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Home Church The theological debate on celibacy — Part 1

The theological debate on celibacy — Part 1

A soon-to-be released book by Cardinal Robert Sarah (with initial contributions by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) examines, among other things, celibacy and the priesthood. The timing of the publication is crucial, preceding a much-awaited response from Pope Francis on the topics  discussed at the Amazonian Synod, including priestly celibacy. This is the first of a two-part series by Anthony Egan SJ, in which he argues that the priesthood has historical and sociological — rather than theological — foundations. In the second part he will make a case for voluntary celibacy as a possible solution to some of the challenges that the priesthood experiences today.

As the Church awaits Pope Francis’ response to the Amazonian Synod where – among many other important things – a request was made to ordain married priests in the region, it may be worth examining the theological case for changing Church discipline on diocesan priestly celibacy. Interest has been spurred by the debacle around a book on this topic to be released in February, initially co-authored by Cardinals Robert Sarah and Josef Ratzinger (former Pope Benedict XVI). At the last moment Ratzinger withdrew his name from the book – but has not disavowed the position he took on the matter. I am going to use statements attributed to him released to the press prior to the publication, not to single him out but as a springboard for my discussion.

Once again, I must stress that I am quoting from secondary reports which may miss subtleties in Ratzinger’s thinking. (Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, he has always been a sophisticated, highly nuanced theologian). Yet, based on what I know of his work, particularly since the late 1970s, I believe it is consistent with his view on the matter.

He is reported as saying:

It doesn’t seem possible to realise both [marriage and priesthood] simultaneously”, because “The priesthood of Jesus Christ causes us to enter into a life that consists of becoming one with him and renouncing all that belongs only to us…For priests, this is the foundation of the necessity of celibacy but also of liturgical prayer, meditation on the Word of God and the renunciation of material goods.

attributed to Cardinal Joseph ratzinger

He also apparently said that marriage requires a man [only a man?] to give himself totally to his family:

Since serving the Lord likewise requires the total gift of a man, it does not seem possible to carry on the two vocations simultaneously. Thus, the ability to renounce marriage so as to place oneself totally at the Lord’s disposition became a criterion for priestly ministry.

attributed to cardinal joseph ratzinger

Marriage and the incompatibility with priesthood

There are, I think, more than a few problems with this. First, all Christians share in Christ’s priesthood, with ordained priests sharing it in a particular way. I don’t think he disputes this. But the necessity of celibacy does not logically follow from this. The call to renunciation and union with Christ is for all the baptised. Similarly, the call to liturgical prayer, meditation on the Word and the rejection of materialism. The call to ordained priesthood is to do this in a special way as representative of the community to God and as a mediator of divine grace to the community, particularly as a minister of Word and Sacrament.

The idea that a married priest cannot fully love God, serve the community and love a spouse and family seems to me to propose that love is finite. You can only have so much love: if you ‘use’ it in one place, you’ll not have enough in another! This seems logically a little absurd. Consider this: If I have five children I must divvy up my love between them, so better have only one on whom I can lavish five times as much! Surely this contradicts the proposal of Christianity (unless I am completely mistaken) that love generates more love, sharing as it does in God’s infinite love? The more you love, the more you find yourself able to love.

The idea that a married priest cannot fully love God, serve the community and love a spouse and family seems to me to propose that love is finite … Surely this contradicts the proposal of Christianity that love generates more love, sharing as it does in God’s infinite love?

If I am right, and such a claim makes little sense, could this argument be an unconscious theological rationalisation for something more pragmatic and functional? Like having easily movable religious ‘functionaries’, with no other obligations that would require consideration, available to the Church almost on a 24/7 basis? You don’t have to be a Marxist, just a little cynical, to imagine that such an approach sounds ominously like rationalisations for cheap labour.

Granted, married as opposed to celibate clergy may not be as available to the community at the drop of a hat, nor indeed able to be moved by a bishop at lightning speed from one parish to another. But is that necessarily a bad thing? For a parish community, certain limits on the availability of a priest means that they would have to take responsibility for many things themselves; this has the effect of making them more active and engaged Christians as opposed to passive ‘recipients’, and indeed giving them a deeper, more profound sense of their baptismal priesthood. We see this already in many ‘priestless’ parishes, including but not solely in Amazonia, where everything but the sacraments reserved to priests are already done 99% of the time by lay men and women.

Similarly, for married priests, though it has challenges of balancing ‘work’ and family (like all married lay people I would point out), the positive effects might be considerable. Unlike their religious order counterparts, diocesan priests have few spaces for consistent love and support. There is strong evidence to show that loneliness is a dimension of many a diocesan priest’s life – one that prayer does not always resolve. I suspect that for some the ‘apartness’ of their lives is a source of many problems – loneliness, depression, drink, and temptations to illicit sexual activity that ranges from breaking of celibacy, through dishonesty in relationships, to in a few cases criminal sexual behaviour.  None of it is good for the priest, nor is it good for the parish or the reputation of the wider Church.

History and sociological factors

I have already segued into my second observation on Ratzinger’s view on the necessity of celibacy. While he does say that there were married priests in the first millennium of Christianity, even in the Latin West, and he correctly notes that there were increasing restrictions placed on marital sexual activity, what is missing is why this happened.

Let us start at the deepest historical level: Christ and the Apostles. There is no evidence that Jesus was married – nor for that matter that he wasn’t. On the balance of evidence, I think we can accept that our traditional insistence on Jesus’ celibacy is sound (despite a handful of eccentric fringe views). We can also assume that some or all of the Apostles were married. There is no evidence that they divorced their wives on joining Jesus, and that they shared in his single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God (apart from that little hiccup over Passover), presumably accompanied by wives and families.

We can also assume that some or all of the Apostles were married. There is no evidence that they divorced their wives on joining Jesus, and that they shared in his single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God […] presumably accompanied by wives and families.

The reign of God and its single-minded pursuit also seems to have driven Paul to a celibate life. Since he and his followers shared the view that the reign would come soon with Christ’s return, Paul supported the idea of celibacy but qualified it. His teaching is summed up as: It’s best to be celibate, but if you can’t get married.

This idea – of celibacy in anticipation of the Kingdom – was strong, but by no means total, in the first stratum of Christian history. As the imminence of Jesus’ return started to fade and Christians got themselves ready for the long haul, they had to rethink many things, including celibacy. They also had to shift themselves from a loose association or movement, with different and often conflicting understanding of the nature of Jesus and his message, into an institutionalised body that would become the Church.

In this phase, Christian sexual behaviour, including that of clergy, was rooted in deeply mixed signals as the Church battled over sex. On one level they were influenced by Judaic roots which embraces sex and family life – “Be fruitful and multiply”, etc. – while on another out of the need to distance themselves from contemporary Greco-Roman religions they reacted against the latter’s more freewheeling attitudes. Added to this was the influence of a religious-philosophical movement that crossed ancient religions called Gnosticism. Among its tenets Gnosticism renounced the material world and the body. Some strands rejected sex because they saw procreation as trapping more souls in perfidious matter; others (like the Carpocratians) embraced sex, including wild promiscuity, so long as it was not for having children.

The Christian response was complicated. They generally accepted the idea of sex within marriage, mostly linking it to procreative purposes. Some Christians rejected sex entirely (possibly influenced by a strange quasi-Christian sect called the Encratites), and saw voluntary abstinence as a means to deepening their relationship with God. There also emerged what is today monasticism – the roots of Christian religious orders.

Some Christians rejected sex entirely […] and saw voluntary abstinence as a means to deepening their relationship with God. There also emerged what is today monasticism – the roots of Christian religious orders.

The impressiveness of monks, nuns and hermits led to a deeper debate in the Church over whether it should be normative for all clergy. To their credit many monastics, including a few monk-bishops, made it quite clear that celibacy was a voluntary calling not for everyone, least of all a condition for priestly ordination.

By the fourth century the tide had started to turn against married clergy. At the Synod of Elvira (c. 305 CE), which predates Nicaea (325) and was in effect a council of the Church in southern Spain, the decision was made for celibacy:

It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honour of the clerical office.

Canon 33

It should also be noted that this synod encouraged anti-Semitism, religious intolerance towards pagan slaves – and even decreed that wives could not write letters without their husbands’ permission.

At the Council of Carthage in North Africa (390CE), it was similarly stated:  

It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep…. It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.

canon 3

Note the subtle shift: clergy could marry but must abstain from sex with their spouses.

We should not underestimate geography here. Both these councils are in the Western Church. In the East, the view differed further. While bishops had to be celibate, priests and deacons who were not monks could marry. The only condition was sexual abstinence the night before they celebrated the Eucharist.

Though the Western Church spoke regularly about the value of clergy celibacy for the next centuries, evidence suggests that it was not widely accepted, particularly among priests. 

The clincher in the debate that led to mandatory celibacy in the West by the 11th century was something else entirely. It can be summed up as control over clergy and church property. It was common that a church was the property of the local priest. The question arose over who inherited it after he died – the Church or his widow. Tied into this was the ongoing problem over who had ultimate authority in Europe – the pope or the monarch, the bishop or the local feudal lord. Priests, like everyone else at the time, were confronted with dual loyalties. The Church tried, with varying degrees of success, to withdraw clergy and religious from civil jurisdiction. The imposition of celibacy had the effect (to varying degrees) of further removing them from civil society.

The clincher in the debate that led to mandatory celibacy in the West by the 11th century was something else entirely. It can be summed up as control over clergy and church property.

Modern separation of church and state, particularly the rise of secular democracies, has made such issues de facto irrelevant. The Church is one of many organizations in society, free to run itself by its own rules but also subject to civil laws. Questions of church property no longer arise – whatever person or entity has title deed owns whatever land and buildings. And whatever obligations clergy have to the Church, they are not somehow exempted from rights and legal duties as citizens or residents of the specific country in which they live.

In short, the sociological conditions that contributed in part to the 11th century institution of celibacy no longer exist. It is also historically factual to say that in practice non-observation of celibacy continued in many areas despite the ban, among many priests primarily but also among bishops and even popes.   

Part 2 makes a case for voluntary priesthood as a path for a more integrated and healthy priesthood, which in turn can enrich the life of the church and access to the sacraments.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Anthony Egan SJ
Anthony Egan is a Jesuit priest who works at the Jesuit Institute South Africa. He teaches at Steve Biko Ethics Centre Faculty of Health Sciences at WITS University. He also teaches in the Ubuntu Programme for Fordham University at the University of Pretoria. He writes for various journals and publications and regularly offers analysis and comment on politics and the Catholic Church.

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