It’s very well-known that many priests, religious, bishops and theologians expected a change in Church teaching on contraception following the Second Vatican Council. That particular progressive hope was dashed by the weighty truths of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae reaffirming the Church’s perennial teaching. However, many forget that the other grand disappointment for those 70s agitators of aggiornamento concerned priestly celibacy. “Relaxing” Church teaching on marriage and sexual morality went hand-in-hand with the expectation that priestly celibacy, as Karl Rahner once predicted, would not survive the Church’s passage into modernity.
Thousands of priests were laicized immediately following the Council. The seminaries and monasteries were greatly depleted, both in numbers and in holiness. The priest shortage was, in part, the result of a collapse of faith in the priesthood, the sacraments, the sacrifice of the Mass itself. And as the priests entered into the lay state, lay participation became the key to overcoming a diminished priesthood. To the delight of secular caricature, and Martin Luther, laicized priests sometimes even married laicized nuns.
Yet many didn’t laicize. Many men remained faithful priests, and they continued to think that their experience of the Council — more spiritual “event” than teachings — called them to work for a more profound, epochal change which could take their whole lifetimes to see realized. This was not simply the view of ordinary men and women who were caught up in the zeitgeist. This sentiment was carried up into the highest reaches.
In 1970, a group of Germany’s most prominent theologians wrote to the national conference of bishops, insisting that Pope Paul VI’s 1967 reaffirmation of priestly celibacy, despite so much momentum to the contrary, was simply not enough. They argued then that Paul VI’s serious reservations about ordaining married men (viri probati) cannot be the end of the discussion. They insisted that the Church should be confident enough to have a more open, more collegial discussion of priestly celibacy.
The undersigned, who through the trust of the German bishops have been called as theologians into the commission for questions of faith and morals, feel themselves compelled to submit the following considerations to the German bishops.
Our reflections concern the necessity of an urgent examination of and discriminating look at the law of celibacy of the Latin Church for Germany and the universal Church as a whole…
The Church must have missionary forces for the offensive, wherever such a thing is possible. In any case, the law of celibacy in force till now cannot be made the absolute point of reference of the reflections, with which all other ecclesial and pastoral considerations would have to be brought in conformity. If in the face of the “most serious reservations” the pope himself evidently does not reject the idea of the ordination of older married men (“viri probati“) from the outset and as simply out of the question (it is after all in some cases already practiced), then it is thereby affirmed that new considerations could reassess [überprüfen] the law and practice of celibacy…
We have made no rules for the German bishops. But we have the right and the duty in this troublesome situation, on the basis of our office as theologians and our task as consultants, to say to the members of the German bishop’s conference, in all respect for their high office and position of responsibility, that in the question of celibacy they must take new initiative and consider themselves dispensed neither through the former practice of the Church nor through the declarations of the pope alone.
The letter was signed by Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Rahner, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehman and several other lesser known German theologians. Three of those men became cardinals, and one became pope. Though he would later write some of the most beautiful things about priestly celibacy, it was, in fact, Benedict XVI who did the most to expand the number of married priests.
So we should not think that the issue of viri probabti — so much discussed at this most recent Amazonian synod — is somehow the unique fruit of the pontificate of Pope Francis. As George Weigel reported, one of the Brazilian bishops responsible for shaping the agenda of Amazon synod passionately exclaimed near the end of the synod proceedings “This is our last chance.” In other words, these men, many of them brought out of retirement, have lived their whole lives hoping for this chance.
For this generation of the epochal “event,” it must feel very much like they are on the cusp of bringing the priesthood to the end they once envisioned in the 70s. But at what sort of end are they? Is this “last chance” also “a last gasp” for a generation which has lived on the hope of epochal change? Is it a last gasp for those who privilege process over substance? Is it the end of that generation of theologians who place human experience as a standard far above scripture and tradition? Is it the end of a generation which makes temporary needs tower above the contemplation of eternal truths, which gives more attention to indigenous statues than to the Blessed Virgin Mary?
There is another generation, perhaps fewer in number still, who want to put the fences back. There is a generation that contemplates Christ’s own holy virginity, that sees not simply a human law but the superiority of holy celibacy as a sacrifice justly ordered to the preaching of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. There is such a generation who believe preaching Christ crucified will bring about the greater harvest. There is such a generation. Perhaps not in Rome, but they exist. And they are not on their last gasp.
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