'Liberal' move by Benedict XVI?

VATICAN-POPE-ORDINATION-PRIESTHere's a question for you, as we move into the follow-up reports on the Vatican's move to open a door that will allow flocks of Anglo-Catholics to enter the Church of Rome, while retaining many elements of their own rites, music and traditions. The question: Are the Eastern Orthodox churches more "liberal" than Rome because they allow priests to marry before ordination?

Would it make any difference for you, when making this journalistic choice about this label, to know that the Orthodox (and Eastern-Rite Catholics, of course) are following a tradition that is actually more ancient than mandatory celibacy for priests? Yes, the tradition of married priests, with celibate bishops (often drawn from celibate monastics), is actually the older and, I would assume, more "conservative" tradition -- if you insist on using these labels.

I urge reporters not to fall into that labeling trap. There is no need to go there. This is an important question, since the "here come the married priests" angle seems to be the template for the next stage of coverage.

Take, for example, the latest story from the New York Times.

ROME -- In making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to become Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI once again revealed the character of his papacy: to reach out to the most fervent of like-minded believers, even if they are not Catholic. Yet some observers wonder whether his move could paradoxically liberalize the church -- or at least wedge it open -- on a crucial issue: celibacy.

In a momentous move on Tuesday, the Vatican said it would help Anglicans uncomfortable with female priests and openly gay bishops join a new Anglican rite within the Catholic Church.

The invitation also extends to married Anglican clergy. And so some have begun to wonder, even if the 82-year-old Benedict himself would never allow it, would more people in the Roman Catholic Church begin to entertain the possibility of married Catholic priests?

OK, I like the "wedge it open" qualifier. But back to the original question: What does the tradition of celibate priests have to do with basic liberal vs. conservative issues of Catholic doctrine? Does it change how one views the creeds and the catechism? Does it affect one's views of the Resurrection? The Incarnation? How about sexual morality?

Ah, there's the rub.

You see, there are liberal Catholics, in terms of doctrines, who want to see a married priesthood. There are also (ssssssshhhhhh) conservative Catholics who want to see the option of married priests, many of whom have started slipping into Eastern-Rite parishes. Why? They believe that the option of marriage may help weaken what they believe is, statistically, a gay subculture in the Catholic priesthood. Are they right? That is certainly debatable. That debate needs to be covered.

There are Catholic conservatives, of course, who want to see mandatory celibacy in the Latin Rite defended. There are liberals who feel that way, too.

So can we drop the labels on this question? Reporters can cover the options, quote interesting and informed voices on both sides, doctrinal liberals and conservatives, without having to call the option of a married priesthood a "liberal" change. Just tell us what is happening and who is saying what. Please.

Meanwhile, the labels may apply to other parts of the story. For example:

Many liberal Catholics in the United States lamented that the decision over the Anglicans again demonstrated that Benedict reached out only to the most conservative elements on the Catholic spectrum, not the more progressive ones.

And many experts noted that the decision also reflected a similar tendency inside the Vatican: as in the case with the schismatic bishops, the arrangement with the Anglicans was hammered out by doctrinal offices, generally staffed by more conservative clergy, without close consultation with the office responsible for ecumenical dialogue, whose staff members tend to be more moderate. Many saw it as yet another sign that the true power of Benedict's papacy lies in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the doctrinal office, which he oversaw for two decades before becoming pope.

Some of those labels make sense. Some of them.

Be careful out there, folks.

Photo: An ordination service at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

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