Why apologetics isn’t such a bad idea after all

By | January 13, 2012

I had just finished posting a story to The Compass website from Catholic News Service this morning about the renaissance of “apologetics,” the practice of defending or responding to questions about church teachings, when I noticed a comment by Jesuit Fr. James Martin on Facebook.

Fr. Jim, a nationally recognized author and culture editor of America magazine, posted a status update on his Facebook account about a guest opinion appearing today on The New York Times website.

“This is one of the dumbest articles on the church I’ve ever read, and I can’t believe the New York Times printed it,” wrote Fr. Jim. “Basically, it says that wives of priests of the new ordinariate should be worried because of the way the church in the 12th century used to view priests’ wives — the 12th century. I guess that means I shouldn’t go to doctors because in the 12th century they used to bleed people.”

His comment quickly drew me to the column on NYT website.

Written by Sara Ritchey, an assistant professor of medieval European history at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, La., the column sets up the author’s dubious premise with the lead: “What will life be like for the wives of Roman Catholic priests?”

For background, on Jan. 1, the Vatican created a personal ordinariate – sort of like a diocese – for U.S. Anglicans who want to join the Catholic Church. The Anglican Church (better known as Episcopalians in the United States) has faced internal turmoil due to changes in traditional teachings such as ordaining women and gay marriages.

Anglican priests, unlike Roman Catholic priests, are able to marry, so those priests joining the ordinariate bring their wives and families into the fold.

The New York Times guest columnist uses her medieval European history background to describe the life of married Catholic priests in the 12th century, before the First Lateran Council issued canon 21 prohibiting married Catholic priests.

Priests’ wives in the 1100s “had become a symbol of wantonness and defilement,” wrote Richey. She warns today’s wives of Anglican-turned-Catholic priests that they should “beware a religious tradition that views them, in the words of Damian, as ‘the clerics’ charmers, devil’s choice tidbits, expellers from paradise, virus of minds …’” and on and on.

After reading this diatribe, I had to agree with Fr. Jim. It was a dumb article. But it also got me thinking.

While posting the CNS story about the revival of apologetics, I wondered whether it was necessary to make such a big deal about it. It’s not like Catholics are a minority in the world, needing to explain themselves or church practices to everyone.

But the New York Times article made me think otherwise. Somebody’s got to set the record straight. When a poorly researched guest column — one that attempts to take a snapshot of the church from 800 years ago and make it fit into today’s time frame — makes it into The New York Times, one has to wonder.

Was it because the Times’ editors were concerned for the wives of these priests? Or was it a not-so-sublime opportunity to take a swipe at Catholics? If Richey or the Times did their homework, they would have researched the lives of today’s Catholic deacons. These married men are also ordained for ministry in the Catholic Church. Deacons’ wives play an important role in their service to the church and make a much better comparison to Anglican priests’ wives than 12-century brides.

Yes, it’s just an opinion piece, but it sure seems like the Times’ standards of decency are dropping with the temperature.


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