Clerical celibacy

Clerical celibacy

Comments by the Pope’s new Secretary of State make this post timely.

As John L. Allen observes, Archbishop Parolin was only restating an official position which has been stated many times before. But, like the Pope’s remarks on the plane, we can count on sections of the press heralding this as something new and revolutionary. (Cue The Huffington Post.)

Just before this story broke, I sent the following responses to a year 12 student who is working on an R.E. research assignment. I’m glad I’m not a senior curial official, lest my words be spun as revolutionary too!

1. What is your opinion on clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church?

I have many opinions, which can be expected, I think, given the issue’s complexity.

Speaking as a celibate priest myself, I believe that well-lived celibacy is prophetic and practical. It is prophetic because it speaks to the next life, to the Kingdom of God, which transcends marriage. It also unites me more closely to Jesus Christ, who was himself celibate. It is practical because it permits me to throw myself whole-heartedly into my priestly ministry, just as Jesus was full-time in his ministry. I couldn’t do this if I was a husband and father — it would be unfair to my family, and unfair to me.

On the other hand, when celibacy is not lived well, it is very damaging. Celibacy is supposed to express love and make people more available, but if it is lived badly it can have the opposite effect. It can disfigure people, causing them to fear love, to distance themselves from other, to close in on themselves. It can cause people to live a double life, secretly engaging in illicit sexual behaviour.

Apart from all that, celibacy is often viewed by non-Catholics (and even some Catholics) as something strange and even suspicious. That’s not necessarily bad — celibacy is supposed to be counter-cultural; it’s supposed to be prophetic, and the prophetic is often discomfiting. However, it is bad that many people associate celibacy with paedophilia and other sexual pathologies, which stigmatises Catholic clergy.

2. Why do you believe that priests still practice celibacy?

There are two main reasons that the Church still practices clerical celibacy.

Firstly, Jesus was celibate, and Jesus is the model for all priests. By rights, Jesus should have married. Marriage was always highly esteemed in the Jewish tradition; celibacy was not. As a young rabbi who was observant of the Law, a wife and children would have lent Jesus a lot of credibility. So his decision not to marry must have been deliberate.

I think Jesus’ celibacy was closely related to his mission. For two or three years, he walked from town to town, teaching and working miracles. But he was always aware that this mission would culminate in his death and resurrection. He wasn’t prepared to leave a widow and children to fend for themselves.

But apart from that, Jesus wanted to reach out to every man and woman, not only in his own time, but in every age in history. He knows each one of us, loves each one of us, and wants to serve each one of us. Marriage is an exclusive relationship: a declaration of love for one person above all others. Jesus didn’t want an exclusive relationship; he was radically inclusive. His celibacy is an expression of this; an invitation for every person, of every time, to become not just his friend, but his close confidante.

Insofar as celibate priests can imitate this, they are good and holy priests, serving people on the Lord’s behalf.

Secondly, the Church still practices clerical celibacy because the Church has always practiced clerical celibacy. There has never been a time in the Church when there weren’t celibate priests. It is true that there have been times in the Church when married priests were permitted, and perhaps there are times when the majority of priests were married. But there has never been a time when all priests were married, and celibacy did not occur.

Clerical celibacy is an ancient tradition, and the Church reveres its ancient traditions. They are an integral part of the Church’s identity. If the Church was to permit married priests tomorrow, and within a generation all priests were married, a rupture would have occurred. An important part of the Church’s continuity would be lost.

3. Do you believe that the Catholic Church should continue to enforce celibacy among priests?

This is a very hard question to answer. I not only respect the Church’s teaching on clerical celibacy, but I also love it. If I did not, I would not have become a priest. My celibacy nourishes my relationship with Jesus; it is an expression of my love for him. And it empowers my priestly ministry; I am challenged every day to be more generous with the people I serve, to love them more. Even if the Church had allowed me to marry before I was ordained, I would still have chosen celibacy, because it makes me a better priest.

On the other hand, I would not object if the Church made celibacy optional. There are times in the past when celibacy was optional. There are already some priests who are married — priests from Eastern Catholic rites, and also priests who are Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism.

If I was pope, I think maybe, because there’s a lot riding on the decision to change, my answer to this question would be “Yes, the Church should continue with mandatory celibacy for priests.” But I am not pope. I am a simple country priest, so I don’t need to have an opinion on this question, and I have never formed a strong opinion. I have only a soft opinion. A soft “No, the Church should not continue to enforce universal celibacy.” But that could be readily changed to a ‘yes.’ I defer to the Holy Spirit.

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