The relevance of priestly celibacy

Debate renewed

As the concept of celibacy becomes ever more marginal, it becomes much harder to persuade young men to accept it as a lifelong commitment. The Church is once again embroiled in arguments about its place in the Catholic world.

- The Catholic Herald

As Catholicism in most Western countries faces a rapidly ageing priesthood, a severe shortage of vocations and declining congregations, abolishing or at least relaxing the ancient rule has become a major item on the agenda of those who advocate large-scale change in the Church.

Moreover, the very idea of requiring perpetual celibacy from the clergy seems odd to today’s secular society.

The recent BBC program on Pope John Paul II’s collaboration with the Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka brought this up in a rather tenuous way.

Although there is no evidence that John Paul was unfaithful to his vow of celibacy, and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary, the innuendo surrounding the program did illustrate how alien the idea of celibacy has become in today’s culture. As Catholic blogger Melinda Selmys has pointed out, it seems to be taken for granted that close, intense friendships cannot exist without a sexual component. Denying oneself gratification seems strange to most people now.

The traditional idea of the celibate priesthood has been undermined in other ways too. The sexual revolution did its work in the 1970s, when an enormous amount of priests left to get married. Numbers have never recovered, and the resulting shortage of priests has become one of the main pragmatic arguments for relaxing the celibacy rule.

There has also been the long-term effect of the sexual abuse scandals, which have widely, though not very convincingly, been blamed on the practice of celibacy. Probably more important is that the Church has been so defeated and demoralised by the endless scandals that it lacks the confidence to stand by its traditional teachings.

So something like priestly celibacy, which was once so commonplace as to be unremarkable, will find outspoken critics among the clergy and few loud defenders among the laity.

While priestly celibacy is a law rather than a doctrine, it is still a very ancient one. It is true that the universal requirement of celibacy in its present form dates from the First and Second Lateran Councils in the 12th century, but its desirability as a requirement for the priesthood is a subject discussed by early Church Fathers, and was well established by the early fourth century.

Enforcement of the norm was sketchy for much of the intervening period, but then so was a good deal of Church government at the time. Celibacy as a norm, however imperfectly applied in practice, has a very long heritage in the Western Catholic tradition.

There are, it is true, exceptions to the rule. Those Eastern Churches in communion with Rome which derive from the Byzantine tradition have retained the practice of having married parish priests, though the requirement for bishops to be celibate remains. More recently, room has been made for married Anglican clergy converting to Catholicism; some observers expected this to be a temporary measure, but no time limit has been fixed.

Photo: Priests lie on the floor as Pope Francis celebrates Mass during their ordination ceremony in St Peter's Basilica (AP)

FULL STORY The new push to end priestly celibacy

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