Time's Padgett Uses 'Jesus Wife' Papyrus as Excuse to Bash Catholic Church for Celibate Male Priesthood

He's a liberal Catholic who thinks the Catholic Church needs to just give it up already with its silly fixation with defending the sanctity of life for the unborn. He also once compared the Church's bishops to Southern segregationists. So it should come as no surprise that Tim Padgett -- who is previously on record as dissenting from the Church on the celibate male priesthood -- should use the "Jesus wife" papyrus discovery as a fresh opportunity to attack the Church on the issue, working in a swipe at the Vatican for its rebuke of theologically-errant nuns for good measure.

From his September 25 TIME Ideas blog post (emphases mine):

The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests — a breakaway group founded in 2002 — sent out an e-mail yesterday announcing that its bishops will ordain six new female clerics next month. (The howl you just heard was from the archconservative Catholic League.) These ladies have nothing if not good timing: their missive immediately made me think of last week’s news from Harvard Divinity School that an early Christian text asserts Jesus was married and suggests his wife was a disciple — which would indicate women were eligible for the Catholic priesthood all along. But it also reminded me of the other reaction I usually have to these Da Vinci Code–ish historical discoveries about Jesus: So what?

As a Catholic, I do think Jesus scholarship is important. What experts like John Dominic Crossan and others have done to illuminate Christ the man and his ancient milieu enhances religion as well as the record — it raises questions that prod us to examine our faith and its purpose more deeply. But its value in that regard is also limited. As I’ve written on this site before, you could show me incontrovertible scientific proof that Jesus was not the product of a virgin birth or that he didn’t rise from the dead, and it wouldn’t dampen my faith one iota. Likewise, handing me hard evidence that Mary was indeed a virgin mother, or that the resurrection did occur, wouldn’t do much to reinforce it. Faith doesn’t, or shouldn’t, work that way.

Which is why the revelation by Harvard professor Karen King — that a Coptic papyrus fragment quotes Jesus as saying “my wife” as well as declaring that a woman believed to be that spouse, perhaps Mary Magdalene, is one of his apostles — makes me both turn my head and shrug my shoulders. If Jesus was a husband and did consider a woman as clerically worthy as Peter and the rest of the apostolic crew, it matters a lot, for all the reasons Tom Hanks discovers in the (very fictional) Da Vinci Code. That is, it calls into further question one of the Catholic Church’s most questionable constructs, a celibate, all-male priesthood. But in another sense, it doesn’t matter at all: we didn’t need a codex to convince us that a Messiah as human and compassionate as Jesus did not intend his priesthood to look, and in many cases behave, the way it still does today.

To understand why the papyrus merits more than just biblical or historical curiosity, consider another religion-related event this month. On Sept. 6, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child abuse, making him the highest-ranking member of the U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy to be found guilty of shielding pedophile priests. (Earlier this year in Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn was convicted on a felony charge of concealing child-abuse claims in his diocese.) I’m not suggesting that allowing Catholic priests to marry or women to be priests would have stopped the abuse that’s rocked the church. Pedophiles prey regardless of gender or marital status. But I will argue that it could have helped prevent the just as pervasive and just as criminal cover-ups.

And I base that contention on the overweening clericalism that plagues so much of the Catholic priesthood — and which is, at least in part, a consequence of the required celibacy and exclusion of women. Most priests are of course good men and do godly work, and their celibacy per se is not the problem. I respect it — if it’s the priest’s choice. But as I wrote last year when Lynn was arrested, the mandatory segregation of diocesan priests and bishops from the world of wives and children has for centuries risked sending the message that those human joys would somehow sully their vocations — that those things are inferior to the priesthood, and therefore aren’t as worthy of protection as the holy fraternity is. Hence, in my view, one cause of the monstrous insensitivity of church bosses like Lynn.

That also explains why it’s welcome to hear any historical evidence that Jesus didn’t consider clerical marriage or female ordination anathema to the religion he founded. But again, such evidence isn’t, or shouldn’t be, necessary.

[...]

[J]ust as I don’t get that worked up when a “find” purports to debunk my faith, I don’t get too excited when one appears to validate my faith. Or at least my convictions about the Catholic clergy, as King’s Jesus-was-married codex would seem to do. At a time when the Vatican, panicked by growing Catholic support for female ordination, is senselessly hounding U.S. nuns for their “radical feminism,” the latest piece of papyrus does serve as a useful reminder of how wrong Rome is in this matter. But most of us knew that long before King deciphered it.
 

The long and short of Padgett's argument is that the historic witness of orthodox Christianity is immaterial to his understanding of Catholicism, something he essentially admitted in an April 19, 2008 post, where he hailed the church as a "receptacle of culture," but downplayed if not outright dismissed the view faithful Catholics have of the Church as the guardian of the "sacred deposit" of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Padgett says it's cool with him if there's historical evidence that Jesus was okay with women as priests or married men serving as priests, but that Jesus's thoughts on the matter are really immaterial to the direction the Church should take.

Further establishing that the historical record is of little consequence to him, Padgett insists that if Jesus's resurrection from the dead were absolutely disproved, well, that wouldn't affect his faith one iota because that's not, or shouldn't be, how faith works.

But in holding to this view, Padgett decouples Catholicism specifically and Christianity in general from its central claim: that it's rooted in a real historical Jesus who really lived, really died, was really physically resurrected, really ascended into heaven, and is really coming again to judge the living and the dead.

As St. Paul insisted, without the physical resurrection of Christ, Christianity is a house of cards that collapses in on itself and offers no hope to its adherents:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

What's more, as a practicing Catholic, Padgett most surely recites the Nicene Creed at Mass, which holds forth the church's confession of faith in, among other things, Christ's virgin birth, his atoning crucifixion for sin, his resurrection, ascension, present reign, and future return in judgment. Yet, again, as Padgett's admitted, the historical veracity of these claims are immaterial to him.

Padgett is right that the "Jesus wife" papyrus doesn't prove anything and will not rock the faith of most sincere Christians. But precisely because his faith is decoupled from history and seems to exist for the mere purpose of being another institution to toy with using the shifting mores of the age, Padgett is "of all people most to be pitied."

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters