There's a compelling case for making sure a celibate priesthood retains its honored place in the Catholic Church
Speculation and trial balloons floating lately over the Vatican walls suggest that Pope Francis wants to open up a discussion of married priests in the Church. According to reports, this will be the topic of the next world Synod of Bishops in a couple of years.
Yes, I know the Church already has some married priests, and many of them are admirable people doing excellent pastoral work. The point now would presumably be to broaden the practice in the Western Church and increase the number of such priests.
The argument for doing so is the need to make more priests available to provide the Eucharist to Catholics as the number of celibate priests drops in many places. If it were done, it would most likely be by ordaining so-called “viri probati” — older married men of exemplary character — to function as what might be called (inaccurately) “weekend priests” available for service much the way many permanent deacons now are.
This is hardly a new idea. It’s been batted around at least since Vatican Council II more than half a century ago. As the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, recently remarked, it would be hard to object now to a “positive and constructive” discussion of this matter. Pope Francis apparently agrees.
Whatever might come of such a discussion, here’s one vote for making sure that celibacy and a celibate priesthood retain their honored place in the Catholic Church of the future.
Three strong reasons for priestly celibacy occur immediately to me.
First, availability. An unmarried priest, unlike a married one, has — in theory at least — the ability to give himself more freely to others, whereas a married man has a duty to give particular, preferential time and attention to his wife and family.
It goes without saying that married men can be exceptionally generous too. And many are, with a generosity that extends far beyond their families. Still, Cardinal Parolin was speaking realistically when he remarked in a recent speech that celibacy allows a priest to “travel light” in his efforts to “reach everyone, carrying only the love of God.”
The second reason is witness. It is painfully obvious that we live today in a sex-obsessed cultural environment where even perverse forms of sexual expression are not just accepted but encouraged. In these circumstances the practice of celibacy gives desperately needed public testimony to the fact that enslavement to sexual urges is not an inescapable part of life.
Some people claim the practice of celibacy is unnatural. And indeed it is if by “natural” you mean the condition of human nature deranged by sin. If, however, “natural” refers to nature restored by the action of grace in a loving heart, then it isn’t celibacy but lust that’s unnatural. As Cardinal Parolin pointed out, celibacy is “not the absence of profound relationships” but an instrument of liberation that makes “space” for them.
Finally, there is the spiritual reason for priestly celibacy. It’s not easy to express, but it’s of great importance.
Holiness is for married laymen and laywomen as well as for priests. But celibacy adds a special dimension to priestly holiness, just as married love does for the married. In this way, celibacy fills out the dimensions of holiness within the Body of Christ, the Church, and opens up a unique and irreplaceable pathway for the following of Christ.
If there’s to be a discussion of ordaining married men, here’s hoping it keeps the compelling case for priestly celibacy plainly in view.
Russell Shaw is the author or coauthor of 21 books and numerous articles, columns and reviews. He is a member of the faculty of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and former secretary for Public Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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