Questions on Ordination: Part II

The second question concerning priestly ordination that often comes up is: “Why aren’t Roman Catholic priests allowed to get married?” Following the order of last week’s post, a look to the official teaching of the Church—statements and decrees issued by the Holy See—ought to prove most helpful.

The best place to begin is probably Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, which states: “Amid the modern stirrings of opinion, a tendency has also been manifested, and even a desire expressed, to ask the Church to re-examine this characteristic institution [of priestly celibacy]. It is said that in the world of our time the observance of celibacy has come to be difficult or even impossible.” (SC, 1) Certainly, we can all sympathize with this mindset; from the secular perspective, priestly celibacy makes no sense! In fact it is this very attitude, admitted by the Holy Father in 1967, which spurs most people to pose the question we’re discussing in the first place.

Nevertheless, the Church was not discouraged by the proposition to reconsider its tradition of celibacy in the priesthood. Instead, this question gave an occasion of catechesis that still speaks volumes even today. “The Christian priesthood…can be understood only in the light of the newness of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff and eternal Priest, who instituted the priesthood of the ministry as a real participation in His own unique priesthood… Wholly in accord with this mission, Christ remained throughout His whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified His total dedication to the service of God and men. This deep concern between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood.” (SC, 19, 21)

Far from demeaning the significance of marriage, the celibate priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church finds its very fulfillment in the wedding of Christ—as whose person the priest acts—with his Church; the nuptial joining of the Divine Bridegroom with his immaculate Bride. Celibacy points toward the “heavenly homeland, where the divine sonship of the redeemed will be fully revealed and where the transformed loveliness of the Spouse of the Lamb of God will shine completely.” (SC, 33)

All of this hints at perhaps the most profound meaning of celibacy: the eschatological meaning. “Our Lord and Master has said, that ‘in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.’ In the world of man, so deeply involved in earthly concerns and too often enslaved by the desires of the flesh, the precious and almost divine gift of perfect continence [i.e. celibacy] for the kingdom of heaven stands out precisely as ‘a special token of the rewards of heaven’; it proclaims the presence on earth of the final stages of salvation with the arrival of a new world, and in a way it anticipates the fulfillment of the kingdom as it sets forth its supreme values which will one day shine forth in all the children of God.” (SC, 34)

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    # by Anonymous - November 12, 2007 at 3:03 PM

    Well, Andrew, the French bishop doesn't seem to agree with you:

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    # by Anonymous - November 13, 2007 at 1:57 AM

    The French Bishops said they will discuss it, which is different then endorsing something. And, if they really want it, then they agree with the Pope:

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    # by Anonymous - November 13, 2007 at 1:59 AM

    I meant to write disagree, as you can read in Sacramentum Caritatis.

    Excuse my error please.

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    # by Andrew Haines - November 13, 2007 at 2:40 AM

    The comment by the French bishop needs qualification. First, any off-the-cuff statement, regardless of content, cannot be taken as a formal assertion of doctrine (or even attempted assertion of proposed doctrine); it does not participate in the collegiality required of a bishop to teach something authentically magisterial. Second, the statement was part of a larger interview, and in no way provided or suggested any concrete implementations of this supposed consideration. In other words, it is too vague to really count for much (besides, of course, a bishop's personal sentiments).

    The fact that we currently have married priests in the ranks of the Roman Catholic priesthood confirms the fact that it isn't altogether impossible. For those who aren't familiar, many former-Anglican priests who convert to the Catholic faith are permitted to retain their marriages while also being admitted to the authentic order priesthood; the result, married priests.

    Discussing, then, the possibility of married priests other than these is not anything contrary to dogmatic truth, but rather a discussion of specific discipline within the Roman Church. The reality is, though, that this particular discipline (i.e. celibacy in the clergy) is something so deeply founded in the life of Christ and the Scriptures, that changing its implementation would be a major undertaking. For this reason, alone, the comments of one French prelate are hardly a threat to the integrity of a beautiful Roman Catholic practice going back thousands of years.