Considerations on Priestly Celibacy by Marianne Schlosser

Translated by Fr. Joseph Bolin from the German text published in "Die Tagespost" on October 14, 2019.

Considerations on priestly celibacy

"… How would it harm the New Covenant, if religious ministers, as in the Old Testament, would live in a respectable sacramental marriage? Is God now wiser or holier than in the Old Testament? Christ may have been virgin, may have been borne of a virgin, entrusted to a virginal man, may have been anticipated by the virginal prophets Jeremiah and Elijah, may have recommended virginity to some few, who were able to take it. From where, I ask, did the commandment come, so that it was no longer only a counsel? […] Vows are so often disregarded, what is holy stained, the laws of nature horribly perverted – crimes, evil deeds, sins, injustice, offenses, depravities that one is ashamed to name or to think about … the unworthy reality shouts louder than my complain – unless one makes himself deliberately deaf!"

These are only some of the objections to celibacy, with which Johannes Gerson in the 14th century had to deal with, in his answer to the anti-celibacy work of a French nobleman. We meet similar arguments in the so-called "Anti-celibacy storm", that swept over some dioceses in Southwest Germany, where mostly academically educated lay persons, together with a considerable number of professors of the University of Freiburg, turned to the grand duke of Baden and the Baden Parliament, to obtain the repeal of celibacy for catholic priests. At that time anti-celibacy associations were established, which were unfortunately joined by not a few priests. The most important defender of celibacy at this time was Johann Adam Möhler.

Two basic lines of argument are conflated

In the argument against the long tradition of priestly celibacy, two basic thrusts are at times conflated – then as now – on the one hand, very fundamental anthropological objections are raised; such as: celibacy leads to the degeneration of human existence. These arguments, we must be clear, doubt or deny ultimately the meaning and fruitfulness of the evangelical counsel of perpetua continentia in general. On the other hand, specific arguments against priestly celibacy are presented, as it appears (mainly) associated with the Latin tradition: So was and is the rejection of the so-called "compulsory celibacy" justified on the grounds that it is the main obstacle to getting more well-qualified applicants for the priesthood.

Not uncommonly is it asserted that the charism of celibacy is well appreciated, but since it is not necessarily linked to the priesthood, one cannot require it as a condition for the priesthood.

Karl Rahner, already many years ago (The Celibacy of the Secular Priest Today: An Open Letter, 1968) answered that one cannot deny the church the right to demand this dowry from those who want to be her priests. Similarly, Joseph Ratzinger (Open Letter to the Munich moral theologian R. Egenter, 1977) pointed out that the aforesaid reasoning is based on a unreflected concept of charism: First, a charism is given to the person as a free subject; the recipient himself can and must have an attitude to this gift, i.e, one can develop and guard a gift, as well as ask it of God, similarly one can neglect, injure it, or let it die. The same pertains to those persons who have the responsibility of accompanying and discerning vocations.

A charism is never just a private spiritual gift

Secondly, a charism is never merely a private spiritual gift, but, on the contrary, a special aptitude for the benefit of the ecclesial community. – This seems, I would add, to be particularly applicable to the charisma of celibate chastity (especially if it is not linked to a vocation to an Order): It gives freedom for an extraordinary dedication. – If the church gave up its publicly expressed esteem for the celibate life of priests and left it to personal decision, the celibate life of a diocesan priest would become an expression of his personal, private piety, that would have but little to do with his ecclesial ministry. The consequence of leaving celibacy up to individual choice would, sooner or later – as Joseph Ratzinger is also convinced by historical developments – be the disappearance of the celibate life of priests.

In the following I will not go into the historical development; for to show the legitimacy of celibacy in the Latin Church there are several studies (Chr. Cocchini, R. Cholij, St. Heid), but I would rather like to try to manifest the inner closeness or "manifold correspondence" ("multimoda convenientia": Presbyterorum ordinis n.16) between the evangelical counsel of the perpetually promised "celibate chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" and the priestly vocation. If one does not do that, the question naturally arises, what one would lose if one gave up this seemingly incomprehensible, unbeloved and supposedly so frequently broken "law".

Celibate life is rooted in the order of redemption

Certainly, these are arguments of fitingness. For the celibate life is based on the order of redemption; as a result, its justification can not be presented by means of necessary and generally evident reasons, although there may be some plausible arguments from the outside, it rather derives its true "logic" from belief in the incarnation, and even more so the bodily resurrection of Christ ("After the resurrection they will no longer marry": Mt 22:30, Lk 20:35). I quote Rahner again: "There are many reasons for today's celibacy crisis. […] But if we do not fool ourselves, we must see that the ultimate cause of this crisis lies in the plight of faith in general and as a whole. We live in a time when the reality of God and eternal life is difficult for man to realize. We live in a time characterized by keywords such as demythologization, desacralization [!] and the tendency to reduce all Christianity to mere interpersonal relationships."

In the following considerations, I suppose that continentia permanens = celibacy is not just an outward lifestyle – or even a more comfortable single life! – but a specific, bodily expression of chastity (castitas). This, in turn, signifies an attitude of piety, which shapes the affective relationship of the person to his fellow man, to himself, and indeed to God, and is a necessary quality of caritas, the virtue of love. It is rooted in grasping the "sanctity", preciousness and unavailability of the other person.

Following of the Good Shepherd – not functional, but personal

There is only one priest in the New Testament: the Lord, Bridegroom and Head of His Church, which is His priestly body (1 Pet 2:5,9). He who receives the sacrament of priestly ordination is enabled to "represent" the Lord of the Church, to make Christ visible in her as the permanent counterpart to the Church – in word, sacrament, in the selfless service of salvation. The establishment of the sacramental priesthood states that Christ wants to be present not only as the gift of salvation in his Church (Eucharist as sacrament), but also as giver (in the celebration of the Eucharist, especially through the action of the priest "in persona Christi capitis"). The priesthood of the New Covenant exists only as a function of the one high priest Christ.

At the same time: He who is ordained a priest, according to the Catholic understanding, does not simply take on a service or a task, in the sense of a function necessary for the community, but is called to a special following of Christ. He is not simply a "means" or "tool" (even if the sacraments are operative ex opere operato, and do not depend on the faith or holiness of the priest) nor a "servant who does not know what his Lord is doing" but a "friend" (John 15:15), who is called into a "knit community" (as a cooperator) with Christ (1 Cor 3: 9). His task is to promote the supernatural life, to build the faithful into a sacred offering (PO 2). He has nothing to give but what Christ gives. But this passing on claims him as a person.

To become a priest not for oneself, but for Christ

How could conformity of one's way of life to Jesus' way of life, the evangelical counsels, not be fitting here? He whose first concern must be for the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), will avoid getting caught up in "earthly occupations" (2 Tim 2:4) or making himself too much at home.

The readiness of a candidate for a celibate life can certainly be a criterion for whether he has understood that he does not become a priest for himself, but for Christ, who wants to exercise his pastoral care through him. And whether he accepts the unconditionality of this vocation. Karl Rahner (1968) bluntly stated: "We must ask today's priests and candidates for the priesthood where in their lives those decisions […] are made that so determine their lives by faith, that this life itself would be different if they did not believe in God and eternal life."

It is not a matter of external imitation, but about the sharing of life, which effects a special proximity. "continentia" is not a garment worn externally, but an expression of inner belonging to Christ, the Good Shepherd, so total that the place of a spouse remains empty.

He who renounces it renounces a good – a good of the order of creation. This can only succeed if the renunciation is affirmed for the sake of a higher good, and not simply "accepted". Precisely because marriage is not a peripheral matter of human life, but as a unique, exclusive community of a man with a woman profoundly shapes and claims the two persons in all dimensions, it can be understood as "fitting" that a person, who completely and personally is taken into the service of Christ's commission, cannot belong to another human person as a husband does to his wife.

One may add that the lack of understanding of the meaning of celibacy is precisely the consequence of the trivialization of human sexuality and confusion in the sphere of marriage: "For as soon as marriage becomes a purely civil affair, and to a large extent a chaos, the thought of a free renunciation of sexual community for the sake of the highest tasks, and of a form of life that derives from it, loses its sociological setting. Thus it is not accidental that the denial of the sacramental character and thus the thesis of its dissolubility in the Reformation took place at the same time and derived from the same conceptions from which celibacy as a voluntary and sacred Christian form was rejected. They then continue in the outlook of the French Revolution, which made marriage a purely civil affair and fought religious orders with a hatred deriving not merely from abuses" (Romano Guardini, Ethics I).

Tria munera Christi

The priesthood of Holy Orders, PO explains at the outset, is established to build up the "holy priesthood" of the Body of Christ so that believers become an offering to God. This sanctifying ministry takes place in the proclamation (martyria – munus propheticum), the celebration of the sacraments (leiturgia – munus sacerdotale, sanctificandi) and the comprehensive care for the salvation of those entrusted to one (diakonia – munus regendi).

Leiturgia

When the priest is spoken of as the "minister of the mystery" (minister mysterii), one will surely think of his office of celebrating the sacraments ("mysteria"). The sacraments, however, are rooted in the mystery par excellence, as above all the Pauline Epistles make clear: in the plan of God's salvation revealed in Christ. Integral to this plan of salvation is the church. "Mystery" means "the whole Christ," "Head and Body," inasmuch as the union of men with the Redeemer is precisely the goal of God's plan of salvation.

The living Christ is the Head and Bridegroom of the Church: "He loved her and gave herself for her," "that she might be pure and holy" (Eph 5: 25-27). This devotion is celebrated and made present above all in the Eucharist: through it the faithful are cleansed and sanctified more deeply in order to be with Christ a "holy gift for God the Father". For this reason the Fathers of the Church see the Eucharistic celebration as the wedding supper of the Lamb, in which the promised communion of heaven is already celebrated in a "veiled" fashion.

Does it not stand to reason that the one who "represents" the bridegroom in this liturgy, who acts "in persona Christi capitis" and speaks the words: "This is my body for you", should also himself have only the Church as his counterpart? As far as the priesthood of the "first degree", i.e. the episcopate, is concerned, this fittingness is not disputed even in the Eastern churches. The bishop is, as it were, in spiritual marriage bound to that part of the church entrusted to his pastoral care.

Priest and sacrifice at the same time

A second aspect: the mark of Christ's priesthood is that he is at once both priest and offering – "priest, altar (as the place of encounter between God and man) and sacrificial lamb." To the priesthood in the following of Christ therefore also belongs the "expropriation" (Joseph Ratzinger) or "transference" of himself to God. That is the real meaning of „sacrifice" (Latin: "sacri-ficium"): One gives something to God – ultimately, oneself – so that it belongs to HIM (Augustine).

Celibacy is a very concrete form of transference to God, which can also be felt in the dimension of renunciation: He is given the desire to live fruitfully and not meaninglessly, and the longing to be personally loved. It is given "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" in the certainty of faith that one never gives to God without HIM giving back more, in the confident hope that this will increase that love (caritas) that contributes to the salvation of others, love of the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for his own.

In every human life there are "sacrifices" that are demanded of one, imposed on one. But the celibate life is an act of generous faith. This means that not only the de facto abstemious, chaste life, but the promise has a special dignity. For here the dimension of "voluntary gift" is expressed. The promise contains a commitment of oneself that we can, with Thomas Aquinas, describe as an act of worship: the commitment made publicly is a testimony of trust in God and his grace. A priest I know put it this way: "Yes, celibacy is a charism, a gift from God. But it is also my gift to God."

Martyria – testimony

Priests sometimes used to call their breviary: "my bride". This was meant to say that they took the book of hours everywhere – like the cell phone today. Of course: It is not about the book as an object, but about the familiarity with the Word of God, which is not only to be read, but to be prayed through, indeed, as by the prophets, to be "eaten". The service of proclamation presupposes a personal relationship to the Word of God, as Pope Francis urgently recommends in Evangelii gaudium.

Of course, celibacy is not necessary for that. Still, we recall that realists like Thomas Aquinas (or even the "therapists" whom Philo describes, and also Moses Maimonides, even if for a different purpose) considered a certain freedom of mind to be an excellent disposition to contemplation, namely, that "undividedness of the heart", which Paul sees as connected with chaste celibacy (1 Cor 7:32-34). It is inwardly oriented towards the unhindered contemplation of the truth of God, of the revealed word of God. Above all, this applies to the contemplation that is not just a theoretical meditation, but a "looking with the look of love". Conversely, the spiritual tradition also holds unanimously that this loving "willing listening" to the Word of God strengthens the virtue of chastity.

He who proclaims the Good News, speaks of the goods of the world to come, is a witness of hope. The goods of eternal life are real goods, but not so easily visible: "We do not stare at the visible, but fix our gaze (contemplantes) on what is not before our eyes. For the visible is transient, the invisible eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). A life of voluntary celibacy is a strong testimony to the reality of the goods we speak of, a testimony that we are immensely loved – even now, in this world of twilight and shadow.

Of course, there is another tone in the word "martyria" which should only be hinted at here: martyria is also a "confession" (confessio) against resistance and contradiction – from the outside or from within oneself. To confess then means to stand up for what is not immediately obvious, not to deny the "folly of the cross". It is no coincidence that the "white martyrdom" of virginity follows immediately after the "red", the witness of blood (see LG n. 42). Both are crosses (John Chrysostom). But both are not primarily about the "torture", but the unity of the witness with Christ.

Diakonia – Seel-Sorge, the service of the Good Shepherd

Diakonia should be understood here in a comprehensive sense: serving the supernatural purpose of fellow human beings, with a mission (and therefore a responsibility!) that goes beyond the duty of each brother or sister. It is about serving as Christ has served (see Phil 2, John 13, etc.), serving with the same purpose. The paradigm for this is foot washing – with its ethical and sacramental implications. For Christ still wants to wash the feet of his faithful through the ministry of the apostles.

What does celibacy here contribute? More in any case than external temporal-spatial availability or easier mobility. It is more about a certain quality of relationship. The look of a "caretaker of souls" (Seel-Sorger) should recognize what is "of God" in the other person, the image of God, in reverence for the work of God.

Since the earliest times, people have considered especially capable of this view of others those who "live alone for God". Those who face their own loneliness with God every day will also understand more deeply what is necessary for every human being. For this reason is spiritual fatherhood attributed to those who do not know any natural paternity – monks (and nuns) and priests. Just as the calling to a special discipleship does not simply stem from education in a Christian family, but requires a special calling (cf. the words of Jesus's calling, which demand a distancing from the natural family), so do human relationships of a person so called take on a special coloring.

"A priest is the father of all believers, men and women alike. So, if someone who takes this position among the faithful marries, he is like someone who marries his own daughter," wrote a Syrian author of the 8th century. That sounds shocking. But let us ask the other way around: could the wife of a priest confess to her husband? How can one endure that people express their deepest metaphysical distress and guilt before God to the spouse whom one knows better than anyone else? It was Friedrich Nietzsche who claimed that aurical confession disappeared in the communities of the Reformation when there were no more celibate clergy.

And so we may also ask if the ease with which one can imagine married priests is perhaps linked to the de facto marginalized meaning of the sacrament of penance.

Summary

Considering the aspects briefly outlined here, I venture to say that the separation of celibacy from priestly ministry would change the conception of the priesthood not only peripherally but profoundly. In any case, the consequence would be an increasingly functional understanding, probably even the complete gentrification. On the other hand, it should be remembered that the great reforming movements of church history, which in the long run developed fertility, promoted the vita evangelica for the clergy.

Between cross and Easter

"He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will keep it." One can only understand the celibate life when one begins to understand this saying.

The life of the Christian is marked by the cross and resurrection of Christ (CCC 2015) – beginning with baptism, which takes place in a symbol of death (immersion) to receive New Life. The sacraments show this mystery, the Beatitudes express it, and especially the evangelical counsels. Voluntary Poverty – which also frees internally; celibate chastity – which does not correspond to a lack of relationships, but to friendship with Christ; concrete renunciation of one's own plans – to do more good than what one could have thought of. All evangelical counsels have this double form: New Life comes through dying.

The "counsels" invite to a renunciation, a renunciation of real goods that one is not obliged to renounce. "Pain" is therefore not a sign that one is not called – but if the joy does not surpass the pain, there is hardly a vocation. Conversely, having received the vocation to celibate life does not mean being relieved of all challenges or temptations. The dimension of asceticism remains important, and the spiritual tradition is very realistic on this point. One is advised to strive for supporting virtues, including the other two "counsels". For not only a "raging stomach", but also vanity and the interest in rumors hollow out the chaste life. He who does not fight his anger, impatience, spiritual indifference or indulgence, or even neglects reckless dangers, risks collapse.

The life of the evangelical counsels is at the same time a "foretaste" of the new life, not illusion, but the fresh breeze from the new aeon that has been blowing in since Easter into a world marked by its own transience – and the deadly fear of it. The celibate life is a "scion" of hope (as a theological virtue), which is not without "earnest money" (see Spe salvi 7,9). The vocation to celibate life bears the vocation to a deeper friendship with Christ, which in turn wants to expand out to the brothers and sisters of Christ – in a generous and ready-to-serve love.

Celibacy and the sexual abuse crisis

Over the past years, when a larger report of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests comes out, again and again opponents of priestly celibacy come out suggesting that the Church's discipline, in the Roman Rite, of requiring permanent and perpetual celibacy of its priests, contributes to the abuse crisis, or is even a major risk factor, or still more strongly, "will predictably produce this kind of result".

Others claim that "Clerical child sex abuse has nothing whatever to do with celibacy."

The truth, as is many cases, likely lies between these extremes, though it is cannot be neatly located on the scale from "causes the crisis" to "has nothing to do with it".

Leaving aside any empirical statistical evidence on the frequent of sexual abuse by celibate or non-celibate men, some aspects of celibacy would, taken on their own, suggest a connection between priestly celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest an inverse correlation (mandatory celibacy for priests countering the risk of someone abuser vulnerable persons).

Marriage as a remedy for concupiscence — suggestive of a connection between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
Marriage has long been described by Christian saints and writes as a remedy for concupiscence, by St. Augustine (see, for just one example, On Marriage and Concupiscence, Thomas Aquinas (see Summa theologiae, supplement, q. 42, article 3, Whether matrimony confers grace, and a multitude of others (see a selection of texts in the post Is marriage for the weak?). In this respect, it would not be surprising to find that those who are not in a position to legitimately satisfy sexual desire in marriage, are more likely to satisfy sexual desires in illegitimate ways, up to and including abusive ways. Celibacy does not make a man's sexual desires perverse or disordered; rather, his sexual desire is lacking order to begin with, being in the first place an instinctual drive, that must be governed by reason; the lack of the structured governance of that drive provided in marriage will, in the absence of contrary remedies, tend to lead to more disordered desires and acts.

Celibacy as freely chosen, involving abstinence even from legitimate sexual pleasure in marriage — suggestive of an inverse correlation between mandatory priestly celibacy and abuse
On the other hand, no one is forced to become a priest, and so, when we speak of priestly celibacy, we are not speaking of celibacy imposed randomly, independently of man's will, or even against man's will. Rather, it is a celibacy freely chosen (even if, in a particular instance, chosen principally as a condition or means to the desired end, the priesthood). If those who freely choose celibacy do so with adequate deliberation and a firm will to live it, if they belong to those "who can take it" (Matthew 19:12), we should, other things being equal, expect them to less frequently fall into sexual sin. For he is capable, or takes the means to render himself capable, of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a legitimate manner in marriage, is much more capable of refraining from satisfying sexual desire in a sinful manner.

Celibacy as chosen by reason of being drawn to that way of life or not drawn to marriage — possibly suggestive of a connection between celibacy and abuse
No one is forced to become a priest. But also, in most cases, priests are, in the first instance, self-selected. Catholic communities and bishops could, in theory, come to men with the proposal, "we would like you to be a priest; are you willing to remain celibate for the rest of your life, study theology, to serve the Church in this diocese, etc.?" But, in many or most cases, the decisive initiative is taken by the men themselves who consider the priesthood. Given the association of the priesthood with celibacy, this has a unintended consequence: those who, for whatever reason, are not inclined to marriage — homosexuality, asexuality, sexual immaturity, sexual disorders — will be over-represented among applicants to the seminary. In the absence of an adequate mechanism to identify and exclude them, persons with certain sexual problems may also end up being over-represented in the presbyterate. And, very plausibly, some of those sexual problems will manifest themselves in distorted ways, including abusive ones.

Celibate priesthood as a special class — positive and negative aspects
A fourth point regarding celibacy is somewhat ambivalent: the discipline of celibacy tends to reinforce the image of the priesthood as a special class of Christians. This aspect of celibacy, might, in some times and places, contribute to a culture set firmly against all abuse, inasmuch as other priests who get wind of possible abuse are keen to uphold the reality of their class as a holy state, called in a special way to Christian virtue and holiness, and for whom, therefore, such sins are still more intolerable than they are in the case of lay persons. On the other hand, that the celibate priesthood makes up a special class may also have the opposite effect, lead to a culture permissive of abuse, because (1) one stands up for one's own, defends one's brother priests, assuming their innocence or downplaying their faults, because (2) one desires to uphold the image of the priestly state as a holy state, or because (3) the discrepancy in one's own life between the greater ideal of holiness to which one is called and one's actual life, causes one to misjudge the gravity of other sins; in the theological tradition, and expressly in the 1917 code of canon law, canon 132, clerics in major orders are so obliged to chastity that to sin against it is to be guilty of sacrilege (the notion behind this is that the priest's whole self, including his body, is dedicated to the Lord as something holy, so to sin against it is to violate what is holy); a priest guilty of habitual impurity, whether by fornication, adultery, masturbation, pornography, or impure thoughts, could possibly become thereby less inhibited from a crime such as abusing minors than a lay person guilty of the same habitual impurity would; similarly, a priest guilty of such impurity, whether occasional or habitual, may view such a crime by another priest less seriously than a lay person would.
Various problematic issues arising in connection with the priesthood as a special case are often treated under the notion of clericalism, by pope Francis (Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to the People of God), and others (e.g., Sexual abuse and the culture of clericalism).

In view of these considerations, some of which, taken on their own, would suggest a link between celibacy and abuse, while others would suggest that celibate priests might be less likely to be sexually abusive, it is not too surprising, that, on some accounting, sexual abuse of minors (or at least behavior evoking a serious accusation of such abuse) is as common by married Anglican clergy as by celibate roman catholic clergy. (See, e.g. Does Celibacy Contribute to Clerical Sex Abuse? by Richard Cross, and the therein reference studies.)

At any rate, the issue is much more complex than "celibacy is unrelated to the issue of sexual abuse" or "celibacy is a principal cause of sexual abuse".

Encounter with pilgrims

Last week, on the evening of the feast of the Assumption, I had a surprise visit from a group of 22 Spanish pilgrims making their way on foot from Krakow, Poland to Mariazell, Austria, including one married couple going with three of their older children. The pilgrimage was led by a priest who founded a home for homeless persons in Madrid. Many of the participants are volunteers for the home, some others got to know the priest in another way. They stayed in the parish hall overnight, and had supper and breakfast here.

One special feature of this pilgrimage was their reliance on divine providence and the generosity of benefactors on the way; though they had planned in advance approximately how far they would go each day, and thus the town or towns where they would be towards the evening, they did not plan in advance for food or shelter, and would not buy food along the way, but begged for it when they came. (In the case of food, one told me, when no one gave them something, they would practice dumpster diving at supermarkets, which I guess is a modern-day equivalent of gleaning the leftovers from farmer's fields.)

This dependence upon providence and the generosity of those they meet reflects in some way the complementarity of the contemplative and active life in the body of Christ. The pilgrims, by voluntarily choosing not to provide for themselves, show, on the one hand, that we should seek above all the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and to those who do so, all other things will be given as God wills, and on the other hand, providing spiritual goods to the community (making visible the priority of God before all else, as well as their prayer for the communities through which they pass and for their benefactors), fittingly receive material goods from them.

Why is Consecrated Virginity Not a Sacrament

Marriage and religious life are two fundamental ways to fulfill the fundamental vocation of every human being to love. Why is marriage a sacrament and consecrated virginity or celibacy is not?

Since Christ certainly could have made consecrated virginity a sacrament, any answer can only be based on arguments of appropriateness. Both marriage and virginity are signs of the union between Christ and the Church. Is there a difference in the way in which they are signs of this union, such that marriage is fittingly a sacrament, and consecrated virginity is not?

Marriage signifies the union of Christ and the Church inasmuch as the very union of the two humans spouses derives from, participates in, and is a likeness of the perfect union of Christ with the Church. Nevertheless this union of the spouses remains distinct from this spousal union of Christ and the Church. The spouses do not give themselves directly to Christ, but to each other.

Consecrated virginity signifies the union of Christ and the Church inasmuch as the virgin is devoted, by her own will and by the Church, to the very union that constitutes the Church, to the fulfillment of the union with Christ begun in baptism. Thus it bears less the character of a sign, and more that of the reality itself.

We might tentatively say, then, that it would be less fitting for consecrated virginity or religious life to be a sacrament, a sacred sign that confers grace, because it is above all reality, a deepening of the baptismal grace, the spousal union with Christ the Bridegroom. It is a sign of the future kingdom, but it is a sign of it inasmuch as it already anticipates it in this life.

Another, complementary way to explain this looks at the different ways marriage and religious life relate to time and history. Marriage pertains above all to the working out of God's plan for man in time. Those who rise from the dead "neither marry nor are given in marriage"; human marriage ceases with death, even though some aspects of marriage, e.g., the love between the spouses, endures beyond death. The virgin's spousal union with Christ, however, does not cease with her death, but is consummated—she becomes even more perfectly that which she began to be on earth through baptism and through her vows: the bride of Christ. Since all of the sacraments pertain to the dispensation of God's grace in time and history, it is thus more fitting for marriage to be a sacrament than for consecrated virginity to be one.

Discussion of Celibacy, or Abolition?

Not a few of the blogs and news outlets mentioning the 1970 letter of Ratzinger and eight other theologians calling for a new and open discussion of the discipline of celibacy speak of it as though it were a call for the abolition of the law requiring celibacy of those to be ordained as priests. This is, however, a quite unjustified "reading into" the text of the letter, which states that those entering into the discussion should do so with an openness to whatever the outcome of a renewed and frank discussion of the issue might be, but explicitly refrains from proposing what the outcome of such a discussion should be (whether retaining the law regarding celibacy, or changing it).

Cardinal Walter Kasper, one of the other eight signatories to the letter, recently affirmed just that in an address to the Catholic University of Lisbon, namely that he had proposed a discussion of priestly celibacy, not its abolition. Moreover, he suggested that the discussions of celibacy that have taken place do not favor a need for change in the discipline.

"There have been three world synods that have spoken of celibacy, and it was decided to maintain this discipline, and I myself believe that celibacy is a good for the Church."

At present I don't have access to his full address. If I get it, I will post it or a link to it here.

Ratzinger et al. called for reexamination of clerical celibacy

I've translated the 1970 letter of Ratzinger and eight other theologians to the German bishops, which was republished in Pipeline 2/2010, under the title "A reminder to the signatories" (Den Unterfertigten zur Erinnerung), and which has been in a number of newspapers in the past few days.

Some of the parts of the letter that the newspapers for some reason or other aren't citing… :

I. … We are convinced that the freely chosen state of remaining unmarried in the sense of Matthew 19 not only presents a meaningful possibility of christian existence, one which is at all times indispensable for the Church as a sign of its eschatological character, but that there are also good theological grounds for the connection of the freely chosen unmarried state and the priestly office, since this office brings the officeholder definitively and completely into the service of Christ and his Church. In this sense we affirm what was recently said in the "Letter of the German Bishops on the Priestly Office" (See n. 45, par 4; n. 53, par 2). And in this sense we are also convinced that whatever the outcome of the discussion, the unmarried priesthood will remain an essential form of the priesthood in the Latin Church.

V…

Such a positive stocktaking and working through of the problem must also occur because the reality of celibacy itself in the conditions of present-day publicity and society must be presented in an understandable and meaningful manner—so far as possible—granting all knowledge of very clear limits of this endeavor. It will remain a "scandal", but this does not excuse one from promoting and recommending it with the best reasons, in the event that an examination is seriously undertaken and can arrive at positive results (see above, section 1). If we know that celibacy is primarily a fruit of spiritual experience, we must still, as representatives of the science of theology, draw attention to this positive, clarifying, and unavoidable function of an examination.

Read the whole letter

Empirical Comparison of Celibate and Married Clergy

In the article "Religious Differences Between Married and Celibate Clergy: Does Celibacy Make a Difference?" in Sociology of Religion (1998) (full text available to members of subscribing libraries or universities), Don Swenson attempts to make an empirical argument against some of the reasons advanced by the Church for clerical celibacy. While the experiment itself is poorly constructed to the point of being ludicrous, the idea is an interesting one, and I am of the opinion that this sort of empirical study could be profitably employed more within the Church (as it often is within large organizations).

Basically the idea of the study was to take a sample of married clergy and a sample of celibate clergy, measure devotion to Christ (religiosity) and the ability to devote oneself to parishioners, and see whether there is a significant statistical difference between the married and celibate clergy. Devotion to Christ was measured through responses made to questions about "thanking, talking to, loving, taking time with, worshiping, feeling close to and listening to God, reflecting on the Bible, acting on what I believe God is saying, achieving insights in prayer, sensing a divine presence, and experiencing peace" and the time spent in prayer. The ability to devote oneself to parishioners was measured by the amount of time spent in ministry.

The responses to the survey indicated that "there was no significant difference regarding MEDITATION [measuring religiosity and devotion to Christ] and PASTORAL COMMITMENT", while the priests spent more time in prayer and prayed more frequently than the married, evangelical clergy. The author argues that the "experiential religiosity" which the study aimed to measure is a better measure of devotion to Christ, and thus there was no significant difference between the two groups in terms of that devotion.

While the stated conclusion, "The results of this study are substantially consistent with the hypothesis that there are no significant differences in dimensions of religiosity and parochial commitments between celibate priests and married clergy" (emphasis added) is formally true, it is also true that the results of the study do not significantly support that hypothesis. The practical conclusion of the paper, "The implications of this study are that there is some empirical basis to argue for a change in the present law of clerical celibacy. In regards to one's devotional life and time for ministry, celibacy does not appear to matter" is therefore unwarranted. (Update: It was also pointed out in a comment that the study indicates that unmarried clergy spend more time in prayer and pray more frequently, and that this is itself in fact a reason for clergy to remain celibate, a point that the study ignored, as though prayer was of no value — or at least, that the question of prayer was basically irrelevant for the life of clergy.)

The study, in fact, has several glaring problems of which the author is apparently heedless. The two groups of clergy differed in multiple significant ways other than being celibate or married: (1) the one group was evangelical, the other Catholic (this was apparently the actual principle of division, since one group seems to have included all evangelical pastors, whether married or celibate). (2) One group (the evangelical) was taken as a sample from all over Canada, the other from only two dioceses. (3) The average age of the evangelical ministers was 44, while that of the priests was 60, a difference that the author points out, then proceeds to ignore. Lesser, though still significant problems, are that the response rate of priests was significantly lower than that of evangelical ministers, and that the total number of responses from priests was 80.

Was the author of the study clueless about what is necessary in order to establish a general statistical relationship? Or was he blinded by a bias with which he approached the study? It is not possible to say. But one thing is clear. If this kind of evidence is to be used to propose a change in the Latin or in the Oriental discipline, it should be collected much more soundly.

St. Paul on Sexual Intercourse as Personal Act

Paul: Do you not know that the immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God? You were cleansed of all this in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of our God.

Cor: All things are lawful for me. Now that I have become spiritual through the Spirit, these things are a matter of indifference.

Paul: I am not restrained by an arbitrary law, but not all things are helpful!

Cor: Still, all things are lawful for me.

Paul: But I will not be enslaved by anything!

Cor: Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.

Paul: And God will destroy both the one and the other! The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!

Punctuating the text this way, as most interpreters do (though one might also include the phrase "God will destroy both the one and other" as part of the Corinthians' argument why there's nothing really bad in the use of any material, corruptible thing), St. Paul seems to imply that there is a great difference between the use of the sexual organs, and other organs such as the stomach. Our body as a whole belongs to Christ, and will be raised up with Christ. In sexual intercourse one disposes of one's whole body, as an expression of one's person, in a manner far beyond that in which the use of food is a disposition of the person.

The Spousal Meaning of the Body and Vocation

This post on the importance of the spousal meaning of the body for vocational discernment is a guest article written by Robert McNamara, a graduate of the International Theological Institute (formerly in Gaming, and now in Trumau, Austria). He will be entering the seminary in Ireland at the end of August. Please say a prayer for him.


Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday audiences of the early 80's, now widely known as the theology of the body, spoke about the meaning of the human body. Meditating upon the reality of the creation of man, male and female, as written about in Genesis, he deduces that the body has a spousal meaning. He says that this spousal attribute of the human body is "the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence" (Theology of the Body 15:1). The spousal meaning of the body is therefore obviously significant for the question of vocation. But how significant? And in what way?

To discover the spousal meaning we look to the mystery of man's creation. In creation man and woman are given life by the Creator and are in their turn capable of making a gift of their own lives. Created in the image and likeness of God man is called to exist "for" others (Cf. Mulieris Dignitatem 7:7). This, the Pope says, is a "fundamental characteristic of personal existence" (Theology of the Body 14:4). Writing as Bishop in his book Love and Responsibility Karol Wojtyla states, "The fullest, the most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in selfgiving, in making one's inalienable and non-transferable `I' someone else's property" (pp. 97). This potential for self-gift is rooted in man's freedom, in his consciousness and self-determination, in what the Pope calls the "freedom of the gift," but it is realized above all in the body. Thus the body has a spousal meaning the essence of which is to concretely realize man's freedom for self-gift, to be "for" others in a radical way, one that is definitive and total. It is in its fullness a gift of the person but one which is made in and through the body and more specifically through sex, that is, masculinity and femininity, as a fundamental attribute of the body. And so, we discover the human body as a path of love.

Spousal self-giving as the name implies is obviously the basis of the vocation of marriage, but it is likewise the basis of the vocation of continence for the kingdom. The Pope explains:

"[T]he nature of the one as well as the other love [marriage and perfect continence] is "spousal," that is, expressed through the complete gift of self. The one as well as the other love tends to express that spousal meaning of the body, which has been inscribed "from the beginning" in the personal structure of man and woman." (Theology of the Body 78:4)

This statement is an important matter for consideration by those either discerning or living consecrated celibacy. Those who choose marriage choose to live their bodily existence "for" their spouse and children. Those who choose celibacy choose to live their bodily existence "for" the sake of the kingdom of God. Celibates do not actualize their gift of self to God abstracted from their body and sex. The hearing of the call and the expression of the individual's consecration depends on and is given definitive form by the sex of the person. The call to continence, says the Pope, is "formed on the basis of the consciousness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity, and further, as a fruit of such consciousness" (Theology of the Body 81:5).

[Aside: The spousal nature of continence should not be surprising when we recognize God's relationship with humanity in its spousal dimension, "The history of God's relationship to humanity is a history of spousal love, prepared for in the Old Testament and celebrated in the fullness of time" (Verbi Sponsa 4:1). By means of baptism we are "definitively placed within the new and eternal covenant, in the spousal covenant of Christ with the Church" (Familiaris Consortio 13:6). Marriage or consecrated celibacy then gives definitive form within the body of Christ to an individual person's mode of witness to Christ's spousal love for the Church.]

Consciousness is a decisive factor. When we consider the 'meaning' of something we have in mind not only the reality itself but our consciousness of that reality. Consequently it is not only significant for the question of vocation that the human body objectively has a spousal meaning, but also a mature consciousness of that meaning within the individual subject is crucial. Such a consciousness of the body adequately grounds and motivates the celibate life. It furnishes discernment of vocation with all of the realism that the challenge of celibacy actually poses to man's natural strivings, while at the same time creating a foundation upon which the earthly "for" can be transformed into a heavenly "for." Perhaps we can say that awareness of being "for" others as a bodily being, either male or female, creates the space in which the personal call of Christ can find a satisfactory echo and ongoing resonance.

The question then begs: how can we grow in a mature awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in such a way that we can hear the call of Christ with readiness and answer it with force? It appears from the Pope's writings that the answer is through the gift and virtue of purity. Using the helpful image of a watchman the Pope explains how one grows in purity of heart. Man, he says, must become master of his own "innermost impulses" by watching over the "hidden spring" of his heart learning to draw only those impulses which are "fitting for purity of the heart." In this way he can build "with conscience and consistency the personal sense of the spousal meaning of the body, which opens the interior space of the freedom of the gift" (Theology of the Body 48:3). Perfecting this effort we have the gifts of the Holy Spirit especially piety which disposes the inspired person to grow conscious of the meaning of the human body, his own and others.

With a vivid consciousness of the meaning of his body in purity of heart, man experiences himself as originating in love and destined for love (Cf. Theology of the Body 15:5 ff). He experiences himself as rooted in love, and finds in this happy experience a greater ability to respond with love. Purity of heart has enabled him to encounter and know himself in his bodily existence as a "subject of holiness" (Theology of the Body 19:5). It is this experience of man as a subject of truth and love, with the organically connected interior space of the freedom of the gift formed on the basis of the spousal meaning of the body which enables man to hear the call to continually surrender himself in all the truth of his existence and in an unreserved manner to Christ, and for the sake of His kingdom.