In light of the continuous and insisting pressure on the Catholic Church (also in relation to the upcoming 2019 Pan-Amazon Synod) to let go of priestly celibacy and to allow the ordination of morally proven married men – “viri probati” – the recent book by Father Gary Selin, Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations, gives a good overview of the history and theology of priestly celibacy. As he shows, this practice can be traced back to Apostolic times.

There are two recent events that have once more raised the topic of priestly celibacy. First, Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, made in a recent homily a strong defense of priestly celibacy. He clearly rejected the idea of ordaining the so-called viri probati to the priesthood and said that it would lead “to serious consequences and to a definitive breach with the Apostolic Tradition.” “Then we would establish a priesthood according to human criteria,” Sarah added, “but we would not continue the priesthood of Christ – obedient, poor, and chaste. Indeed, the priest is not only an ‘alter Christus’ [another Christ], but he is truly ‘ipse Christus,’ Christ Himself!”

Then, on the other side of the Church’s spectrum of opinions, we have the comments of a German laywoman in defense of the married priesthood for which she received praise from Cardinal Walter Kasper. Her name is Ilse Sixt, and she has published on her own website a letter in which she praises Pope Francis and then adds:

If he now also tries to have empathy with the distress and the suffering of the clergymen and their wives and children who live in a hidden way, then he has recognized his election as the representative of Christ on earth. Because: Only truthfulness will have success at the long run!

As a response to this letter which she shared with Cardinal Kasper, the prelate answered her back with the brief words: “Bravo, and full approval of this text.”

These statements of two cardinals are obviously in stark contradiction to one another. This shows how much we are in need of a deeper understanding of the roots and the reasons for priestly celibacy, also in order to be better able to defend it.

Let us thus turn to Father Selin’s book, which was published in 2016 and which was in part written for Selin’s doctorate in theology. He now is a professor and formation advisor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, Colorado and has already given several interviews concerning his book. Selin tries to present the Church’s history and theory of priestly celibacy in a well-ordered manner.

Father Selin, in his introduction, shows that Pope Francis himself is in principle open to the married priesthood. He quotes the Pope as saying in 2014:

They [married priests] exist, in the Eastern rites, there are married priests. Because celibacy is not a dogma of faith, it is a rule of life which I highly esteem and I believe is a gift for the Church. Since it is not a dogma of faith, the door is always open: at this time we have not spoken about this, as a programme, at least not now.

Already in 2012, before becoming Pope, he had said:

For now, the Church remains firm on the discipline of celibacy. There are those who say, with a certain pragmatism, that we are missing out on more manpower. If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism would change on the issue of celibacy, I believe that it would be for cultural reasons (like in the Eastern Church), not as much as a universal option. […] It is an issue of discipline, not of faith. It can be changed. [emphasis added]

In 2016, Pope Francis had made it public that he seriously considers the admission of the so-called viri probati (morally proven married men) to the priesthood, saying, “We have to reflect about whether the viri probati are a possibility.” He added that in the Church, “it is always important to recognize the right moment, to recognize when the Holy Ghost demands something.”

Is it thus true that priestly celibacy is only a question of discipline and that it thus can be changed?

Cardinal Sarah would say no, most probably. Father Selin himself quotes at the end of his book Cardinal William Levada who, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in 2011:

If we may say that Christ’s virginal celibacy was an essential part of his salvific mission, may we not also say that priestly celibacy is “essential” to our priesthood? […] He [the Jesuit Donald Keefe] would say that being a priest and being celibate belong together “essentially,” that is, their bond is not extrinsic, incidental, accidental, or artificial. They are not held together simply by an act of the arbitrary will of authority. Rather, they complement each other. They form an integral whole in which the one reinforces and perfects the other.

While Levada admits that celibacy is not of divine law – otherwise, no exceptions for the Eastern rites could have been allowed for so long a time – it is, however, still doctrinal by nature. He explains:

In my view, it seems right to speak of the reasons that support the congruence or fittingness of priestly celibacy as “doctrinal.” Not every doctrinal development will result in a dogmatic definition, of the type that led to definitions of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, or of papal primacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. […] Without raising an expectation of a dogmatic declaration in regard to celibacy, it seems to me that the links of celibacy to the doctrine of priesthood justify the notion of doctrinal development, thus excluding arguments about celibacy as solely a disciplinary matter. [emphasis added]

So, in 2011, Cardinal Levada took different position than the one held by Jorge Bergoglio, both before and after his papal election.

Father Selin himself excludes any deeper discussion of the exception granted to the Eastern rites with regard to their married priesthood, but he does stress that, even in these rites, there are to be found restrictions, for example that a married priest may never become a bishop and that a priest may not marry after ordination.

Let us now turn to the large corpus of Church history, even before the later exception granted (for the sake of unity) to some Eastern churches when they returned to the Catholic Church. Selin discusses in depth the question as to how the Apostles themselves lived, especially in light of Christ’s own life. As we shall see, the Apostles themselves either lived in perfect continence or they led a celibate life (without ever marrying, such as St. Paul).

Making reference to several passages from Scripture, as well as the academic discussion about them, it becomes highly probable that the Apostles – some of whom were married before their new vocation – all ceased their marital relations once they were ordained. It is better to speak here of priestly continence, rather than priestly celibacy, which excludes being in the state of marriage. Continence means the complete refraining from sexual intercourse.

The reasons given for this assumption are manifold. Christ Himself lived a celibate life. As Selin says, “there was a fundamental precedent for celibacy as a permanent state: the life of Jesus Christ.” The New Testament “portrays Jesus as having no earthly ties. For example, no family member was present at his death except his mother.” Had Jesus been married, surely His wife would have stood at the Cross, as well. Selin gives a further explanation when he says that “the manner of life that Jesus lived was compatible with his mission of evangelization, but not with marriage.” He left “his home and family in Nazareth in order to live as an itinerant preacher, consciously renouncing a permanent dwelling.” As Selin points out, Jesus “came to reveal God’s love for all people. If Jesus had chosen to marry, he would have been bound to a particular love that would have concealed his universal love.”

In addition to Christ’s own life, there are also His words. In speaking with His disciples about marriage (Mt 19:10), He mentions those “who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” adding that “not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.” Since Jesus also announced that there is a resurrection into a heavenly life where there is no marriage, “it follows that celibacy, both his own and that of his disciples, was a prophetic lifestyle that bears witness both to the resurrection and to the Kingdom,” says Selin.

Another example from Holy Scripture can also help our further understanding. In I Cor. 7:32-34a, St. Paul recommends to the unmarried faithful to remain celibate, just as he himself has done.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife [and his children], and his interests are divided.

As Father Selin reminds us, “the call to celibacy is a counsel and not a precept.” Historical study of the Pastoral Letters of St. Paul seem to indicate that the idea was to ordain men who had shown, by their fidelity, to have only one wife in their lives, and that they therefore would be capable of living in continence after ordination. St. Paul’s use of the word “sister-woman” in context with the companions of the Apostles (I Cor. 9:5), says Selin, was interpreted by the Church Fathers as women “who served the material needs of their apostolic ministry, as did the women who followed Jesus.”

The early Church did not forbid married men, as such, to be ordained, but they had to live in perfect continence. As the Church historian Cardinal Walter Brandmüller put it in 2011, from the fifth century on, the Church more and more began to ordain only unmarried men.

As Selin shows, the insistence upon priestly continence can be found in written form as early as 305 with the Spanish Council of Elvira. In canon 33, this council required “perfect continence for all married clerics under pain of deposition.” Since this canon did not give any further explanation, Father Selin states that it is “unlikely that it was an innovation that would have deprived married clerics of a long-established right.” This line of argument would lead us to believe that this clerical continence was an earlier unwritten law and custom. As Selin shows, the Second Council of Carthage (390) appealed to an unwritten law “rooted in apostolic tradition to justify perfect and perpetual clerical continence.”

Moreover, Clement of Alexandria, a Church Father of the second century (d. 215), stated that a married cleric “had to live with his wife from the day of his ordination as a woman-helper or sister-woman.” Selin points out in this context that “in the third century, the Eastern Church authorities are in fact stronger witnesses to a widespread discipline of clerical continence” than was the Latin Church.

As Father Selin shows, throughout the fourth century, there are many Church documents that uphold the discipline concerning clerical continence, among them the Council of Nicea (325), the document of the Roman Synod, Cum in Unum (386), as well as the findings of the Second Council of Carthage (390). The last mentioned Council of the year 390 explicitly refers back to the Apostolic tradition. As Selin says: “This is the strongest fourth-century witness to the apostolic tradition of clerical continence.” In the fifth century, there can be found a “unity of the Western and Eastern Churches on the matter of clerical continence, rooting it in Divine Revelation.”

Noteworthy in our context might be also that testimony of St. Jerome, in the fourth and fifth centuries, who compared an “incontinent bishop to an adulterer.” “Jerome seems to have accused the married bishop of adultery because the latter had acquired, through ordination, a new spouse, namely the Church,” Selin explains. Subsequent centuries saw a continued attempt at defending clerical continence against grave abuses on the part of the clergy, for example in the early Middle Ages. It was in the seventh century, however, that the Eastern Church started to depart from that tradition, especially with their Trullan canons, which were not accepted by several popes at the time. These canons permitted periodic – intermittent – continence. As Selin shows, “Canon 13 of Trullo constituted a departure from the apostolic tradition of continence-celibacy that was codified at the Second Council of Carthage.” Here, Selin quotes once more Cardinal Levada who says:

Put another way, it is a common modern understanding of the history of celibacy to suggest that the practice of the early Church, at least until the decrees imposing celibacy “in the strict sense” in the West, was that the early Church’s practice was substantially that which later prevailed in the Eastern Churches, and that the practice of the West in requiring celibacy was a “later” innovation. But recent historical studies have called this once prevalent view into question.

For centuries, the Latin Church hence continued to insist upon clerical continence and to modify only some aspects of it. The practice of priestly celibacy began to spread. After the Council of Trent the Church more exclusively ordained unmarried men. It is worth repeating, however, that priestly continence was always insisted upon, throughout the centuries, and that married priests were regarded as not fully in line with tradition. The Council of Trent rejected any mitigation with regard to priestly continence, and it also established seminaries “to prepare young men for the priesthood and for the celibate life,” Selin explains. These seminaries led to the further exclusion of married priests.

As Selin shows, throughout the following centuries calls for a softening of the Church’s discipline were recurring, “but these pressures notwithstanding, the popes upheld mandatory celibacy through various authoritative teachings” such as those of Gregory XVI (1765-1846) and Pius IX (1792-1878). When, in 1917, Pope Benedict XV promulgated the first universal code of canon law for the Latin Church, canon 132§1 stated the obligation of priestly celibacy. Those who were sinning against it, committed a sacrilege.

Let us sum up some important aspects of this presentation here. As Cardinal Brandmüller stated above, from the fifth century on the Church began to establish the custom, rooted in Apostolic tradition, of ordaining only unmarried men. Priestly celibacy has been understood in Catholic tradition as the perfect imitation of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and therefore it is most fitting for priests to forego marriage. As the centuries progressed, the majority of candidates for the priesthood were celibate. Although the married priests were ordained, provided that they and their wives promised to live in perfect continence, they were always seen as the exception to the Apostolic tradition. The fact that priestly celibacy does not appear in canonical law for centuries does not mean that celibacy was not the tradition and custom. We have to wait until the 1917 Code of Canon Law to find the first universal canonical legislation.

After this historical overview of the history of priestly celibacy, let us briefly further discuss the main reasons for that priestly way of life, in addition to the ones already mentioned above.

As Selin points out, “celibacy is a gift, or charism, freely bestowed by the Holy Spirit on the man who is called to serve in the Catholic Church as a deacon, a priest, or a bishop.” Pope Pius XI praised celibacy because of “the incredible honor and dignity” of the priesthood. With regard to the liturgy, the pope continues, the priest’s duty is in some way “higher than that of the most pure spirits” who stand before the Lord. Throughout the book, Father Selin shows that the close connection with the Holy Eucharist, and thus with Christ, is one of the main reasons for celibacy.

Pius XI adds that the priest should be completely dedicated to the things of the Lord and detached from the things of the world in order to be able to dedicate himself fully to prayer, because his mission is the salvation of souls. The Pope asks whether it is, then, not fitting that the priest keep himself free from the cares of a family which would absorb a great part of his energies. As Selin continues this presentation: “The cares of the family and the need to please his wife would prevent the married priest, as a minister of God, from praying as he ought.”

Let us here, as a side remark, consider the witness of Hartmut Constin, a former Protestant minister who is now himself a recently ordained Catholic married priest. When asked in a recent interview with the German newspaper Die Tagespost about the fact that he is a married priest and whether he is now being used by the promoters of the abolishment of celibacy, Father Constin responds as follows:

That nearly all Protestant ministers are married, has its own difficulties. This point is often being ignored in the Catholic Church with regard to the question of celibacy: the frequent failure of Protestant minister-marriages is not an inessential problem.

Let us return to Selin’s book. Pope Pius XII, in a similar way, emphasizes that celibacy liberates the priest so that he can “renounce the things of the world” and attend to the “things of the Lord.” He also, in Selin’s words, “cautioned the priest against having excessive familiarity with women, for unchastity in thought, word, and action would make him too impure to celebrate the sacred liturgy.” Thus “the priest gains a purity of body and soul that will enable him worthily to offer liturgical worship.” Here, the Pope is referring to a traditional reason for priestly celibacy: ritual purity.

As Selin points out, the priest has to be so close to God, in supernatural love, through prayer and worship, that he himself is able to draw others closer to God. The priest has to offer himself, with his celibacy, entirely to God and His service. He represents Christ both as Priest and as Victim in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Selin continues: “As Christ belongs to all people – not to one alone – so the priest as Christ’s representative belongs to all, a state that necessarily excludes marriage for him.” But Selin also continuously stresses that celibacy not only frees the priest fromsomething (earthly ties through marriage), but it also frees him for something – namely for attaining a closer identification with Christ, or as we also say, an imitation of Christ, Imitatio Christi. It frees the priest’s heart so that he can love God even more. Thus, two arguments for celibacy that were continuously made throughout the centuries were: a greater facility in ministering to the Church; and a life in imitation of Christ.

However, as the author shows, from the early centuries up into the 19th century, the Church explained the discipline of priestly celibacy especially with two major reasons: ritual purity and the superiority of the celibacy over marriage. Importantly, Selin says, since the conciliar and post-conciliar times, however, these two main reasons for celibacy have been largely omitted, in part out of fear to appear to demean the dignity of marriage. Selin speaks of an “ostensible aversion of the council fathers in evoking an association with Trent on this issue,” and he says:

In choosing this mode of expressing the excellence of the celibate life, the bishops [at the Second Vatican Council] avoided words that would suggest a clear correspondence with the Tridentine teaching on the superiority of virginity to marriage.

These traditional reasons for priestly celibacy should be further studied and revived. For, it seems that with the abandonment of the traditional teaching on celibacy, there went along with it a strong drop of priestly vocations after Vatican II (for which of course there might be several reasons).

Pope Paul VI himself later wrote in 1967 an encyclical on celibacy – Sacerdotalis Caelibatus – which, in Selin’s eyes, is the most comprehensive, but largely overlooked, teaching on priestly celibacy. Father Selin therefore discusses in his book at length the “threefold dimension of priestly celibacy” as mentioned at the Second Vatican Council and as further developed by Pope Paul VI: the Christological, the ecclesiological, and the eschatological dimensions.

The Christological dimension of priestly celibacy is the “celibate priest’s union with Christ,” the imitation of Christ, the representation of Christ. The priest tries, in imitating Christ, to grow in charity and sacrifice, imitating Christ in everything, to include Christ’s own celibate life. The eschatological dimension is that the priests foreshadow with their way of life the life of the world to come. They “renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” as Selin puts it, and they “bear witness to the resurrection in the future life.” Third, the ecclesiological dimension of priestly celibacy is the priest’s service to the Church. He completely serves Christ and His Mystical Body.

As a final aspect of this book, Father Selin himself wishes to show us the important link between the priestly celibacy and the Holy Eucharist. He says that “the graces given to the priest to live a fruitful celibacy should be understood as being drawn from the Eucharist.” Selin continues, “the Eucharist is the universal source of grace for all the faithful and the goal of all the activities of the Church. Hence, the charism of priestly celibacy, as with pastoral charity, has its own source and ultimate goal in the Eucharist.”

In light of our current debate surrounding the upcoming 2019 Pan-Amazon Synodand the possibility that Pope Francis might soon admit the so-called viri probati to the priesthood, let us in the end consider some additional aspects. In light of the history as Selin presents it, we can with certainty say that priestly continence (not the state of celibacy, which excludes a previous marriage) has been the Church’s teaching and practice since Apostolic times. As Selin quotes the author Christian Cochini:

The Augustinian principle, desiring that “what has been kept by the entire Church and was always maintained, without having been established by the councils, [is] regarded as quite rightly as having been transmitted only by the apostolic authority,” seems to find in the discipline of celibacy-continence for the higher ranks of clergy, as practiced during the early centuries, an adequate and justified application. Let us conclude that the obligation demanded from married deacons, priests, and bishops to observe perfect continence with their wives is not, in the Church, the fruit of belated development, but on the contrary, in the full meaning of the term an unwritten tradition of apostolic origin that, so far as we know, found its first canonical expression in the 4thcentury. […] “What the apostles taught, and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor also to keep.” This affirmation of the Fathers of Carthage will always remain an essential link with the origins.

With reference to the expressed demand for perfect continence as put forth for deacons, priests, and bishops, a recent comment from a priest contact, who wishes to remain anonymous, might be of help here, as well, also in light of the upcoming Pan-Amazon Synod. He wrote:

Having considered the forthcoming pan-American synod, I really think that perfect continence as such (as distinguished from celibacy) is the middle term that is being neglected, even from orthodox sources, but this difficulty even goes back to the time of Pius XII, when he gave permission for German married Lutheran converts to be ordained Catholic priests, ostensibly without requiring them to live perfect and perpetual continence. Likewise, we have the issue of married permanent deacons, and the confusion over wrong interpretations of canon 277.1. […] This problem has also had a big, but somewhat overlooked, impact on the weakening of esteem for the celibate state.

Canon 277.1 CIC prescribes that clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence. However, the question has then been raised as to why married permanent deacons – who are clerics, as well, the diaconate being one of the three stages of the three-fold rite of priestly ordination (deacon, priest, bishop) – are then excluded from that demand for preserving clerical continence. The canonist Edward Peters summed up the matter in one of his own articles:

About five years ago, I published an extensive canonical examination of the possibility that married clerics (specifically deacons) were bound to observe “perfect and perpetual continence” in accord with Canon 277. I concluded that modern canon law upholds this ancient obligation notwithstanding an almost universal inadvertence to this requirement among married Roman clerics today.

In conclusion, we might say that there are still many aspects to this topic that need to receive a deeper study. The problem of married deacons, as well as the post-conciliar omission of the traditional teaching on priestly celibacy, might be two of them (Patricia Snow, Ross Douthat’s mother, published once an article on some aspects of this matter.). We thank Father Selin for his very searching and hard work to put together so much information on priestly celibacy and its theological foundations.

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