There has been a fair amount of talk about the Amazon Synod and the possibility of ordaining married men, despite the contrary tradition and prevailing discipline of celibacy in the Latin Church, and in spite of all the arguments and motives that can be adduced for priestly celibacy. Occasioned by today's reading for Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, I want to here lay out a few of the facts, less clear and disputed matters regarding celibacy in the Latin and in the Eastern Churches.
In 1. Timothy, chapter 3, St. Paul writes:
The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible… not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church?
… Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain… Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well;
There have been married clerics since the beginning of the Church. At the some time, we find esteem for celibacy by clergy from the beginning.
Some fairly certain points (for those accepting the Church's teaching and tradition)
- Some apostles were married; and in the first centuries, there were married bishops, priests, and deacons, as implied in the quoted task from 1 Timothy, and in the following first centuries of the Church. E.g., In the fourth century, the Father of St. Gregory Nazianzen's father, Gregory the Elder was a bishop; he was married and his wife was still living at the time of St. Gregory Nazianzen's ordination to the priesthood.
- Christ elevated marriage, and also proposed celibacy ("to make oneself an eunuch" spiritually) for the kingdom of heaven.
- The virginal or celibate way of life was esteemed from the very beginning in the Church. And specifically by at least some clerics (beginning with St. Paul the Apostle)
- Developed practice and law regarding continence and priestly celebration of the Eucharist differed in West and East. In the West complete continence was obligatory for all major clerics, while in the East some measure of continence was necessary in relation to celebration of the Eucharist.
- The discipline of the Latin Church and of the Eastern Catholic Churches is legitimate.
Matters where the historical data is less clear or is mixed
6. Whether the married bishops in the Church had children after elevation to the episcopate, and, if they had children, if they did so without violating a promise or (ecclesial or moral) expectation of continence after episcopal consecration
7. The reason for a connection between continence and the Eucharist, not just for clergy, but also for laity
a. Some Fathers deny that sexual intercourse makes one unclean, such that one needs to be purified before prayer (The Didascalia Apostolorum explicitly rejects the position that sexual intercourse would make one unfit to receive the Eucharist)
b. Some early Church writers (Tertullian, Origen), claim that intercourse requires purification before prayer; some Fathers suggest this or put it forward as the better thing to do, while finally leaving the matter to the conscience of married couples (St. Dionysus, St. Athanasius of Alexandria); later texts put it forth as morally obligatory (Timothy of Alexandria, St. Gregory the Great)
c. but in the course of time, the general consensus was that abstinence should be practice before reception of the Eucharist (and before celebration by a priest).
8. At least occasional continence, to devote whenself to prayer (see 1 Cor 7:5), in Lent, or when children were not possible, was an ideal of married christians (most well known is St. Augustine, but the position is also held by others such as Origen, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzen)
(Possible) points of dispute
9. Why continence (and celibacy) for the clergy was so esteemed since the early Church
10. Whether continence was, as a rule, expected of married clergy from the very beginning. And if it was, whether it should be expected (at least as an ideal) of married clergy now (in the West and in the East).
11. Whether the Church has the moral right to change the law regarding priestly celibacy in the Latin Church — or whether it is so strongly rooted in Christ and the Apostles, or deserves such respect as an extremely ancient and valuable tradition in the Latin Church, that the Church has no right to change it.
12. Whether changing the law regarding priestly celibacy in the Latin Church would do more good or more harm.
13. Whether changing the law regarding priestly celibacy in the Eastern Churches (making it more like the west) would do more good or more harm — there isn't much dispute about this because it has scarcely been proposed to change the discipline of the Eastern Churches to require celibacy as a condition for priestly ordination.
14. Whether, if both traditions and disciplines should be maintained more or less as they are, whether the differing disciplines are justified principally (1) because each is the tradition of the respective Church, (2) because the respective discipline is the most fitting discipline for that Church with a view to the its whole spiritual, ascetical and liturgical life, (3) because the Church as a whole is thereby more perfect in its variety and fullness, (4) because, practically, changing the discipline is difficult without causing a whole host of other problems, or (5) for some other reason?
My impression is that most articles in the media, blog articles or commentaries concern themselves with point 12, whether changing the discipline of celibacy would really bring the claimed benefits such as mitigating the shortage of priests or diminishing the incidence of sexual abuse by priests, or whether changing would not in any case bring many and greater problems with it than it would solve.
Even if no one proposes changing the discipline of the Eastern Churches, it might be good to consider point 13, whether it would do more good or harm to introduce the law of priestly celibacy into those Churches. Precisely because there hasn't been a lot of polemics about it, it may be easier to soberly take stock of what that sort of change might or would do to the Church.
I believe it would be good for those discussing the matter of priestly celibacy on all one levels in the Church to consider the question raised in point 14. The answer one gives could be helpful in deciding various edge cases (e.g., should married Anglican clergy, having converted to the Catholic Church, be ordained priests, should those who, having been baptized into the Latin Church, have become members of an Eastern Catholic Church, be ordained priests, and the like). It could also be helpful in considering very long time goals, particularly if one's answer was based mostly on the practical difficulties of changing the discipline.