Celibacy For Priests. The Defense Takes the Floor
It will not be discussed at a synod, but pressure is growing in favor of the ordination of married men. The most highly esteemed of the Italian theologians has puts a spotlight on the question in an authoritative magazine. And he is opting to hold on to celibacy: not only “opportune,” but “necessary”
by Sandro Magister
by Sandro Magister
Interviewed a few days ago by Gianni Cardinale for the newspaper of the Italian episcopal conference, “Avvenire,” the secretary general of the synod of bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, confirmed that the theme chosen by Pope Francis for the new session in 2018 - “Young people, faith, and vocational discernment” - was the same one that the fourteen cardinals and bishops of the synodal secretariat had put on the top of the list of their proposals.
But Baldisseri also said that just after it, on the list, were the ordained ministries. Without specifying further but with the obvious, implied question of the ordination of married men.
Already once before, in 1971, a synod had addressed this issue. And many voices had been raised in favor of the ordination of “viri probati,” meaning “married men of mature age and of established probity.” That request was put to a vote and defeated only narrowly by the opposing side: 107 against 87.
And once again today there are insistent, widespread requests to introduce a married clergy into the Latin Church on a larger scale, with Pope Francis having made it clear on several occasions that he is ready to listen:
> The Next Synod Is Already in the Works. On Married Priests (9.12.2015)
> Married Priests. The Germany-Brazil Axis (12.1.2016)
> Not Enough Celibate Priests? Make Way For Married Priests (21.9.2016)
But in point of fact it will not be the next synod that takes into consideration the ordination of married men. According to what Baldisseri has confided to the council of the secretariat of the synod, Francis, who was responsible for making the choice, ultimately appears to have preferred to drop this issue and fall back on the more innocuous issue of young people, in part to keep from adding a new intraecclesial conflict to the still dramatic one ignited by the previous synod and by the post-synodal exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”
This does not change the fact that the question of the ordination of married men remains on the agenda, in the Church. And Francis will certainly not drop it.
It has been brought into focus recently with rare clarity by one of the most highly esteemed theologians, Giacomo Canobbio, professor of systematic theology at the Theological Faculty of Milan and former president of the Association of Italian Theologians, in an article in the influential and authoritative “Journal of the Italian Clergy,” published by the Catholic University of Milan and run by three prominent bishops: Franco Giulio Brambilla, Gianni Ambrosio, and Claudio Giuliodori.
The article is entitled: “Rethink the celibacy of priests?”
And it begins by emphasizing that recently such a rethinking has also been recognized as “legitimate” by the cardinal secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, in a talk last February at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
But the rethinking to which Canobbio dedicates himself by no means follows the beaten path. It dismantles commonplaces and leads the reader to conclusions that are to a large extent unconventional.
To begin with, Canobbio clears the field of the illusion that a married clergy is the remedy for the decline in vocations to the priesthood. It is enough to look, he writes, at what is happening among the Orthodox and the Protestants, where priests and pastors are married but vocations are in crisis all the same. This crisis, in fact, “stems from dechristianization, not from the link between the ordained ministry and celibacy.”
“The question nonetheless remains,” Canobbio continues. And he asks: “In a context of dechristianization, what meaning can the celibacy of priests take on when it comes to evangelization?” Since this connection does not belong to the fundamental contents of the faith, “could it be conjectured that, given the urgency of the mission that Francis is constantly recalling, it may be opportune to attenuate the obligation of celibacy?”
In the initial part of the article, Canobbio examines how historically celibacy has been conjoined with the ordained ministry, in the Latin Church: first on the practical terrain and secondarily for reasons of a mystical and Christological character, to the point of considering the celibate priest as he who operates “in persona Christi,” in total dedication to him and to men, in the Church.
And he comments:
“The ecclesiological dimension of the relationship between ordained ministry and celibacy therefore cannot be superficially set aside. We are children of history (and of the reflection that flows from it) and we cannot imagine what we would be if this had unfolded in a different form. In fact, celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven has shaped not only the life of presbyters, but also the general arrangement of the Latin Church, and it must be taken into account that a different form of ordained ministry would involve a general rearrangement of the life of the same Church. The legitimacy of such a rearrangement is a priori outside of the discussion: history has known many of these. We should nonetheless ask if full-time dedication to the ministry would not suffer some limitations if the presbyter had to provide for the necessary care of his family, and as a result if the Christian community could have recourse to its presbytery with the freedom that now, at least theoretically, it maintains it should rightly have.”
After which he addresses the question head-on. But now let’s give the author the floor, presenting the essential passages of his text.
Celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven
by Giacomo Canobbio
ON THE VALUE OF TRADITION
That in the early days of Christianity those responsible for the communities were married appears to be undeniable. But bringing in this reason to maintain that it should be the same today is naive to say the least, in the same way as maintaining that there should be a return to an ecclesiastical organization on the model of the apostolic Churches. [. . .]
Nor does that argument appear cogent which appeals to the two lungs of the Church, Western and Eastern, to imagine a mutually beneficial exchange. [. . .] If it is true that the complete form of the ordained ministry is the episcopacy, any reflection should be on the reasons why even in the Eastern Churches, whether Catholic or Orthodox, bishops are selected from among the monks, who are celibate. [. . .]
Observing history with a disenchanted view, one can say that the decision to link the ordained ministry and celibacy is nothing other than the actualization of an element present in the New Testament, even though this decision took some time to be made in a definitive sense and even once made was ignored for several centuries. [. . .] As a matter of fact, however, the affirmation was gradually reached that celibacy is an essential obligation of the ordained ministries, and the Latin Church legitimately chooses to ordain only those who decide to remain celibate.
The objection raised most frequently on the legitimacy of this decision seems to have little substance: the Church, in fact, can decide on the conditions to require of its ministers, because they are entering into the service of the Church and are not free to establish who can participate in this mission, and how. To maintain that this decision is authoritarianism and therefore a negation of the freedom of the Spirit would require demonstrating that the individual faithful can specify the articulation of ecclesial life.
THE NEED FOR MISSION AND THE APPROPRIATENESS OF CELIBACY
The problem therefore does not concern the legitimacy of the decision, but rather the appropriateness of maintaining it in the face of the contemporary situation: if there were no enough celibate ordained ministers, could the Church change its decision? We know that both Vatican II and Paul VI had taken the problem into consideration and in spite of this had reiterated that, except for a few exceptions, the disposition would not be changed. [. . .]
In the decision between the two perspectives, one must recall the fundamental reason that led to the decision to ordain only celibate men: total dedication to the cause of the Kingdom in imitation of Christ.
It must be recognized that this reason has appeared in clear form in relatively recent times and has not always been decoupled from sexophobic prejudices, which lead to considering marriage a form of Christian life inferior to the celibate form. That does not change the fact that it remains plausible, albeit not compulsory and not always entirely free of overlap with reasons that today appear spurious. [. . .]
So could the Christological reason recalled still justify today the link between celibacy and the presbyteral ministry? [. . .] Or could the demands of the Church’s life and mission require the interruption of a tradition that, albeit with fluctuations, goes back to the first centuries? [. . .]
The question is made even more acute by the current religious situation. In the face of the process of dechristianization that can be found in countries of the developed world, which goes in lockstep with the trivialization of the sexual dimension of persons and of relationships, can it be hypothesized that maintaining the law of celibacy fulfills a function of evangelization? [. . .] If the aim is to introduce the God of Jesus Christ in a decisive form into the life of persons, why not maintain a way of life that would signify how God can take possession of a life in such a way as to manifest his lordship?
This is obviously a matter of “a” way, not the only one - none of the forms of Christian life can claim to exhaust the manifestation of the lordship of God - and it cannot be said that it is the best. It appears, however, that it can be said that it is the one that is most connected to the function of the ordained ministry. Moreover, this is the motivation that has gradually matured over the course of time. The ordained ministry has the task not only of bringing others to live the Christian life, but also of showing that the Gospel can absorb all the energies, even the most noble - the affections, sexual relations - and make life complete. [. . .]
Obviously a perspective of this kind requires that the accent be placed not only on celibacy, but on all the aspects of the “imitatio Christi,” beginning with poverty. The cause of the Kingdom capable of absorbing all the good energies of a human person should be shown as the source of a life lived to the full. [. . .] And dedication to the cause of the Kingdom has a power of evangelization in and of itself. This can be seen in history: the mystics have always been effective poles of evangelization. A presbyteral ministry without the mystical dimension risks becoming a noble bureaucratic function.
Taking up the evangelizing value of celibacy in a consistent form necessarily also involves rethinking the way of exercising the ministry, freeing it from bureaucratic and organizational tasks that in fact impede the cultivation of the mystical dimension. It appears that this too, apart from being a recognition of the lay ministries, is the way to declericalize the Church.
It also involves admitting to the ordained ministry persons capable of withstanding the heavy demands of a celibate life for the cause of the Kingdom. Here and there one notices a discrepancy of aims: in order to have a sufficient number of presbyters, adequate attention is not paid to the psychological and spiritual conditions of candidates for the ministry, with the result of defections and/or of sexually deviant behaviors.
As well as this it involves bringing clarity in ambiguous cases: tolerating situations of “clandestine marriages” in order to avoid a shortage of ordained ministers in the communities does not help in bringing about an understanding of the value of celibacy for the ministry. Perhaps it could be accepted that in some situations - because of personal shortcomings, because of cultural influences - the same exceptions could apply that are provided for ministers of other Christian confessions who enter the Catholic Church. This would be a matter of exceptions, to be evaluated with great circumspection in order to emphasize that the Latin Church recognizes the evangelizing value of the celibacy of presbyters even when the number of these diminishes, and not on account of the requirement of celibacy.
Rethinking priestly celibacy appears not only opportune, but necessary for the following reasons:
1. It helps in rediscovering the reasons that in the Latin Church have led to conferring the presbyteral ministry only on celibate men;
2. It invites consideration of the evangelizing value of a life decision that accompanies the ordained ministry;
3. It stimulates reconsideration of the forms of exercising the presbyteral ministry;
4. It brings up the question of how the Church might carry out its mission in a context of dechristianization;
5. It makes way for the courage to admit, without duplicity or superficial maneuvers, exceptions to the law of celibacy for presbyters who for serious reasons of a cultural or personal character are not capable of meeting the requirement after a rigorous process of formation.
There remains the problem of how to guarantee a sufficient number of presbyters for the Eucharist, which is the center of life for Christian communities. But the question already posed by Karl Rahner still applies: how can it be established how many priests the Church needs today?
It is obvious that, if the traditional model of pastoral care (but beginning from when?) is maintained, the number of priests must necessarily be high. If one should continue to think according to this model, it can nevertheless be presumed that in the current social situation, the number of priests would not be increased even by removing the obligation of celibacy. It instead appears necessary to rethink the arrangement of pastoral care, and with it of the articulation of all the ministries in the Church.
The journal of the Catholic University of Milan that published the article:
> La Rivista del Clero Italiano
Giacomo Canobbio is also the scholar to whom Cardinal Camillo Ruini has said he is most indebted for the theological pages of his latest book, on the ultimate realities:
> C. Ruini, "C'è un dopo? La morte e la speranza", Mondadori, Milano, 2016
Calls for the ordination of married men are particularly strong in Germany, including by official organisms of the Church like the “Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken,” the Central Committee of German Catholics.
Between 2010 and 2011, this committee brought the strongest of pressure to bear, prompting a reaction from those who instead defended the celibacy of priests.
In Germany this led to the idea of a book that would assemble contributions in support of the celibacy of the clergy, edited by Armin Schwibach and with an introduction by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences:
"Reizthema Zölibat - Pressestimmen", mit einer Einführung von Walter Kardinal Brandmüller, Fe-Medienverlags, Kisslegg, 2011
The book is now out of print. But the letter of introduction by Cardinal Brandmüller - which reviews the history of celibacy in the Church, from the Gospels until today - is of definite interest and is available on this webpage, translated into Italian for the first time:
> Brandmüller: "Zölibat der Priester, verbindliche Überlieferung"
> Brandmüller: "Il celibato sacerdotale, una tradizione vincolante"
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.