Back-and-Forth on My Celibacy Piece

Today, after the email version of my latest Ad Rem went out (“Priestly Celibacy: Apostolic Tradition, not a ‘Mere Discipline’”), I received an email from a reader who had some objections to what I wrote. As I believe that some of the reasons given herein are common, I take these objections and my replies to be of broader interest, and therefore I am publishing her email in full with my responses interspersed amid her paragraphs in “block quote” text. Note, so that I could address her points more directly after she made them, I broke up one or two of her paragraphs into smaller ones.

Dear Brother Andre,

I am sorry, but I whole heartedly disagree with this dissertation, and I am definitely not liberal, nor do I believe marriage for the priesthood is an “ad hoc solution” to the sexual abuse issues the Catholic priesthood has been facing over the past centuries.

My Ad Rem did not say that a married priesthood is an “ad hoc solution” to the sexual abuse crisis. I claimed, based upon fact, that what is being proposed is an ad hoc solution to the pastoral problems of the Church in the Amazon. For documentation on this, here are reports from four Catholic websites with very different editorial points of view: Catholic World Report, Crux, LifeSite, ChurchMilitant.

I do not believe that the proposal has anything to do with the homosexual priest crisis, or the related problem of the sexual abuse of minors. But if it were being proposed as a remedy to the sexual abuse of children, it would be a poor remedy indeed, as you can see from the following (in 9 Myths about Priestly Pedophilia):

2.  The celibate state of priests leads to pedophilia.

Celibacy bears no causal relation to any type of deviant sexual addiction including pedophilia. In fact, married men are just as likely as celibate priests to sexually abuse children (Jenkins, Priests and Pedophilia). In the general population, the majority of abusers are regressed heterosexual men who sexually abuse girls. Women are also found to be among those sexual abusers. While it’s difficult to obtain accurate statistics on childhood sexual abuse, the characteristic patterns of repeat child sex offenders have been well described. The profiles of child molesters never include normal adults who become erotically attracted to children as a result of abstinence (Fred Berlin, “Compulsive Sexual Behaviors” in Addiction and Compulsive Behaviors [Boston: NCBC, 1998]; Patrick J. Carnes, “Sexual Compulsion: Challenge for Church Leaders” in Addiction and Compulsion; Dale O’Leary, “Homosexuality and Abuse”).

(My correspondent’s email continues…)

Instead, I believe marriage is instituted by God. In I Corinthians 7, Paul speaks strongly about this topic on both sides of the argument. And it is this foundation, along with The Creation accounts in Genesis 1-11, and Jesus’ teaching-which never addresses a calling only for unmarried men to serve the Body of Christ (the Church) that forms my disagreement with this Canon law.

What you say here opposes the divine institution of Holy Matrimony to what I said in my Ad Rem regarding priestly celibacy. But they are not opposed. Most vigorous defenders of priestly celibacy are, like me, vigorous defenders of the sanctity of sacramental marriage.

And it is not a mere question of canon law, but of apostolic tradition, which is the point I was making.

None of the Apostles carry on this tradition. The earliest attempt to make Priesthood celibate came in 304 at the Council of Elvira but was overturned in the Council of Nicea in 325. It did not become a formal Church law until 1563 at the Council of Trent—and mostly was due to not wanting a Priest’s family to have land rights and to lay claim to property of the Church—as well as other sexual immorality issues prevalent in the times.

The Apostles certainly did carry on this tradition, for they did not live as married men after their ordination.

The Council of Nicea did not overturn the Council of Elvira’s law on celibacy. None of the canons of Nicea even address the matter. What we do have is an account of the intervention made by Saint Paphnutius on the point, which is not in the official acts of the Council. It is claimed that Saint Paphnutius wanted those priests who were married to be allowed to live more uxorio with their wives, even though this was not the ancient discipline. That intervention has been shown to be highly dubious by modern scholars who cite ancient sources (cf. Alfons Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy, pp. 62-65; Christian Cochini, S.J., The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy pp. 195-200. In his Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations, Gary Selin summarizes the matter thus: “[T]he scholarly consensus today accepts the position of [Friedhelm] Winkelmann — that the story [of Paphnutius’ intervention] was fabricated.”).

There were at least two post-Nicean councils in Africa (390 and 419) where the texts of Nicea were read. In those councils, the African Fathers (including several saints, e.g., Saint Augustine) promulgated laws mandating absolute celibacy for bishops, priests, and deacons. They would not have violated Nicea. In fact, other post-Nicean Fathers, like Saints Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome, and Ambrose, also testify to the ancient discipline of celibacy. None of them was aware that Nicea upended that discipline, and that is because Nicea simply did not do so.

There is a serious lack of deeply faithful and wonderful men who will not pursue the priesthood due to this outdated (and not God-ordained, I believe) requirement to remain celibate for life. From my perspective, I find it awkward and not helpful to try to discuss marital and family issues and to receive council from someone who has never experienced the union of a husband and wife, and bearing children and grandchildren. The Holy Spirit does grant knowledge to the Priest in these cases if he is open to it, but still, it is not an easy task for him to be able to provide full counsel on matters such as these. I have specifically experienced such lack.

We must be very careful to call an apostolic tradition “outdated.”

It does not surprise me that you have experienced poor performance on the part of priests in dealing with marital problems. Considering the deep crisis in the priesthood and the poor formation of priests on this point (and others), such is to be expected. But is has nothing to do with celibacy. Throughout the history of the Church, numerous monastic clergy have been fantastic counsellors on such matters. What we need is a recovery of their wisdom, not the jettisoning of an apostolic tradition.

I firmly believe this should be a choice among the faithful who want to serve our Lord and His Church. The vow of chastity is supported within a pure marriage. Those seeking a life of priesthood should never be required to deny God’s very Hand in creating us male and female, and designing us to be as one in marriage—if that person is truly faithful and meets all other criteria to serve as a Priest in God’s Holy Church.

I hope to see this change in my lifetime.

Blessings and peace,

As a celibate who has made a vow of chastity, and I do not deny that God made us male and female. This is a false dichotomy.

One last thought. There are numerous and weighty reasons for priestly celibacy, both from the pastoral and the theological perspective. But here is a negative apologia of a pragmatic nature: There is a deep crisis in the priesthood now. There is also a concurrent deep crisis in marriage and family now. What will happen when those crises are “married”? In other words, what will happen when priests get divorced, get easy annulments and want to remarry? The answer is that scandal will happen. As it is, in those places in the Church where married priesthood is allowed (e.g., the Eastern Rites), a married man may be ordained, but an ordained man may not marry. Even married deacons, under present Church law, may not marry again after their wives die. Fidelity to such regulations in men who were once married is less likely that outright celibacy in one who had never married. I say this for very weighty reasons, i.e., the traditional discipline, laid down by Saint Paul, that a bigamous man (one twice married) may not be ordained. The early Church interpreted this to mean that it was not likely that such a man would be able to remain continent after taking upon himself the obligation of the priesthood. (I can supply references to support this, but I’m in a hurry and want to keep this short.)

Such wisdom needs to be recovered, not spurned.