Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s new secretary of state, discussed the Catholic understanding of priestly celibacy in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal earlier this week. Celibacy, he said, “is not a church dogma and it can be discussed because it is a church tradition.” Soon the media was buzzing with headlines like “Catholic priests may be allowed to marry amid Papal changes” and “Priest Celibacy is Open for Discussion, Says Vatican Number Two.” Only one problem: no Catholic policy had changed.
In Catholic theology, there’s a difference between a dogma, an unmovable policy instituted by Jesus, and a tradition, something that could be revised. Celibacy is not a dogma. It is a tradition. It has become a staple of Catholic practice because it has been around for hundreds of years, but that does not make it a dogma.
In the interview, Parolin was simply explaining how the church understands—and has always understood—celibacy. He was emphasizing that Pope Francis’ papacy continues to uphold the church’s traditional teachings, Catholic expert John Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter explained. Traditions, historically, tend to cement unity, hence Parolin’s explanation that any change to a tradition would require deep reflection when Catholic leaders try to discern the voice of God. “What the interview confirms is not so much a spirit of revolution on Francis’s watch, but rather the generally pragmatic and moderate stamp of his papacy,” wrote Allen.
So, as one Twitter response to the recent hubbub put it, best not to go overboard when analyzing the world’s newest favorite Holy Father:
If you think Pope Francis has *changed* Church teaching, the likelier explanation is that you were misinformed on what the Church teaches—
Michael B Dougherty (@michaelbd) September 12, 2013