Celibacy and The Pan- Amazon Synod
Celibacy and The Pan-Amazon Synod
Debates about clerical celibacy are nothing new. There have been many arguments and challenges over the centuries. It is commonly asserted that celibacy is a “medieval” innovation, imposed on Catholic priests only a thousand years ago. In fact, scholarly studies have demonstrated that, in essence, it can be traced back to apostolic times. (1)
There is record of married priests and bishops in the earliest centuries, however it is frequently overlooked that those who served at the altar were also bound to observe perpetual sexual abstinence. This is what lies behind St. Paul’s writing that a bishop should be the “husband of one wife” (1Timothy 3:2). It does not mean that candidates for the episcopacy in the first generations of the Church were obliged to be married men, but they must not have remarried if they had been widowed. A second marriage might indicate inability to embrace the abstinence expected of bishops after ordination.
The oldest ecclesiastical canons specifying celibacy for bishops, priests and deacons date from the late third and early fourth centuries. (2) Getting married at all after ordination was forbidden for priests on pain of laicisation by very first canon of the Council of Neo-Caesarea (314 or 315 AD). The Council of Nicea (325 AD), aside from its weighty doctrinal considerations, forbade clergy from sharing private living quarters with any female “except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion”.
Far from such provisions being an innovation, these early texts are clearly aimed at correcting lapses from an already established practice. When the heretical Nestorian church in Persia abolished celibacy at the end the fifth century they openly acknowledged they were derogating from received order. The antiquity and ubiquity of this norm is underlined by the fact that Eastern orthodox churches, which do allow marriage before priestly ordination, still forbid it afterwards and do not allow married bishops at all, which is why their bishops are all monks.
There are numerous Church fathers who affirm that the demand of perpetual continence for those in holy orders goes back to the Apostles themselves. The first papal decree on the subject is from 385 AD. Later councils and popes passed similar edicts,
and celibacy in the sense of not marrying at all became the preferred option for ensuring clerical chastity in the West. The decree of the Second Lateran Council in 1139 AD is the most well-known legislation for Latin rite priests, however it should be clear that this was not something novel but simply the reaffirmation and formalisation of a long-standing and well attested tradition.
These are the facts of the matter, but what are the spiritual motives for clerical celibacy? We know from the Gospels that St. Peter was married—he had a mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14–15)—yet his later exchange with The Lord indicates that the twelve no longer lived married lives after following him (Matthew 19:27) (3). Our Lord himself spoke of those who “make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Mathew 19:1-12).
Jesus, who, of course, was and is celibate himself, told us that nobody marries in heaven (Matthew 22:30). Celibacy is, therefore, a prophetic sign of the heavenly life. As such, it is also a sign of contradiction, challenging the confusion over the meaning of love and sex in our fallen world. Edward Holloway, co-founder of Faith movement, thought that we should
not concentrate on this ‘eschatological’ value of celibacy but on priests participating in Jesus’ all inclusive and all-consuming love for God’s people in this world.
“Chastity is … a sign that sex is not love, nor an essential within love… However, it is not as a sign that Christ recommends it to us, but as a fact of life, a fact of the highest ‘natural’ perfection of human loving. Jesus Christ never knew the use of sex, but Christ is the perfection of all human love, as He is of human nature, and no love was ever more human or natural than the love of Christ. Indeed, as Son of Man, Christ is the norm of all human love, according to its vocation. In the language of older scholastic theology, sex as erotic function is ‘accidental’ to human loving. I would call it a ‘modality’ in human love, it defines one particular vocation of love. A priest, and even more a bishop, if he will be perfect, is called by Christ to live out Christ’s perfect human love, in Christ’s perfect modality of love, through the perfection of human consecration in love.” (Holloway) (4)
St. Paul, with his deep sense of evangelical urgency, encouraged celibacy as a Christian way of life, because those who stay unmarried are “concerned about the Lord’s affairs”, whereas in marriage our “interests are divided”(1Corinthians 7:32). Yet he was also clear that this is not because marriage or sexual union is somehow sinful (1Corinthians 7:28). In fact, it is from St. Paul too that we have the highest view of marriage as a sacramental imaging of the union between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:30-32).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313 – 386 AD) linked celibacy directly to the identity and mission of Jesus. As God made flesh, he is neither the product of sexual union nor a generator of new lives through bodily marriage. He belongs to all flesh as Spouse and Life-giver. St Cyril says specifically that “he who well fulfils the office of a priest of Jesus abstains from a wife” (5) because priesthood shares directly in the celibate ministry of Christ the Bridegroom of the Church. This same thought lies behind the traditional perception that a bishop, who is deemed to possess the fullness of holy order, is ‘married’ to his diocese.
Edward Holloway again weaves together practical and mystical themes in his typically existential and pastoral theology.
“[Celibacy] is the perfect consecration of our lives and energies to Christ and his Church. It is more than celibacy as utility, because it is the love which follows Christ with undivided mind and heart … It is impossible to be at all times and seasons at the beck and call of Christ in his People, unless you make Him and them the total object of your worrying your work, and your loving … You cannot have the people of God, and especially the young people coming to you at all times and seasons, with the perfect freedom of Christ, unless you are bound by a different sacramental bond to others … We belong only to God and his People.
“The vow of celibacy does not call us to emasculation, but to emancipation … it cannot be tied … to the demands of any one person, even within chastity … our loving is always tied to the demands and promptings of Christ, even when vocation calls for separation … This is chastity as consecration to Mission, to the Church as ‘Bride’, and it redounds into our earlier concept of total consecration - ‘he who can take it, let him take it’ (Mt 19:12).” (6)
Although history never exactly repeats itself, popular objections to celibacy are broadly speaking the same in every era—moral failures among the clergy would be avoided by ending celibacy; it would attract more candidates and resolve problems due to lack of priests; celibacy leaves priests out of touch with family life and relationships; it is simply ‘unfair’ or even ‘unnatural’ for a man to have to stay unmarried.
These misperceptions can all be countered. (7) Celibacy is not the cause of sexual scandals and abolishing it would not end them, as the Church of England, for example, is finding to its own cost. Neither is there evidence that it is celibacy that discourages vocations. General loss of faith and lack of solid Christian formation are the real root of the crisis and there is good evidence that where these defects are reversed vocations increase significantly. And the idea of celibacy being unnatural is answered by the insights discussed above. Is Jesus out of touch, frustrated in his humanity, and unable to love?
Nevertheless, there is renewed and increasing pressure in some quarters to make celibacy optional. There have always been exceptions to the norm in the Latin Rite and there are some today, such as with convert Anglicans and in the new Ordinariates. But in these cases, as also with the permanent diaconate, the ancient rule still applies: no marriage or re-marriage after ordination. Exceptions are precisely exceptions. The 1992 Synod of Bishops, having considered the issue, concluded:
“This synod strongly reaffirms what the Latin Church and some Oriental rites require, that is that the priesthood be conferred only on those men who have received from God the gift of the vocation to celibate chastity (without prejudice to the tradition of some Oriental churches and particular cases of married clergy who convert to Catholicism, which are admitted as exceptions in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on priestly celibacy, no. 42). The synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church’s firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite”. (8)
St John Paul
Citing this clear commitment in his Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, St. John Paul II added the key theological insight already mentioned, that ordination “configures the priest to Jesus Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church … The Church, as the Spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her”. (9) While acknowledging that celibacy “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood” (10), John Paul II nonetheless taught that that it “enters, so to speak, into the logic of [priestly] consecration.” (11)
Despite this, the subject was brought up again at the eleventh Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2005. (12) Lack of priests in some areas, they argued, could be solved by ordaining “viri probati” (13), by which they meant married men from the local community. This was rejected by Pope Benedict XVI. Yet now the possibility of ordaining such viri probati has been put on the agenda of a forthcoming synod of South American bishops to be held in Brazil in October 2019.
Appointments to the preparatory council of this “Pan-Amazon Synod” include Cardinal Claudio Hummes and Bishop Erwin Kräutler, both of whom advocate allowing married priests. But there is a bigger agenda behind their proposal. These married men would not become parish priests or missionaries as traditionally understood, they are the existing leaders of “basic ecclesial communities”, a pastoral model developed as part of the Liberation Theology movement, of which Hummes and Kräutler are leading proponents.
Bishop Kräutler is also an advocate of women priests along the same lines, although that is not up for discussion at the Pan Amazon synod. The strategy is not to seek change all at once, but gradually to shift the understanding priesthood and the nature of the Church itself, starting at the peripheries. On this model, the gifts of faith and salvation are no longer seen as coming come ‘from above’, but arising from local communities and cultures. Doctrinal and moral truth are no longer univocal and unchanging, because authority lies with individual consciences and group consciousness. And the primary focus of attention is not on the life of grace, but on liberation from social oppression.
The transcendence of God
Behind all this lies rejection of the transcendence of God, who is thought of as co-evolving with and within creation. Grace and truth emerge out of human experience, and Jesus of Nazareth is the highest expression (so far) of The Spirit that is immanent in the world on its journey to producing the fully realised ‘Christ’ at the Omega Point of history. This heresy, which has been gaining ground for decades, is at the heart of the crisis of modern Christianity. Now, by seeking to ordain socalled
viri proabti in the Amazon region, it is trying to embed itself in the fabric of the Church’s life in the hope that it will then slowly, or perhaps not so slowly, become universal.
While this way of thinking may not be clearly articulated and understood everywhere, such calls to relax the general rule of celibacy easily chime with the pervasive idea that sex is essential to human loving. As already noted, celibacy is precisely a witness to a radically different view of life, love and happiness. In fact, celibacy is also a tacit and respectful affirmation that Christian marriage is a major commitment in its own right. While it is possible to combine both vocations, convert clergy often attest that this is no panacea.
A renewed understanding
Blandly asserting that celibacy is just a disciplinary matter so it can easily change—as many do when discussing the issue—is a woefully inadequate characterisation of something which has been integral to the life of the Church from the beginning. It is true that it is a discipline not a doctrine as such, so there has been some flexibility on this as on other disciplines, especially when welcoming good men from other ecclesial bodies into full communion. But the tradition of clerical celibacy touches on and embodies profound truths which cannot be cast aside without undermining essential aspects of faith and harming the life of the Church.
The answer to scandals and vocations crises is not to abolish celibacy, but to work for a renewed understanding of priesthood and better priestly formation. Undoubtedly, looking carefully at how we support our priests in spiritual and practical ways would be a very good thing too. On a wider level, we need to form our Catholic youth with fresh evangelical enthusiasm and ambition for holiness. The call to celibacy “for the sake of the kingdom of God” is never outdated nor impossible. It comes from The Lord himself. It describes his own messianic commitment, which always has been and always must be the gold standard of priestly life and identity.
Pastor Ignotus is a commentator on current Church events
1 Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, Stefan Heid, trans. Michael J, Miller, Ignatius Press (2000).; Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church, Roman Cholij, https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/ documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_chisto_en.html;
Christian Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, Ignatius Press (1990).
2 They come from the regional synod of Elvira in modern day Spain (between 295 and 302 AD) and the First Council of Arles in what is now France (314 AD), which was the first organised council of the Western church just a year after the legalisation of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
3 St. Jerome notes this tradition as early as 393 AD in Against Jovinian, Book 1, para. 26
4 Edward Holloway, The Theme of Priesthood, Faith, volume 24 number 6, November/December 1992
5 St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures Book 2, Chapter 12, para. 25
6 Holloway, The Theme of Priesthood
7 A useful resource for this can be found at: https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/5-argumentsagainst-priestly-celibacy-and-how-to-refute-them.html
8 John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis (1992), section 29
9 Pastores dabo vobis ibid.
10 Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, n.16
11 General Audience,17 July 1993, par.2 text in Italian: “Rientra, come s’èdetto, nellalogicadellaconsacrazione.”https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/audiences/1993/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_19930717.html
12 https://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_21_xi-ordinaria-2005/01_italiano/b31_01.html (in Italian, see Proposizione 11)
13 The term comes from the letter of St. Clement of Rome, to the Corinthians (c.96AD) where it simply meant tried and tested men who succeeded the first generation of bishops appointed by the Apostles.