The Importance of Priestly Celibacy

April 1991By Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR.

We are supportive of the Pastoral Provision that has allowed married Episcopal priests to become Roman Catholic priests, and, in the interests of ecumenism, we would be happy to see such a provision extended to the clergy of other Christian bodies. Married Episcopal priests who become Catholic priests never took any vow of celibacy, and therefore it’s understandable that the Catholic Church treats them very differently from unmarried Catholic priests who break their vow of celibacy by marrying.

Putting aside the exception which is the Pastoral Provision, let’s consider mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Rite. It’s a disciplinary, not a doctrinal, matter; Catholics who question it intellectually are not “dissenters.” It’s permissible to disagree with mandatory priestly celibacy. But not everything permissible is wise.

This magazine has always stood for a robust, maximalist, counter-cultural Christianity. The Zeitgeist holds no charms for us. Not surprisingly, then, we look with favor on the Catholic Church’s demanding — yea, heroic — rule of priestly celibacy. In this sex-crazed culture of ours, that there should be a group of men who, while affirming the goodness of marital sex, voluntarily sacrifice all sexual activity for the greater love of God is a profound witness to the radical nature of the Christian faith. In this now-oriented society, for an eschatological cadre to forsake sex and marriage and family is eloquent proclamation of the inescapability of the Last Things. The vocation of a priest is thus analogous to that of a Christian novelist, as stated by Flannery O’Connor: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” In our sensual, but amazingly insensate, culture, clerical celibacy is a startling, Catholic way of hollering out, “Repent and be prepared to meet your Maker.”

The recent scandals surrounding Archbishop Eugene Marino and Fr. Bruce Ritter have rocked the Church, and one need be neither brilliant nor paranoid to surmise that these sensational cases are merely the tip of an iceberg. After all, we are reeling from unceasing accounts of priests accused of pedophilia and priests stricken with AIDS. And, for those laypeople who occasionally move in ecclesiastical circles, what is seen and what is heard whispered suggest a breakdown of priestly celibacy on a significant scale. The credibility of the Church’s witness is at stake. So, what to do?

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