Clerical Celibacy Debate

The thread on De spiritali amicitia that veered onto the subject of clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church is now removed from that posting. The comments in themselves are germane and deserve to be kept, so I have transferred them into this new posting:

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Submitted on 2014/09/18 at 6:03 am

Aelred of Rievaulx’s father was a married priest! (One of those so-called ‘celibate clerical marriages’ that conservative Latins like to think were the norm in the West).

The Rad Trad
Submitted on 2014/09/18 at 7:45 pm | In reply to Robert.

Why the disbelief? The Western preference for celibacy clearly did not appear out of no where or, contrary to a surge of junk history in the mid 20th century, from St Gregory VII’s monastic impulses. The West valued celibacy early and it eventually came to legal expression because, as is often the case in Church history, because of abuses to the tradition.

Submitted on 2014/09/19 at 6:04 am | In reply to The Rad Trad.

No disbelief here. What surge of junk history do you have in mind? The now discredited scholarship of Roman Cholij? (Who has not only renounced his theories, but has since been laicised and married). Yes, the West valued celibacy, but it was never a uniform tradition – nor was it a mandated apostolic tradition that all clerics be celibate. In early medieval Europe married clerics were common. Whether they were an abuse or not is an interesting question. Clearly Rome had an early tradition of promoting celibacy (from Leo I?), but the fact that so many diocesan ordinaries overlooked these admonitions for such a long time is an interesting fact to ponder. Perhaps they were just disobedient? Who knows.

Sorry if this is off-topic, Fr Anthony. Please feel free to send to the RC blow-out department.

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This thread may be continued here or on the RC Blow-Out Department as you wish.

I remember Cardinal Stickler singing the praises of Fr Cholij’s book when he came to do ordinations at Gricigliano (including my own minor orders and subdiaconate). I can well believe that historians of repute relativise the value of this book which I have only read partially.

The real issue for priests today is one of the fundamental human need for friendship and being able to trust the other human beings around him. It isn’t sex, nor is it particularly the need of being a father of a family. It is being able to have relationships with other people, relationships of friendship and communion with others, the word being taken out of the modern hyper-sexualised context.

Have priests live in communities? I think this is generally a good idea, if the community is founded on friendship as in the Franciscans or the English Oratory for example. In many other communities, clerics are so aloof from each other, or even nasty, probably (at least partly) because of the fear that friendship might degenerate into homosexual debauchery! If clerics are expected to live as lonely individuals without any human warmth and affirmation, they run the risk of emotional and mental disorders, especially depression. After the era of St Aelred, most monasteries with the Rule of St Benedict discouraged friendship and any kind of intimacy between monks. It is understandable, but a monastic community is more “Orwellian” than most of us imagine. It involves the surrender of personality, and not merely self-will and material possessions.

The situation of a man in a marriage involving a mentally ill or manipulative woman can be much worse. Marriage is no panacea, unless it is built on true friendship and selfless love.

The real issue in the institutional Church seems to be money: having to support families on priests’ stipends and avoiding property of benefices from being left in wills to offspring and not to the Church’s patrimony. The RC Church, at least in the west, would not solve the dearth of priests by abolishing mandatory celibacy. The “system” needs to be shut down and given a complete “hard reboot”. That won’t happen.

I see little point in discussing such a sterile and tired subject, but I am open to new insight.

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8 Responses to Clerical Celibacy Debate

  1. Since priestly celibacy doesn’t affect me as a layman I don’t think about it much, even though growing up non-Roman Catholic I was told it was weird and unnatural. Considering the hurt we caused our own people, Slavic Greek Catholic immigrants in America, over it (imposing priestly celibacy on their ordinands here, which the church can do but shouldn’t), causing TWO schisms to Orthodoxy, one (ACROD) in living memory, priestly celibacy’s not a hill I would die on. Even though Roman Catholic liberals (not really Catholic by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Continuing Anglican standards) want to change this to the Protestant rule (clergy may marry). Our changing to the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic rule, which it seems ex-Anglicans are doing (a married man may become a deacon or priest but a deacon or priest may not marry) is an option and should be on the table.

    Although it was better 50 years ago when you really had a fraternity of priests as a support system (you lived with four or even more other priests in a rectory/clergy house), a valid criticism of our system I’ve read (maybe from you) is that seminary is a pseudo-monastic life; priests “in the field” don’t have that anymore so they suffer from loneliness and other emotional and spiritual problems.

    But most Roman Catholic priests are still very good (but believe me; this fisheater’s met his share of mediocrities); it’s just that they don’t grab headlines because they’re “boring”; they don’t serve the Anglo-American (Protestant) media’s anti-Roman Catholic bias. (More teachers than priests have been molesters. But teaching is a liberal profession so they get away with it.) The Orthodox, a shining example of married priests, don’t either because 1) they’re conservative; party-poopers! 2) they’re too small to be taken seriously in the West; and so 3) they’re written off as exotic and cute.

    All of the churches are hurting so you’re right; married priests would not be a cure-all for that, and we wouldn’t be able to support priestly families. (Some wags say we’d ordain women before married men because of that.) A big change in our culture would be to have Roman Rite priests do what many Orthodox priests in the West do, working a secular job weekdays, including honorable careers such as being a translator. Used to know a girl whose Russian Orthodox priest dad was also a high-school science teacher.

    Some well-meaning but wrongheaded conservative Roman Catholics defend priestly celibacy by claiming clergy couples had to abstain from sex and still have to; I’m not buying. Immemorial custom trumps the letter of the law, love makes the world go round, and priestly families are another traditional source of vocations! An acquaintance’s son just became the third generation of his family in America to be an Orthodox priest.

    Married bishops? There was Salomão Barbosa Ferraz, a convert, married, and – in 1963 – a Roman Catholic bishop in good standing. Not to be indelicate, but I wonder if he and his wife were allowed to have sex just like married Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, and Orthodox priests are; he was so old when he came into the Roman Catholic Church, was it really an issue for him? The church had already waived a big rule for him; why not live as a married couple the normal way?

    I can’t see the rule on celibate bishops ever changing even though it’s not doctrine; it’s nearly universal in the apostolic family of churches and changing it would be a roadblock to union with the Orthodox.

    P.S. All that said, congratulations to your ACC brother Fr. Munn and his bride.

  2. raitchi2 says:

    I (RCC) have always been impressed with my girlfriend’s church structure (non-denom. mega-church). There is literally something to do everyday. They have large group worship on sundays (the only services instead of a typical parish’s 5 or more) which are telecast to all their satellite locations, so not only are you worshiping with your 500+ members, but your doing it at the same time with people all over Chicagoland. I have always felt like gathering most if not all of the people for this service really gives a feeling of being a member of a huge church in the way that have 5 identical masses a day doesn’t. Additionally because of their numbers, they have the funds to invest in their Church spaces to make them places where you want to stay and hang out after services (actual places to sit, not just standing in the atrium).

    Other than big group, they have numerous small group activities. The biggest thing is to get into a small group Bible study/prayer group that meets once a week. This is a great way to make concrete relationships in the church. These groups are typically smaller than 15 people so there’s no way you can be lost in the crowd. Additionally they have many activities and service opportunities based on demographics (singles, teen, young adult, children…) to help keep you connected with the church and with people in your own demographics (as opposed to the sea of grey heads I sit among at every mass). These smaller subsections of the church really help you feel connected when you attend Sunday services, because you know and have real relationships with many people outside of this hour long service.

    I would love to adapt this model to the RCC. However, because our faith requires the sacramental mediation of a priest in the way non-denominatinoalism does not we would need to restructure our concept of what a priest is/ how he’s trained and how he’s paid (I’d argue for a mostly volunteer clergy like our permanent diaconates, but priests). We could have small groups based on home liturgy (I’d like to see a group reciting vespers or even daily mass at someone’s home). Then these groups could still come together for the holy day of obligation masses. This way people would still have their concrete relationships (which keep people coming and involved) and we could increase our numbers enough that having demographics based events would be possible (at my parish a 20-somethings night would consist of 3 people).

    • sea of grey heads

      My own head is more than grey. My hair is nearly white (see my avatar). Watch what you say about us grey Boomers! 🙂

      You need to live in city like Chicago, London or Paris and be in some slick and corporate well-managed parish. Alternatively, the individual priest needs to find “niche” ministries wherever there is some kind of human community. Bishops have never liked the second “model” as happened with the Prêtres Ouvriers in the 1940’s.

      The American mega-church may have some appeal and be a model for the RC Church to imitate. It wouldn’t appeal to me – too “rational” and organised, like large corporations and their extreme degree of organisation and efficiency. If such did appeal to me, I would be living in a place like London or Paris, working at La Défense or the City with a conservative mindset. I’m way too eccentric for that, this old Goliard and all that…

      • Going gray here and loving it. Salt and pepper for now.

        Around here you’re likely to see mostly older folks at a mainline (liberal) Protestant service, people who aren’t orthodox but are old enough to retain the churchgoing habit.

        My parish is a magnet for conservative Roman Catholic young families: couples in their 30s with three or more children. Along with gray heads who were children in the ’50s and ’60s and even a few living links who were adults before Vatican II (one of our supply priests, and an Italian-American couple born in the 1920s).

      • children in the ’50s and ’60s

        I was born in the 50’s and was 10 in 1969 when they put Neil Armstrong on the moon and crowned Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. Rome brought out the Novus Ordo, but it wasn’t my problem as an Anglican kid hardly ever going to church. I suppose I look back on the 60’s like my father looks back to the 1930’s. Enough nostalgia for now!

      • The Novus Ordo wasn’t my problem as an Anglican kid either; my parents started going to church again when I was 12, to a parish that had Morning Prayer as the main service half the time with early Communion, eastward-facing, all using the American 1928 Prayer Book. Higher than what was going on in Roman Catholic parishes! We were left alone, not forced to use the Episcopal Church’s Novus Ordo-ey new services, the 1979 Prayer Book. So when I first learned of the Anglican Catholic Church, the first I heard of the Continuum, in a radio commercial, I thought it was only about the Prayer Book. “Big deal! We use the old one, no problem.” The other shoe didn’t drop – finding out about women priests and Bishop Spong, both old news – until a few years later.

    • Interesting points; something to think about. A few quick reactions. There’s a difference between a church, a healthy community with a strong culture that sort of self-polices, on one hand, and a cult. Keeping the ordinary lay people constantly busy, enmeshed in the community, too tired or occupied to think or question, literally planning your whole week for you (I’m not criticizing monastic life per se), is what a cult does. The Mormons operate that way; nobody converts for the theology (because the theology’s ridiculous: the universe, matter, is eternal; you get to become a god – !naitsirhC ro evitavresnoc t’nera yllautca snomroM) but because they met nice Mormons and crave that seemingly wholesome community. (They blended in with the old America, so much so that mainstream America now makes fun of them.) Might this Protestant megachurch be doing something similar? Or it may be a healthy community, like a Roman Catholic village in old Italy or a Roman Catholic Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. neighborhood in a big American city 70 years ago. Regular parish life and lots of pious customs, mores, and folkways. The real pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church was a big tent of sinners, clerical and lay, from mafiosi to union and political ward bosses, along with the pedestrian pious and some very holy people; the church couldn’t have been a micromanaging cult even if it wanted to be. Your proposals could be a calling, something that works for some people. One nice Anglican thing my Roman Catholic parish does besides have great music and ceremonial is have coffee hour once a month.

  3. matthewgaul says:

    A rarely considered benefit …

    In my (subjective, personal) experience as the son of a Roman Rite deacon, and having adopted Greek Catholicism about 11 years ago, the children of priests and deacons both East and West are much, *much* more likely to retain the faith – in quality and quantity – than are the children of non-clergy.

    I have heard that this is not true of non-apostolic Christian communities … but without valid Orders (or other sacraments), their experience is of little comparative value for us.

    Practical reasons aside, I do buy the idea, prevalent in the East, that the secular and monastic callings are had in both the lay and clerical state, and that although the monastic is the higher calling, it is not for everyone. Therefore, requiring all clergy to be at least semi-monastic is akin to requiring all laymen to be so (although admittedly varying in degree).

    Finally, the history of this debate shows why it is not ideal for regional Catholic cultures to be homogeneous. Cultural uniformity breeds chauvinism. We would all be much better off with a tapestry of (legitimate, preferably “high church”) rites, forms, spiritualities, juridical situations, etcetera. To those who do not otherwise seek this knowledge, local Catholic diversity is a living lesson of what things are essential, and what things are purely governance, etcetera.

    I understand the reasons for the retreat into uniformitarianism during the Reformation, but it came with a high cost. Time to return to the diversity that was such a talent of the West for the first 1,000 years.

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