In the course of the year 2017, Pope Francis alluded to the difficulty for priestly recruits in some dioceses in Brazil. He opened the debate on the possibility of ordaining some viri probati—virtuous men—to the priesthood although they would be engaged in the bonds of marriage.
What are the arguments brought in favor of the exception to the celibate priesthood in the West? We are being told that priestly celibacy is not a custom based on Revelation and it bears only ecclesiastical force. Others say that priests in the West should be granted equal liberty to the East which does not follow this practice. Also, the penury of priests would be largely done away were married viri probati granted the access to the priesthood. In order to shed light on this delicate question, we shall question the Church doctrine and its consequent practice on the matter.
Continence is the abstinence from the use of marriage. This abstinence may be either temporary or definitive. The latter case applies to those who embrace perpetual chastity for a motive superior to marriage, that is to say, the religious or priestly consecration. In this very thing, this state in life excels that of marriage, as Pius XII mentioned in his speech of Sept. 15, 1952: “This doctrine which establishes the excellence and superiority of virginity and celibacy over marriage has been solemnly defined, as a dogma of divine Faith, by the Council of Trent, and the Fathers and Doctors unanimously taught it.”
Not only does consecrated celibacy surpass marriage, but the Gospels reveal the profound link between priestly and perfectly chaste consecration. Jesus, having chosen His first priests, wanted to initiate them into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 13:11; Mk. 4:11; Lk. 8:10) and called them His friends and His brothers (Jn. 15:5; 20:17). He sacrificed Himself for them so that they would be consecrated in truth (Jn. 17:19) and promised a superabundant recompense to anyone who would abandon house, family, spouse and children for the kingdom of God.
Perhaps, the strongest words were those He addressed to His disciples alone, as He recommended a more perfect consecration to God by virginity: “For, there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it (Mt. 19:11-12).” The thrice repeated word “eunuchs” evokes clearly a permanent state of life. And, in the case of men dedicated totally to God’s intimacy for themselves and for their flock, they align themselves with the kingdom of heaven where “men will not marry nor be taken in marriage, but will be like angels.” Hence, the constant tradition of the Church concerning priestly celibacy derives from the explicit doctrine of Jesus Christ.
Pius XII mentioned the unanimous teaching of the Fathers and Doctors. Doing this, he clearly points to the grand Tradition—with a capital “T”—which is not to be confused with church laws. It is highly probable that church law on the ecclesiastical celibacy appeared in the Latin Church from the apostolic times. This has been established by the classical studies of Cardinal Stickler (The Case for Clerical Celibacy (Ignatius Press 1995)) and Christian Cochini (Apostolic Origins of Christian Celibacy (Ignatius Press 1990)).
Legislation followed suit. The Elvira Council (ca. 306) of Spain is the first one to set the law of priestly celibacy. Pope St. Sicirius in 386 and the Council of Carthage in 390 refer to an apostolic tradition, and this has remained constant Church teaching. This means that the priestly celibacy is more than a mere ecclesiastical law and discipline, open to reform by papal will. In reality, this praxis especially an irreversible apostolic tradition, which tradition testifies to a dogma of Faith: the superiority of the state of consecrated celibacy over the marriage state. It is similar to the discipline of infant baptism which, though a discipline, represents a tradition which testifies to the dogma of original sin.
Up to the end of the seventh century, the Eastern Church is thought to have retained the same principle as the Latin Church. The variation was introduced in legislation with the Council of Trullo II of 691. It allowed those already married and had received sacred orders the use of marriage excepting the time of liturgical functions. No right to a second marriage was granted to them. A bishop could not use marriage if he ever was in the marriage bond. In all cases, once one was made a priest, he could not marry based on the principle that, if he has entered a sacred contract with Christ, any lesser contract through marriage was out of the question.
Cardinal Stickler, in the aforementioned book, argues that the new legislation was based on no antecedent. If this is correct, it means that this particular use of the local Eastern churches represent a historical exception to the rule. And the fact that Rome encouraged other Eastern churches to return to the complete continence suggests that the Roman practice should be held as normative in the Church.
The most common objection brought against the consecrated celibacy comes from the difficulties involved in keeping permanent chastity. Should we deny that there are infringements in the law of celibacy, leading to scandals and apostasies? No, of course. Yet, this argument is worth no more than the one which would suppress marriage because of sins of adultery. To want to suppress celibacy because it is not always maintained is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The state of consecrated celibacy is setting high demands on a man, indeed! Yet, rather than a reason for suppressing celibacy, it is an added motive for priests to live in an adequate environment, that is to say, humanly more balanced and authentically supernatural. And, if modern life and the new ecclesiology is hardly conducive to perpetual chastity, the priests more than ever need to follow the age-old Church traditions which have produced for centuries some of the most outstanding personalities, heroes and geniuses.
Some might object that the vocation is a human right and, being a right, it should be open to anyone. But, not everyone is apt to practice perpetual chastity...one sees where the argument is leading. In fact, the argument is misleading us, based as it is on a false premise. In fact, it is putting the cart before the horse. For, the vocation is a calling, not a right! The vocation presupposes that the candidate has the necessary dispositions. For example, in the Eastern Church where the liturgy is chanted throughout, no minister is ordained who cannot hold a tune. “You cannot sing, then, you have no vocation!” Likewise, in the Latin Church, no priest can be ordained without consecrated celibacy. “You cannot practice perpetual celibacy, then you have no priestly vocation!”
Another major reason for pushing the Latin married priesthood is the vocation crisis. Yet, this forgets a little detail, that the ecclesial communities which already allow for the marriage of their priests or pastors—such as the Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants—are experiencing the same recruiting difficulties as the Latin Catholic Church. Allowing priests to marry will not eliminate the drop in vocations. And we can suspect that very few viri probati, and much less their wives, will agree to take on the serious responsibilities of souls. It is difficult indeed for the head of a family to be jointly the spiritual father of thousands of souls, equally embracing all of them with their wounds and sorrows. In fact, in the Eastern Churches, most married priests recruit within priestly families, as do their wives, for they know and accept the burdens and constrains of priestly life within the family. And so, it is false to believe that opening the priestly avenue to married people will ipso facto solve the issue. It will displace it, modify it, but not eliminate it.
But the Church would have to face a greater challenge. The open door of the priesthood to married men would become a powerful draft with the serious risk of extinguishing consecrated celibacy, sacrificing quality to quantity. But even here, would quantity be necessarily gained? In business, when a new product is launched on the market, the producers are aware that the new item tends to “cannibalize,” that is to say, reduce or eliminate, the sale of the old product, with little guarantee of gain. In the hypothesis of allowing these viri probati, the probable scenario is that many of those married priests would have entered the priestly celibacy, had the other option not been available. The married priests would not be added to celibate priests, but simply replace them with a rather disappointing result.
We will conclude with a beautiful text of Pius XII who recalls the supernatural fruitfulness of priestly celibacy:
“The priest has, as the proper field of his activity, everything that pertains to the supernatural life, since it is he who promotes the increase of this supernatural life and communicates it to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is necessary that he renounce ‘the things of the world’, in order to have care only for ‘the things of the Lord’ (I Cor. 7:32-33). And it is precisely because he should be free from preoccupation with worldly things to dedicate himself entirely to the divine service, that the Church has established the law of celibacy, thus making it ever more manifest to all peoples that the priest is a minister of God and the father of souls. By his law of celibacy, the priest, so far from losing the gift and duties of fatherhood, rather increases them immeasurably, for, although he does not beget progeny for this passing life of earth, he begets children for that life which is heavenly and eternal. The more resplendent priestly chastity is, so much the more does the sacred minister become, together with Christ, ‘a pure victim, a holy victim, an immaculate victim.’”