Is It Time for Vatican III?

What issues might this Council address? Many to be sure, but chief among them could be the current crisis confronting the priesthood. Certainly the issue of sexual abuse and the devastating toll it has taken in the church might be examined and addressed definitively, once and for all. In addition, while pedophilia and the sexual abuse of minors and priestly celibacy are not organically related, the abuse crisis has once again raised the issue of the necessity and relevancy of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests. The majority of Catholics and priests want an open discussion about this issue, but up to this point, that has not been permitted.

It may be helpful to recall that, for the first millennium of the church, clergy were permitted to marry. Restrictions to that freedom were enacted due mainly to socio-political concerns that church property was being passed on to children and family members of priests. While the church also spiritualized the virtue of celibacy and implied its "higher calling" status, it was not originally considered constitutive of priesthood.

Today there is also the unusual and sometimes resented occurrence of priests from the Episcopal tradition being permitted to transfer to Roman Catholicism as priests with wives and families in tact. That does little to help the morale of a defeated celibate clergy who must sometimes then minister side by side with married priests who have more rights and privileges than the celibate ones do.

A Vatican Council could address this issue in an open forum. While the church indeed changes slowly, one thousand years of a celibate priesthood may be enough time now to reevaluate its value and relevancy. Of course, any change would not affect priests in religious orders who take vows and live in community, and it need not affect all diocesan priests. If the rules were ever modified, some priests might still choose to be celibate "for the sake of the kingdom," and for the sake of an undivided devotion to an absorbing and full time ministry. But celibacy would then be a free choice. For now, it remains a necessary and sometimes resented discipline if one is to function as a Roman Catholic priest.

Many feel that other issues should also be addressed if a new Vatican Council was ever convened. Women priests, sexual ethics, inter-religious dialogue, globalization and ecology are but some of the topics that get mentioned. Above all people seem to desire an open dialogue, simply to be able to talk about these issues in an adult forum where their life experience and hard-earned wisdom is acknowledged as a indispensable element in the establishment of church law and doctrine. This would mean that more than Red Hats gather for such a Council. The laity would need to be more than window dressing this time. They would rather be respected as serious deliberators who help the ecclesiastical hierarchy to shape a new and spirit-filled vision.

The metaphor often used for Vatican II is that of a window having been opened so that the fresh wind of a new Spirit could blow through. Many feel the air in the room has once again grown stale and even a bit rancid. Is it time to once again open the ecclesial portals for a new and mighty wind to blow through?

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