IS CELIBACY A DELICACY? (A sequel to “The Gay Priest”)
A delicacy is usually related to food, my favourite indulgence. It is different from the daily fare of dal-chawal or sabji-roti. For me, a delicacy is something like succulent pork chops. Obviously one cannot eat that every day. A delicacy is something special, not the norm.
Celibacy is like a spiritual delicacy, special but different. This is why Jesus described it as a gift. “It is not everyone who can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted” (Mat 19:11). Can one acquire a spiritual gift, or aspire towards it? Herein lies the basic issue of celibacy that is linked to the priesthood in the Latin Rite. Is it a special delicacy or something that can be mass-produced by sending hundreds of innocent young boys to minor and later major seminaries?
In the light of the controversy of a Franciscan priest in Germany declaring that he is gay and a homosexual there is much consternation among the laity. Is being sexually active (be it homosexual or heterosexual) compatible with the priesthood? This needs examination from various angles – canonical, historical, evangelical, eschatological and contemporary dimensions.
This is the easiest because it is cut and dried. The Code of Canon Law was promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 25/1/1983. It states that it applies only to the Latin Church (Can No 1). It is categorical about celibacy for priesthood. “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour” (Can 277:1). Celibacy means not getting married, but continence means refraining from all forms of sex or sexual stimulation – heterosexual, homosexual or self-stimulated.
I stress this point because of late there has been a proliferation of centres established for psycho-sexual counselling of priests and nuns. They attend these courses together. Some of these gurus claim that non-genital sex is not against the vow of celibacy/ chastity. This comes across as obfuscation and circumvention bordering on hypocrisy.
Since a large number, if not the majority, of priests in India, originally belong to the Syro-Malabar Rite I shall also quote from the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (EC) promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 18/10/1990, seven years after the Latin Code. The relevant Canon states: “Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honour” (EC 373).
Notice that married clergy are here referred to as a “hallowed practice” and not an uncontrollable urge, as St Paul would have us believe (cf 1 Cor 7:9). Lest married clergy be equated with married brahmacharya (a la Mahatma Gandhi) the EC elaborates that “In leading family life and educating children married clergy are to show an outstanding example to other Christian faithful” (EC 375).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, also promulgated by Pope John Paul II after the two Codes, on 11/10/1992, echoes what is found in Canon Law. It stipulates that in the Latin Church ordained ministers are “men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate” (CCC 1579). There is no ambiguity or even a reference to homosexuality or heterosexuality. The very next article addressed to the Eastern Churches states: “In the Eastern Churches a different discipline has been in force for many centuries: while bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, married men can be ordained as deacons and priests. This practice has long been considered legitimate” (CCC 1580).
There is a note of caution though. “In the east, as in the West, a man who has already received the Sacrament of Holy Orders can no longer marry” (CCC 1580). So a rethink on celibacy post-ordination is ruled out.
I have a question now for my many friends from the Eastern Rites. Why don’t married men from the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Rites opt for the priesthood? There could be two reasons. One is that every priest aspirant expects to become a bishop! The second is that the Oriental Rites in India have succumbed to the Latinization of their particular churches. This despite their otherwise vociferous assertion of rights when it comes to the liturgy or expansion of eparchies.
Since Canon Law and the Catechism are based on the ecclesiology of Vatican II, it is befitting that we also study those documents. The “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 7/12/1965. In a nuanced approach, it states that “With respect to the priestly life the Church has always held in especially high regard perfect and perpetual continence” (PO 16). Here again note that the term used is continence, not celibacy.
Nevertheless, it admits that “It is not indeed demanded of the very nature of the priesthood as is evident from the practice of the primitive church and from the tradition of the Eastern Churches” (Ibid). This Decree also states that celibacy is a gift that will be generously bestowed on those who humbly and earnestly pray for it (cf Ibid). From the above, it is clear that as things stand today, continence is a sine qua non for the priesthood in the Latin Rite, while it remains a hallowed option in the Eastern Rites.
This was not so from the beginning. The common belief is that other than the young disciple John, to whose care Jesus entrusted his mother (cf Jn 19:26-27), the other apostles were all married. The proof of that is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (cf Mk 1:29-31). Church history does not support the current rigid stand on celibacy in the Latin Rite. Not just Peter and the apostles, several popes and bishops down the centuries were married. I give just a few notable examples of the popes. The numbers in brackets are their chronological order.
John XII (130), one of the worst popes, elected by his influential father at the age of 18, was murdered by the husband of his mistress. John XVIII (140) was married with three children, as was Clement VI (179) with two children. Innocent VIII (209) had two illegitimate children. Alexander VI (210) had a harem with mistresses and children. Even father and son duos became popes. The list could go on, but the point is made. So neither in precept, nor in practice, was celibacy the norm.
All Church promulgations, and even Paul’s infamous, but admittedly personal opinion (cf 1 Cor 7:25), saw marriage as an obstacle to evangelisation. Paul’s personal opinion, based on an erroneous imminent end of the world (cf 1 Cor 7:29), was “I should like you to have your minds free from worry. The unmarried man gives his mind to the Lord’s affairs and to how he can please the Lord, but the man who is married gives his mind to the affairs of the world and to how he can please his wife, and he is divided in mind” (1 Cor 7:32-33).
I find this entire chapter obnoxious and an insult to married people. Let alone married clergy, look at the Corona warriors, doctors and nurses who didn’t see their families for months. What about soldiers posted in freezing cold in Siachen or the burning deserts of Rajasthan? Are their minds divided? Can we question their loyalty to the nation just because they are married? Was the martyrdom of Rev Graham Staines in any way less than that of Sr Rani Maria? A Christian can be a true witness even in marriage which is why the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church refers to families as the domestic church in which Jesus is fully present (cf LG 11).
ESCHATOLOGICAL ASPECT: Here again we have been taught ad nauseum that those who follow the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience are bearing witness to the hereafter, a foretaste of heaven, where there is no giving or receiving in marriage (cf Mat 22:30). But times have changed. The emphasis is on the here and now, not the hereafter.
The entire Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 7/12/1965 is devoted to the here and now. It begins with this solemn intonation: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts” (GS 1).
From the above we find that historically, evangelically or eschatologically, there is no basis for compulsory celibacy for the priesthood. It is merely a tradition limited to the Latin Rite, hence can change with time. Given how sex is glorified at every corner today it becomes exceedingly difficult to be truly continent. Hence I strongly advocate that celibacy be made optional, even in the Latin Rite, especially for the diocesan clergy. Those who choose to be celibate should be advised to join religious orders.
I conclude with an observation that a seminary professor from Sri Lanka made 40 years ago. “Most priests are celibate, not out of commitment, but rather out of lack of opportunities or fear of consequences”. In modern society, with its anonymity, opportunities are not lacking, and consequences can be minimised either through contraception or by an indecisive hierarchy.
This is why I believe that celibacy is a delicacy, a special gift from the Lord, not something to be made mandatory for every aspirant to the priesthood.
Note : The writer was the founder Secretary of the U.P. Regional Youth & Vocations Bureau.