In a recent interview for Knack.be, Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny spoke about the recent initiative from hundreds of laymen and priests in Belgium to challenge such teachings as priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.  It has triggered, as may be expected, a heated debate with some reaching the conclusion that priests signing the initiative are automatically excommunicated. While I won’t go into the reasoning for that here, I will take a look at what Bishop Bonny says about it all:

“I fully understand it. The Church can not avoid the debate about the criteria for ordination. Personally, I strongly believe in the value of the unmarried priesthood and a full availability for Christ and the Church community. But I also think that the ordination of a number of married men or deacons to the priesthood can be an enrichment for the Church. In the eastern Catholic Churches married priests are more the rule than the exception. That fact is therefore not unfamiliar for the Catholic Church. The ordination of women to priests is theologically far more difficult. In the west that concern is present in broad layers of society, but worldwide the support is extremely small. But I do think that there needs to be more discussion about the place and role of the woman in the Church. Women must be allowed to take on responsible duties in the Church, on all levels.”

The bishop’s reasoning, while necessarily simplified, makes a certain amount of sense – the celibacy debate does not concern the suitability of individual married or unmarried priests, for example – but it also raises problems. For one, the way the bishop presents his points leaves the door wide open for misunderstanding. People in the know may grasp what he tries to say – or not – but those outside the Church will not. Men and women must indeed be allowed to take on duties in the Church according to their individual competencies. But what are the ‘levels’ the bishops mentions? Are those the levels of government, pastoral care, parish council duties, or even Holy Orders? Probably not the latter, considering what Bishop Bonny said earlier about the value he attaches to the unmarried priesthood and such, but many will not see it as such.

And this is indicative of the communication problem of the Church and her bishops. Their intentions may be good, their reasoning sound, but they can still inadvertently communicate the polar opposite of what they mean. We – bishops, priests, religious and laity alike – have the duty to be open, honest, but certainly also clear about what we belief, and why. A comment like the one above will only strengthen the opinion of many that married men and women should be ordained as priests. And that is not something a bishop can and should say, even if he does so inadvertently.

Photo credit: Filip Van Roe

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