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Letter to Parishioners

A Married Priest?–Part II

from Fr. Phillip Johnson
Copies of the first article in this series – explaining how and under what conditions a married man may be ordained a priest – are available in the narthex of the church.
Priestly celibacy is not a matter of the Church's unchanging faith. It is, however, a very ancient and holy tradition of the Church, especially cherished in the Roman Catholic Church. As Pope Paul VI stated: celibacy “is not, of course, required by the nature of the priesthood itself. This is clear from the practice of the early church and the traditions of the Eastern rite churches.” In this reflection I want to make clear why this holy tradition ought to command our deepest respect and why I do not join those who call for a whole sale abandoning of it (even if I am deeply grateful for the exception granted in certain cases).
Some Catholics who learn of my ordination respond immediately with something like, “Finally, it's about time! You should know that I am all for a married priesthood.” This response seems to reflect not much knowledge of the history of this issue (see last week’s article). But there is usually no time in such exchanges for long explanations. So I usually reply simply, explaining that cases like mine are exceptions to the rule, not a change in the rule. And sometimes I say with a smile, “I wonder if you would be willing to pay for married priests. We're expensive, you know. And, per capita, American Catholics give a good deal less money to their parishes than do protestants.”
There is a second matter most people seem not to be aware of . In the United States, the divorce rate among protestant married clergy is about the same as it is for the general population, about fifty percent! It is hard to know what the Catholic Church would do with a few thousand divorced priests.
Are there problems and difficulties with a celibate priesthood? Of course. Are there serious problems with a married clergy? Indeed there are. The fact is, in our present culture, the capacity to live in faithful committed relationships, the speaking and keeping of vows (whether of ordination or of marriage) has tragically eroded—with disastrous consequence especially for children.
How ancient is the holy tradition of priestly celibacy? Its roots go back into the time of the apostles. We know that St. Peter himself had a wife (Mk. 1:30). St. Paul, on the other hand, resolved not to marry so that he could give his entire energy to the gospel mission. And he urged others to consider whether they had a call to the celibate life for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 7:25-35). In the Epistles to Titus and to Timothy, we read of “registered” widows who, having lost their husbands, remain celibate in order to give themselves to the work of the Church. This, in fact, seems to be the way, the practical and spiritual values of celibacy became established in the ancient Church—widows and widowers consecrated the fruitfulness of their bodies to Christ rather than marry a second time.
What is the inner “logic” of such a radical self-offering? Some are called to give up one of the greatest of all God's blessings—the blessings of married love and children. For the sake of freedom for the mission of the gospel they do it. It is a freedom that enables them to live ahead of time, as it were, the life of the kingdom of God, where, as Jesus said, “They neither marry nor are they given in marriage” (Matt. 22:30; cf. 19:12).
In that ancient society, that a man or woman would make such a sacrifice for such a freedom was a revolutionary act – a shock and offense to ancient culture. The legend of Paul and Thecla, a fanciful tale that circulated in the ancient Church, shows how incomprehensible it was, especially for a woman to vow herself to life-long celibacy. Did not her body belong to society? Was it not her duty to bear children? What will the men do if the young women get such notions into their heads? (See Peter Brown's, The Body and Society). In our age also, under the delusions of our own myths, celibacy is suspect. “Having sex” is assumed to be a necessity for mental and emotional health. Surely, so goes the myth, to remain celibate will rob the poor man or woman of many important human qualities. The Christian, of course, must challenge such myths. For the Christian believes that in the Incarnation, the Eternal Word of God became truly and perfectly human. For the married and the unmarried and the celibate, Jesus is the measure of the truly human.
Of course, in a certain sense, Jesus is married – married to his Bride the Church (Eph. 5:25-33). This reminds us that the two sacraments, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony are not as un-like as it looks on the surface. Marriage is also a gospel mission and ordination is also nuptial. This analogical likeness of two seemingly opposed ways of life will be the subject of next week's reflection.

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