Various things conspire to bring on the January blues, like the fact that I have paid several hundred pounds in motoring fines in the past month. Not, I hasten to add, because of some violation of the law, but for forgetting to pay tolls or congestion charges, or in one case because a parking permit fell off the windscreen. A lack of discipline has cost me dear.
Cheering news comes in the shape of a new book defending clerical celibacy featuring Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Sarah. Certain media outlets have reacted to it with surprise or outrage. That the Pope Emeritus has defended clerical celibacy when Pope Francis is said to be considering change is being cast as some kind of political intervention. This is a rather frightening reaction. First, because it suggests that the reigning Pope should be considered as a political leader mandated to advance his ideological agenda. Second, if to assert that there is a perennial value in clerical celibacy is now an act of opposition, it tells us that we are living with a dangerous kind of pseudo-synodality in which such gatherings have the one-dimensional task of promoting innovation, instead of any function to defend or reiterate where the status quo is under attack.
In Des profondeurs de nos cœurs, Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah are speaking from the depths of their hearts.
I hope they will inspire many more priests to speak from the depths of their hearts about celibacy because such testimony is of equal relevance as arguments about the shortage of priests.
One hears frequently the argument that celibacy is “only” a discipline in the Church, as though this lends weight to the idea that therefore it’s no big deal to change it or that its value is arbitrary; maybe even that the attachment to the discipline is just a kind of nostalgia preventing us reacting appropriately to our current situation. It’s as if the discipline is the problem, and maintaining it is contributing to the shortage of vocations. By a similar logic one could argue that speed limits are only a discipline and we should think about increasing the limit to 40mph in towns where there are fewer cars; modern cars are different and people no longer like driving slowly.
Relaxing the discipline of celibacy for “pastoral” reasons is hard to resist, because it seems unreasonable, on the face of it, to deny people access to the sacraments. Logic dictates you must do something, but what is the pastoral solution? In a field hospital you certainly do everything you can to relieve suffering, but if you find there are no doctors on station, the solution is not to make nurses routinely perform the trauma surgery because “all that stuff about doctors’ training is just a discipline”.
My Old Testament professor, the late, great Fr Goswin Habets, used to advise us against speaking of celibacy in the third person. It’s not “the celibacy”, he would say, “it’s my celibacy.”
If more priests spoke of it from the heart with such love and sense of privilege perhaps it would be harder to generate the momentum for change. But to do so requires that it be integrated and lived wholeheartedly, which is why it remains a touchstone for how earnestly one desires to follow the Master and live in imitation of Him.
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