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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 1
Eastertide 2011

The Case for Celibacy in a Context of Conflict

by Father Michael John Witt

So here is the scene: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are camping out in the Scottish highlands. It is the middle of the night.

Holmes says to Watson: Watson, are you asleep?

No, Holmes, I’m not.

Watson, what do you see?

I see the vast sky on this moonless night. I see myriads of constellations.

And, Watson, what does it mean to you?

It means there is a vast universe out there and we here on earth are only a tiny speck.

What else to do you see, Watson?

Oh, oh, yes, I see the arm of the Milky Way! How magnificent!

And what does it mean to you, Watson?

It means that this universe is assembled in such precision as to indicate a grand, divine architect.

Is that all it tells you, Watson?

Holmes, what does all this mean to you?

Watson, it means to me that someone has stolen our tent!

Sherlock’s missing tent is the key to understanding the sexual abuse scandal of the first years of this century — and the place of clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church.

Shortly after the scandal broke in Boston in 2002 and then similar crises spread to other dioceses, even here to Saint Louis by March of that year, it became a favorite bromide in newspapers and journals that the scandals were caused by clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church. Within two weeks, headlines appeared, declaring “Some question Catholic requirement of celibacy”, and “Catholic paper prints editorial raising issue of priests’ celibacy”.

The reality is, of course, that these scandals resulted when priests failed to live their clerical celibacy. It was Sherlock’s tent. The non-existence pointed to a vacuum that once had been filled. The clear sky spoke of the missing tent; the missing tent implied the previous existence of a tent. Clerical sexual abuse spoke of a missing discipline; the missing discipline implied the previous existence of such a discipline.

Toward the beginning of this academic year, a new seminarian asked me when clerical celibacy was introduced to the Catholic Church. He was convinced that it was not a medieval innovation, though some authors argue that position based upon the actions taken during the pontificate of Pope Saint Gregory VII. The seminarian traced the discipline of clerical celibacy back to an early Church council. I asked if he meant Elvira in Spain around 306. He seemed content with that. Many people are.

But not Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler. If you do not know the name, learn it. Cardinal Stickler published a book titled The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundation (Ignatius Press, 1995). I recommend the 106-page book to you. It’s a little bombshell.

Cardinal Stickler points out that the Council of Elvira treated the issue of clerical celibacy as a discipline that was not being followed fully and needed legislation to restore it. To restore it; not to invent it. It was Sherlock’s tent. That it was not there when it should have been there implies that it had been there at one time and had been stolen.

Cardinal Stickler says this: “… the tradition of the apostolic origins of clerical celibacy and its observance from the very beginning, which had been explicitly and repeatedly affirmed by the African Church, even to the extent of imposing sanctions against those contravening it, would certainly not have been so generally accepted if it had not been based on a fact that was well known.”

He cites one African council in which Bishop Genetlius declared, “what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavor to keep”.

The bishops at that council declared unanimously: “It pleases us all that the bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from [conjugal intercourse] with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity” (Stickler, 28).

A thorough history of clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church is beyond the scope of a single conference for seminarians on a Tuesday afternoon. But it might be useful for us to review the apostolic motivation to adopting this discipline and compare it to the current expression of the motivation. It will make all those intervening expressions of support, those instances of failure, and those exhortations and legislations fit in the seamless woof and weave of Church history.

In a recent article titled “The Practice of Celibacy among the Christian Faithful in the First Two Centuries”, Father Michael Giesler explodes the myth that Jewish men at the time of Christ did not respect, nor practice, celibacy. Father Giesler points to Jesus’ teaching on the absence of the state of marriage in the Kingdom of God and shows “those who practice [celibacy] in this world are truly anticipating the final state of man in paradise, where God’s Love is the greatest and most exclusive reality”. He adds, “therefore virginity for the sake of God’s kingdom is truly the ‘pearl of great price’ (Mt 13:46), to use the expression of one of Christ’s parables”. Father Giesler used this as the launching-point to the apostolic tradition. “It is clear then that the origin of virginity or celibacy is intrinsically connected with love of God, and as a result of that love, evangelization. Implied in both is closeness to Christ; we can surmise that this was the main motive of the apostles, at least at first, when they made their commitment to celibacy.” (Original emphasis.)

“Where God’s Love is the greatest and most exclusive reality” can be found in the key documents that guide priestly formation. Consider Pope John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis [I will give you shepherds]. Regarding clerical celibacy, the pope writes:

It is especially important that the priest understand the theological motivation of the Church’s law on celibacy. Inasmuch as it is a law, it expresses the Church’s will, even before the will of the subject expressed by his readiness. But the will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the head and spouse of the Church. The Church, as the spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to His Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church in and with the Lord. (§29)

The priest who denies the Church that totality and exclusivity of love is like the husband who cheats on his wife. The offense is even greater when his bride is the Church herself. His act is not only adultery; it is blasphemy.

Over and over again, the high ideal was not achieved. Human nature is fallen nature. But the Church never gave up. At Elvira, the Council demanded that bishops, priests, and deacons who lived with their wives would be deposed and defrocked if they continued to have children.

The Council of Nicaea, 325, legislated that clerics could only have women living with them if they are their mother, a sister, or an aunt.

In 386, Pope Siricius forbad his priests and deacons from having conjugal relations with their wives. This act shows three things: the clergy could have wives; they were mandated to live celibate lives with their wives; some weren’t doing it!

The Eastern Church addressed the issue at the so-called Council of Trullo in 692. There it was mandated that bishops in the East must be celibate. If ordained a bishop, a cleric must separate from his wife at that time. Priests and deacons could not enter into marriage after ordination, but could continue conjugal relations if married before ordination. Here then we see the East changing the tradition, which was preserved, imperfectly, in the West.

It was to the medieval papal reformers, Pope Saint Leo IX and Pope Saint Gregory VII as well as Pope Nicholas II, that the answer emerged. It was asking too much for men in the clerical state to live celibately with wives. And it was asking too much of the Church to allow such affronts to continue. Therefore, clergy should not marry. It took more than two generations and the force of canon law to decouple the sacraments of matrimony and ordination. Despite considerable political pressure to reverse this discipline at the Council of Trent, the Fathers refused to relent and would not relegate clerical celibacy to mere ecclesiastical law. Such a tradition within the Church from its apostolic roots, lived heroically, violated regularly, legislated vigorously could not be abandoned merely to attract back former clerics who founded their own sects, almost all of whom got married along the way.

In our own day, much has been written and is being written about clerical celibacy among Catholic clergy. An extended quote from Cardinal Stickler is a worthy means to sum up this conference on clerical celibacy.

The priesthood of Jesus Christ is a profound mystery of our faith. To understand it, man must open himself to a supernatural vision and submit human reason to a way of transcendental thinking. In times of a living faith which not only animates and directs the individual believer but permeates and forms the life of the whole believing community, Christ the Priest constitutes the living center of the life of personal and community faith in the consciousness of all.

In times of the loss of the sense of faith, the figure of Christ the Priest increasingly disappears from the consciousness of men and of the world and is no longer at the center of Christian life.

The image of Christ the Priest goes hand in hand with that of the priest of Christ. In times of living faith, the priest has no difficulty recognizing himself in Christ and identifying himself with Him; of seeing and living the essence of his own priesthood in intimate union with that of Christ the Priest; of seeing in Him “the unique source” and “the irreplaceable model” of his own priesthood. (Stickler, 84)

Those priests who compromise their celibate commitment to the Church are like the pitiable Dr. Watson. Someone has stolen their tent and they don’t even know it. They have done, and continue to do, devastating harm to the One they profess to love, to Christ the Priest. Young, innocent victims are damaged for life. The mission of the Church is compromised. Far better for these offending clergy, and for us, if they had abandoned their attraction to the priesthood and had done something else with their lives. And this warning and anathema stands and extends to each of us today, here, ordained and discerning ordination alike. We live in one of those “times of the loss of the sense of faith”. That makes this journey to priesthood all the more perilous.

But to him who has the faith and, with the help of God, configures himself to Christ the Priest and gives himself totally and exclusively to the Church no finer “gift of self with and in Christ” can be found. It is the pearl of great price.

The Rev. Michael John Witt, interim President-Rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, presented this address to seminarians on November 16, 2010. Father Witt is associate professor of Church history at the seminary, and is director of the Office of Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. He has produced for Covenant radio a series on the history of the Catholic Church; audio is accessible on his web site:

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