I usually start my day by checking various news websites. I often say I just want to know “if anything blew up overnight.” This morning my attention was drawn to several headlines about Pope Francis and the Church under a picture of the pope: 
  • "Pope: You don't have to believe in God to get to heaven..."
  • "Catholic priests may be allowed to marry amid Papal changes..."
I immediately thought, “here we go again”, some statement by the pope has been taken out of context by a reporter who likely couldn’t pass a first grade catechism class. I was not disappointed.

There were two “big” stories about the Church. The first alleged that Pope Francis was declaring that atheists could go to heaven without believing in God and the second focused on comments made by the incoming Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, on the topic of celibacy. Let's take a closer look... 

Atheists and Agnostics Just Need to Be Good People 

The first story was based on comments by Pope Francis from a letter he wrote to an Italian newspaper in response to an articles & editorials written by an agnostic raising questions about the faith and the nature of God in general. This was certainly an unusual move for a pope to pen a letter to the editor, but seems to be in keeping with Francis’ casual and open style. Of course the story summarizing the pope’s letter for England’s The Telegraph pulled specific quotes out of Pope Francis’ letter and sensationalized them. In fact the tag line for the article read: “The Pope has struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone towards atheists and agnostics, saying that God will "forgive" them as long as they behave morally and live according to their consciences.”

Fortunately, I was able to find a link to the original letter on the website of the Italian newspaper (in English). It’s actually a great letter. Francis uses his encyclical Lumen Fidei as the foundation of his response while placing it within the broader context of the work of the Second Vatican Council. He laments “a lack of communication between the Church…and the modern culture of Enlightenment.” Quoting from the encyclical he affirms that “the security of faith makes it possible to speak with everyone” and welcomed the chance to engage the original writer’s questions about faith. He hopes that they “will find a way to perhaps walk along a path together.” This is the pope doing the work of the new evangelization for all to see. Modeling for us how to engage someone who is unsure of the claims of the Church through relationship and humility.

The particular segment that The Telegraph story picked up on was within the context of answering a question about the Church’s attitude to those who do not share faith in Jesus. The original writer wanted to know if the God of Christians would forgive an agnostic or atheist. Pope Francis’ answer is right in line with Vatican II’s teaching on this very same subject. He first replies that “God’s mercy has no limits” but clarifies that one must “ask for mercy…with a sincere heart”. He calls on the duty of every person to follow their conscience in determining right and wrong. This is taken straight from Lumen Gentium #16: 
“Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.”
Of course this requires humility and honest seeking on behalf of the non-believer. Interestingly, The Telegraph’s story quotes from a leader of the Italian Union of Atheists and Agnostics basically rejecting this very offer of mercy, “Why should a non-believer seek legitimization from the Pope?...What interests non-believers is certainly not 'forgiveness' from an entity whose existence we do not trust." 

Changing Celibacy Rules? 

The second story jumped on comments made by the new Vatican Secretary of State during an interview with a Venezuelan newspaper. All Bishop Parolin said was that the celibacy requirement for priests was a matter that could be reviewed or discussed because it is a discipline not a doctrine of the Church. Once again, there’s really nothing to see here. Celibacy is merely a discipline within the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (Eastern Rites such as Byzantine or Ukrainian allow for married priests). Even within the Latin Rite there are married priests who are converts from different Protestant denominations.  Once again an uninformed media jumped to false conclusions and implications.

While there are theological reasons to support celibacy there are also very practical considerations to keep in mind. Just consider the financial impact. The average diocesan priest makes a minimal salary ($20k) and resides in shared living quarters in a rectory. A married priest would obviously require greater financial support (salary, housing, insurance, etc.). Most parishes can barely cover their existing financial responsibilities. I’d like to know how many supporters of married priests are also willing to substantially increase their giving? Without parish support a married priest would have to be bi-vocational like many Protestant pastors. This would mean less availability for parishioners and likely increase stress within their marriages.

In fact, studies on Protestant clergy in the US show some troubling statistics when it comes to the health of marriages and families that make a pretty good argument for maintaining a celibate priesthood:
  • 25% of pastors' wives see their husband's work schedule as a source of conflict.
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 38% of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.
  • 45% of pastors' wives say the greatest danger to them and their family is physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual burnout.
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family's well-being and health.
  • 56% of pastors' wives say that they have no close friends.
  •  77% of the pastors we surveyed felt they did not have a good marriage.
  •  80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse.
  •  80% believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively.
  •  94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.


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