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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Priestly Celibacy – The Reasons Behind It

Until recently, the celibacy of Catholic priests was regarded by their own religionists as uncontested. If you wanted to be a priest then you had to forsake the possibility of a wife and children. Such was the complete package and a man could not sign up for one without the other. Now changes both inside and outside the Church have brought that complementary dualism into question. My personal concern is that some celibate priests may come to resent married clergy and that married priests might regard celibate men as oddly eccentric, aloof and angry. How can a faithful celibate priest, who fell in love but kept his promises with distance, prayer and tears, not feel a wound in his heart reopened when he must work side-by-side with a married priest who has both his religious calling and his beloved spouse and children? He would have to be an absolute ice-man or robot to avoid real internal pain. Bishops seem aware of this and that may be why married priests, formerly of the Episcopalian tradition, are frequently given special assignments removed from the regular pastoral duties of celibate priests. I also have to wonder if such were a factor in the growing Anglican-usage parishes. This allows them to be Catholic but makes for distance from traditional settings and celibate clergy while grouping them with other former Protestants who have sought reunion with Rome.

The question was always, why have married priests?  But now everything is turned around.  The question becomes, why have celibate priests? There are three basic arguments:

  1. Given that celibacy is obligatory and made as a vow or promise, the first rationale is ecclesial authority and long-standing tradition.
  2. Given that the priest must go where he is needed and immediately do as he is told, the second argument is availability and that he lives to serve the family of God, not for himself.
  3. Given that he is an eschatological sign of the kingdom, the third assertion is that his witness as “the poor man” and his cultic service as a priest of the altar should point toward spiritual realities unmarred by entanglement in matters of the flesh and the world, notably sexual expression.

The first reason was challenged by the manifold changes after Vatican II. Everything seemed to be in a state of flux. The liturgy changed overnight, fast laws were modified or abrogated, and there was a paradigm shift in our attitude toward the world and other religions. Many priests were ordained thinking that the policy on priestly celibacy would change and become retroactive. However, it did not change and thousands of priests left ministry, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. It is no wonder that Pope Benedict’s emphasis on tradition also included a reaffirmation of priestly celibacy. Unfortunately, many are presumptuous that Pope Francis will be more accommodating to those who hope to see the discipline made optional or dismissed. I do not believe it will happen. Why? It is because of how the other two reasons fit into the model of poverty and living for others that are thematic for his papacy. If he demands that priests live simply and drive used cars, then he definitely would not want to see priests caught up with the worldly affairs of a wife and family.

The other two reasons are assaulted by the charge that celibacy is a discipline, not an intrinsic doctrine that is essential to priesthood. This is actually the consensus or general thinking of the Church; however, a few of us wonder if the distinction might be too pact or simplistic. God seemed to tolerate polygamy and divorce in the Old Testament but Christ made it clear that such does not reflect the true mind of God and human nature. Given the great need, the novelty of Christianity, the rapid growth of the Church and the lack of viable single candidates, could it be that God tolerated married men in his priesthood until such became unnecessary? The apparent fact that men called to holy orders in the early Church often lived as if they were not married, in perfect continence with their wives, would seem to give substance to this supposition.

A further support to this view is the long-standing predominance of celibacy into the modern era. Just as the Holy Spirit safeguards the authority of the Church and the faithful transmission of the deposit of faith, might the celibate priesthood be an expression of his work that is reflective of divine providence? Yes, it is true that a few married priests (but not bishops) minister in the small Eastern rites of the Church; but these few exceptions are dwarfed by the number of celibate priests serving in the West. What about the Orthodox churches? As Pope Benedict XVI rightfully reminded us, while their sacraments are efficacious, they do not accept the full juridical authority of the Holy See.  The Orthodox churches are true churches, albeit defective. The Protestant denominations are classified “theologically” as ecclesial communities.  Such means that Protestants have lost apostolic succession and thus have no authentic priesthood or Mass. The Orthodox have both but they also suffer the dire loss of the Petrine see and thus forfeit the full protection of God against error.  Their teachings and practices would not “immediately” inform Catholicism given the juridical break.  The witness of the Eastern rite churches (in union with Rome) is more significant and must be given a certain consideration on all questions of faith and discipline.  In any case, note that the Orthodox have both married and celibate priests but ONLY celibate bishops. Even they seem to discern that there is a serious difference. Roman Catholicism readily recognizes this and wants all her priests to match the same high standard. The Church needs it and God deserves it.

Please note that references to other denominations are not intended to be pejorative, just informative of a demarcation between them and Catholicism.  It is not possible today to speak about Christian ministry and to avoid comparisons.  Only briefly hinted at in this posting, many Protestant churches would reject any definition of their ministers as priests; others would define the priesthood differently or have a disrupted apostolic succession.  Their views would have little or no standing in the Catholic context.   Catholic deacons can do all that a Baptist minister can do:  baptize, celebrate a communion service, witness a wedding, visit the sick, preach from the pulpit, teach, etc.  Our deacons are both married and unmarried.  The similarity or comparison between many Protestant churches and Catholicism in ministry is not between the priest and minister, but between the minister and deacon.  Of course, the deacon is also in Holy Orders and is ranked among the clergy.