MUCH has been written in recent editions of your newspaper regarding the pros and cons of a married or celibate Catholic priesthood.
Fr Martin Durham (Have Your Say, CL 25/6/06) did an admirable job in pointing out that there is sufficient evidence to show that the custom of priestly celibacy began in early Christianity and was reiterated by Pope Gregory VII when priests of the Middle Ages became lax in its practice.
If, however, priests, seminarians and the laity want to understand the thinking of the Church in post-Vatican II times on this subject, a good place to start could be A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, published by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1976 following the 1971 Synod of Bishops which re-affirmed the existing law of celibacy “by reason of the intimate and manifold fitness between the office of the pastor and the celibate life”.
If we begin by looking at consecrated celibacy as something negative – merely as something given up or something imposed by the Church we are looking at the wrong picture.
It is not this negativity that gives its value.
Celibacy has to be presented in its true light to be appreciated, chosen and lived.
It is a value, a grace, a charism given by God and impossible to maintain except by God’s grace.
It is an expression of the priest’s own free giving which in turn is accepted and ratified by the Church in the person of the bishop – a public offering which adds to its value.
The candidate for the priesthood, by his consecration to Christ the Priest, assumes the Gospel commitment connected with it, thus prolonging the mission of Christ and bearing witness to him by an evangelical life.
This requires a special kind of love called pastoral charity by which a priest gives himself entirely to the salvation of souls.
In making the priest totally available for this ministry, celibacy has positive value.
The 1971 Synod of Bishops acknowledged that celibacy does not enjoy the esteem of modern society, which does not stress the stability of any vocation, but rather denies it.
It also saw the difficulties posed by today’s promiscuous society yet called priests to live celibacy in the spirit of the Gospel, in prayer, vigilance, poverty, joy, the shunning of honours and in fraternal love.
Then, they said, it will become a sign, which cannot long remain hidden, effectively proclaiming Christ to the human race – even in our time.
It is not my intention to reproduce here all the ideas on celibacy from the abovementioned document. It is sufficient to say that this short document puts Church thinking well.
Hopefully a copy of it could be put into the hands of every man studying for the priesthood, thus giving him the opportunity to freely decide whether or not he wishes to accept God’s gift of celibacy in imitation of Christ the Priest before publicly allowing his intention to do so at ordination.