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Catholic Priesthood: Celibate & Male


Michele Somerville writes the following in her essay, “Thoughts on Religious Vocations: An Open Letter to Pope Francis I” (05/11/2017):

“I celebrate the possibility that we might soon see more and more married priests serving on our altars. While recognizing that some who are called to the priesthood view celibacy a gift, I know that for many priests, celibacy is not a gift. Sexuality when infused with respect, commitment and love, is a gift from God.”

“As a feminist Catholic, however, I feel conflicted. I know that Your Holiness has affirmed Saint John Paul II’s teaching that the door is closed on the discussion of ordaining women, but we are a Church of miracles and I continue to pray for the day girls holding their mothers’ hands at Sunday Mass will no longer have cause to feel somehow unfit to answer the call to ordination. I am no expert on my church but I love to read and I know that almost always the choice to silence opposition in questions of justice is a response driven by fear.”

What are your thoughts about this?


Our Lord works in conjunction with his Church, not in conflict with her. Men called to the priesthood in the West are given the gift of celibacy from Christ. The issue is what they make of it. God would not call men to ministry and then abandon them when grace is most needed. Those who do not have the gift of celibate love are not called to Catholic ministry as priests. The preference for celibacy is not capricious.

The learned authority Father Laurent Touze argues that celibacy has a close link to priesthood which the early Church recognized. When married men were ordained, it was generally expected that they would practice perfect continence. He contends that the Latin or Western rite will never change its practice because there is an integral relationship between the presbyterate, episcopacy and celibacy. When asked about exceptions and the Eastern model, he explains:

“Historically because there has been a manipulation of texts and I believe a bad translation that the Eastern Church, which has separated from Rome and has recognized that what they had declared contrary to tradition, could be accepted.”

The Church came to appreciate that exceptions could be made, for the Eastern churches and for men who come to the priesthood from other traditions (like the Anglicans and maybe the Lutherans) but a married priesthood would never be regarded as normative.

I would concur that sexuality is a gift from God. Further, while the Church deplores pornography and lust; she celebrates in the arts the beauty of human design and urges a holy passion in the various wholesome relationships that make up human existence.

Marriage does indeed bring certain important insights. Nevertheless, celibate love also brings with it a single-hearted love for the Lord and a profound sense of being a sentinel for the People of God. The Church presumes that this way of loving best fits the vocation of priesthood. It is for this reason that I would oppose a move toward optional celibacy. Indeed, the rule should be truly absolute.

Christian feminism must have a healthy regard both for the human condition and for the truth— both from nature and revelation. The usurpation of the priesthood would not be a genuine feminism. It would make no more sense than attempting to make the roles of mothers and fathers interchangeable. Equality here is not an equal sign. Rather, it is a profound complementarity. We have different roles to play. Men become priests to minister as servants of God and his community. We have priests for the sacramental forgiveness of sins and for the unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. The altar-table is a nuptial banquet table. The priest is an icon that signifies Christ the groom. The assembled Church is his bride. A priestess at the altar would signify a bizarre sacramental lesbianism.

In any case, too much has been made of the Pope’s recent few words about married priests. The Church has long held the possibility of ordaining a few upright but elderly and stable married men if necessity dictated. This is not new. There will not be any wholesale welcome for married men to enter the ranks of the priesthood. Given Pope John Paul II’s infallible declaration, there will be no women called to priesthood either. A vocation or calling must be confirmed by the Church. Not all men are so called and many discover that they are mistaken when they think they hear such a calling. All women who imagine they are called to priesthood are in error or have been deceived. The Church has spoken and the Church has every right to regulate her own sacraments.

Many critics wrongly urge a movement away from objective truth and toward a convenient subjectivity that would give the edge to modernity. We cannot do this. The sources for Christian doctrine would be brutally compromised. The edifice of the Church, her claims, her ministries, etc. would tumble down like a flimsy house of cards. The Pope is not God. He can interpret but he cannot fashion wholly new doctrines or reverse those of the past. Space is permitted for a certain organic growth, but our hermeneutics must always embrace continuity and development, not rupture and demolition. The Episcopalians have women playing priests and along with this concession has relinquished much of the traditional Christian kerygma regarding faith and morals. We want the Church that goes to heaven, not the church of anything goes.

I am often amazed that some of the loudest critics have little in the way of theological learning and yet they claim a special divine enlightenment that has been denied Pope John Paul II and 2,000 years of sacred tradition guided by the Holy Spirit. While critics of Church teaching and practices often feign humility, what we really witness in their demands is a frightful hubris that moves most if not all dissenters. Instead of faith seeking understanding, we discover human fancy making demands upon faith. The voices labeled as “conservative” are demonized and yet they are the ones who are truly orthodox. They realize that we cannot force the hand of Christ. If it is not the will of Christ that women be ordained, then to do so would forfeit both the priesthood and the Eucharist. The more liberal voices do not care. They claim fidelity to the Catholic faith while in truth they have made themselves the enemies of this holy religion. Reformers of the past would make a break and start new denominations. Today they remain under the Catholic tent, working quietly behind the scenes as agents for the enemy. If there should be schism, it will not be because of men like Cardinal Burke. No, it will be forced upon us by those who have betrayed the faith and seek to covertly dismantle the Church. These so-called women who claim to be Catholic priests are a case in point. They are no longer Catholic at all. They are Protestants using the Catholic designation to which they no longer have any right to employ.

Critics of a celibate priesthood and those demanding the ordination of women are frequently dissenters on other matters.  There is also the tendency to name-call and to abandon a reasoned discourse.  If you oppose homosexual or lesbian marriages and sexuality then you are mean-spirited and homophobic. If you oppose abortion then you hate women and would rob them of their rights. If you oppose women’s ordination then you are a bigot who would violate justice. If you favor obligatory celibacy for priests then you oppose healthy romantic love and probably have something to hide.  It is all nonsense.

Regarding the priesthood, it is purely a gift. No one can demand it as a matter on any social justice agenda. It is given to a few celibate men and to no women. We all benefit from the priesthood by participation in the liturgy and the life of the Church. Most women involved with work in the Church have no desire to be priests. They can make a positive difference without ordination. They run our rectories, teach in our schools, form our children in the faith and do so much more. The priesthood is a special call to service but it is baptism that is our call to holiness.

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