Amid the stir about the Vatican’s creation of “personal ordinariates” for Anglican communities seeking communion with Rome, the discipline of clerical celibacy has again become the focus of the media’s sensitive and admiring attentions. It is still unclear whether these ordinariates will enjoy a permanent exemption from this Latin Rite discipline, or merely a non-renewable exemption (limited to those who are already Anglican priests or seminarians). Either way, there seems to be some expectation in various quarters of the Church that the new provision will undermine the Latin Rite tradition of celibacy. Depending on which quarters of the Church are canvassed, naturally, the prospect excites either anxiety or glee.
I often wonder whether the use of term “discipline” is not partly responsible for this insecurity about priestly celibacy. In the American social imaginary, we associate discipline with drill sergeants and football coaches and stern fathers and anyone else who wants us to do something just because it’s hard and “builds character.” On this understanding, we might just as soon ask priests to extinguish cigars on their forearms as ask them to be celibate—any practice is fine so long as it is both painful and common to all. Hence, we often detect a note of frailty and caprice in the “discipline” of clerical celibacy.
The suspicion of arbitrariness is usually further fueled by common accounts of celibacy’s development. According to the most popular version, clergy of the early Church were married and freely exercised their sexual prerogatives. But then creeping Hellenism created an atmosphere of contempt for sexuality resulting in the requirement of abstinence before cultic actions. When the Western Church instituted daily Mass, this effectively excluded a married priesthood. This all took a long time and, as the story goes, clerical celibacy represents an innovation of the Council of Trent.
If we add to this historical reconstruction the typically American-pragmatic rationale given for the current practice of celibacy, the case becomes even weaker. Many point to the financial and juridical problems associated with requiring obedience from a family man. Others instance the strain that ministry places on families—with the accompanying phenomena of divorce and “preacher’s kids”—already well known in both Orthodox and Protestant Churches. These are not strong cases, though: Protestant and Orthodox ministers are surely enriched in some aspects of their ministry through their marriages.
Pope Benedict, on the other hand, buys neither this historical reconstruction nor the sociological rationale. In “The Church Movements and Their Place in Theology,” which he wrote when still a cardinal, the Pope located the importance of the Church’s “very old” option for celibacy on the spiritual and ecclesial plane. The discipline of celibacy represents the Church’s refusal to be institutionalized:
The Latin Church explicitly emphasized the strictly charismatic character of the priestly ministry by linking priesthood (following in this a very old tradition of the Church) with celibacy, which quite clearly can be understood only as a personal charism, never simply as a quality of the office. The demand for separating the two ultimately rests on the idea that priesthood ought to be regarded, not as charismatic, but—for the sake of the institution and its needs—purely as an office that can be assigned by the institution itself. If you want to take the priesthood entirely under your own management, with its accompanying institutional security, then the link with the charismatic aspect found in the demand for celibacy is a scandal to be removed as quickly as possible. In that case, however, the Church as a whole is being understood as a merely human organization, and the security you are aiming for does not bring the results it is supposed to achieve.
Two points stand out. First, in citing the “very old tradition” of the Church, Benedict is referring to a growing body of research that pushes the origins of priestly celibacy closer and closer to the time of the apostles. Though the argument is long and complex, at least some scholars view clerical celibacy (being unmarried) as a natural development from the far more ancient practice of clerical continence (the renunciation of the sexual privilege within marriage).
Second, the struggle to maintain priestly celibacy is, for Benedict, precisely the struggle against the institutionalization of the Church—a struggle “lest [the institutional structure] harden into an armor that stifles her actual spiritual life.” I suspect that many proponents of a married clergy would resonate with Benedict’s anti-institutional sentiments. Few, it seems, are far-sighted enough to anticipate that married clergy would not be the undoing of clerical control, but its final victory.
Of course, none of the foregoing argues for a strictly necessary connection between celibacy and priesthood. But there is a category between arbitrary and necessary—that of “fitting” (“conveniens”). And the foregoing does argue for a “fittingness” in the celibate priesthood—despite the present shortfall in vocations and the perennial shortcomings of priests. The true hope for the crisis of priesthood lies in God’s power to renew His Church, not in human schemes to smuggle relief in through the back door. I doubt that Benedict will depart from this vision.