Why a Celibate Priesthood?

Why a Celibate Priesthood? December 11, 2015

is the question under discussion over at the Register today.


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  • I think Tevye says it best: “Tradition!” (Everybody sing!)

    • W. Randolph Steele

      Yup.

  • Mark R

    It’s really a mixed bag. It is great that celibacy is a sign of contradiction, but there is so little asceticism in the Western church to bolster this sign in the lives of priests. He is free from family constraints, but then the parish then has to hire people to do things like administration or catechesis, as would normally be done by a priest’s wife in the East. As any married person will tell you, at some point it is not all about sex. A married priest, or any faithful in the East, abstains from meats and dairy twice a week as well as marital relations then as well as the night before a Sunday or feast.. There is chastity more than implied in the married clergy as well. The drawback is that the married priest usually has a weekday job and there can be pressure on the children of clergy as in Protestantism. But then usually new clergy and their future wives come from the ranks of clergy children.
    Both East and West have strong monastic presences in which celibacy has the best environment to thrive.
    Let us not disparage the “Dark Ages”. Celibacy was not mandated in the West at that time, saints roamed Europe and practically every pope was a saint.

  • Mark

    The problem is: priests are not consecrated religious, priesthood is not consecrated life.

    THAT is the eschatological sign of contradiction and necessarily also involves poverty and living communally.

    The secular/diocesan priesthood has an altogether different end, providing liturgy and sacraments for the parish, which is not intrinsically connected to the goals of consecrated life, and which can in fact be hindered by a model which insists on prioritizing them unnaturally (i.e., inasmuch as celibacy is not the nature, the raison d’etre, of the priesthood, but providing enough liturgy IS.)

    You look at the world today. Places go without Sunday Mass. Priests have to trinate and (!) quadrinate on Sundays. Confession times are a half-hour once a week (and it’s never before or during Mass on Sundays when people are actually at the church already). Parishes never even consider the possibility of public Vespers or Lauds, not even on Sundays (and the other Hours, or other days of the week…they’d look at you like you’re crazy!)

    On the other hand, the other six days of the week, there’s no real shortage because priests basically can work as hard or as lazily as they want. Sure some pastors with a parish school and all sorts of vibrant ministries work like dogs. But, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes, at other parishes a priest’s job consists of little more than a Mass at 8AM, a wedding and a funeral per week, and the occasional emergency visit for last rites. Otherwise his secretary balances the books, he gets free room and board and benefits pre-salary, and we wonder why alcoholism was (and from what I’ve heard, remains) a big problem because what do these bored lonely men do all day? (The novus ordo LOTH takes maybe 30 minutes total to say privately all spread out).

    And then we feel sad when they close and consolidate parishes because, apparently, the good number for a modern priest to handle isn’t a couple hundred (the ideal in the East) but several thousand souls per parish. Because the truth is they just don’t do that much without at least that many people.

    A priest’s job isn’t to be a sign (especially when the credibility of that sign is largely shot; should anyone really care about the “symbolism” of the fact that Western priests are “supposed to be” celibate when many people suspect that many of them aren’t *really*? What good does something perceived as a pretense do?) They’re not there to be Freudian outlet for weird conservative sexual projections either.

    They’re there to provide liturgy. The ideal is a world in which the full divine Office is being sung, publicly, in every parish daily, on top of a solemn high mass, several low masses, frequently available confessions, public devotions, paraliturgical stuff like adoration, etc

    Sounds crazy, though, under our conception of the priest as a full-time salaried celibate functionary who has to spend 6 years post-undergrad in seminary first (which they often have to pay for themselves, I was shocked to learn) as if he’s training to be a surgeon or rocket scientist.

    But let’s look at the Jewish temple priesthood, or how they do things in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church even to this day. What might we propose?

    I’ve often said the best model would be this: in a modern parish of thousands, find 100 married men. “Probati” or not I don’t really care; an obsession(/delusion) about the moral purity of clerics has always in history devolved into a naive clericalism that ends up being met with very nasty surprises and then disillusionment.

    Anyway, ordain these men as volunteer part-time priests or “priests simplex.” Train them in night and weekend classes for a year or two, if you insist; my concern would mainly be teaching them to read and sing from chant notation.

    Have them all take one day a month where a group of three provides the full services for that day. Full services! A solemn high mass and two low masses. The full divine office. Confessions in between. Adoration in the afternoon with a full public rosary and ending with Benediction-Vespers-Compline service. Would be wonderful. Exhausting for a full-time priest, sure, but not bad for someone once a month.

    If we’re worried about their advice in confession or their sermons and homilies (which priests simplex couldn’t give)…they could be bound not to spiritually direct, to give prescribed penance out of some national manual, and their sermons (if we think daily mass even need those; they didn’t traditionally) could likewise be pre-written by the bishop, or drawn from a book of Patristic sermons, or provided by the pastor (I’d imagine there would still be SOME full-time salaried priests, who could be celibate if you insist, administratively overseeing groups of parishes as the official pastor).

    But no. Apparently providing full liturgy takes a backseat to some idea that priestly celibacy is our institutional defiance against the sexual revolution, everything else be damned…

    • FranklinWasRight

      You don’t seem to understand the history of priestly celibacy, and so you view this as a strictly utilitarian problem.

      Daily mass became the norm, priests were expected to say mass daily. It is why the great Cathedrals and many churches in Europe all have multiple side altars.

      Preists were supposed to abstain from sexual relations on days they said mass. If you are saying daily mass, you see where this is going.

      The priest is supposed to devote himself to his flock, they are to be his children. It’s why we call them Father. In family life there are good fathers and bad fathers, some fathers seem to be more devoted than others. It is the same with the priesthood, they are all human after all.

      Every parish should be able to produce at least one vocation in every generation. They used to far exceed this number as the norm. Instead of seeing a crisis that has lasted 50 years in a church that is 2,000 years old as a reason to throw out sound practices, maybe we should see the crisis as a reason to examine what has changed in the last 50 years to cause people to be unwilling to sacrifice for God and their vocations.

      • Mark

        No I understand the history, and in my proposal, in fact, the “once a month” volunteer priests-simplex would indeed be expected to abstain from relations with their wife the night before (but it’s only one night a month.)

        Daily mass is not a rule for priests. That development arose from another development: that of the priest as a full-time salaried position in a major bureaucracy.

        And like I said, we still need some “institutional men” to be the full-time administrators, the pastors. And they could still be celibate and of course salaried.

        But this is not the only model we can imagine nor are we somehow bound by history. Priests first and foremost are priests, not pastors. Priests may or may not have a pastorate or the cure of souls.

        • FranklinWasRight

          Not all priests are pastors, you are correct. But our greatest need seems to be for pastors. And you mention that pastors and administrators could still be celibate.

          Then what is the point?

          Having non-celibate priests who are neither pastors nor administrators? Why?

          Every priest benefits from daily mass, the entire church benefits from the prayers and intentions of daily masses. This is why it became the “norm.” It has spiritual benefits for the entire church.

          I’m really not sure what you are suggesting. Married priests who serve as teachers or doctors or lawyers? What would the purpose be? So they can have children who grow up to be priests? We’ve had vocations to the priesthood for over 1,000 years when priests had to remain celibate, I don’t see how you can identify celibacy as the culprit behind the current crisis.

          • Mark

            Franklin, you need to consider the math. The Church benefits from daily mass because it benefits, simply, from *more* masses.

            But which provides more masses: a single priest saying mass daily for a month (30 masses), or 100 priests who all say mass once a month (100 masses)?

            My proposal doesn’t lessen the number of masses, it increases it. Because it increases the total number of priests many-fold.

            You’re treating this like its some sort of zero sum game. But that’s silly. Saying that maximal benefit comes from a priest who says Mass daily means nothing when speaking of a pool of men who might not be able to be priests at all if daily mass were required of them. Why make it all or nothing? Surely a priest saying some masses is, all other things being equal, better than none at all.

            Presumably, men truly called to celibate priestly life will still be called. We’d still get that “baseline.” And that baseline is doing well enough in terms of administration. The shortage is mainly in terms of (Sunday) Mass availability (not to mention other liturgies and sacraments, which are very rare).

            This is about expanding in directions beyond the baseline. It almost sounds like you’d rather have fewer priests as long as the ones we do have are celibate, as if their reason to exist is to form a celibate caste.

          • Mark

            As for your question “what would the purpose be?” that’s already clear enough in what I’ve proposed: to provide the divine services more widely.

            The very fact that you had to even ask that question makes me think you’re already thinking of the celibate diocesan priesthood as some sort of strange end in itself.

            But the purpose of priests, of clergy as such, is public worship. To create a world and a Church in which God is being worshipped everywhere in the full Daily Round; not as some extraordinary event in monasteries, but in all the parishes of the world.

            Liturgy, public prayer and worship, are what have the power to save the world. But it’s not going to happen if we become stingy with Holy Orders and try to attach to it ends that to not naturally belong to it.

            We have trouble getting enough priests for Sunday Mass, and even in the good old days (ie, any period since the Middle Ages) we have not had regular public parochial Divine Office (except maybe Sunday Vespers), although the medieval peasant would have at least been vaguely familiar with all the Hours.

            And that poverty in terms of the Church’s offering to God in public worship has largely been on account of weird clericalist conceptions of the priesthood as some sort of spiritual caste.

            • FranklinWasRight

              But that’s the point. Non-celibate Preists don’t accomplish this. They must abstain before providing the sacraments.

              So they will be “weekend warriors” so to speak who simply fill in once in a while when needed and then the rest of the week tend to their families? And they’ll get paid for this?

              Why not just hire lay ministers to do everything but the sacraments?

              “The very fact that you had to even ask that question makes me think you’re already thinking of the celibate diocesan priesthood as some sort of strange end in itself.”

              It isn’t a “strange end I itself.” But it is a means to an end, and that end is holiness. And this is taught by the church.

              Of course it isn’t the only way to attain holiness, but if celibacy didn’t help people achieve spiritual gains, why would it be so widely practiced by men and women religious who are outside the clergy? And having a spiritually strong priesthood is a very valuable goal indeed.

              As Saint Joh Paul II said, In fact, John Paul II said, “chastity in celibacy has an inestimable value. It constitutes an important key for the spiritual life of priests, for their commitment in the mission, and for their appropriate pastoral relation with the faithful, which should not be based on emotional aspects, but on the responsibility of his ministry.”

              The Church would not have begun to require priestly celibacy if it didn’t have distinct benefits for both the priests and the laity. You don’t give the Church enough credit.

              • Mark

                Franklin, did you even read what I wrote above?

                Please read back over my proposal. It’s very specific.

                No, they would not be paid. I wouldn’t characterize them as “weekend warriors filling in,” though. My proposal specifically proposes a “shift” model (ala the Jewish Temple priesthood, or the Army Reserve if you prefer) wherein they take one day a month, or one week a year, to provide the full services on a volunteer basis.

                As for the rest of what you say: again, the priesthood is not ordered primarily for the holiness of the individual priests. It’s not religious/consecrated life in that sense.

                It has a primary practical end of providing the divine services which has become severely atrophied in our clericalist obsession with maintaining the priest as this figure hyper-saturated, symbolically and in our collective Catholic psyche, with roles and significances the priesthood as such was never meant to take on.

                Besides, again, I wonder why you speak as if this is a zero sum game, as if there won’t be vocations to celibacy unless we bootstrap priestly ordination to it. Saying “celibacy is good!” is not an argument for why we should limit our pool of potential priests to the pool of men already called to celibacy.

                • FranklinWasRight

                  “As for the rest of what you say: again, the priesthood is not ordered primarily for the holiness of the individual priests. It’s not religious/consecrated life in that sense.”

                  I didn’t say it was. I said that celibacy helps increase the holiness of it’s priests, and holy priests benefit the entire church.

                  I fail to see how the crisis of vocations boils down to a need to do away with a centuries old practice that the Church has clearly taught is a benefit to the church. I see no evidence that doing away with celibacy will solve anything. After all, there are plenty of diocese who are not experiencing a shortage of vocations, maybe we should model their practices for encouraging vocations?

                  I live in a diocese that was about as dire as any in terms of the vocation shortage ten years ago. They’ve managed a turn around and are slowly building their vocations back up. It can be done, but it takes holy priests who interact with youth in a positive way. It also takes solid catechesis starting at an early age. But more importantly, it takes a positive and orthodox culture at the seminaries. My own uncle saw the death of his vocation at a seminary during the late sixties, and his story is very common.

                  Why change a practice that works for the majority of the church because a minority would prefer not to have to make too great a sacrifice?

                  • Mark

                    First, the Church can’t “teach” that any particular regime of disciplinary policy is good for the Church. At most it makes a prudential judgment about the practical value of such policy in a given historical situation. But historical contingencies change.

                    Even in the dioceses “not experiencing a shortage” tell me: can you show me one parish that offers the full divine office publicly? Or even a bit of it? Are the priests in these dioceses still binating or trinating on Sundays?

                    If so, you’ve allowed some notion of a celibate priesthood as some sort of totem to destroy the very thing the priesthood exists for: solid liturgy.

                    We’re not talking about some minority “not willing to make a sacrifice.” We’re talking about dozens of men *in each parish* who are certainly not called to celibacy or to the priesthood-as-career…but who would probably be willing to provide public liturgy on a part-time volunteer basis one day a month.

                    You want to make snide insinuations about unwillingness to sacrifice? Then ask the current celibate bureaucrats why they aren’t willing to get up at 4AM to offer public Matins and Lauds for their parish!