Let’s separate man-made religious law from holy text. In the Church, canonical law are rules made by ecclesiastical authority, or Church leadership, for the governance of the flock.
It shouldn’t be confused with the Bible. Messianic religions, of which there are two – Islam and Christianity – are guilty of grave historical wrongs.
Established and recognised religions, including some of the largest – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, African religions, and Judaism – involve both individual conscience, belief, and community identity. By and large, public authorities in democracies generally permit religions to establish their own internal rules.
But not all internal religious rules are godly, ethical or even moral. The same is true of religious practices throughout history. Some have been abominable. Others are clearly discriminatory. Today, I focus on two new progressive practices the Catholic Church needs to accept – the ordination of women and marriage of priests.
Recently, the synod of Amazon bishops voted – in a meeting with Pope Francis in Vatican City – to allow married men to become priests. The Amazon plea was largely driven by pragmatic logic. The shortage of priests in the Amazon is so acute that many faithful Catholics go for years without attending mass or receiving the Eucharist. The cure to the problem is hiding in plain sight – allow priests to marry and the shortage vanishes. To his credit, Pope Francis, as he has done throughout his papacy, seemed to signal an opening in special cases. Despite stiff conservative opposition to allowing priests to marry, Pope Francis urged “openness to new ways”. He could rule on the issue by year’s end. Given the politics and dynamics in the Church, it’s doubtful that Pope Francis will go beyond a marginal relaxation of the rules requiring celibacy. But to be clear, celibacy isn’t required by the Bible, or any scripture, although the Apostle Paul recommended it in the First Letter to the Corinthians.
Rather, celibacy is a millennia-old practice that has usually, but not always, been adhered to. For example, many of the Apostles of Jesus were married, although he was reportedly celibate himself. St Peter himself, the first Pope, was married. In fact, in Matthew 8:14 and Luke 4:38-40, Jesus healed his mother-in-law. Only in 304 AD does there appear the first written, but rarely enforced, requirement of celibacy for priests.
It was only in the 11th century that Pope Gregory VII issued in the medieval period of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church an ironclad decree requiring all priests to be celibate and unmarried. From that point forward every bishop has been expected to strictly enforce the rule. The rule stuck and is now the norm in the Catholic Church.