Why the Church must continue to uphold priestly celibacy

Why the Church must continue to uphold priestly celibacy

Fr Pat Stratford

Perhaps it is time for committed Catholic parents, as well as priests and teachers, to start nurturing a new respect for celibacy among the young.

Guided only by the secular press over the last 30 years, many young men could have come to believe that priests in general are unhappy in their vocation and resentful of their celibacy. We priests need to show by word and example that we are in fact happy in our vocation to the priesthood.

The Second Vatican Council recommended celibacy for priests (Ministry and Life of Priests, par 16) and in 2004 the bishops from many countries around the world rejected the idea of changing the law on celibacy for priests. Should this be surprising?

While the number of ordinations to the diocesan priesthood has been on the increase in many parts of the world since 1978, the year John Paul II became Pope, at the same time, vocations have decreased in the West. Why has this occurred?

Two sociological factors should be recognised. First, the sharp decline in priestly vocations has coincided with a decline in the numbers of marriages and a rise in the levels of divorce, cohabitation and single motherhood. Second, these trends, which emerged in the 1960s, are characteristic of contemporary Western culture.

I was ordained in 1958 and for nearly ten years after that there were no public complaints about celibacy from priests. Then it began - coinciding with the sexual revolution - much to the delight of the secular media. Priests who left to get married received front-page coverage in some daily newspapers.

In fact, the so-called crisis of priestly celibacy is really a crisis of all forms of lifelong intimate commitment in marriage, priesthood and religious life. The cultural forces attacking celibacy are the same ones undermining and devaluing marriage.

The Christian community should not give way to this cultural onslaught. We need celibate priests, for they are ordained to offer sacrifice: not their own sacrifice, but that of Christ. A priest is a minister to the eternal sacrifice of Christ, a ministry which extends outwards from that core to the ministry of the word and sacraments. He is, in a general way, representative of God to people and of people to God. In that context, celibacy has many values.

Several years ago Fr Seamus Murphy SJ made the following points about the value of celibacy.

* Celibacy expresses the Church's belief in the truth of the New Testament, since it accepts the example and teaching of the Lord Jesus and St Paul that celibacy is positive and life-giving.

*It expresses the priest's own faith in the gospel and his personal trust in Jesus. In committing himself to celibacy, he is putting himself on the line, staking a most important part of his life on the call of Christ.

* It is a significant form of acceptance of Jesus' call to total renunciation for the sake of the gospel. The Christian community is always in need of people who will respond to that call.

* It is an imitation of the celibate Jesus, motivated by love of Him. It represents an acceptance of the idea that the priest must, as far as possible, be like the Master.

*It is sacrificial. It is a sharing in the sacrifice Jesus made through his life and death, as described in the Letter to the Hebrews 2:9-18 and 5:1-10. It is a way of living out Romans 12:1-2, where Paul appeals to the Roman Christians to involve their bodies in their sacrifice to God, going against the norms of the dominant culture.

*It is an expiation for sin, particularly sexual sin. In our time, when the sexual sins of clergy and religious are highlighted, it would be a serious mistake to drop celibacy, since it would amount to abandoning hope that abstinence is possible.

*It is a badly needed counter-witness to the sexual exploitation and irresponsibility, and contempt for sexual self-discipline, promoted by a consumer culture.

*It expresses solidarity with those who are fated, despite their desires, never to marry or have children.

*It is a counter-witness to the collapse of belief in permanent commitment, whether marriage or celibacy. It expresses belief in: (a) the possibility and (b) the value of lifelong celibacy. If the Church appears to give up on the possibility of lifelong celibacy, it will weaken the cultural support for lifelong marriage.

These values are very important, and the Church ought not risk giving the impression of watering them down. Given the contemporary culture, a decision to drop the celibacy requirement, going against 1,600 years of tradition, would inevitably be seen as undermining those values.

Fr Pat Stratford is parish priest of Sandgate-Brighton in the Brisbane Archdiocese.

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