"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Not Clerical Celibacy Again....

There are, it seems, certain debates that are bound to recur like clockwork, and their very recurrence, it seems to me, is a sign of deep and abiding insecurity on the part of those who insist on repeatedly bringing this topic up and repeatedly (but never successfully) trying to prove the superiority and supposed historicity or "apostolicity" of a celibate priesthood. The debate in the Latin Church over priestly celibacy seems to be precisely such a debate.

According to this recent article by the always fascinating, and usually very reliable, Sandro Magister, that debate is again heating up in no small part due to the new book, Preti celibi e preti sposata: Due carisimi della Chiesa cattolica, by Basilio Petrà, whose article on the topic Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies published in an edited translation in 2009.

There Petrà was the first to show in English in a serious study certain egregious developments being pushed by some in the Latin Church (especially those influenced by Opus Dei) towards a view that "celibacy is based on the very ontological meaning of ordination. Theologically speaking, this means that ordination objectively demands the state of celibacy." As he goes on to say, "in this view, there is no theological reason for the married...priesthood. Only its historical existence is acknowledged because in Latin circles the principles expounded by Christian Cochini [Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy], Alfons Stickler [The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations], and Roman Cholij [Clerical Celibacy in East and West] were accepted without leaving any room for the true theological value of a married clergy." (Cholij, I have it on good authority, has since retracted his views.) These books, among others, were very skillfully reviewed and critiqued by the late historian and patrologist J. Kevin Coyle in a long review essay, "Recent Views on the Origins of Clerical Celibacy: a Review of the Literature from 1980-1991," Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 34 (1993): 480-531. After a lengthy discussion, Coyle concludes thus:
the apostolic origins of clerical continence/celibacy are therefore far from proven. Indeed, in their attempts Cochini and his supporters may have achieved the opposite objective, by showing that a historical demonstration of celibacy's validity is a fruitless quest.....The arguments for maintaining mandatory clerical celibacy will, then, have to be sought elsewhere than in an "apostolic tradition."
What makes Petrà's article so important, in my estimation, is that he very skillfully--but without polemics or histrionics--goes on to show how this very recent Latin development (about an "ontological" meaning of celibacy) is so riddled with internal contradictions as to collapse in on itself. He takes recent papal and other Roman utterances, as well as documents like the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and shows that this theology of celibacy as an ontological condition of priesthood, if taken seriously and pressed to its logical conclusions, ends up, however inadvertently, making a complete pig's breakfast of contemporary Latin theology of marriage and the family.

I have, I must confess, dined out on this debate on many occasions in the last decade, trying (but not very successfully it appears) to help Roman Catholics to understand the complexities of a married priesthood, that is, trying to dissuade them from the highly misleading idea that a married priesthood will be an easy or simple change to the life of the Latin Church today, or that it will somehow magically solve the so-called vocations crisis, much of which I think is artificial, that is, tendentiously manufactured.

In addition to the above sources, there are other books on the topic by Eastern Christians, including the collection edited by Joseph Allen, Vested in Grace: Marriage and Priesthood in the Christian East. Allen caused a controversy to erupt in the early 1990s when, as a married Orthodox priest, he sought to re-marry after his wife had died--in violation of long-standing canons and customs prescribing celibacy for priests in just that situation; failing celibacy, the canonical requirement has been that such priests return to the lay state and are no longer permitted to function as priests. Allen wanted both to re-marry and to remain a parish priest, and found a way to do so--but not without controversy and costs--as he recounts in Widowed Priest.

More recently, Helen Parish has taken a comprehensive and current look at the history of celibacy in her Clerical Celibacy in the West: c.1100-1700 (Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700) (Ashgate, 2010), 304pp. About this book the publisher tells us:
The debate over clerical celibacy and marriage had its origins in the early Christian centuries, and is still very much alive in the modern church. The content and form of controversy have remained remarkably consistent, but each era has selected and shaped the sources that underpin its narrative, and imbued an ancient issue with an immediacy and relevance. The basic question of whether, and why, continence should be demanded of those who serve at the altar has never gone away, but the implications of that question, and of the answers given, have changed with each generation.

In this reassessment of the history of sacerdotal celibacy, Helen Parish examines the emergence and evolution of the celibate priesthood in the Latin church, and the challenges posed to this model of the ministry in the era of the Protestant Reformation. Celibacy was, and is, intensely personal, but also polemical, institutional, and historical. Clerical celibacy acquired theological, moral, and confessional meanings in the writings of its critics and defenders, and its place in the life of the church continues to be defined in relation to broader debates over Scripture, apostolic tradition, ecclesiastical history, and papal authority. Highlighting continuity and change in attitudes to priestly celibacy, Helen Parish reveals that the implications of celibacy and marriage for the priesthood reach deep into the history, traditions, and understanding of the church.

Contents: Introduction – 'for the sake of the kingdom of heaven'?: shaping the celibacy debate; 'If there is one faith there must be one tradition': clerical celibacy and marriage in the early Church; 'Preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection'?: celibacy and marriage in East and West; 'A concubine or an unlawful woman': celibacy, marriage, and the Gregorian reform; 'In marriage they will live more piously and honestly': debating clerical celibacy in the pre-Reformation Church; 'The whole world and the devil will laugh': clerical celibacy and married priests in the age of reformation; 'Contrary to the state of their order and the laudable customs of the church': clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church after the Reformation; Conclusion – 'one of the chief ornaments of the Catholic clergy': celibacy in the modern Church; Bibliography; Index.
I greatly look forward to having both the Parish volume, and also the Petrà book, expertly reviewed in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies next year.

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