Dear Donagh…. Would you care to say something about celibacy, a subject we hear a lot about lately. Will there ever be married priests? I know a number of priests who would be much better off, I think, if they were married - happier and more relaxed…. I hope you don’t mind my asking…. Siobhán.
Thanks for your letter, Siobhán, and I don’t mind at all - why should I?
Will there ever be married priests? There are many already! In the Catholic Church, celibacy is required only of clergy in the Latin Rite. Catholic priests of the Eastern Rite are married, just like Orthodox priests. The requirement of celibacy is a disciplinary rule, not a doctrine. In other words, it could be changed without any retreat from doctrinal positions. It came into force only from the 11th century, and it took several centuries to become widespread. At the present time there are many former Anglican priests who became Roman Catholics and now minister as Catholic priests while remaining married. The first such case was in the time of Pius XII, about fifty years ago. At the present time you can find a married priest and a celibate priest working side by side in the same parish.
In his recent Encyclical the Pope pointed out the absolute centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Christian community. But as Ray Lyons wrote in The Universe, “he did not seriously address the one issue that prevents over half the Catholic population of the world from partaking regularly in the Eucharist - the failure of the Church to provide enough priests to preside at the Eucharist and the other sacraments that flow from it.” Many countries in South America, Africa and Asia have only one priest per 10 to 20 thousand Catholics. Meanwhile there are many thousands of priests who left the ministry to marry, and who are not allowed to return - even though, as I mentioned earlier, there are many married priests (former Anglicans) active in the ministry. This is the perplexing situation we are in now.
The Church holds that the rule of celibacy is in keeping with, though not required by, the NewTestament. The principles on which the rule of celibacy is based are that a celibate priest is able to serve God with more freedom and with undivided heart, “for the sake of the Kingdom”; and that celibacy is a higher vocation than marriage.
I have to admit that I have always found these arguments unsatisfying and even puzzling. Thinking is often shaped by buried metaphors - images that are not recognised as such and therefore no longer operate with the freedom of images. A dead image creates clouds of confusion. In this case, there is a tendency to talk about love/intimacy as if it were some sort of material substance that must be spread very thinly in one place if it is to be spread thickly in another. It’s easy to see that someone might often be short of time if he mixes ministry with family life, but the argument for celibacy is not a practical one about dividing time; it’s about dividing the heart: i.e., love or intimacy. When you look clearly you see that these are not lessened by being spread around: on the contrary, it is their very nature to spread. It is not true at all that if you love a human being more you will have to love God less. It is no more true than the other conclusion that follows equally: that if you love God more you will have to love human beings less.
Marriage is a sacrament, celibacy is not. It is therefore hard to see how celibacy can be a higher state of perfection than marriage. The argument for celibacy as “asceticism and self-restraint” is not convincing. I suspect that it is easier for a priest to be entirely celibate than for a married man to be celibate towards every woman except his own wife. And only married people know the self-restraint that is required in marriage - celibates do not. There has been a negative obsession with sex, and most of the arguments for celibacy have arisen from this, as I see it.
What is the remaining argument for it, then? I think there’s a practical case for it in religious orders. And there are individuals who have received a gift or charism of celibacy. But beyond that, I don’t see any convincing arguments. If celibacy is a gift (as is so often repeated in Vatican documents) there can be no arguments for it, any more than there can be arguments for the gift of prophecy or the gift of tongues; a gift is something that is beyond argument and necessity. When we turn a charism into a rule we are trying to order around the Holy Spirit. The Spirit moves where it will. I know several lay people who seem to have a genuine charism of celibacy, and I know several priests who do not - even though they are faithful to the rule.
What will happen in the future? God alone knows. Celibacy should not be a battleground; we should listen more to the Spirit. I am a member of a religious order myself, and whether because of age or grace I am content with my celibacy. But I can't see how it is essential for a diocesan priest. We need to do a lot of listening and reflecting and praying. The key factor is the Kingdom of God, and what best serves to promote it.