Friday, January 21, 2011


Ed Peters has posted again on clerical continence and celibacy, you can read what he has to say for yourself here.

I am willing to concede that we are in a bit of mess over celibacy both canonically but also more significantly spiritually and we are only just beginning to address it. It is not that I imagine every other priest is breaking his promise, if he is a secular and vow if he is a religious and doing those things St Paul tells us we should not even speak about. I mean that we have lost sight of any distinction between celibacy and comfortable bachelorhood.

It has become unpopular to see celibacy as a higher way of living than marriage, despite the fact that this is what the Gospels plainly teach, providing of course it is for the Kingdom of Heaven.

It is very easy when we lose a sense of the supernatural to see celibacy merely in terms of a celibate priest being cheaper to keep and easier to move than one who is married, or equally cynically counting as a blessing that celibacy gives him the advantage of not being prone to divorce or having children that might disgrace his vocation.

Is it just me or do other priests see a breakdown over the last ten years in that fundamental relationship of father and son that is supposed to exist between a bishop and his priests since the tsunami of abuse was revealed in the Church. Bishops seem increasingly to see themselves as corporate executives and priests somehow as employees who can cause problems and even lead their diocese down the road of  bankruptcy

Augustine used to taunt hermits by shouting at them, "Whose feet will wash in your hermitage?" The Church's assumption is that it is not good for a man to live alone, it saw celibacy as an exchange of a natural family for a supernatural one, but because we are Catholics, it was a supernatural one expressed in sacramental terms of a relationship with the Church. For women it was expressed in such terms such as "Bride of Christ", for Bishops the receiving of a ring, both speak of a mystical marriage, terms such as Father, Brother, Sister, Mother speak of a familial relationship. Now, these terms are dropped or used only formally, substituted by, "Call me N", I can't help think this this an indication of the rejection of familial ties which are part of the mystery of the Church. I have sympathy with bishops who are uneasy about handing over criminal sons to the law as anyone would about a father handing over his son, it should never be easy, or a matter of mere procedure but should cause great pain.

For many priests and religious celibacy can become a very lonely vacuum, filled more often by self gratification than by mistresses or lovers. The ancient intention was that it should be filled with Christ. The vacuum was deliberately designed to create a hunger for Christ but with a spirituality fed by a liturgy and theology of Christ and his Church that is essentially horizontal rather than vertical, it can so easily be filled with the things of this world, the very antithesis of Christ, what Cardinal Biffi would describe as anti-Christ.

Pope Benedict's attempts at liturgical renewal, are important in themselves but they are also aimed at refocusing the priesthood on God and worship, as was the Year for Priests. The community, the horizontal, is important but priests and religious are not social workers or even primarily pastoral workers. Chrysostom tells us, somewhere, that the role of the priest is to offer the Holy Sacrifice and when he is not doing that he should be preparing the sacrifice. The burden of saving a single soul is too much for most people, indeed it is blasphemous to think anyone can, Christ is the Saviour, the role of the Church and its members simply to co-operate with grace. It is not about us, it is about Him.

Fr Hunwicke has been exploring the Diaconate over the past few days in a fascinating series of posts, he suggests that there has been a radical change in our view, seeing diakonia in terms of good works rather than in terms of cult and the Eucharist. The same suggestions could of course apply to the priesthood. So often it is stated that celibacy is "merely a discipline" of the Church it is not of its essence but considering the the Lord's own celibacy, Our Lady's perpetual virginity, St Joseph's chaste relationship with her, St Paul's wish that the Corinthians might remain unmarried like him, not to mention the Lord's own words about "eunuch's for the sake of the Kingdom", we do celibacy and celibates a grave disservice by downplaying it. For though it is not an absolutely necessary part of the priesthood, it is seems to be of the essence of Christianity, of preferring nothing to Christ, of the proclamation that Christ is all in all and fulfils all our needs.

18 comments: said...

Father, I can't add very much to your arguments in the way of profound assent or learned disagreement. I merely thought it interesting that you referred to the lack of use of any kind of title or formality in modes of address. I have long thought it a great shame that titles, such as 'Uncle' and 'Aunt (or 'Auntie') seem to have fallen into disuse. Is this merely laziness or is it part of some dark conspiracy to weaken and destroy the relationships which make up the family? You will be reassured to know that my wife and I are addressed as 'Mum' & 'Dad' by our children and as 'Nanny' and 'Grandad' by our grandchildren. Sadly, it still leaves the little darlings with little idea of what a cousin is and no idea whatever about second-cousins-twice-removed.

Anonymous said...

If celibacy were of the essence of Christianity, dear Fr, every married Christian would be thereby sinning!

Just because nothing is to be preferred to Christ, does not rule out the subordinate love of a spouse (or parent, sibling, friend, etc.)

+ Wolsey.

P.S. What about St Paul placing the right of a priest/bishop/apostle to take a wife around with him, on the same level as eating and drinking - that is, on the level of natural right?? One cannot transmogrify by mere wishing, a special grace that few are given, into a state demanded of all clergy by law!! Legislators cannot second-guress God's distribution of the charism of celibacy by demanding it of (formerly all, but now merely most) Latin-rite ordinands.

Fr Ray Blake said...

I am not suggesting everyone should be celibate.
I am suggesting that the renunciation for the sake of the Kingdom is part of the Gospel proclamation.

Even in the East celibacy is "imposed" on bishops and "monastic" clergy even if these "monks" have never been part of a monastic community.

Deacon Augustine said...

Fr. Ray, the minute I saw Peters' paper had surfaced again, I have been waiting for discussions of celibacy to appear. It is going to be one of those unintended consequences of the can of worms that he's opened up, and I can imagine that a lot of the comment will not be as thoughtful or positive as yours.

I think the reason that celibacy is so often referred to as "merely a discipline" is that over time we have so bound the term up with the idea of priesthood that it has come to acquire the status of a secondary vocation to the vocation of priesthood. It's "just something that priests "do" as part of being a priest, and if he wasn't a priest he wouldn't be celibate."

In practice, if not in theology, the Church has been giving the impression that a vocation to the priesthood is the same thing as a vocation to celibacy for so long that the importance of the vocation to celibacy has been eclipsed. That eclipse will only grow darker the more that the "supermarket manager" model of the priesthood takes hold.

The reality, of course, is that the vocation to celibacy for the Kingdom of God is a higher calling and vocation than either the vocation to marriage or the vocation to the priesthood. By living it faithfully a man more closely represents Christ as He is in Himself, rather than Christ as He is for us.

Treating celibacy as merely a disciplinary adjunct to the priesthood, as we do in the West, tends to undervalue it, as opposed to the attitude in the East where it is set as the aspirational jewel in the crown of the Church. Sometimes mandating a thing puts lesser value on it than commending it.

I fear that the increased exposure of the faithful to married convert priests, and even exposure to the Eastern Catholics aided by the "shrinking global village" is going to exacerbate the problem further.

As a Church we need to "magnify" the vocation to celibacy in its own right if we are not to be greatly impoverished. It is a great blessing and gift to the one who lives it as well as a great witness to the Church and the world of the continued Presence of Christ with us.

If its just some burden one falls into because of a poorly drafted piece of legislation, then we are amongst the most foolish and pitiable of men on earth.

Michael Clifton said...

I believe that the custom of calling a priest by his Christian name is part of the idea of reducing the value of the priesthood by simply placing it as one manifestation of the "priesthood of allthe faithful". Indeed that very concept has led to a widespread feeling amongst certain Catholics that they have every right to criticise their priests at every turn if they feel like it.

Basil said...

A very thoughtful post Father. I think there are enormous pressures on secular priests to drift into the comfortable, bachelor existence that you decribe. Without that thirst for God, that aching longing for intimacy with Him, the priest becomes useless. It used to be said that only the strongest and purest souls should become secular priests - others should join religious communities.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Yes, and I for one welcome, in the seclusion of the ordinariate, the experiment of both married and celibate clergy.
It is an interesting experiment.

B flat said...

The Roman Church has learned much from the Eastern Church, but discernment is needed. I think that the value of celibacy has been realised (in every sense) much more in the West. On the other hand, the value of married parish priests, who teach by the example of their families (now there is an inclusive role for women in the parish!) has been almost ignored by the Roman Catholic Church, because the practice was forbidden, and therefore the concept was unthinkable.

In the east, it is a watchword that "Angels are the example for monks, and monks are the light for men".

St Benedict wrote an excellent Rule of enduring value, for cenobitic monastics. At one time, the Society of Jesus excelled in training young men to endure missionary work in hostile conditions preparing them for living a lifetime alone. Both kinds of religious had their (very different) spirituality which infused and supported their lives. The seminary system tried to combine the best of both these formations to prepare young men for parochial priesthood.

Father, your post is very good, and I have added nothing to it. The solution lies within what you have written, but growing to understand it will require a great cultural change in the Church, not just in the external rites of worship, but in language, attitudes, and relationships. You covered this in your review.

Pope Benedict has opened many possibilities with his initiatives. His thinking has been quite clearly stated for at least forty years, and is clear.
The change needed requires a new generation in spirit, if not in the flesh.

Mercury said...

Father, this is one of the most beautiful meditations on the value and excellence of celibacy that I have ever read. I especially like how you mentioned that celibacy is *supposed* to leave a gaping hole in the life of the one who chooses it, so that he or she may be able to fill that with an intimate love for Christ and the Church in a way not unlike how a man loves his wife and family. I think that is the real core of the wonders of the lifestyle, and exactly the reason why it is misunderstood - because the priest who embodies and lives this is very rare in some places. We often do not meet priests who "take advantage" of their state in order to become truly holy.

And lots of lay people can do without sex - we have to if we're not married. Couples who are chaste before marriage, single people who never found a spouse, must due to the circumstances be continent. So it's not a matter of just being able to do without sex - it's a matter of giving up the right to have a good, loving, fruitful sexual relationship for the SAKE of living intimately with Christ. That is a much rarer grace indeed than simply the ability to control oneself.

At the same time, there is a development here, I think. In much of the early Church, and in the medieval Church, part of the celibate vocation seems to be that there was an absence of the "impurity" inherent in sexuality. This no longer seems to be the rationale behind celibacy at all, and in fact it would seem to be somewhat heretical to ascribe impurity to marital sex.

shane said...

@ Dominus Michael Clifton

Before the mid-19th century it was quite common in the English language to refer to priests simply as 'Mister'. The title Father was introduced by Cardinal Paul Cullen and brought over to England by Irish immigrants.

Mercury said...

I do have a question, though, regarding how married people should see the superiority of celibacy and Christ's counsel of evangelical chastity.

My question is: if the married are to see the Holy Family as their model, and if the Church seems to praise non-sexual marriages above sexual ones (just look at the list of married saints), how then can this NOT lead to the married feeling like they are doing something wrong or deficient by living a normal conjugal and sacramental life together?

There are Catholic spouses out there, for instance, who will avoid seeing on another naked (even during marital relations), or who will only have sex for procreative INTENTION, who won't show affection to one another unless it precedes intercourse, or who feel pressured to give up sex as soon as childbearing years are over. Numerous Church Fathers seem to suggest that if married couples want to be holy, they'd better live as 'brother and sister' (St. Jerome more or less made fun of married men who slept with their wives rather than 'honoring' her by giving it up).

Now, orthodox writers and spiritual directors will say this is madness (Fr. John Hardon, for example), and that in most cases it leads to a disintegrating marriage. They'll remind spouses that it's better to continue to live *as spouses*, even after menopause. They'll say it's a special calling for a very few. But then why does the Church present us with such examples to follow? And why does it seem like that was par for the course in the Early Church?

Fr Ray Blake said...

I would tend to agree with Fr Hardon.
Living for one's spouse, loving tenderness, self-giving intimacy would seem to be what ideal marriage is about.

I think the negativity of some of the Fathers should be questioned but I suppose there is always a problem with seeing a spouse as being there to satisfy one's own needs rather being there to satisfy his/hers.

The important thing is we do not live for ourselves.

Edwin said...

I hope the Ordinariate, which will have in it both married and celibate priests, will help restore a balance in the Church's teaching about marriage and about celibacy. Both states are vocations; we would do well to look again at the teaching of the first letter to Timothy. Thank you for this very helpful post.

Augustine said...

I hope we can all pray that the those married clergy within the oridinariate may serve as an icon of Catholic family life. How lucky are the children of priests, that they are guaranteed to an orthodox Christian upbrining, and a life lived in the domestic church!

To brutally paraphrase St. Paul, the church rejoices in all kinds of vocations.

Augustine said...

PS, I ask your blessing, Father.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Gladly given.

Anagnostis said...

I've been following this conversation among my Catholic friends with great interest and a certain level of consternation, alarm bells having stared ringing following a short online exchange with one of Fr Ray's brother priests some months ago. As someone pointed out earlier, you (plural) are entitled to preserve your distinctive traditions; what worries me is that you will succumb to the temptation to do so on the basis of things which are absolutely not present in the larger Tradition, but which will be read into it retrospectively (on the basis not least of partial scholarship – c.f. Cardinal Stickler's popular redaction of recent academic theses), and baptised as “development” - thus carrying you ever further off on a tangent of your own.

I suspect the “doctrinal/disciplinary” duality is forcing many to think about the problem in an artificial way, and driving them to gravely mistaken conclusions. Clerical celibacy has been under attack for many years on the basis of an agenda broadly identifiable as “liberal” which ascribes little or no importance to ascetical struggle, and for which celibacy represents nothing more than a burdensome discipline, useful principally to those exercising ecclesiastical power. Unfortunately this tendency is not confronted in the Latin Church today by any opposing, vigorous apprehension of the ascetical life, which has largely faded from the consciousness of Western Christianity. Instead, there arises this movement seeking to defend and re-establish clerical celibacy on an “ontological” basis, as something inseparable from the proper functioning and essential character of ordained ministry per se.

Ascetical struggle, of which consecrated celibacy/virginity is one radical expression, is, on the contrary, “ontologically”, essentially, part of the Christian vocation, per se. It is not, and never was in the wider Tradition, something considered “ontologically” quintessential to the ordained ministry; it has nothing especially to do with it per se. Consecrated singleness is identified as mon-astic, not clerical.

In brief, you have two problems: a canonical anomaly, which can be cleared up easily by competent ecclesiastical authority, and how to respond to the attack on a legitimate local (in the broad sense) tradition by liberals and modernists. These two problems should not be conflated or confused. What I fear you'll be persuaded to do instead is seek a single solution to both by “upping the ante” doctrinally under the cover of “development”, driven by a slipshod and tendentious reading of the wider Tradition.

Lavinia Tai said...

Whatever the situation may be, celibacy is still the best option not only for a priest but also for those whose life is filled with Jesus. When one's life is filled with Jesus there is no vacuum. Celibacy brings with it the kind of peace and joy that a non-celibate person can never experience.

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