Friday, May 15, 2009

Celibacy Debate

CNN has a Pro / Con debate about celibacy in the priesthood.
Fr. Donald Cozzens argues against it, with what I consider a weak argument, the gist of which is:

The church even holds that marriage (including spousal lovemaking) is a sacrament -- something sacred that contributes to the sanctity of husbands and wives. In light of this official teaching, it is dawning on many Catholics that mandatory celibacy for priests, a canonically imposed discipline of the church, is precisely that -- a discipline.

They are asking, "How is it that a discipline of the church has been allowed to trump a sacrament of the church?" In effect, the church is saying that should God call a man to the priesthood, God will not, at the same time, call that individual to the sacrament of marriage. It's right to ask, how does the church know this?

Public opinion surveys indicate that most Catholics, priests included, believe the discipline of celibacy needs a serious review. Recently the retired archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, observed that obligatory celibacy is open for discussion. It is not, Egan noted, a matter of dogma.

First of all, truth is not determined by public opinion or a vote (thank goodness). Second, just because the history of the Church (and don't forget the present - with Eastern Catholics) allows for married priests, means that it is a good idea for it to be part of the universal Church. Third, because sex is "good" does not mean it has to happen all the time for everyone. In fact, the sacrifice of giving it up is made greater because it is something worthy of sacrifice.

Fr. Robert Barron argues for celibacy:

Even as we reverence everything that God has made, we must let go of everything that God has made, precisely for the sake of God.

This is why, as G.K. Chesterton noted, there is a tension to Christian life. In accord with its affirmation of the world, the Church loves color, pageantry, music and rich decoration (as in the liturgy and papal ceremonials), even as, in accord with its detachment from the world, it loves the poverty of St. Francis and the simplicity of Mother Teresa.

The same tension governs its attitude toward sex and family. Again, in Chesterton's language, the Church is "fiercely for having children" (through marriage) even as it remains "fiercely against having them" (in religious celibacy).

Everything in this world -- including sex and intimate friendship -- is good, but impermanently so; all finite reality is beautiful, but its beauty, if I can put it in explicitly Catholic terms, is sacramental, not ultimate.

In the biblical narratives, when God wanted to make a certain truth vividly known to his people, he would, from time to time, choose a prophet and command him to act out that truth, to embody it concretely.

For example, he told Hosea to marry the unfaithful Gomer in order to sacramentalize God's fidelity to wavering Israel. Thus, the truth of the non-ultimacy of sex, family and worldly relationship can and should be proclaimed through words, but it will be believed only when people can see it.

This is why, the Church is convinced, God chooses certain people to be celibate. Their mission is to witness to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven. In God's realm, we will experience a communion (bodily as well as spiritual) compared to which even the most intense forms of communion here below pale into insignificance, and celibates make this truth viscerally real for us now. Though one can present practical reasons for it, I believe that celibacy only finally makes sense in this eschatological context.

I think Fr. Barron easily wins, but with one caveat. He forgot his audience and his argument will be lost on many who read it, because there are few sound bites.

UPDATE: for more on the question of celibacy, see these related posts:
Celibacy, Vocations, and the Priesthood
Why Wasn't Christ Married?
Why Wasn't Christ Married - Part Deux


Kevin said...

From the quotes that are pasted here, it seems that the two ideas can be reconciled in favor of marriage for priests.

After all, Fr. Barron makes a compelling argument that God chooses certain people to be celibate. He does not, however, make the case that all priests have to be celibate, merely that some people are and are therefore a witness to a transcendent form of love.

Fr. Cozzens, for his part, does not deny that celibacy is a witness to God's love, only that it is a discipline not necessary to the sacrament of holy orders.

One could imagine a priesthood where some embrace the discipline of celibacy and serve as witnesses to God's love (much as other forms of discipline, such as abstinence and fasting, also serve as witnesses of God's love. As the song says, "in heaven there is no beer."). And, of course, there are people who embrace celibacy without the priesthood.

Of course, you could always reply with the classic "RT[DARN]A."

pennyyak said...

I read and understood (I think) both articles. I have only the most ordinary (for an American convert) understanding of the debates which go on in the Church. I look at (hopefully) orthodox material when I am confused. So I would like to ask a question. If there is a shortage of priests, are men not being called by God to the priesthood and celibacy (at the same time)? Are they being called and saying "no"? If this is true, then are we doing something wrong in the Church or in Catholic families? Can we work toward correcting this? Another thing I wonder about is if we allow priests to marry would there be a significant schism in the Church? I love the Catholic Church. It has been (and remains) my faithful partner and teacher in following Jesus. I would never leave it.

But how will we function without priests? Of course, in places where Catholicism is suppressed, Catholics must go about their business without a lot of things. We are not in one of those countries, however.

Sorry that this comment is mainly questions.

tour86rocker said...

Are we talking about allowing married men to be ordained priests or allowing current priests to get married? The former can be allowed by dispensation, but the latter wouldn't be in keeping with the discipline of the Eastern church. Allowing the latter would take the Church's requirements of priest candidates from its most conservative discipline to the very loose state of no discipline there at all. Fr. Cozzens is ambiguous in a couple of places about which he's talking about. He could be talking about both. I think it's a terrible idea.

I don't like a secular media outlet like CNN butting into this internal matter. But I am somewhat impressed that they seem to have used two pretty good, reasonable debaters.

Priestly celibacy is a discipline. Even knowing this, I have sometimes thought of people who clamor for this Roman rite discipline to be be revoked as if they were advocating something evil, which is wrong of me. But the thing is, I've often seen people who don't love the Church advocating it. Although celibacy is a discipline, many of these critics also want to change dogmas and doctrines. Many of these people want married priests, abortion rights, gay marriage, women priests, and all kinds of things that God says are wrong.

I think a faithful Catholic can legitimately make an argument for ordaining married men in the Roman rite. It's just that it's really, really rare to meet someone with that stance who isn't some kind of radical in other ways.

PS, Kevin, the phrase "RT[DARN]A" isn't classic if Google hasn't even seen it. Explain?

tour86rocker said...

I've made a mistake. Cozzens makes it clear that he's advocating allowing current priests to violate their promises of celibacy, urging it because priests like Fr. Alberto Cutie (real name) are already flouting it. Sure, it's possible, but Cozzens isn't really talking about the discipline of celibacy anymore, is he? He's talking about a non-negotiable, chastity, which we can't be dispensed from observing as Christians.

We cannot be given a dispensation to sin.

The response to mortal sinners in the priesthood should be merciful but strict. Personally I think they should be defrocked. The bad witness of such men is toxic. If there's another way to cleanse them of their toxic mentality, take them away from the world for a while and re-educate them, then perhaps they can be permitted to resume their duties. But for cryin' out loud, giving Fr. Cutie as a reason to loosen this discipline? Are you kidding, Cozzens?

All Christians are called to celibacy outside of marriage. It's wrong for people like Cozzens to disguise an assault against chastity as a plea to loosen the discipline of priestly celibacy. How very sad. And just when I thought it was about time to take advocates of married priesthood seriously as valid Catholics. Shame on you, Fr. Cozzens.

tour86rocker said...

pennyyak, you ask some good questions. There are certainly men called to the priesthood who don't accept that call. Some probably don't even _hear_ the call, aren't even aware of it, due to sin. Jason Evert makes a startling claim in "Pure of Heart" that the sexual uncleanness of many men deadens their heart to the ability to respond in love to God's calls to priesthood OR marriage. Even married men might get married for impure reasons. It's something we have to really ponder.

tour86rocker said...

I'd be okay with allowing married men to be ordained if we had a 100% roster of orthodox (right-believing) Catholic bishops. Then we might be able to trust that they'd pick acceptable ones.

If the discipline of priestly celibacy were relaxed today, Cardinal Mahoney or a handful of others would compete to get all the crazy, liberal married ex-priests back back in the priesthood, working in their dioceses.

There'd be nothing to keep them from re-admittance the priesthood. At worst, I think it could set faithful Catholics back forty to sixty years (or more) in the effort to build an authentic Catholic culture.

But remember part one of my plan, involving the roster of good bishops? The catch is that if we had that, we wouldn't have a priest shortage for long. We wouldn't need married priests!

Dear God, could we please keep Pope Benedict for at least fifteen more years? Amen.

Douglas Naaden said...

One important thing they left out in the arguments is the historical case for celibacy.
cf. Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini, S.J., Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990.
Celibacy wasn't something thought up as a good idea after the fact; it has Apostolic origins. Cochini combs through the witness of early Christian literature and shows that after the Apostles followed Christ, they lived celibate lives.

Regardless, though celibacy is Christ's gift to His Church. The constant secular debates make it seem like a scourge. What makes man most truly what he is meant to be happens when he gives up earthly goods for the sake of the Glory of God and of His Church. Transcendence. It's not about what you can get but about what you will give up. Fasting, celibacy, obedience, poverty...they are our prized possessions, not "matters for debate."

Kevin said...

Cleaned it up a bit. Near-actual phrase is "Read the [Darn] Article."