“I’ve devoted my whole life to the church,” began Pere Marchand, who came over for a drink last night. “I love the Catholic church. So I feel entitled to criticize her.
“You know in [a nearby village], there is a priest who lives with a woman. Openly. Everyone knows it. Of course, he took a vow…well, not really a vow, exactly, but in order to become a priest you have to agree that you will give up some things. And one of the things you agree to give up is a sexual life…a family life…a conjugal life. But he lives with a woman. They’re very nice people.
“The church hierarchy found out about it. This is not the first time this has happened, of course. And the church has ways of dealing with these things. Usually, they just want to look the other way…and so they want the priest to tell the world that the woman is just a housekeeper…not a lover, or a wife. You know, too, that in the Catholic Church a priest has almost magical powers. He intercedes with God and is able to turn bread into the body of Christ. If the priest is sinful, he loses this ability. But even there, the church is remarkably adroit. A priest could, for example, confess his sins early on Sunday morning and be free from them by the time he performs the mass. But this priest didn’t want to do anything like that. He said that he and the woman lived ‘as man and wife,’ even though, of course, they weren’t married.
“I find it is ridiculous for the church to be worried about these things. In fact, this couple actually set a good example to the rest of the community…they were a loving couple. And he was doing his job. He was acting as an intermediary between the people and the church…which is to say, an intermediary between the people and God. That’s what a priest is supposed to do. He’s supposed to be a good shepherd. It’s not the magic that makes him useful in fulfilling God’s role for him…it’s the feeling, the care, the attentiveness to his flock that really counts.
“The idea of celibacy is an old one. But for many centuries, bishops and priests were married, with families. Bishops had worldly power…and a lot of money too. Often, they left their posts to their sons.
“It was only in the 11th century that priests were required to be celibate. And this only happened because the church came to be dominated by people coming from the monastic orders. They had their own ideas about what the priesthood should be; naturally, they saw it as an extension of the lives they led in the monasteries. But those lives were cut off from the people – intentionally. Just the opposite of the priests’ lives. A priest was meant to be from the people, of the people…and to live with the people – so he could help them. And he also needed to know how they lived…and, since marriage was a key part of everyday life, it didn’t hurt that he had some experience of it himself.
“As I said, I’ve been a priest for the last 40 years…but I can see that Martin Luther had a point. The church itself represents, not just the principles of Jesus, but the temporal power of a large, worldly institution. It has accountants, lawyers, and investment managers. Of course, it has to have those things. But it is always in danger of losing sight of its real purpose.”
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