In the Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale, Chaucer presents his readers with a character who, whilst untrained, unskilled and- by her own admission, unqualified-nonetheless delivers an extensive opinion to her audience. Her subject: 'marriage'. Her justification: 'experience'.
Many will be familiar with those who proudly profess their credentials as honours graduates from the 'University of Life'. Seldom troubled by self-doubt, such graduates - like the Wife of Bath- found their competence upon the simple proposition that experience equips each with all the knowledge we may need.
For many, the senses may from time to time serve as aid or impediment to perception. But one is obliged to posit the question: is perception the same as knowledge? For that matter, can 'knowledge' be considered as synonymous with wisdom? Within our own Tradition, the gifts of the Holy Spirit include: wisdom and understanding. As the hymn goes: "His promise to teach little ones; to speak and understand."
In his "Way to Inner Peace" Fulton Sheen offered a series of short reflections on, inter alia, 'wisdom' and contemporary society. He remarked:
"Ours is the most talkative age in history, not only because we can multiply words a million fold through radio and print, but also because there are few who like to be listeners. Even youth is called upon to give its views before it has had time to learn principles."
"The spoken word is like the spent arrow; it cannot be recalled in its flight but its responsibilities endure forever....The hasty or intemperate word, or the whispered slander has often provoked great crises in history which have drowned thousands in their misery...There are not sufficient apostles of encouragement in the world today..."
Published in 1954, these words have equal application today. Any doubt in this respect, is removed by the most cursory examination of the social media sites which profess themselves to be 'catholic' and on that account impliciter assert both the right and the competence to opine on any and all issues. The most recent casualty of this climate-change is, seemingly, the Church's teaching and tradition on the celibate priesthood. One site confidently pronounced:
"The Priesthood is being crucified on the cross of celibacy."
Compiled by a priest with a significant social media and journalistic profile, the article proclaims:
"We cannot bring about the real reform of the Roman Catholic priesthood unless we do away with mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests in the latin rite. Why would it improve the priesthood? It would make priests more honest about ourselves and sexuality. With real parents in the priesthood, it would make use more aware of the vulnerability of children and more outraged at their abuse. ...With husbands in the priesthood, it would make use more respectful of women and their opinions. Married priests would also break up the 'old boys' clique that surrounds clerical culture..."
No details are provided as to the author's personal experience (if any) of fatherhood or marriage. However, the sentiments it expresses appear to be predicated upon the premise that it is through experience (and experience alone) that true knowledge is acquired.
Whilst eye-catching, neither the title nor the article accommodate the fact that within many legal systems, the secular law has been required to formulate and adopt detailed forms of statutory law to provide protection within the family home. The sad reality is - and remains - that despite those legislative changes, attitudes and cultural practices continue to operate within such relationship which are harmful to those who are least able to protect themselves. At the very least, this suggests that experience is not necessarily uniform. Furthermore, the article conveys the suggestion that it is only through a married priesthood that understanding can be acquired and protection secured. One might be forgiven for asking: is the answer then, a shift from mandatory celibacy to mandatory marriage?
The Wife of Bath's tale provides a helpful counter-narrative to the proposition that marriage is the portal to wisdom. It bears witness to the dangers to which we are exposed when we permit emotion to serve as the sole determinant of our actions. It also points the reader to a simple reality: in human terms, our relationships must be rooted in in self-understanding and responsibility. These together shape our personal integrity and thus our commitment to support and protect the dignity of others.
It may well be that the author of this recent article is pre-empting the Amazon synod; participating in the pastime of prediction. Whatever the purpose of the article, it points to a pressing need for climate-change; one which requires all of Christ's faithful to recognise and affirm the sacerdotal priesthood as a gift of Christ himself. The calling of priesthood is first and foremost a calling to dedicate oneself to Christ. There can be no doubt that the behaviour of the few has caused this gift to be tarnished. One might be forgiven for concluding that the answer to the prevailing climate is not the reform of the priesthood but a re-awakening of an awareness as to the irreplaceable gift which it represents. In short: a movement of renewal which affirms the priesthood and its dignity; not an attempt to reformulate its character as though it was a human confection. From first to last, the beginning and end of our understanding of priesthood must be drawn from Christ himself. The phrase of Samuel may assist us in our engagement with this task: "Speak Lord, your servant is listening." This requires the abandonment of agendas and the pursuit of political goals. It also calls for the laying side of any suggestion that in our engagement, experience provides any reliable barometer. In this respect, we might adopt the sentiments of the great hymn writer JG Whittier:
"Breath through the heats of our desire,
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire.
O still small voice of calm!"