In today’s second reading, Paul seems to be making a case for celibacy as an apposite choice for all the baptized. He wrote, “a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. . . A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” (1 Cor. 7:33-34)
Then, he contrasts the worries that result from marriage with the freedom that results from remaining unmarried. He wrote that unmarried people are free to give their full attention to pleasing God and pursuing a life of holiness. (1 Cor 7:32,34)
At the time Paul wrote those words, quite a number of believers would have agreed with him. Today, however, the most common response to Paul probably would not be agreement.
I am often amused by the strong emotional responses triggered when the topic of sexuality is introduced into conversations about religion. An author whose books I’ve used for adult faith formation is very rational and reasonable about most topics. When he writes about sexuality, however, the tone of his writing changes markedly. He seems to be intimidated by human sexuality, and desperate to defend the practice of mandatory celibacy for clergy in the western Church.
On the other hand, some people are fond of blaming mandatory celibacy for the decline in priestly vocations since the 1950’s, despite evidence to the contrary. The plain fact is that both human sexuality and mandatory celibacy for priests have long histories that predate the decline in numbers of priestly vocations.
Other people see mandatory celibacy as the cause of the recurring sexual misconduct scandals that have harmed the Church. This is a common association despite the fact that no supporting evidence exists.
The real cause of declining numbers of priests is the decline in respect that is accorded to ordained ministry as a vocation. It is no coincidence that the decline in numbers of priests has followed the same descending curve measuring the decline in trust in all social institutions.
As our current social and ecclesial problems are related to recent social and ecclesial trends, they have no real bearing on Paul’s recommendation in today’s second reading. Paul deserves to be read and understood on his own, within the social and ecclesial context of his time.
Paul recommended, but did not require, celibacy as a viable option for all the baptized. He did so on the basis of his expectation that Jesus would return in glory during Paul’s own lifetime. The recommendation in today’s second reading was born of the same sense of urgency that produced the statement we read last Sunday, namely, that “the world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:31)
Paul expected God’s Kingdom to arrive in its perfection at any moment: tomorrow, if not today. Consequently, he had a sense of urgency about his vocation to proclaim the Gospel message and about the opportunity granted to the world to repent and believe.
In the particular case of marriage among the baptized, his sense of urgency was misplaced. If Paul was alive today to comment on his writing, he would probably laugh and admit that he misunderstood the schedule of events in God’s plan of salvation.
Paul’s concern about marriage was misplaced, but understandable at the time. His sense of urgency about preaching the Gospel, however, is valid for all time. At all times, the baptized are obliged to have a sense of real urgency about spreading the Faith.
At this point in the Church’s history, the issue that might be most deserving of the urgent attention of the faithful is the decreasing numbers of practicing Catholics. Only a small percentage of baptized Catholics practice the Faith, and fewer Catholics each year have their children baptized.
This trend, too, is the result of the general decline in trust in all social institutions. We should not be satisfied, however, to have the Church’s life carried along passively by social trends. Most people today see organized religion as lacking in credibility. While you and I cannot make choices for other people, we can make our choices credible to others. Let me offer a few suggestions for your consideration.
Every Sunday, when we recite the Nicene Creed, we say, “I believe in One God.” Most people do believe in only one god, but I don’t see overwhelming evidence that the god of most people’s belief is the God of the Scriptures. I hope I’m not being judgmental.
There was a time when the most popular god in our culture was material wealth. That appears to have changed; today, most people appear to worship themselves rather than their possessions. The new state of affairs isn’t really an improvement over the recent past.
If we want non-believers and the non-practicing to take the Catholic Faith seriously, we need to begin by living in a way that proclaims convincingly our faith in the One, True God in whom Jesus placed his trust.
Another of the ideas we profess when we recite the Creed is that God’s Word became incarnate in the person of Jesus for the sole purpose of redeeming the world from the sin of faithlessness. There are a plethora of religious theories and practices aimed at securing salvation; not all of those are faithful to what we profess in the Creed.
No prayer, practice, or bargain with God or the Saints is an acceptable substitute for God’s plan of salvation. God’s plan of salvation is for the baptized to love God and neighbor. Any attempt to improve on this divinely revealed plan is not really an improvement, because it is not really faithful to God.
The prayers, devotions, and schemes that offer a guarantee of salvation are, in truth, acts of faithlessness. Salvation amounts to one thing: believing God and being trustworthy toward one’s neighbor. Any other way of life is a choice to reject God’s will. (Matthew 5:19)
This is my proposed solution to the decline in participation in organized religion: let’s take to heart Paul’s sense of urgency about proclaiming the Gospel; let’s believe only in the God proclaimed by Jesus, and practice faithfully Jesus’ teachings. Any other choice on our part isn’t going to be very credible.