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During the Pope’s visit to America, I had the privilege of commenting for NBC News and for MSNBC. Twice I was on for extended periods with Brian Williams, the former anchor for NBC Nightly News, and twice with Chris Matthews, the host of Hardball. I must say that both men are very good at what they do, namely, keeping a conversation going among several different people with varying points of view and assuring that things stay sufficiently lively and interesting. Like most gifted people, they make their particular work seem effortless, but it is a delicate and dangerous high-wire act that they are performing—and all on live television. Williams is a cool customer with a sly sense of humor, and I might add a surprisingly detailed knowledge of motor vehicles and aircraft, whereas Matthews is more passionate, brash, and unpredictable. I enjoyed spending time with both of them.
A theme to which Chris Matthews returned again and again was the role of women in the Church. Like most liberally minded Catholics, he thinks that women get the short end of the stick most of the time and that simple justice demands that they be given equal opportunity. Once he baldly introduced the subject to me this way: “Bishop, isn’t it true that, in the Catholic Church, the management is all male while the women do most of the grunt work? Why can’t women be priests?” Another time, he wondered, “how come all the bishops are Republicans while all the nuns are Democrats?” I certainly know how complex these questions are and how they stir up such strong feelings on all sides, but in responding to these questions, I tried a technique that the philosopher Wittgenstein referred to as “letting the fly out of the fly bottle.” This means to move the discussion into an entirely different register so as to prevent all the disputants from spending a lot of energy only to end up in frustration.
I told Matthews that I thought it was very important to revisit the largely unrealized aspiration of the Vatican II fathers to empower the laity to sanctify the world. Priests, I explained, have as their sole purpose the sanctification of the laity through word and sacrament precisely so as to enable great Catholic lawyers, business leaders, writers, journalists, investors, parents, teachers, etc. to make the world a holy place. The book of Revelation holds out to us the image of the heavenly Jerusalem, with its streets of gold and gates of pearl, but with no temple in it. The point is that the city itself has become a temple, which is to say, a place of right praise. So what is the role of women in the Church? How can women find more power? By becoming world-transforming saints! Thérèse of Lisieux, Bernadette of Lourdes, Mother Katharine Drexel, Mother Cabrini, Mother Teresa, and Edith Stein all wielded more real power than 99% of the priests and bishops of their time. If we move our attention away from the priesthood and toward sainthood, we let the fly out of the fly bottle.
During our coverage of the Pope’s final Mass in Philadelphia, Brian Williams posed a question to all of the commentators: “Isn’t it odd,” he asked, “that those without families are setting the moral agenda for families?” A number of the contributors chimed in, more or less agreeing with this anomalous thought, and I felt obliged to intervene. “As the only celibate on the panel,” I said, “May I offer an opposing point of view?” Borrowing a phrase from the scholastic philosophers, I said, “Brian, in regard to your question, nego majorem (I deny the major premise). Priests, I explained, have families. I then indicated the ring that I received upon being ordained a bishop and I said, “That’s a wedding ring, and we are explicitly told never to take it off, for it symbolizes our marriage to the people we serve.” Then I quoted my mentor, the late Cardinal Francis George: “Priests are not bachelors; they are married men, and they have spiritual children.”
Celibacy should never be understood in a purely negative way, as though it amounts simply to the denial of something. The no to marriage and children in the ordinary sense is in service of a far greater yes, the yes to a wider, more inclusive, and more abiding form of marriage and procreation. In point of fact, the very familial implication of the celibate commitment is precisely what makes priests uniquely positioned to help and advise families. Once again, the teaching of Vatican II is apposite. Celibacy and marriage are ordered to one another, since both are ultimately in service of the sanctification of the world. When they are set up as rivals or as mutually antagonistic, we get a fly stuck in the fly bottle.
When Karol Wojtyla was Archbishop of Krakow, he led his people in a careful and prayerful reading of the documents of Vatican II. I am convinced that many of the disputes that we have in the Church in this country are a function of not having done what Wojtyla compelled his people to do. When the properly theological and spiritual framework falls away, all we are left with is the political or psychological or sociological framework—and this leads to lots of bumping against the side of the bottle.
Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and the host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award-winning documentary about the Catholic Faith. He was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on September 8, 2015.