Some Thoughts on Priestly Celibacy

The Tablet has reported — and this editorial space has addressed — the idea of ordaining older married men as priests, which in addition to many other matters the upcoming synod for the Amazon region will discuss. There is much to consider.

On one hand the communities of the Amazon region are impeded from celebrating the Eucharist due to a lack of priests.  The Synod will discuss the criteria for “selecting and preparing ministers authorized to celebrate the Eucharist”.  While affirming that celibacy is a gift from God, the Synod members will also study the possibility of priestly ordination for older people preferably indigenous. 

This presents the challenge of establishing two concepts of the priesthood.   If the viri probati (men of proven virtue) are permitted one concept would be the “functional” priest, an older married man who offers Mass, in addition to our current understanding of the celibate priest, either a diocesan or religious order priest, who is considered to have a different calling and is treated differently, given different spiritual, administrative and educational tasks.

It is worth noting that the concept of viri probati is not speaking about convert clergymen who were already ministers of another Christian faith and were ordained to the priesthood as married clergymen, nor does the idea mean that men ordained priests who have since left the ministry to marry would be permitted back to sacramental ministry. Nor are these men to be necessarily taken from the ranks of already ordained permanent deacons.

Pope Francis said in January that his “personal opinion” is that optional celibacy is not the way forward. “Am I someone who is closed? Maybe, but I don’t feel like I could stand before God with this decision,” Pope Francis told reporters at the time. “A phrase St. Paul VI said comes to mind: ‘I would rather give my life than to change the law on celibacy,’” Pope Francis said.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote the following in his post-synodal exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis # 29 in 1992: “While in no way interfering with the discipline of the Oriental churches, the synod, in the conviction that perfect chastity in priestly celibacy is a charism, reminds priests that celibacy is a priceless gift of God for the Church and has a prophetic value for the world today. This synod strongly reaffirms what the Latin Church and some Oriental rites require, that is, that the priesthood be conferred only on those men who have received from God the gift of the vocation to celibate chastity (without prejudice to the tradition of some Oriental churches and particular cases of married clergy who convert to Catholicism, which are admitted as exceptions in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on priestly celibacy, no. 42). The synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church’s firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite. The synod would like to see celibacy presented and explained in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness, as a precious gift given by God to his Church and as a sign of the kingdom which is not of this world — a sign of God’s love for this world and of the undivided love of the priest for God and for God’s people, with the result that celibacy is seen as a positive enrichment of the priesthood.”(78)

It is important to understand the theological motivation on celibacy. The ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination is that it configures the priest to Jesus Christ the head and spouse of the Church.  While the decision to ordain married men as priests remains a question, we must redouble our efforts to ensure communities on the margins are not denied the possibility of celebrating the Eucharist.

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