A vital document in defence of clerical celibacy

(courtesy John Aron)

Cardinal Stickler reminds us that celibacy is of apostolic origin and has been the constant ruling of the Church

Reading in the news recently that the Amazon Synod has approved the ordination of married men in certain circumstances in remote areas, I was unsurprised but disheartened; unsurprised because such an approval has been mooted several times in relation to this Synod, and disheartened because this single item of news lays bare the whole thrust and tenor of such a Synod in the first place. Ignoring the fervour of the views expressed on both sides concerning the Synod, I would rather focus on an excellent short book that puts the matter in a more profound context.

It is The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations, by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, first published in 1993 and now reissued by Ignatius Press with a succinct foreword by Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, the Press’s founder. I encourage anyone who wants to understand the nature of the Catholic priesthood, its charism, its greatness, to read what Cardinal Stickler writes – and then decide on their response to the news put out by the Brazilian Synod.

Stickler’s focus on the history of priestly celibacy (he prefers to call it “continence”) and its theological origins might seem somewhat academic and dry – certainly in relation to newspaper reports. But it is a vital document for those who want to argue the case that such celibacy is of apostolic origin and has been the constant ruling of the Church, in Councils, canon law and magisterial documents ever since. It is simply not true, as I have heard people say, that the requirement of celibacy was only introduced many centuries after the Church’s foundation; what was later enshrined in law was the codified recognition of the ancient and living tradition.

Stickler devotes a whole section to the Eastern Church i.e. Orthodoxy, showing how its married clergy (but not its bishops, generally chosen from monastic orders) was a rupture, or departure from tradition, and how certain conciliar texts were manipulated and modified to permit it. Essentially, without a universally recognised authority to coordinate discipline and provide proper care and support for continent clergy, as in the Western Church, the Eastern Church bowed to a “de facto situation” which it accepted because it had become in practice too difficult to change.

Even when the apostolic origins of clerical continence are accepted as irrefutable, one might still ask why does the discipline have to be enforced? Stickler rightly argues that only if the discipline is seen in relation to Christ the Priest does it make sense, spiritually and theologically. “This demanding commitment which involves a life of constant sacrifice, can only be lived out if it is nourished by a living faith…It is only through a faith that is constantly and consciously sustained that the supernatural reasons underlying the commitment can be truly understood.”

This word “sacrifice” matters. I recall our late parish priest once commenting, “People think celibate priests are different from other men. Not a bit of it. It is a sign of the supernatural” – that is, the sacrifice can only be fruitfully sustained by divine grace; a serious and continually prayerful response to the initial invitation from Jesus.  Otherwise, apart from human weakness (which the Church Fathers who upheld celibacy well understood), a priest might be tempted into a state of self-protective bachelordom rather than see himself as a shepherd of his flock in imitation of Christ.

In the Telegraph recently Tim Stanley provided his own commentary on the Amazonian Synod’s announcement. I agreed with everything he wrote – except where he quoted with seeming approval the comment of a monk-friend who told him celibacy was like giving up smoking; hard at first but later on not a problem. I think this is an unfortunate analogy. If the sacrifice of married life and raising a family is on the same level as the sacrifice of cigarettes, it utterly devalues both marriage and priesthood. St John Henry Newman understood it better. As quoted by his eminent biographer, Fr Ian Ker, in letters Newman referred to the loving companionship and devotion of a wife that a priest necessarily forgoes; it is a moving comment from a man who, although he felt called to a celibate life at the age of 15, understood emotionally and imaginatively the domestic happiness and mutual love that the sacrament of marriage implied.

To return to Stickler: significantly, he states that movements that broke away from the Church always – as with Protestantism – attacked the requirement for priestly celibacy. Indeed, he links the demand for married clergy with “a loss of the sense of faith”. Writing in 1993 he observes that given the secular world surrounding priests, it is hard for them to resist a worldly mentality: “The supernatural and spiritual identity of his priesthood quickly disappears if he does not consciously force himself to deepen it and to be aware of his intimate union of life with Christ.”

Might one perhaps associate the Amazonian Synod with a loss of this sense of faith?