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McBrien suggestion: serious or passing fancy?

The case for genetic determination of ever more human traits and characteristics seems, at times, relentless to the point of overpowering. And now comes the suggestion that folks are genetically disposed toward a divine calling. Consequently, the reasoning goes, one might detect a deficiency in the Catholic gene pool as far as sacred traits go because priests have been unable to marry.


Fr. Richard McBrien, the provocative and courageous theologian whose column appears regularly in these pages, is enamored of a suggestion by Yamil Lara, a Catholic attorney from New Haven, Conn. Lara concludes that the failure of priests to have children "has lowered and continues to lower the quality of the Catholic gene pool across the centuries and around the world."

As Lara reasons, priests have been above-average individuals on the whole, and their progeny would have carried on not only paternal intellectual traits but such characteristics as love for the church.

McBrien extends Lara's argument with examples of standout offspring in the realms of religion, politics and the performing arts. He cites the Gores, the Kennedys and the Bushes in politics; Rabbi Abraham Heschel, historian Martin Marty and theologians H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, in the world of religious thought; and actors such as Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen and Carl Reiner.

McBrien unwittingly in those examples opens the gate of the "nature or nurture" debate: Is it genes or environment, not to mention position, political clout and money that not only determines a youngster's path but opens lots of doors that remain closed to the offspring of others?

Even before that debate can take shape, however, one hears an eerie echo in this suggestion that raises a kind of positive eugenics. We've already seen enough evidence of how unhealthy it can be to assign an undue superiority to the ordained clerical culture sans offspring. And that positive view of eugenics, by definition, has to have a negative side. So who might be unfit for clerical duties?

And finally, we have to wonder what the suggestion implies for those thousands upon thousands of holy couples who, down through the centuries, have provided the church with worthy ministers full of intelligence and a deep love for the church.

Nor do we wish to get into the far more numerous offspring -- the legions of "preacher's kids," who have found that station in life itself to be a reason to run from the church.

McBrien, we are thankful, has argued far more forcefully and convincingly for the efficacy of a married priesthood from far sounder theological, scriptural and traditional grounds. Arguing the case from genetics is certainly a novelty -- and a quickly passing fancy, we hope.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997