The Myth of Clerical Celibacy, Revisited

One of the key points in the recent declaration by German theologians (now joined by others, worldwide), is the urgency of ending the current insistence on compulsory clerical celibacy. This is my cue to revisit, and expand on, some points I have made frequently on previous occasions.

When I wrote a series of posts on the problem of compulsory clerical celibacy nearly two years ago, I listed several problems with the rule:

  • It is not based on Scripture, but in fact contradicts Paul’s clear advice that celibacy is not for everyone.
  • It was not the practice of the early church, and was not compulsory for the first twelve centuries of Christianity – over half of Church history
  • The rule, when it became fixed, was not introduced as a matter of pastoral care, but to preserve church wealth and power
  • Celibacy has never been required for all clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Churches
  • It was swiftly rejected by the Protestant churches after the Reformation
  • It is still not required for all Catholic priests: it does not apply to those in the Eastern rite of the Roman church, nor to those who are already married, and are now converting from other denominations.
  • Many bishops and even national Bishops’ conferences have asked, either privately or formally, for the blanket ban to be relaxed.

I can now add some further observations that I was not then aware of:

  • Research shows that the majority of Catholics want an end to the policy.
  • As a young man, Joseph Ratzinger himself signed a document asking for the ban to end.
  • As pope, Benedict XVI has conceded that celibacy is difficult, but becomes possible when living in a supportive community of fellow priests. He can offer no advice on how it becomes “possible” for one who can not live in such a community, implicitly conceding that for many men, perhaps it is not (agreeing in this, with St Paul).
  • The only objection he raised in the interview to ending the rule was not not one of principle, but of practicality, saying there were questions as to how this could be arranged.

But the most serious difficulty to my mind, is that as a universal practice, even within the Roman rite, it is a myth – and a dangerous one. It is a myth, because it is a rule that is widely broken.

Ordinands: A Lifetime of Celibacy?

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