Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Some Thoughts on Clerical Celibacy

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance about celibacy in the priesthood. This person (a friend of a friend that I met at a party), a non-Catholic, rather innocently, out of his ignorance, suggested that the way for the Church to "get past" the scandals would be for the Church to drop its celibacy requirement. I was able to pretty handily lay that idea to rest by pointing out to him that allowing priests to marry would in no way alter the disordered sexual desires of pedophiles who had made their way into Holy Orders. Priestly Celibacy and The Scandal only seem related because both have to do with sexuality.

But, unfortunately, it is not only non-Catholics who labor under the misapprehension that if the Church were to drop clerical celibacy, that would in some way lead us to a solution to the problem. Most recently, a debate has been raging about this issue in the comments to one of Amy Welborn's posts. Those arguing in favor of abandoning clerical celibacy seem to me to have an insufficiently formed understanding of the nature of Church discipline and on the nature of the priesthood.

Firstly, I have to clear up an illusion commonly held by many people, Catholics and non-Catholics. The illusion is that celibacy is the "make or break" issue for those discerning a vocation or in seminary formation. This is, in my experience, simply not the case. Most seminarians do not spend sleepless hours agonizing over whether they can live with celibacy or not. And that is not because they are immature or sexually maladjusted, either. I was continually impressed during my years in seminary at how extremely well-adjusted and "normal", on the whole, my brother seminarians were. They do not agonize over celibacy because, for the most part, by the time they reach the Theologate they have made a decsion to embrace celibacy. Much of the talk about dropping clerical celibacy seems to me to implicitly contain the assumption (taken as an unquestionable precept) of our hyper-sexualized post-modern society that sex is a fundamental and almost uncontrollable drive, and that suppressing it is potentially psychologically dangerous. This is pseudo-Freudian claptrap. I say "pseudo-Freudian" because not even Freud actually subscribed to this twaddle. The Catholic understanding of the human person is that our drives and emotions are subject to the will. Part of embracing celibacy is training yourself to subject your drives and desires to your will, which has made a decision to embrace celibacy. I know this is do-able by personal experience: I am much better at doing this now than I was, say 10 years ago. Part of it is growing in maturity, part of it is growing in holiness, part of it is learning to recognize one's own faults and weaknesses.

This disciplining one's drives and desires to be subject to one's will is not easy. In fact, it is difficult. But so is acquiring any kind of discipline. And learining this discipline is essential to any Christian vocation, not just priesthood. Living in marital fidelity is difficult. Forgiving those who injure us is difficult. But all of these things, in different ways, call us to place our drives and desires in subjection.

Secondly, those who advocate dropping the celibacy requirement are frequently ill-informed about the history of celibacy. There is no evidence that any Church of Apostolic origin has ever allowed those in Holy Orders to marry. It is true that in the very early Church, and in some of the Eastern Churches today, married men have been ordained. But once ordained, marriage has always been barred to those in Orders. Furthermore, appeals to evidence such as "St. Peter was married" are not on-point. St. Peter could not have been expected to leave his wife. St. Peter himself nowhere counsels the Apostles or their successors to take wives. In fact, the only apostolic treatment of the issue is from St. Paul, who makes it quite clear that for those engaged in Apostolic ministry, celibacy is best. Since it was recommended as best, it is not surprising that the Church quickly adopted celibacy as normative. Celibacy was seen as normative and binding (by local legislation) within most of the Churches of the West by the 6th century. The frequently-adduced canard that "celibacy was mandated in the Middle Ages to protect church property" is simply false. A reading of local Church synods and councils from the 4th-6th centuries will shred that contention to tatters.

Finally, it seems to me that those who advocate dropping celibacy frequently have bought into the "dogmatic minimalism" foisted upon us by "progressives" in the wake of Vatican II. Dogmatic minimalism is the attitude that anything not explicitly defined as dogma by a council or ex cathedrapapal pronouncement is somehow extraneous to the Faith and therefore easily dispensed with. Those arguing that because celibacy is a matter of discipline and not dogma we can get rid of it are operating from the dogmatic minimalist assumption. But just because something hasn't been defined as de fidedoesn't mean it isn't from the Holy Spirit. Just because something is a matter of tradition doesn't mean it isn't spiritually good or useful. For example, the use of vestments by priests at Mass is purely a matter of tradition and discipline. We could dispense with vestments tomorrow and it would not change the content of the Faith by one iota. But does anyone (70's liturgical goofiness aside) seriously think it would be a good idea for priests to start celebrating Mass in Dockers and Polo shirts? I don't think so. The use of vestments, while perhaps not integral to the Faith in the way that the Trinity is, is nonetheless not peripheral.

And so, I think that priestly celibacy, while not being a matter of dogma, illustrates something that is. In that sense it is akin to a sacramental: it points an article of Faith, though is not the article of Faith itself. Priestly celibacy points to the identity of the priest as the Alter Christus, the "Other Christ". For Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, and as such He takes the Church as His bride, in a mystical marriage. For this reason it was fitting and proper that Christ had no earthly wife (it wasn't just an accident). The priest, by his ordination, is configured to Christ and made the Alter Christus. For this reason I think it makes perfect sense that priests be celibate. It is a sign of the mystical union of Christ and the Church. A married priesthood would obscure this sign and witness. I think that the realization of the importance of this sign is what has kept, even in those Eastern churches that allow married priests, the office of Bishop reserved to those men who are celibate. For the Bishop, as the high-priest and chief shepherd of his Church, is even more a sign of the the mystical union: he holds the fullness of Sacred Orders.

In short, I think that celibacy is the work and a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It is a sign and witness of great power and importance, whose full meaning has yet to be explicated.