Is Priestly Celibacy a Question that is Open for Discussion under Pope Francis?

Source: FSSPX News

Pope Francis making the case for married priests in some cases.

In a recent interview with a left-leaning German newspaper, Pope Francis said that the possibility of ordaining married men is to be considered.

On March 16, 2017, the website of the Society of St. Pius X in the United States published comments on Pope Francis’s interview with Die Zeit in which he spoke of allowing married men to be ordained priests.

The March 9 issue of Die Zeit, in which the interview appeared, reports that “multiple voices”, in Germany, including some diocesan bishops and leaders of Catholic lay associations, have been questioning the Church’s perennial discipline of mandatory priestly celibacy. Over the years, advisors and friends of the Pope, including Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and Cardinal Claudio Hummes, former Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, have suggested or advocated changing the discipline. Reportedly the Holy Father wanted clerical celibacy to be the topic for the next Synod of Bishops, although it was voted down by the Ordinary Council that organizes the periodic meeting of the Synod.

The actual public statements of Pope Francis about ordaining married men have been pragmatic and moderate. In 2016 he ruled out abolishing the requirement of priestly celibacy, saying that “it should remain as it is”. In the past and again in the recent interview with Die Zeit, he has mentioned ordaining viri probati; older men of proven faith and virtue, as a “possibility” that “we have to think about”. Married men could be ordained by way of exception in dioceses with the “enormous problem” of a shortage of priests. “We must also determine which tasks they can undertake, for example in remote communities,” the Holy Father remarked.

From the Ordination of Married Men to Marriage for Priests?

In reaction to this openness to ordaining married men, Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, professor of ecclesiology at the seminary of Econe, published an article on March 17, on the website of the Society of St. Pius X in France, entitled “Towards Marriage for Priests?” 

Where does Francis’s plan lead? To a pure and simple regression that goes against the spirit of the Church. The excellence of the priesthood requires a suitable state of life, after the example of Christ and His Apostles. By his celibacy and absolute chastity, the priest is an example and a sign. A sign of the superiority of the life of the spirit, that is the very life of God, over earthly and simply corporal life. A sign, too, of the superiority of the contemplation of eternal realities over the desires of the flesh and the turbulence of life here below. This superiority is such that the lack of priests can never be an adequate pretext for reconsidering it. The Church has always preferred quality to quantity. And are not prayer and penance the best means of obtaining more vocations, and meriting holy priests, first of all, and then many holy priests? These are the adequate means, since they belong to the supernatural order, like the vocation they obtain.

Even worse, the Pope’s plan opens the door to an evolution that will probably not stop half-way. After accepting the principle and spreading the practice of ordaining married men, it will be hard to stop there and not also accept the marriage of priests. And there will be no lack of learned minds ready to explain to the good people of God how inevitably positive this evolution is: after all, whether the marriage took place before or after the ordination does not make much of a difference. The essential is that the two be considered compatible.

This sort of maneuver, if it is carried out, will have had its first trial run with Amoris Laeitia. In this exhortation, while reaffirming the principle of the indissolubility of marriage, the Pope authorizes practices that go against this principle, by allowing for couples living together or divorced and remarried couples to benefit from the same pastoral treatment in the Church as legitimately married couples. In the same way, while he reaffirms the law of celibacy, he would be making it possible on the practical level to act against this law: to ordain married men priests, then even to allow priests to marry. And that, of course, “only in certain cases” because of the shortage of priests. Is that not precisely what is properly called “situation ethics”?

Defense of Priestly Celibacy

In the June-September 2013 Letter to Our Fellow Priests (numbers 58-59), is included an article that clearly resumes the traditional position of the Church under the title Defense of Priestly Celibacy.

A Universal and Constant Practice

In a Church which claims to be essentially faithful to Tradition, this universal and constant practice of consecrated celibacy cannot be treated as a simple human custom, revocable at will. On the contrary, it gives us to think that ecclesiastical celibacy has deep links with Revelation itself.

SSPX Priestly Ordinations: Winona, MN - 2009

The Real Sense of Priestly Celibacy

The practice of the Church, taken by itself, does not necessarily have the force of law. It must, in addition, rest on foundations which come from Divine Revelation or the nature of things. This is the case for priestly celibacy, which rests on supernatural motives of the highest value and is rooted directly in the Gospel itself. 

Sacerdos alter Christus, “the priest is another Christ.” This is the fundamental principle which illuminates the Catholic priesthood. The Priesthood of Christ is unique and definitive, and the priesthood of men, the ministerial priesthood (that is, etymologically, the priesthood of servants) is a real participation in this Sovereign Priesthood. It is therefore Christ Himself who is the Model, the “Type,” He to Whom each priest must be intimately conformed in order for his priesthood to take on all of its truth.

Jesus Christ, the True Priest, Remained a Virgin

Now, it is remarkable that Jesus Christ (in a world where celibacy was almost unknown, if not cursed), remained in the state of virginity throughout all of His life. This virginity of His signifies His total and unreserved consecration to God. All of His energies, all of His thoughts, all of His actions belong to God. It is by this total consecration (which in Jesus goes all the way to a Hypostatic Union, such that His human nature no longer belongs to itself but belongs directly to the Person of the Word), that Christ was constituted Mediator between Heaven and earth, between God and men, that is to say, a Priest.

Celibacy as a Consecration to God

Thus, virginity signifies and realizes the consecration which is the essence of the Priesthood of Christ. In other words, the virginity of Jesus flows from His Priesthood and is intimately connected with it. The human priest who participates in the Priesthood of Christ also participates in His total consecration to God and, as a consequence, in His virginity. The consecrated celibacy of the priest is therefore an intimate and love-filled union with the virginity of Jesus, sign of His consecration to the Father. This is the first and most fundamental reason for the celibacy of priests.

The Love of Christ for the Church

Jesus was a virgin not only in order to express His consecration to the Father, but also in order to offer Himself on the Cross for His Church, so as to make of Her a glorious, holy and immaculate Spouse (cf. Eph. 5, 25-27). In this way, the consecrated virginity of the human priest manifests and prolongs the virginal love of Christ for the Church and the supernatural fecundity of this love.

The priest’s availability to love the Church and souls manifests itself by his prayer life, by his celebration of the sacraments and particularly that of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by his charity towards all, by his constant preaching of the Gospel, following the example of the Life of Jesus. Each day, the priest, united to Christ the Redeemer, begets souls in Faith and Grace, and makes the love of Christ for His Church, signified by His virginity, present among men.

The Sign of the Kingdom to Come

If we pass from examining the mission of Christ on earth to the consideration of the full realization of this mission in Heaven, we discover a third cause for His virginity and so also for that of the priest.

In effect, the earthly Church is the seed of the heavenly Church and at the same time the sign of the blessed life to come. What heavenly beatitude will be is already visible in the earthly life of the Church, though in a manner that is veiled and mysterious. But, as Our Lord said so forcefully: “in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven.” (cf. Matt. 22, 30). Virginity will therefore be the final state of blessed humanity. It is fitting that the sign of this virginity should shine forth, already in this life, in the midst of the tribulations and desires of the flesh. The consecrated celibacy of the priest, mirroring that of Christ, is thus an anticipation of heavenly glory, a prefiguring of the life of the elect and a pressing invitation to the faithful to march towards Eternal Life without allowing themselves to be weighed down by the burdens of each day.

The celibacy of human priests is therefore a participation in the virginity of the Supreme Priest, a virginity which expresses His total consecration to the Father, makes possible His union with the Church and announces the blessed life of Heaven to come.

The Letter to Our Fellow Priests then gives the answers to a few common objections against mandatory priestly celibacy.

Married clergy do not recruit any better than celibate clergy

When people point to the vocations crisis in order to attack priestly celibacy, they forget to note that the ecclesial communities which already allow for the marriage of their priests or pastors—such as the Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants—are experiencing the same recruiting difficulties as the Latin Rite Catholic Church. Allowing priests to marry is therefore not a particularly effective way to eliminate the drop in vocations. The real causes for the drop in vocations are rather the weakening of the spirit of Faith, the destruction of the Catholic family, the development of materialism, the enormous scandals caused by certain priests, the destruction of the Holy Mass by the liturgical reform, etc. On the other hand, the total gift of self to God which priestly celibacy signifies is a light which guides generous souls towards the priestly ministry and is one of the principal sources of a vocation.

Change the law because it is only imperfectly followed?

Infringements in the law of celibacy, leading to scandals and apostasies, exist – it would be ridiculous to deny this. Nevertheless, that is in no way a reason for rejecting consecrated celibacy. Otherwise, we would also have to suppress marriage, for there are breaches of fidelity, adulteries and scandalous divorces. The difficulty in keeping conjugal fidelity is not a reason for suppressing it. Similarly, the difficulty in conserving priestly chastity is not a reason for suppressing celibacy, but rather a reason for continually rooting it more deeply in a human balance and an authentic supernatural life. To want to suppress celibacy because it is not always maintained is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to get rid of cars because of road-traffic accidents, to abolish food because of indigestion and to do away with life because there are people who commit suicide.

What is impossible to man is possible to God

To claim that observing celibacy is an impossibility is false both on the natural and supernatural levels. We know from scientific and philosophical psychology that continence, even absolute continence, is not in any way against nature. Man, being a free and reasonable being, is able to master his physical and emotional inclinations. At the same time, it has to be admitted that the virtuous and continual observance of celibacy is not ordinarily given to a human nature wounded by Original Sin. In this sense, the celibacy of the priest is founded, not on nature alone, but on that grace by which God makes possible what is impossible to man. It is therefore true that consecrated celibacy requires a particular grace, but it is a grace which God grants unreservedly to one who has piously engaged himself in His service. This grace makes him capable of remaining faithful to his engagements. The immense legion of priests who have caused the magnificent splendor of their spotless virginity to shine for so many centuries in the Church bears witness to this.

Archbishop Lefebvre’s Answer

In the article we already quoted earlier, the United States District shows how the founder of the Society of Saint Pius X gave the answer to these attacks on priestly celibacy.

To all the crises of the clergy throughout history, the Church always answered by promoting an authentic imitation of the Unique Priest Jesus Christ, demanding the chastity from the clergy as a more perfect identification with the Model.

By submitting the Statutes of the SSPX for Church approval 50 years ago, Archbishop Lefebvre providentially answered the problem of the clergy he had foresaw when archbishop in Dakar:

The dream was to transmit, before the progressive degradation of the priestly ideal, in all of its doctrinal purity and in all of its missionary charity, the Catholic Priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, just as he conferred it on His Apostles, just as the Roman Church always transmitted it until the middle of the twentieth century.

(Spiritual Journey, December 8, 1989).