Missing the Point about Clerical Celibacy

priest_celibacyThere are few constants in life.  One of them, however, is this: Whenever the subject of clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church is raised, everyone has an opinion to share.  And when “celibacy” is linked to something said by the Pope — well, all bets are off!  So, naturally, here I am, entering the fray again because, as part of my opinion, most commentators miss the real point.


The current round of discussion began yesterday when a Brazilian Bishop Erwin Kräutler, Bishop of Xingu, reported a recent audience with Pope Francis in which the pope suggested that various approaches might be explored at the initiatives of regional and national episcopal conferences.  Read one report of the interview here.  This includes the possible ordination of viri probati (“proven men”), which generally refers to experienced married men.  You can read Deacon Greg Kandra’s reporting on the interview here.  The comments on his Facebook page reflect the normal range of responses.  Some paraphrasing: “Celibacy is just a discipline, so let’s dump it.”  “Celibacy is the ideal which needs to be protected.”  “Celibacy should remain the norm; we could let some married guys into the priesthood, but let’s not get carried away.”  “Sure, you can drop celibacy, but it would break the church because married priests will cost more.”  And on and on.


Don’t get me wrong.  These are all interesting questions: what does it mean to speak of something as a matter of discipline and (consequently) potentially changeable?  Why is clerical celibacy to be understood to be “the norm” when our history and the diversity of the Church’s praxis in both the Western and Eastern traditions tells us otherwise?  And more than one diocese has undertaken to examine the costs involved when the pastoral leader of a parish (deacon or layperson) is not a priest: would it really cost the diocesan church more?  What these studies have found is that, while the actual salary of a priest is minimal, when the other allowances made regarding housing, food, and so on are taken into account, there is much less difference than one might assume.  Each of these questions, and so many more, need to be addressed.  But there is, in my opinion, a much more fundamental issue involved here.  The hand-wringing on both ends of the spectrum miss a point that can actually bring them closer together.


No serious commentator I know is saying that we should “do away with celibacy.”  For those persons who have the gift (charism) of celibacy, they should be encouraged, whether they are considering ordination or not.  This charism has found its longest expression, not in the ordained ministries, but in vocations to religious life.  Sisters, brothers, monks, nuns and friars have, from the beginning, discerned the counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience as the bedrock of their vocations.  The fact that some religious men later entered the ordained ministries began to confuse the issue.  Let’s see this point in practice.  One of the comments on Deacon Greg’s Facebook page makes the common point that in the Eastern traditions, deacons and presbyters are married, but the episcopate is celibate.  This point is frequently made, mistakenly, that Eastern bishops are expected to be “purer” than their more “junior” colleagues.  However, the source of that practice lies in the fact that the Eastern traditions tended to call their bishops from religious orders (in which all the members had taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience); in the West, it is far more common (while not universal) to call our bishops from the diocesan clergy.  If the Eastern traditions followed this practice, some of their bishops would be married as well.


matrimonyThe real problem, as I see it, is not celibacy.  It is the OBLIGATION for Latin Church seminarians to remain celibate as a mandatory precondition to be ordained.  This obligation presumes a linkage, in the West, between a vocation to the celibate life in addition to a vocation to ordained ministry.  It is this link which needs to be examined.  As our experience in both East and West has clearly shown, this linkage is certainly not an absolute or inherent factor.  Instead, one could envision an approach which does parallel the Eastern practice: seminarians gifted with celibacy would remain celibate in the clerical state, once ordained.  Seminarians who enter into marriage would continue to discern a vocation into ordained ministry.  Another clear analogy is that of (so-called permanent) deacons: We have both married and celibate candidates; this could be exactly the same pattern for the seminary.  The bottom line is this: one’s “state of life” (married, single, widowed, professed) should all be respected in its own right without any of them being understood as a prerequisite to ordination.  (When I served on the senior staff of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I once took a phone call from a man interested in the diaconate.  However, he said, “I’m not eligible.”  I asked him why, and he said that he wasn’t married, and he believed that it was a prerequisite to be married in order to become a deacon!   His mistaken understanding was that the priesthood was the path for celibate guys, and diaconate was the path for married guys.  He was stunned to learn that we have both celibate and married men in BOTH orders.)


One further observation: As a married deacon (married for nearly 43 years, ordained for nearly 25 years), I think there’s another benefit to this discussion which is often overlooked.  Certainly we have a strong tradition in the Latin Church which values celibacy’s current relationship with the clerical state.  Celibacy, as beautiful as it can be, has never been considered to be a sacrament of the Church.  Matrimony, on the other hand, is a sacramental way of life.  Just as celibacy can offer an eschatological meaning to Orders, so too would a clergy witnessing the sacramental graces of the sacrament of Matrimony.  The Church is entitled to all of the charismata given to the Church by the Holy Spirit, and a clergy that reflects how the ordained ministries model the great diversity of these gifts, can be a powerful witness to the world.

Francis preaching

During his daily homily yesterday, the Pope spoke of the need to avoid a “dictatorship of thought” and echoed the call of every other Pope since St. John XXIII: that what is needed in today’s Church is a novus habitus mentis: a “new way of thinking.”  The pope is reminding us all very clearly and strongly that this new way of approaching things continues to be necessary.  As a truly “catholic” church of “both-and”, we can find a variety of ways to approach the clerical state, ways which value the variety of charisms given to the Church by God.