Monday, 31 May 2010

Church and Mission 2: The importance of priestly celibacy

In the last part of this series I started to talk about what is really required to make the New Evangelization – viz converting or re-evangelizing the West – effective.

One of the most important, in my view, in view of the collapse of a consensus around moral theology, is the distortion of relationships between priests, religious and the laity that have come about because of the secularization of the priesthood and the collapse of religious life.

In particular, we have lost any sense of the importance of consecrated celibacy as a higher state of life that points to our heavenly destination.

I'll say more about this in the context of religious life in another post, but there is an excellent post on the subject of priestly celibacy today by Fr Ray Blake of Saint Mary Magdalen which I urge you to go and read (on which more below).

Why celibacy is important
One of the arguments for priestly celibacy that I think is often forgotten goes to the heart of the challenge to re-evangelize the West (the “New Evangelization”).

One of the biggest problems of our culture is its highly sexualized culture. As a commenter on a BBC piece on priests entitled ‘What is life without sex like?’ put it:

“The idea of sexual self control is entirely foreign to our society, as is the sanctity of sex itself. In age where prostitution, pornography and promiscuity are rife, people have simply lost what is special about sex.”

It is this problem that is at the root not only of the child abuse scandals, but also of the mass disregard of the prohibitions on contraception, pre-marital sex and much more on the part of the laity.

The priest or religious, if we properly understand their commitment, stands as a symbol of the contradiction to the values of this world.  And as such, constantly calls us to the (lesser) commitment we are all required to make to chastity and faithfulness to our proper vocation.

So why shouldn't priests marry?

Fr Blake's piece today nicely captures the argumetn about why we need the example of men set aside for service to God to stand in contradiction to the world's values:

"Celibacy is nonsense if you just see priests in terms of function. If he is just there to offer Mass or run a parish there is no reason on earth why he shouldn't marry, indeed if he is just a Church functionary it is most probably much better for him to marry and be surrounded by a large Catholic family.


If on the other hand a priest is a sign of absolute commitment to God, of communion, of prayer, of otherness, then celibacy is of supreme importance.

The ancient discipline of priestly celibacy, is not easy...Those who choose celibacy voluntarily accept loneliness and a sense of being unfulfilled by anything here on earth...real celibacy is about living with an open wound, totally unsatisfied by anything here on earth. It should be prophetic, about the Creator not creatures.

Like a hair shirt celibacy is constant reminder and an expression of the bald fact that God alone can satisfy our deepest longings. Celibacy is about the Kingdom of God, about prayer, about the spiritual life, about communion with God but it only works with faith...."

Do go and read the whole thing.

7 comments:

USU said...

cheers. but the link is not to the http:

http://marymagdalen.blogspot.com/2010/05/celibacy-is-nonsense.html

Terra said...

Thanks for the catch USU - fixed now.

Quasi Seminarian said...

I was reflecting on the very issue this morning. I keep reading that the practice was instituted in order for the monetary reasons ...

I'm sure there are always a number of reasons, even so, the reasons we put forward today are the reasons we are keeping the practice today.

Then again, I for one would welcome a return to the times when a clergy exam consisted of an Our Father, the Creed and something non-descript.

Cardinal Pole said...

"Celibacy is nonsense if you just see priests in terms of function. If he is just there to offer Mass or run a parish there is no reason on earth why he shouldn't marry ... If on the other hand a priest is a sign of absolute commitment to God, of communion, of prayer, of otherness, then celibacy is of supreme importance."

Fr. Blake seems to misunderstand the point of clerical celibacy (and I read his whole post in order to make sure that I haven't misread him). According to him,

"If [a priest] is just there to offer Mass ... there is no reason on earth why he shouldn't marry"

But it is precisely because a priest needs to be pure, and therefore continent, in order to offer the Most August Sacrifice worthily that celibacy is of "supreme importance", whereas for Fr. Blake, its "supreme importance" is to be found only in that which it signifies. But if celibacy's "supreme importance" is as a sign, then we don't need (secular) priests to be celibate, because we have plenty of religious who amply signify those things which Fr. Blake regards (rightly, though he gets the priority wrong) as valuable.

Furthermore, if celibacy's "supreme importance" were as a sign and there were "no reason" why, with respect solely to the celebration of Mass, a priest should be celibate, then there would be no basis for the Church's historical requirement that married men who became clerics should remain continent, ideally perpetually, or at least for a couple of days before offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. (The latter, weaker requirement itself is sufficient to prove that the rationale for priestly celibacy is primarily and inseparably connected to the priest's identity as a man who offers a true, ritual sacrifice.)

Terra said...

Cardinal - There are some dangers and problems with your argument I think.

1. While sexual purity is certainly highly desirable for the celebration of the sacraments it is not necessary - the sacraments are still valid.

2. There remains the problem of married clergy in the Eastern Catholic rites, ex-Anglicans etc.

I don't personally think Fr Blake's argument is the only one for clerical celibacy, or that he is suggesting that it is, just that it is a good one. Its a reminder that we shouldn't think of priests as sacrament producing machines.

As to your point that all we would need is religious - funny about that, it is actually the subject of the next in this series! I think a strong case can be made that religious life is at least as important, if not more, to the health of the Church than the state of the clergy...

Louise said...

But it is precisely because a priest needs to be pure, and therefore continent, in order to offer the Most August Sacrifice worthily that celibacy is of "supreme importance

There is nothing impure about a married man having sex with his wife, however, so there is nothing wrong per se about a married priest offering Mass.

If you want to argue that celibacy is a higher good (which it is) and that therefore a priest should be celibate, then that's reasonable.

Cardinal Pole said...

"1. While sexual purity is certainly highly desirable for the celebration of the sacraments it is not necessary - the sacraments are still valid."

Of course, Terra--that's why I made sure to say "worthily"! (And to pre-empt the objection which someone else raised to me saying that in the past: I speak of worthiness in the same sense in which we speak of receiving Holy Communion worthily or unworthily.)

"2. There remains the problem of married clergy in the Eastern Catholic rites, ex-Anglicans etc."

I don't see how that's a problem for my argument; as Msgr. Lefebvre noted in his Open Letter to Confused Catholics, clerical marriage in the Eastern Catholic Churches is something which is tolerated, not something to be encouraged, and where the Eastern Patriarchs fail to enforce continence for priests who are married, that is indefensible except, again, insofar as it is a question of tolerating a lesser evil in order to avert a greater evil. The latter holds with respect to ex-Protestants too.

"Its a reminder that we shouldn't think of priests as sacrament producing machines."

Fair enough, but nevertheless, the priesthood is primarily about the celebration of the Mass, and hence the primary reason for celibacy naturally will be connnected to that.

"[You] don't personally think Fr Blake's argument is the only one for clerical celibacy, or that he is suggesting that it is, just that it is a good one."

But clearly he goes much further than just saying that his argument is a good one--he says that it is of "supreme importance" and that celibacy would be "nonsense" (!) if considered soley with respect to the celebration of Mass.

"There is nothing impure about a married man having sex with his wife, however, so there is nothing wrong per se about a married priest offering Mass."

Louise, you're comparing apples and oranges there--you go from talking about impurity to talking about wrongness. It is not wrong for a married man not to be in the state of Levitical purity, but it is wrong for a priest not to be. And on the contrary to what you said at the start: It is impure, by definition, (but not wrong in se, of course) for a married layman to have conjugal relations. The Roman Catechism teaches, where it deals with the preparation for Holy Communion in the section on the Sacraments, that

"The dignity of so great a Sacrament also demands that married persons abstain from the marriage debt for some days previous to Communion. This observance is recommended by the example of David, who, when about to receive the show-bread from the hands of the priest, declared that he and his servants had been clean from women for three days."
[http://www.catecheticsonline.com/Trent2.php]

(And hence obviously this holds a fortiori for the one who not just receives the Sacrament, but confects it.)

"If you want to argue that celibacy is a higher good (which it is) and that therefore a priest should be celibate, then that's reasonable."

I am arguing here not that clerical celibacy and non-celibacy are two goods, the greater of which is the former, but that clerical celibacy is a good--indeed mandatory--and that clerical non-celibacy (at least where the cleric in question is not continent) is an evil.