Bishops Reaffirm Celibacy—Why?
THE 1971 Roman Catholic synod of bishops met at Vatican City from September 30 to November 5. Many Catholics looked forward hopefully to what that aggregation of some 210 bishops and 40 other priests and laymen would accomplish. This was apparent from such headlines in Catholic publications as: “Hope for the Synod.” “Might the Synod Surprise?” “The 1971 Synod: A Summons to Service.” It was also said, “The Roman Synod of 1971 must be a milestone.”
Were these hopes realized? Not according to the headlines appearing in the Catholic press at the end of the synod: “Synod dashed his expectations.” “Synod a Disaster?” “Go, and Synod No More.” “Synod tangled up in own red tape.” Illinois clergy irked by synod.” “Küng: Synod was a failure.”
A synod is literally a “meeting” of religious leaders, and so the meeting of the apostles and older men in Jerusalem about 49 C.E. to consider the question of circumcision might be said to have been a synod. (Acts, chapter 15) The provision for Roman Catholic bishops to meet was a product of the Vatican Council II, and previous synods were held in 1967 and 1969. These synods have been described as “the major structural change made by the second Vatican Council.” For this meeting Pope Paul put on the agenda two important subjects: “The Priestly Ministry” and “Justice in the World.”
While Catholic bishops and priests were greatly interested in this synod, such could hardly be said about the average Catholic. As the editor and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter expressed it: “To put things in perspective, we must keep reminding ourselves that most Catholics in the world neither know or care that a World Synod of Bishops is taking place here [in Rome]. . . . But unfortunately, you also get the impression here that many of the bishops have the same feeling about the people ‘out there.’ They seem to be isolating themselves.” Another Catholic weekly, Commonweal, editorialized: “To many of our friends and readers, we know, a gathering of bishops seems about as relevant as a convention of Edsel dealers [Edsel is the name of an auto no longer manufactured and which was a multimillion dollar mistake of the Ford Company].”
The Scandal of Celibacy
The subject of the “Priestly Ministry” obviously involved the matter of celibacy. Since Pope Paul had recently spoken strongly in favor of it, apparently it was thought the subject need not be raised at the synod. But the scandal it was causing was too open for the subject not to be raised by some of the bishops. For example, a French priest in a very small and poor parish who was expelled from the priesthood because of living with a local girl, stated that the Archbishop of Rouen, Monsignor Pallier, was ignoring similar situations where priests from rich, important parishes were living with girl friends.
In particular were the bishops of the United States well informed on the subject, for there a poll of 6,000 bishops and priests conducted by the National Opinion Research Center showed that 54 percent were in favor of optional celibacy. In certain Latin-American lands bishops have decided to waste no energy on the question of celibacy and so are letting priests marry and continue in their ministry so long as their communities do not raise objections.
And says Jesuit theologian J. McKenzie: “In many regions where many [priests] do not live a celibate life, the institution of celibacy may seem to be nothing but sheer, vast hypocrisy. . . . Some find the possibility of great scandal in clerical adultery and divorce; for reasons not easy to ascertain, they do not see the same scandal in clerical concubinage.”
Contributing to the “scandal” of celibacy must be the fact that the Roman Catholic Church does allow at least two exceptions. Thus Protestant clergymen who have converted to the Roman Catholic religion have been ordained as priests in spite of their being married. At present there are some sixty of such priests. Then again, the Vatican allows the priests of Eastern rite churches—who have their own ritual but recognize the sovereignty of the pope—to marry. This they do because such churches are located in lands where Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches prevail and which allow their diocesan priests to marry. That is, at the time of ordination the priest decides whether he wants to marry or not. The price he pays for marrying is that he cannot aspire to a higher office. In this, certainly the Vatican is inconsistent, even as Eastern rite leaders charge. That the stand of the Vatican is one of policy rather than principle can be seen from the fact that the Vatican forbids Eastern rite priests to marry if they are serving in Western lands.
Voices Opposing Celibacy
Apparently the “scandal” of celibacy did not loom up very importantly in the minds of the bishops, for only 10 of them voted for optional celibacy, 168 voted in favor of keeping the celibacy rule, 21 voted for it with reservations, and 3 abstained. But in another vote more than half of those not residing at the Vatican voted for permitting the ordination of married men in special circumstances. By and large, it was the bishops from what is known in Catholic circles as the “Third World,” that is, Latin America, Africa and Asia, that were wanting to have married men ordained. In those lands there are 4,000 Roman Catholics to every priest, whereas in Europe and the United States there are four times as many priests proportionately, one priest to every 1,000 population.
Among the voices heard that were opposed to enforcing the celibate rule inflexibly were these:
“What is better—to preach the Gospel with the help of married priests, or not to preach it at all?”—Cardinal Alfrink, primate of Holland.
“We bishops have not only the power to ordain, we have the duty to ordain priests in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of the People of God.”—Cardinal Suenens of Belgium.
“It would be dangerous to become so preoccupied with the present celibacy discipline that we risk eroding the very nature of the priesthood rather than admit married men to Holy Orders.”—Bishop Alexander Carter, of Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.
“Should not the synod consider the right of Christian communities to have priests rather than to extol the fitness of celibacy to the priesthood?” Bishop Samuel Louis Gaumain of Chad, Central Africa.
John Gran, Bishop of Oslo, Norway, argued that celibacy be made optional for both humane and moral reasons. He said that many priests live “in a loneliness which is pitiful, above all, for the young ones.” He further pointed to the example of married Lutheran ministers, saying: “Most of these pastors seem to be . . . in no way inferior to Catholic priests.”
But in the end the bishops overwhelmingly voted against optional celibacy. Their attitude was that the 40-percent decline in seminary enrollments and the ever-increasing number of priests dropping out—11,000 leaving between 1963 and 1969—were not due to the celibacy rule. Rather, they held that all this was due to a crisis of faith on the part of the priests; that, after all, only a minority of priests were involved and their loss of faith was due to such outside factors as TV, newspapers and magazines.
Especially influential in causing the bishops to vote even against making exceptions in special cases were the arguments of Cardinal Conway of Ireland. He insisted that they could not allow priests to marry in one European country and not in another; that they could not allow such a thing in faraway lands and not allow it also in Europe. He further warned that to allow any breach in the celibacy would result in its entire destruction. He also warned that it was necessary to put an end to any hopes that priests or seminarians might entertain that celibacy would be made optional.
Commenting on this aspect of the synod’s discussion, one Catholic editor stated: “The Synod did not pass the test. Not . . . because it . . . practically closed the door to the ordination of married men, but because of the incredibly low level of its argumentations. They were dominated by suspicion and fear: fear of the consequences, . . . fear even that the holiness of the priesthood would be ‘contaminated’ by marriage, as one bishop put it.”
The celibacy rule was reaffirmed also because the bishops, by and large, showed an utter lack of empathy for the priests serving under them; the kind of empathy that Bishop Gran of Oslo evinced. The fact that 72 percent of them were over fifty years old may have had a bearing on this. And they also lacked sympathy, pity, compassion for the millions of Catholics for whom there is but one priest in 4,000. Far removed from their hearts were the sentiments of Christ Jesus, who urged that his followers pray that more workers be sent into the harvest field because of the sorry plight of his people.—Matt. 9:36-38.
Pope Paul had left no doubt in the minds of his bishops where he stood on the question of celibacy. Moreover, he regularly attended the meetings and at his weekly news conferences intimated how he felt about what was going on at the synod. And when the vote came up, although a number of the leading bishops wanted the vote to be anonymous, the pope insisted that he know how each one voted.
Just why does the pope cling so tenaciously to priestly celibacy? Is it because ‘it is the fairest jewel in the priestly crown,’ setting priests above the common man? Is it because it is more economical and convenient to deal with single men than with family men? Or is it because it results in always bringing new blood into the priesthood? Could be; could be.
Fear of Man, Not Fear of God
But in the final analysis it must be said that the bishops reaffirmed the celibacy rule because they feared man, not God. And “the fear of man brings a snare.” (Prov. 29:25)* Had the bishops feared God, they would have let themselves be guided by God’s Word. Under the Mosaic law arrangement not only were priests allowed to marry, they had to marry to keep the priesthood from dying out, it being a hereditary institution. And among the prophets only Jeremiah was commanded not to marry, to lead a celibate life, and his was a special case. It was to be as a sign of the dire end that awaited his nation.—Lev. 21:1, 7, 13, 14; Jer. 16:2-4.
And when we come to the Christian Greek Scriptures, what do we find? True, Jesus stated that singleness for the sake of the kingdom of God was the ideal state, but at the same time he precluded all ideas of a celibate order based on vows of virginity by stating: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, only those to whom it is given to do so. . . . Let him accept this teaching who can.”—Matt. 19:10-12.
Even more explicit are the words of the apostle Paul: “A man is better off having no relations with a woman. But to avoid immorality, every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband. To those not married and to widows I have this to say: It would be well for them to remain as they are, even as I do myself; but if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. It is better to marry than to be on fire.”—1 Cor. 7:1, 2, 8, 9.
There are also the inspired words found at Hebrews 13:4: “Let marriage be honored in every way and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.” Obviously these words do not allow for the idea that marriage would ‘contaminate’ the minister of God, the way that one bishop put it!
In fact, even though Jesus indicated that the ideal state for the Christian ministry was singleness, marriage appears to have been the general rule among the apostles, for the apostle Paul wrote: “Do we not have the right to marry a believing woman like the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” Yes, most likely all of the apostles except Paul were married.—1 Cor. 9:5.
And not only do the Christian Greek Scriptures by precept and example make provision for marriage by Christian ministers, but they indicate that one of the signs of apostasy is forbidding to marry: “The Spirit distinctly says that in later times some will turn away from the faith and will heed deceitful spirits and things taught by demons through plausible liars—men with seared consciences who forbid marriage.”—1 Tim. 4:1-3.
It is indeed noteworthy that one looks in vain for Scriptural references among both Catholic and non-Catholic reports on the synod’s debates over optional celibacy and the ordaining of married men in special situations. This could well be because there were no theologians present. Noted Swiss theologian Hans Küng acknowledged that there was nothing in the Scriptures to make celibacy a rule: “We realise more and more that we are in contradiction of the freedom given us by the New Testament. Have we the right to make this universal law? This is not what Jesus wanted.”—The Auckland Star, September 22, 1971.
Are you going to adhere to a religion that advocates teachings that are so obviously, and admittedly, in contradiction to God’s Word? This is a matter of serious concern for all Catholics who truly want to be pleasing to their Creator.
All quotations are from The New American Bible, latest Roman Catholic version.