When faced with the clerical sexual abuse scandal, a common red herring that is brought up is to call into question the practice of clerical celibacy. I’m still amazed that people who try to capitalize on the tragedy of sexual abuse for their own theological agenda are not derided more. I think such actions are tantamount to someone arriving at the scene of a car accident and lecturing those involved and the emergency responders about the benefits of alternative fuels while open wounds still need mending. They are opportunists of the worst sort.
Choosing Latin Rite diocesan priests from mainly those called to the celibate state is a discipline of the Church that is open for discussion. I just think it’s important not to lump such a discussion into a real discourse about addressing sexual abuse. Discuss one or the other, but don’t tackle both at the same time.
With that clear, I wanted to do a separate post to respond to a comment made by Dan Soares:
Your points are well made about the calling of ‘some’ who are given the charism of celibacy or a life devoted to serving God as a single person.
What I do not see however is the ‘requirement’ for all ‘priests’ to be celibate. Could it be that we are requiring of those who would serve God in this capacity, something that Jesus Himself did not require?
After all the first Pope Peter himself was married and was able to serve Christ faithfully.
There are some issues to keep in mind when framing the discussion about clerical celibacy in the Latin Rite (as I believe that’s the focus Dan is asking about):
- Valuing Marriage and Celibacy: Unless someone is firm in their appreciation for both the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and for the practice of Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God, a beneficial discussion of clerical celibacy is not likely to take place. Both marriage and celibacy are important to understand both the nuptial meaning of the body and to take to the life of Christ seriously (Jesus is both the Bridegroom of the Church and lived as a chaste celibate priest).
- Respecting the Historical Development of Clerical Celibacy: Any discussion of clerical celibacy should also be rooted in a solid understanding of its development in history. Dr. Anthony Dragani, a Byzantine Catholic, has a good overview of the historical practice of the development of clerical celibacy in the East and West. Both traditions are valuable. In the United States, any discussion of clerical celibacy should also begin with addressing any hurts still lingering from the ban on married Eastern priests in North American during the past century (such healing should go on regardless of what happens in the Latin Rite of course).
- Understanding the Tradition: It has never been part of the Church’s tradition in the East or West to allow ordained men to get married. It has been part of the tradition to ordain men that are already married. There is a huge difference between the two. Many people want to discuss clerical celibacy without realizing that all men who are currently celibate priests (and married priests and deacons who may become widowers) would not all of the sudden be allowed to discern marriage/date/get married if a change is made to the current discipline. That is no where in the tradition and not worth speculating about.
- Limiting Speculation to Diocesan Priests: Though it may seem obvious, many people want to talk about married priests without realizing they should only be talking about diocesan priests. Religious priests (monks, friars, etc.) who take the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are out of the discussion. Those vows are crucial to the life of most religious. Most rules of life for religious wouldn’t make much sense if they had to adjust to allow married priests.
- Clarifying How a Call to the Priesthood Works: Here’s where I might sound a bit controversial. Just because a man thinks he is called to the priesthood doesn’t mean he is called to the priesthood. No one has a right to become a priest. If the Church doesn’t discern a man has a vocation to the priesthood, then he doesn’t have a vocation to the priesthood. That might sound harsh, but think about it in terms of courtship and marriage. For example, if Bobby thinks with all his heart that he is called to marry Sussie, does that mean he is called to marry Sussie? No. Bobby is only called to marry Sussie if Sussie discerns a call to marry Bobby. If Sussie doesn’t decide to marry Bobby, then they are not called to get married. They are both called to holiness of life regardless, but they can only be sure of a call to marry each other when consent is exchanged/vows are made. The same is true with a call to the priesthood. The Church and the man must both discern the call and a man is only certainly called to become a priest the moment he is ordained. For this reason, it is wrong to say there are married men out there called to be priests, but the Church just won’t ordain them. As an aside, there are married men in the West that the Church has decided are called to be Catholic priests. This month we are ordaining 60 such men at least. However, not all Anglican/Episcopal priests who become Catholic are called to be Catholic priests as not all will be ordained. Placing discernment in the Church’s hands, like placing the discernment of marriage in the hands of another, is an often overlooked, but necessary part of the discussion of vocations.
- Admitting the Church Does Not Require Priests to be Celibate: Let me repeat that. The Catholic Church does not impose celibacy on Her priests. That is a common misconception. However, the Latin Rite does normally restrict the choice of priests to men who are already called to celibacy. Jesus notes that some men are called to celibacy (Mt. 19:11-12). The practice in the West for many centuries has been to restrict the choice of priests to men who are already called to celibacy. In other words, if a man is not called to celibacy, he is most likely not called to be a priest in the Latin Rite. The Eastern Rites do the same thing in terms of their choice of monks and bishops (only choosing men first called to celibacy). There is no imposition going on. A man should not make a promise of chaste celibacy if he is not called or willing to live it out.
- Accepting that it’s Not About Ability: Francis Cardinal George of Chicago made the point while addressing our seminary that the call of a priest is not based on ability first of all. He used the question of whether women could be ordained priests, but his point is appropriate to married priests as well. There are plenty of women who could do what priests do (administration, preaching, teaching, etc.) better than many priests today. However, a priest is called based on his capacity to be in relationship as a spiritual father to the people of God. Just as men cannot be biological mothers, women can’t be spiritual fathers. Being a husband, biological father, and spiritual father to a community takes tremendous gifts. Just because some might be able to handle it all doesn’t mean that many are called to do so. As far as I know, Eastern Rite vocation directors are not overwhelmed by the demand of married men who want to discern priesthood. Just because a call is possible, doesn’t mean it’s common. I marvel at my Eastern Rite brothers and few Latin Rite brothers who are married. They are truly Super Men in my eyes (and their wives and families are truly amazing). Just take a look at this blog from the wife of one of Byzantine Catholic priest to see what I mean.
With all that being said, let’s look back to the original question:
Could it be that we are requiring of those who would serve God in this capacity, something that Jesus Himself did not require?
My Answer: No. Jesus still calls many to be celibate for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In her wisdom, the Catholic Church still chooses most of Her priests from those with that particular call. She is not requiring anything extra that Jesus is not already calling a man to embrace. If a man is not called to already be celibate, then he is not called to be a priest in the Latin Rite (except in the rarest of cases).
***I didn’t cover the practical concerns about ordaining more married men in the Latin Rite, but there are certainly many. Such a discussion is of course welcome in the comments too. I also didn’t appeal to the experience of married permanent deacons, but such experience is also quite valuable to the discussion.