Friday, April 27, 2018

Crisis of celibacy

In light of the latest news about clerical celibacy, I thought I'd repost this from March 2013, with a new photo. I hope to write something about the Alfie Evans affair soon.
LMS Priest Training Conference April 2018
Dr Edward Peters, the well-known canonist, explains what he means by a 'crisis of celibacy' in a post which is well worth reading in full.

[T]he last four decades have seen, I suggest, a steady retreat from defending that value in canon law and pastoral practice—married clergy now outnumber celibate clergy in many arch/dioceses, thousands of married ministers have recently come into full communion with Rome and been ordained priests, the observance of clerical continence has been abandoned in the West, and the quasi-decriminalization of attempted clerical marriage itself (as opposed to remaining in pseudo-marriage) has been accomplished. Any one of these developments would have been portentous; but that they have occurred simultaneously is, I suggest, undeniable evidence that clerical celibacy is in crisis.

While in principle the Western discipline of priestly celibacy is still defended at the highest levels of the Church, with vigour indeed, its legal and practical ramifications have been eroded. We are getting to the point at which it needs either to be reasserted in some tangible, public way, or the gap between theory and practice needs to be closed from the other direction.

In the meantime, the forces of liberalism are aiming at celibacy with all their might. The Tablet seems to have become obsessed with the issue. The fact that you can get even orthodox Catholics to say 'Well obviously this is a matter of Church discipline rather than sacramental validity' presents an ever-tempting opening. If it is a matter of discipline, it can change, right?

Liberals appear to think that celibacy is some kind of steam-valve which can be opened to relieve all sorts of problems in the Church: sex abuse, the shortage of vocations, Mass attendance and who knows what else. This is a mistake for two reasons: first, it completely misdiagnoses the vocations (and other) crisis(es); and secondly, because what Dr Peters is talking about it is true, by parallel, with a large number of other issues. I want to deal with the first in a separate post, but what I mean by the second point can be illustrated like this.

In the official documents of the Church, confession is given (obviously) the orthodox definition and explanation: it is necessary for the remission of mortal sin (eg Catechism of the Catholic Church 1457). Once upon a time that was a reality which was manifested in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of disciplines and practices. You could tell Catholics took it seriously because they queued up for confession on Saturday afternoons and were selective about when they went to communion. You knew they took it seriously because of the architectural prominence given to confessionals in the church, and the stress on sin and confession in preaching and catechism. Now, those outward things were not necessary for it to be true that the Church taught what she taught, some of them might even have be better done differently. But today, in many places, the teaching on the necessity of confession is a matter of theory, not practice. It is not manifested in how churches look, what Catholics do, what priests preach, what is taught in RE. And it is not in the hearts of many Catholics as belief.

The same can be said about the reality of the Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. About the Sacrificial nature of the Mass. About the identification of the priest with Christ. About the authority of bishops. About the usefulness of devotions, sacramentals, and blessings. About the intercession of the saints. About the Divinity of Christ. About the indissolubility of marriage. About, in fact, pretty well every aspect of the Church's doctrine and moral reaching. This has happened because of a strange alliance between people who think, or claim to think, that the teachings are so secure and so obvious that it is not necessary to labour them, and people who think, or claim to think, that the doctrines are embarassing, off-putting, or just wrong, and should disappear. Actually, both explanations are sometimes given by the same person, addressing different audiences.

Bl John XXIII was not immune from the first temptation. The high-water mark of this attitude must surely be his speech opening the Second Vatican Council:

'Not that the need to repudiate and guard against erroneous teaching and dangerous ideologies is less today than formerly. But all such error is so manifestly contrary to rightness and goodness, and produces such fatal results, that our contemporaries show every inclination to condemn it of their own accord—especially that way of life which repudiates God and His law, and which places excessive confidence in technical progress and an exclusively material prosperity.'

Admittedly, things did look different in 1962. Back then it looked as if the rope bridge between the words printed in the Catechism and the lived experience of Catholics would still be strong enough to carry traffic if a few of the cords were loosened or cut. Maybe that was true. But then things got a bit out of hand...

Traditionalists like it when things are returned to their former state in the Church, at least in many ways: when the altar rails go back, when people genuflect properly, when Friday abstinence is restored; and of course we like the old liturgy. This is not nostalgia, however. While each thing is neither necessary nor sufficient for lively faith or a true Catholic understanding, they help. That is what they are there for, to help Catholics live the life those dusty old documents say we should live. We need all the help we can get. When the help is taken away, things go wrong. It's true of celibacy, it is true of everything.


  1. What a good analysis!

  2. Marriage has little to do with the abuse problem amongst priests, since that was overwhelmingly homosexual in nature.

    Celibacy is not just a rejection of marriage, it is a total commitment to Christ in chastity.

    We do not need more priests, we need better priests, who understand the nature of priesthood that they can act “in the person of Christ”. That means committed, chaste, celibate priests, even if fewer.

    However much we become obsessed with the figure of 1.2 or 3 billion nominal Catholics, the reality is that Mass attendance is falling much more rapidly in the West than the number of priests.

  3. "...thousands of married ministers have recently come into full communion with Rome and been ordained priests,..." This sounds like hyperbole although I would wish it were true. Can you provide some source for your comment.

  4. I believe that the clerical marriage/celibacy/continence thing/debate/what-have-you is a red herring used by those who would want to subvert the traditional priesthood. Ultimately, the apostolic discipline of continence must be upheld. Now, there are different ways in which it can be upheld and enforced. It is a red herring because what is needed is the moral and spiritual regeneration of the clergy, celibate or otherwise.

    But even more pressing is a coherent theology of the episcopal office that would include in an organic manner the presbyteral office. I don't know if this has been done, but it would be good to have a comprehensive Patristic and Scholastic synthesis that would sum up the traditional positions on the priesthood from the earliest centuries down to the neo-scholastics of our own time.