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HomeChurchThe theological debate on celibacy — Part 2

The theological debate on celibacy — Part 2

The Church awaits Pope Francis’ response to the topics discussed at the Amazonian Synod, including priestly celibacy. Meanwhile, Cardinals Robert Sarah and Joseph Ratzinger have emphasised celibacy as a necessary condition for valid priesthood. Anthony Egan SJ concludes this two-part series by making the case for voluntary celibacy as a possible solution to some of the challenges of the priesthood today. In a previous article, he traced the historical developments that resulted in mandatory celibacy for priests in the Western rite.

Mandatory or optional?

I have already alluded to my next observation: whether celibacy should be mandatory. Quite clearly, celibacy was an option in the early Church that many embraced as their particular way to express their union with God. It was never intended to be for all clergy.

Today, as in the past, celibacy is a precondition for life in religious orders and congregations. It defines what it means to be a religious. While some religious communities (I think of the Dominicans and Franciscans) have so-called Third Orders – where married or unmarried laypeople and in some cases diocesan priests are members who share in the congregations’ spirituality, mission and vision – at the core to be a religious is to embrace celibacy. Those who can’t live celibacy leave.

My problem with Ratzinger’s formulation of celibacy is that it seems to me to conflate priesthood itself into the vision of life for religious order priests. Given the history, I suppose this was inevitable. But was it desirable?

I don’t think so. Based on my reading of early Church history, I think mandatory celibacy has undermined the particular calling and witness value of those who voluntarily embrace celibacy. We have made a norm – even a sine qua non – of religious life into one for diocesan clergy, without any of the emotional support networks that exist (in theory and often in practice) for religious.

We have made a norm … of religious life into one for diocesan clergy, without any of the emotional support networks that exist (in theory and often in practice) for religious.

It is also inadequate to say that men who are ordained necessarily embrace celibacy voluntarily. Many I suspect accept celibacy as a ‘condition of service’, a prerequisite for ordination, because they feel the overwhelming calling to the ministerial priesthood. Not all, the evidence suggests, can actually live it freely, let alone joyfully.

Existing married priests – a ‘second-class’ priesthood?

My final observation alludes to the fact that we already have married priests in the Catholic Church – married convert clergy, including priests in the Anglican Ordinariate, as well as in the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. Given the forcefulness of Cardinal Ratzinger’s observations, I would venture to think that existing married priests working in active ministry might construe that he considers them in a certain sense to be ‘inferior’ priests. I am not saying that this is his intention, but in a thought experiment in which I imagined myself to be a married convert or Eastern Rite priest, that’s how I felt.

This suspicion is compounded by the fact that married priests in Orthodox Christianity (and in Eastern Rite Catholicism) are excluded from the possibility of becoming bishops.

Now in theological terms the idea of different ‘grades’ of priesthood is partly true. All priests, bishops and deacons (whether the latter are married or not) share in the sacrament of ordination – with bishops, according to our doctrine, enjoying the fullness of the sacrament. This is already a kind of hierarchy within the sacrament. But excluding a married priest from the possibility of the episcopate – despite a certain Scriptural warrant which suggests that a bishop perhaps should be married (1 Timothy 3.1-7 offers a bishop’s job description) – raises a question. On an institutional or sociological level, recognising the point about bishops, have we not created an internally two-tiered priesthood?

On an institutional or sociological level … have we not created an internally two-tiered priesthood?

How too, I ask, might a married Catholic priest in good standing take Cardinal Ratzinger’s comments about what a priest should be?

The future?

Based on my observations, I think it is clear that I find the intervention of Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope emeritus Benedict if you like, thoroughly unhelpful. His defence of celibacy, I believe, is deeply flawed. His comments do, however, mirror what I suspect are deep fears in some parts of the Church of the impact the acceptance of married priests in Amazonia would have elsewhere. The pressure for change would mount everywhere. The ‘tributaries’ of the Amazon, you might say, would spread worldwide.

I suspect are deep fears in some parts of the Church of the impact the acceptance of married priests in Amazonia would have elsewhere.

Personally, as I suspect you’ve gathered, I hope Pope Francis reintroduces voluntary celibacy for Catholic diocesan priests. Worldwide, not just in Amazonia.

Such a step, I know, will come with many challenges – from clergy formation to priests’ salaries, from deployment of priests to dealing with unhappy things like divorce among clergy. It could also have a negative impact on religious orders – priests leaving to marry and join dioceses.

But it may also have positive outcomes. Many priests may no longer find themselves lonely, isolated or simply unconnected with the rest of humanity; some will not feel the need to live ‘double lives’. With a potentially expanding ‘net’ of candidates, bishops may be more selective in who they recruit, no longer feeling pressured to fill pastorless parishes with men who may not be entirely suitable for ministry.

Today, and throughout history, there have been ‘problem’ priests: men with difficulties with alcohol and sex, men who (whether ignorantly or with intent) mismanage parish funds, men lacking the skill or energy to lead the community. The worst case scenarios have included child abusers. Although married priests are not the ‘silver bullet’ to fix the crisis of clergy abuse, the possibility to reduce ordaining ‘risky’ candidates can only be a step in the right direction. 

Above all there is a chance that, in a Church whose members in so many places do not have regular access through lack of priests, the people of God will be guaranteed a greater chance of the Eucharist. We are a Eucharist-centred church; take that away, and you remove the liturgical heart of the Church. We should also not forget that access to the Eucharist for all Catholics in good standing is not a privilege but a right according to Canon Law no. 912.

For me this is the fundamental question. What is more important – celibacy or the Eucharist?

It is all too easy to say, citing examples of centuries of underground Catholic persistence in Japan during times of persecution, that the faith will survive without access to priests or the Eucharist. But we do not live in those times. Like it or not we live in an age where there is an open market of faiths to choose from, where people shift religious allegiances freely. Praying for more vocations or denouncing the secularism and materialism of the world is not going to help us.

We must face the facts. We have too few priests drawn from a far too narrow net.

A final parting shot

As I look over this very long article, I am aware that two issues pertaining to married clergy have not been adequately addressed: Power and Sex. The commonly-held line in rejecting a married Catholic diocesan priesthood is that it is not a theological issue but one of church discipline. A more blunt way of putting this is that it’s a matter of power. We are already facing challenges in the Church over misuse of clerical and hierarchical power (viz. the abuse scandals, and looming scandals over finances). We need to address questions of power openly and honestly: who has power, how power is used, whether there are sufficient checks and balances and transparency?

And sex? The Church has never had an easy relationship with sexuality. While we have said many good things about sex, we have also been trapped – from the beginning – in fears and taboos that need a more thorough and open examination in the light of the best available biological and psychological knowledge. But, I am sure you are relieved to read, these are subjects for another time!

* 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.