Friday, January 24, 2020

January 23rd, Adult Ed Series on Priestly Celibacy, Session 3, The Theology of Clerical Celibacy (Father Ryan Erlenbush, Corpus Christi)

In this course on priestly celibacy, we discuss the history and theology of clerical celibacy and show that celibacy is a great gift to the Church which must be preserved.

Session 3-- Theology of Priestly Celibacy
Many people either defend or attack priestly celibacy based solely on practical values (either married priests are too expensive and won't be able to work as much, or married priests would gain many more vocations and help the priests to understand the people better-- etc). However, any substantial discussion of priestly celibacy must be rooted in the theology behind this discipline -- we will show that there are important doctrines related to the discipline of celibacy.

Listen online [here]!


Priestly Celibacy
The History and Theology of the Church’s Discipline
Session 3: The Theology of Priestly Celibacy

Note on Schedule:  Session 1, Introduction. Session 2, History. Session 3, Theological Reflections. Session 4, Celibacy and the Nature of the Priesthood.

I. Review of History of Clerical Celibacy
A. Continence in the Early Church: From the Apostles and early bishops, married men would separate from their wives and embrace continence after ordination (Jesus to Peter, “You have left wives and children”; or St Paul to Timothy, “The bishop should be married only once”).
B. Preference for celibacy and virginity from the early Church  (St Paul to the Corinthians)
C. In West, perpetual continence remains enforced. In East, periodic continence before offering Mass.
D. In the West, the mandate of perpetual continence develops into celibacy. In East, priests/deacons cannot remarry, and Bishops must be celibate.

II. The Priesthood in the Old and New Testaments
A. We can say much more about this when we discuss the theology of clerical celibacy, but notice that the priesthood of the Old Testament was hereditary and passed from father to sons; but the priesthood of the New Testament is wholly spiritual.
B. To be among the Chosen People in the Old Testament was to be born of a Jewish father and mother, but to be among the Chosen People of the New Testament is to experience spiritual rebirth through faith and baptism.
C. The celibacy of Christ and the continence/celibacy of the New Testament priesthood points to this change from the Old to the New.

III. Continence and Ritual Purity
A. St Thomas Aquinas follows the general consensus from the 800s to the 1800s in maintaining that ritual purity was necessary for receiving communion, and even more for offering Mass.  This comes from the Old Testament, in which the married priests would abstain from relations with their wives in the days prior to offering the sacrifices – and was carried into the Church even for the lay faithful. Hence, for a time, couples would abstain before receiving communion, and many things (like female hemorrhages, skin diseases, and other illnesses) would commonly keep a person from receiving communion.  This was never strictly mandated, but was part of a pious custom. St Thomas says simply, because the priest washes his hands before Mass (meaning the ritual washing which is part of the vesting rites), so also he abstains perpetually from sexual relations.

B. However, following St Alphonsus, St Francis de Sales, and the pastoral guidance of many more modern saints (as well as the advice of more ancient saints like St Gregory the Great), it seems better to not put much emphasis on ritual purity. Indeed, nothing but sin and the breaking the fast need keep a man from communion.

IV. Priestly Celibacy within the Hierarchy of Vocations in the Church
Would it not be possible that the real reason for celibacy is related to the hierarchical structure of vocations within the life of the Church? Might we not say that, as the clerical state is a higher and more perfect vocation than married life, it is unbecoming of a cleric to lower himself to marriage?
Thus, we would hold that theologically Sacred Orders is fittingly seen an impediment to marriage – so that a priest could not enter into marriage. However, we could still maintain that marriage need not be an impediment to the priesthood (at least not for all) – so that some married men could be ordained priests. Further, the exercise of marriage need not impede a married priest or deacon from performing his proper ministry.
Still, while allowing for certain exceptions to the norm, there could be good reason for generally choosing priests only from among those men who have chosen celibacy. Indeed, as the priesthood is such an exalted vocation, it is fitting that priests be consecrated to a higher state than that of the married.
Thus, the discipline of clerical celibacy would be seen entirely within the context of the relative perfection of the priestly vocation and the proper ordering of states of life in the Church.

A. It is worth noting how different a thing it would be to ordain a married convert as a deacon or priest, as opposed to ordaining a married Catholic. The one raised Catholic already chose marriage instead of Orders, but the convert did not explicitly reject Orders when he was married.

B. There is much to consider in that the wives must agree for their husbands to be ordained even as deacons or (if converts) as priests. Traditionally, this agreement has always been understood as agreeing to continence.

V. Priestly Celibacy and Spiritual Fatherhood, Espousal to the Church
A. Especially in the past couple hundred years, many spiritual writers emphasize celibacy as expressing a spousal relationship between the priest and the Church – understanding the priests spiritual fatherhood also as the fruit of this spousal relationship.
Certainly, there is much to be said for this on a devotional level. However, in simple point of fact, we do not really say the priest is “married to the Church” – even if this is popular today, it is not quite accurate. 
On the other hand, the Bishop is properly spoken of as “married to the Church” – this is evidenced by his wearing a ring (priests are not really supposed to wear rings), and by an ancient theology of the Bishop being wed to his Diocese (so much so that, in the early Church, a Bishop could not be transferred from one Diocese to another – as this smacked of adultery!).

B. If the Bishop has the fulness of the priesthood and indeed the fulness of spiritual fatherhood, it is quite significant that he is Espoused to the Church. This shows another aspect of the celibacy of the Bishop.  Because the priest participates in the fulness of Holy Orders which is found in the college of bishops, there is a certain fitting connection between spiritual fatherhood for the priest, espousal to the Church, and priestly celibacy.  Again, likewise for the deacons.

C. On a more practical level, spiritual fatherhood and espousal to the Church is made much more manifest and clear in the case of celibate clerics than married.

VI. Other considerations
A. Virginity is primarily a prophetic witness to heaven, and this is present also in priestly celibacy.  Ought not the man who handles the things of heaven live as much as possible the life of heaven?
B. Continence is seen (by St Paul in 1 Corinthians and by the Church) as an aid to prayer and contemplation – thus, priestly celibacy directs the man to the contemplative life even while he serves God and the faithful in the world.

VI. Practical Considerations
The Code of Canon Law also point out that celibacy allows clerics to be more fully dedicated to service of God, of the Church and of the faithful.

VII. The Modern Case of Married Deacons and Priests in the West
A. For married men who are to be ordained deacons, their wives must agree to this. Why? Perhaps because their wives must renounce their claims to marital intimacy – the wives must accept continence.  At the very least, it seems clear that the wives must accept that their married life must now come second to the demands of clerical life.  [however, this is often precisely the opposite of what married deacons are told when being formed – but were does anything state that the married vocation comes before their diaconal ministry?!]

B. The Code of Canon Law currently states that all clergy (apparently including married deacons and married priests) are bound to continence.  [Canon 277.1 – All clergy are bound to perfect and perpetual continence].  An early draft of Canon Law excepted married deacons from this requirement, but this was removed – seemingly because the Church does intent to mandate continence for married deacons/priests.
Can. 277 §1 Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.

C. Why is it that a married man can be ordained a deacon, but a deacon can’t get married? Is there any logic to this law – unless it is related to continence? That, by virtue of ordination, a man renounced not only any future marriage, but even renounces marital relations within his marriage?  Possibly there are other explanations – but looking at the history of how the practice developed in the West (recognizing that the East has a different history), is there any more likely or more reasonable explanation?

VIII. Lastly, there is the example of Christ Jesus, who was a celibate priest – but we will consider this more fully in our final session.


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