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The views presented in the following papers are those of the Issues Group and are not necessarily representative of the people of St. Aloysius Parish nor the Roman Catholic Church.

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Catholic Issues: Our Disappearing Clergy

Mandatory Vs Optional Celibacy for the Priesthood

One of the issues which the Catholic Church is facing in modern times is our disappearing clergy. This is not only a world-wide problem for the hierarchy, but is more importantly a problem for you and me, the laity. How long will we have our priest, our Mass, our Eucharist, our Church? Mendocino was without a priest for 6 months. Neighborhood churches in San Francisco are closing. The Catholic population is increasing, yet fewer are attending church services or seem interested in participating.

According to a CORPUS research document, vocations in the United States have decreased from 40,000 in 1965 to 6,200 in 1988. The hierarchy in Rome attributes this decline to the materialism of the United States. Vocations in other parts of the world have increased, but have not kept pace with population. Perhaps the reasons for the decline in vocations are more complex.

Seminary training has undergone a full circle transition in 2,000 years from:

1. a shared ministry in the beginning church when the priest was selected from within the community by its members;

2. a long, long period of the celibate male as the dominant mediator between humankind and God; and

3. to a time in which the priest is again the participating leader in the faith community.

Is it time for the next step?

Vatican II taught us that the laity become priests with their leader in the celebration of the Mass. We offer ourselves and our gifts in unity with our leader and in unity with Christ to the Father. We have become active participants in the sacrifice rather than mere observers of the mediator. (See references.)

Seminary training has shown much improvement in recent years. Candidates are no longer totally isolated from the real world in their education. A shift is occurring away from the uniqueness of the ordained priesthood toward a priest as a leader who shares the common life of the community. Nevertheless, the imposed celibate life-style isolates and separates the priest-leader from the real everyday routine concerns of his parishioners and makes him cautious in his relationships Many of the laity wish to relate to the priest as a brother who shares their daily adventure in life with its variety of dilemmas and choices made.

The idea of mandatory celibacy did not originate in Christianity and was, in fact, discouraged in Jewish tradition and practice. An unmarried rabbi was viewed with suspicion. Ritual purity for the priesthood was a pagan concept based on distorted views of sexuality as evil, dangerous and destructive.

The ancient Greek philosophers reinforced these ideas in their teachings. Plato, Aristotle and Hippocrates said that the sexual act was dangerous and harmful. Seneca taught that sexual pleasure was intrinsically evil and permissible only for reproduction. Women were inferior to men and were not to express their ideas in public.

In the early church both married and single persons were accepted as clergy. Many of the early Apostles were married and brought their families along on their travels. Early clerics were chosen by the people for their knowledge of Christ's teachings and their ability to serve.

Respect for a celibate lifestyle chosen by hermits, monks and widows was prevalent in the early church. This was reflected in the charisma and power of the leaders in the Council of Elvira in the year 306 which passed the following edict: Bishops, presbyters, deacons and all other clerics having a position in the ministry were ordered to abstain completely from their wives and not to have children. Whoever, in fact, disobeyed this edict was expelled from the clerical state. This edict was widely ignored as priests, even bishops and popes, continued to have children. The general practice was to abstain from sexual activity before saying Mass.

The promotion of celibacy continued in the history of the church usually in reaction to the political and spiritual climate of the time. Often kings, lords or landlords controlled church lands, church buildings and church collections. Celibacy restored church control of the cleric by Rome and by implication the spiritual control of church goods by the church authorities. The church's official justification was that celibacy frees a priest for service with an undivided mind, but that also included and insured an undivided collection plate and gradually the accumulation of real estate.

In 1179 the 2nd Lateral Council further sought clerical reform b y promoting an exceptionally strong renewal of celibacy. All marriages of priests were ruled invalid. Married priests were forcibly separated from their wives. If they failed to cooperate, the cleric was dismissed and he and his family were sold into slavery. This was considered a drastic solution in that historical period and was enforced with vigor when possible.

In the 14th and 15th centuries scandals swamped the hierarchical efforts to enforce celibacy, but power and authority prevailed.

Mandatory celibacy was to have been a unifying influence in the church, but has met with enforcement difficulties throughout its history. It was one of the causes of separation of the Orthodox and Roman churches. Visible divergence between theory and practice caused scandal in cases where a priest had a wife or mistress. Celibacy also separated the cleric from the laity. It effectively reduced feminine influence of church policy. It remains the only Christian denomination to continue to forbid a married clergy.

There are many reasons for hierarchical support of mandatory celibacy: 1) The priest can devote more time to his parish if he is not distracted by family responsibilities; 2) The priest is more free to be moved by his bishop to an area of greater need; 3) Expenses for housing, medical insurance, and retirement are less for one priest than for a priest, spouse and family; 4) The priest's loyalty is undivided; and 5) It is easier not to change.

In the 20th century the true costs of mandatory celibacy are presenting themselves: loss of vocations, the growing number of priestless parishes, lack of financial support, priests leaving their ministry. In his book, With Eyes to See, Arthur Melville states "Celibacy is of value to those who freely and honestly choose it, not out of obedience, not from fear, not for an ulterior motive, not as an escape from themselves or a relationship, but because they are in touch with a part of their consciousness which transcends sex. For celibacy to contribute to spiritual growth, complete freedom of choice is essential."

In the United States, 42% of priests resign their positions within 25 years of ordination leaving an aging priesthood unable to replace itself with enough new vocations. Among the resigned clergy there is the conviction that the present pope and hierarchy are refusing to admit a need for change. A prominent negative feature of bureaucratic and hierarchical organizations is that they enable their members to avoid a sense of personal responsibility for problems. The World Synod of Bishops in a 1990 meeting at the Vatican noted a worldwide shortage of priests. In the U.S. one church in ten is without a priest. With the lack of priests comes larger and larger buildings which result in closure of small neighborhood churches and the loss of a sense of community.

A consequence of mandatory celibacy that has had a profound impact in the development of Catholic theology has been the almost total rejection of the feminine. The repudiation of the feminine has been a major cause of the excessive intellectualization of theology and religious experience in the Catholic Church. This has led to a tendency toward theorizing, speculating and writing commentaries on commentaries.

There are discussions about mandatory celibacy being a rule rather than a doctrine. The pope says the subject is closed, but the barrier is artificial. The wall that was erected between Matrimony and Holy Orders is a wall of words. Documents of Vatican II declare that celibacy is not theologically mandated or essential to the priesthood but that it is a discipline.

Perhaps the question should be: Mandatory celibacy or the Eucharist: There are many parts of the world where there are no priests and less than 1% of the baptized attend services. The majority of parishes have noticed a reduction in the number of clergy assigned to them. In 1987 at the Second International Congress on a Married Priesthood held in Arrica, Italy, it was stated that 42% of Catholic parishes worldwide were without a full-time priest.

There are thousands of priests who resigned in protest to rigid policy or in order to marry. These are good, educated men who are usually engaged in some type of social service helping their community. Many wish to serve the church as active clerics. Some have joined CORPUS, also known as the Association for a Married Priesthood. There are chapters in the U.S. and in many European and Latin American countries. Their goals are personal restoration to their priestly duties, church reform, greater democracy within the church and reduction in the time gap between knowledge gained by psychology and science and its acceptance by the teaching church. They point out the fact that married Lutheran and Episcopalian priests who become Catholic and wish to remain priests are accepted in their married state without prejudice. Obligatory celibacy for priests is not a tradition in the other rites of the universal church.

The hierarchical church seems to fear that an optional married clergy would undermine its legitimate authority, but it might actually serve to legitimize authority., Long- term relationships need flexibility in non-essentials. Rigid control leads to frustrations, loss of productivity and stress. Other denominations have successfully integrated marriage and ministry.

The church hierarchy is willfully impoverishing itself when the valuable contribution of a spouse is denied. The priest shortage would be reduced and the spouse would usually participate in roles of hospitality, home visits, schedule appointments and provide individual attention. An automatic reality check would be provided. Priestly counseling would become more realistic and practical.

For those who dream of a different kind of church, one less rigid, less authoritarian, less pyramidal in structure, a celibate clergy is part of the obstacle. For those who sit in their offices in Rome and make laws for the rest of us, a celibate priesthood is essential to the only structure in which they can operate and probably the only structure which they can even imagine. Only a progressive pope or a suddenly energized group of collegial bishops with courage will make a difference. Recent polls indicate increasing support for change. How do you feel about the possibility of the restoration of a married clergy? Should the laity be consulted in decision making? Should priests who left the priesthood to marry be welcomed back to their church communities with their wives and families? Who will provide for the priest's family?

Reference Materials:

Michele Prince, Mandatory Celibacy in the Catholic Church, New Paradigm Books, 1992.

Arthur Melville, With Eyes to See, Stillpoint Publishing, 1992.

Joseph Dunn, The Rest of Us Catholics, Templegate Publishers, 1994.

Thomas Bokenkotter, Essential Catholicism, Image Books, 1986.

America, April, August, October 1994; April 1995.

Vatican II Documents: Dogmatic Constitution of the Church #30 & 31; Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy #29; Decree on the Apostalate of the Laity #3.

We have done our best to credit our sources. Please forgive us if we have overlooked any.

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