They had no grief from teenage children.  They did not have to deal with the IRS, banks, and mortgage companies.  Because their mission was sanctified by God, the Church provided everything so that they could focus on God, Jesus Christ, and a final escape from this Vale of Tears.

Now, it is true that the Catholic Church has come under criticism recently for the sexual delinquency of its priests; and the pressure for the Vatican to reconsider its stance on celibacy and an all-male priesthood is increasing – so much so that the current Pope is convening a series of conferences to discuss and debate the issue.  The Pope distinctly doesn’t like the idea of ruling over a decidedly gay and predatory priesthood.

If nothing else, the Church is Platonic to the core. There are two planes to existence, said Plato, the real and the ideal, and the job of the Church is to preach the ideal.  Few people can even hope to match Christ’s compassion, love, and forgiveness; but that has never been the point. Without an ideal – a divine example of goodness – the world would be an even more venal and corrupt place than it is now.  One should never ignore the depredations of Catholic priests and pretend that their buggery and child abuse never existed; but they should be removed and then forgiven for falling too far from the ideal.  One doesn’t expect priests to be monks – although the devotion of austere Franciscans is as close to the Platonic ideal as one can get – but to reject the more degrading habits that human nature offers up.

In other words, I would like to see a Catholic Church which is reformed from within – a cleansing of the Augean Stables and a re-alignment of the priesthood towards its central mission, interceding with God for the rest of us.  What I would not like to see is a structurally different Church, one with married priests.  If Hankie Talbot is any indication, it is next to impossible to leave the house, a whining wife, two bratty children, and a leaky roof and still become God’s emissary.

If celibacy is abandoned, then the priesthood is simply a job.  You clean your whiskers out of the sink, turn off the stove, take the Red Line downtown, check your emails and voice messages, and begin the workday just like the thousands of lawyers, lobbyists, and history professors who rode on the train with you.

The consecration of the Eucharist, performing the sacraments, and praying to God in the name of Christ for the salvation of man is not a job, nor a profession, nor even a calling. Priests exist between the two planes of Plato, somewhere between God and Man, and there is no job description for that.

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