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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 Ancient Living Legacy

Scientists speak of evolution and theologians discuss the organic development of doctrine. Any truth in the premise of the first must respect the role of intelligent design and in the latter, divine providence. This is no less true in the case of the priesthood and the mandate for perfect continence and lifetime celibacy. Celibacy may reside more on the discipline than the doctrine side of the spectrum; but the believer must acknowledge that this form of life and love is not by accident but rather is an expression of the Holy Spirit’s guiding and protective presence. It is for this reason that we cannot be capricious in dismissing it. It is my view that mandatory celibacy signifies the ideal lifestyle and manner of loving for the priesthood. Instead of retreating in the face of the regiments of well-meaning married clergy from the Anglican exodus and the growing Eastern rites, we should be urging them to follow suit in mandating celibacy. We can allow those who are currently married to perform their ministries but make it clear that future generations will be celibate. But I doubt this will happen because “respect” for these rites will be translated by some to an attitude of “don’t tell us what to do” or worse yet, a certain snobbery that the ways of these remnant national churches take precedence over the universal jurisdiction of Rome. (The Pope is not simply one prelate among many, or just over the Roman Rite, but the holder of the universal see with general jurisdiction.) He is Peter. It should be added, that if the Holy Father should relax the discipline about celibacy, no matter how priests like myself might disagree, we would also be obliged to assent to his authority as faithful sons.

The early churches used the scarce men available who were qualified to lead faith communities and celebrate the Eucharist. Just as our Lord demonstrated in his apostolic selection, both single and married men were chosen. I would propose that the latter were called forth, yes even Peter, out of practical urgency and not as an expression of absolute indifference to the question of marriage or celibacy. Indeed, St. Paul (1 Corinthians 7:29-36) says that those with wives should live as if they have none:

“I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away. I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you, but for the sake of propriety and adherence to the Lord without distraction.”

A Church of converts, the existing Jewish and Gentile communities came to the Lord. Religious and civic leaders made a transition to the new faith. They naturally became the new priests of the infant Church. We should not make anything more of it in regard to married clergy. The preference remains celibacy or perfect continence. Negative critics of priestly celibacy focus upon medieval measures to enforce this state of life. They argue that such a mandate was of late human manufacture. They point out the hypocrisy of priests with secret wives or mistresses. They seek to detach it from the promptings of the Holy Spirit and any higher spiritual motivation. The causality is narrowed to greed: either of the family clan for the property of the Church or of the Church to maintain and to expand her wealth without claims from progeny. This critique is unfair. The emphasis in priesthood and in the communion of the saints illustrates that celibacy or virginity existed for more than a pragmatic purpose. The Church long celebrated those heroes of faith who embraced virginity over the opposition of family and society. Some like Felicitas and Perpetua embraced martyrdom so as to maintain their virginity. Are there any martyrs acclaimed for insisting upon marriage over a life of preferred virginity? No, I do not think so. Virginity or celibacy was viewed as playing an important spiritual role toward a form of growth in holiness and dependence upon the Lord. Thomas Aquinas’ family so opposed his desire to be a monk that they kidnapped him. Francis of Assisi connected his celibacy to a desire for poverty; breaking with the wishes of his father by abandoning the family business and stripping himself naked. I am also reminded of the child-saint Maria Goretti who died to safeguard her purity; she forgave her murderer with her last breath. Virginity or celibacy has an ancient and significant place in Christian tradition; those who ridicule it will find themselves in opposition to the general witness of the saints.