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Introduction (part 1) to Celibacy for Today

by Fr Thomas McGovern

Priestly celibacy has been a topic of active discussion for a number of years. In the past it rarely drew attention to itself because it was accepted as a normal part of the lifestyle of the priest. However, for different reasons it has become a subject of keen media interest, not least because of some recent high profile failures in commitment to this discipline.

Several questions are being asked about celibacy at the present time. It is suggested that it creates a barrier between priest and people, especially married people with whose difficulties, we are told, he can have little empathy. Some contend that celibacy leads to emotional and psychological isolation. Others see it as a repression of natural feelings and inclinations, with a stunting of the normal growth of personality.

It is frequently affirmed that celibacy is a burden for most priests, a cause of loneliness and lack of fulfilment. Indeed one newspaper editorial quoted with approval 'research' which suggested that 'a mere two percent who pledge celibacy achieve it'.[1] In any case, it is asserted, since celibacy is not a precept of divine law but rather a matter of ecclesiastical discipline, it can be changed at any time.

Many consider it the main cause of the significant drop in candidates for the priesthood, and thus a barrier to attracting the right kind of young men into seminaries. For all these reasons it is affirmed that the Church should make celibacy an optional requirement for ordination, because otherwise it will have to face serious manpower difficulties in the future. As a backdrop to this scenario the shadow of John Paul II is seen to be cast over the present impasse because of his strongly traditionalist brand of Catholicism and his refusal to accommodate law to 'reality'.

From another perspective it is affirmed that, with the development of the theology of marriage since Vatican II, it is no longer tenable to consider priesthood as a higher calling, and that there is, therefore, a need to demythologise the traditional concept of ministry to bring it into line with the requirements of modern society.

For some, the Catholic priesthood, as at present constituted, is seen as a privileged position characterised by the exercise of 'power' without responsibility. It is also claimed that, precisely through the insistence of the Church on a celibate priesthood, this 'power' is perpetuated for the domination of the rest of the Christian faithful.

Some of these objections at first sight may seem to have a certain validity and consequently they need to be confronted. But there are others which betray a patent ideological bias. It is clear too that underlying many of the arguments against what is sometimes referred to as compulsory celibacy, there is an understanding of priesthood which differs in varying degrees from the traditional concept of ministry which developed in the first millennium and a half of the Church's life, and as articulated by the Council of Trent and Vatican II.

It is also evident that current perceptions of the priesthood have not been uninfluenced by different philosophical and theological attitudes which have surfaced over the past thirty years. Consequently we need to review what has been happening in the Church over this period in order to try to identify the causes of what many would consider to be a crisis in the priesthood today.

This is essential if we are to begin to understand why in one generation the status of the priesthood has been devalued in the minds of people, as reflected in the dramatic fall off in vocations, and why celibacy, which was previously an object of reverence, is frequently now a cause of misunderstanding, if not of downright hostility. Even five years ago it would have been inconceivable that a serious newspaper would carry the headline, 'Is Celibacy a Perversion?', [2] as was recently the case.


Let us first of all briefly define what the Church teaches at present about celibacy, as background to our analysis of the influences which have brought about change in the perception of priesthood. Vatican II affirmed the tradition of celibacy in the Western Church.
[3] Based on this teaching, Paul VI developed a rich theology of celibacy in his 1967 encyclical, Sacerdotalis caelibatus.[4] Although this document did not receive an enthusiastic reception in some quarters, four years later his teaching was reaffirmed by the 1971 Synod of Bishops:

Because of the intimate and multiple coherence between the pastoral function and a celibate life, the existing law is upheld: one who freely wills total availability, the distinctive character of this function, also freely undertakes a celibate life. The candidate should feel this form of living not as having been imposed from outside, but rather as a manifestation of his free self-giving, which is accepted and ratified by the Church through the bishop. In this way the law becomes a protection and a safeguard of the freedom wherewith the priest gives himself to Christ and it becomes an 'easy yoke'. [5]

The same position was adopted in the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law:

Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour. [6]

In the build-up to the 1990 Synod of Bishops, and subsequendy, there was a lot of pressure to introduce optional celibacy. The mind of the Church on priestly celibacy today was stated very clearly in the synodal document on priestly formation,
Pastores dabo vobis, published on 25 March I992. As if anticipating the current speculation and unrest, John Paul II affirmed that 'The Synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church's firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite.' [7] This, in outline, is the status of celibacy in Church teaching at present.


Vatican II devoted two of its sixteen documents to the topic of priests; one related to the formation of future priests,
[8] the other was the decree on the ministry and life of priests. [9] These are theologically rich and well developed statements of the mind of the Church on the Catholic priesthood, and, with good reason, they gave rise to considerable hopes for a renewal of the spiritual life and the pastoral effectiveness of the clergy.

However, considering what has happened in the interim, I think it is true to say that many of these hopes were not realised. On the contrary, the priesthood has suffered serious setbacks during the past few decades. This is reflected particularly in two areas. In the years since the Council priests have abandoned their vocation by tens of thousands.

In the past quarter century there has been a veritable haemorrhage from the ranks of the priesthood which perhaps has no precedent in the history of the Church except for the early decades of the Reformation. Indeed the present Holy Father has referred to this exodus as one of the big set-backs to the great hopes for renewal aroused by the Counci1. [11] It was largely a universal phenomenon, affectíng both secular and religious priests, but one which was most marked in the developed countries of Western Europe and North America. A second negative aspect is the significant decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood in the post-Vatican II years, at least in the more affluent West.

Concurrently with these developments there was a serious questioning of the very identity of the Catholic priesthood. Was this loss of certainty and conifidence about the essence of the priesthood one of the main reasons why so many abandoned their vocation? Did it undermine the traditional Catholic perception of the priesthood to such an extent that considerably fewer young men were now able, or prepared, to see it as a vocation worthy of a life-long commitment? There is no doubt that the debate about priestly identity did undermine commitment, with the subsequent departures from the ranks of the clergy and the increasing reluctance of young men to see the priesthood as a viable option.

Cardinal Ratzinger analysed this phenomenon in depth in his opening address to the 1990 Synod of Bishops on the Formation of Priests, [12] and returned to it again in a paper delivered to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the proclamation of Vatican II's Presbyterorum ordinis in I995. [13] The Council, he tells us, set out to produce a decree on the ministry and life of priests conscious that at that time the traditional idea of the Catholic priesthood, in some quarters of the Church, was losing its validity. In ecumenical circles the seeds of a crisis were already evident in the concept of the Catholic priesthood, a crisis, he says, that after the Council would flare up with devastating effects on priestly life and vocations.


Undoubtedly these consequences were to some extent provoked by reasons which had nothing to do with the Church. However, in Ratzinger's opinion, these extra-ecclesial reasons would not have been nearly so influential if the theological foundations for the priestly ministry had not been discredited among many priests and young people. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith affirms that '
in the new cultural situation which has evolved since the Council, the old arguments of the sixteenth-century Reformation, together with more recent findings of modern biblical exegesis - which moreover were nourished by the presuppositions of the Reformation - acquired a certain plausibility, and Catholic theology was unable to respond to them adequately.' [14]

Other factors were also involved. On the one hand there was a change in the perception of the meaning of life, when the sense of the sacred gave way to new criteria of functionality. On the other hand theological ideas borrowed from Protestantism gave rise to a reinterpretation of the New Testament concept of priesthood, despoiling it of its unique sacral dimension, and breaking the continuity between the sacred offices of the Old Covenant and the ministries of the nascent Church. [15]

The Lutheran model of priestly ministry was making ground at the expense of the identity of the Catholic priesthood as defined by Trent. While initially these opposing views of priesthood were reflected primarily in theological literature, with time the trickle-down process caused the same ambivalence about priestly identity to be reflected not only in the lives of priests themselves but also in the public perception of it.

This change of perception of the essential nature of the priesthood is reflected in different streams of contemporary theology. It questions the idea of the priest as a man apart, as somehow different from the rest of men, and who as a consequence acts independently of the Christian community. There is pressure to demythologise the priest, to have it recognised that lay people can do many of the priest's functions just as well as he does. Obviously if the identity of the priest can be reduced to that of a functionary, it follows that his celibacy is no longer a significant consideration. In addition, the current resurgence of neo-Arian Chrístology and the advocacy of optional celibacy would seem to go hand in hand.

These different ways of understanding the nature of priesthood were naturally paralleled by a change in the understanding of the priest's role. Traditional Catholicism saw the priestly ministry as oriented to the sacrifice of the Mass, and the administration of the sacraments. The functional perception of priesthood placed more emphasis on the preaching of the Word. Ratzinger says that Vatican II did not tackle these doctrinal problems specifically, problems which were just beginning to emerge.

This is not surprising in view of the fact that Vatican II was an explicitly pastoral council. Presbyterorum ordinis, taking Trent as a point of departure, did however provide a comprehensive statement of the Church's vision of priesthood for modern times, achieving a profound synthesis of the prophetic, sanctifying, and pastoral aspects of the priestly ministry. The 1971 and 1990 Synods of bishops expanded on this conciliar teaching.


As we have seen, Vatican II teaching on celibacy was developed a few years later in Paul VI's encyclical on the same topic. Despite the encyclical, there was considerable pressure from different sources to lift the requirement of obligatory celibacy for ordination to the priesthood. This was paralleled by a massive exodus from the ranks of the clergy. Indeed, many of those who left claimed that the issue of celibacy was the main cause of their departure.

In the wake of the encyclical the celibacy crisis was so exacerbated by the statements and actions of a number of Dutch priests that Paul VI felt compelled to issue a personal statement about it in 1970. Recent public declarations in Holland, the Pope said, had 'profoundly afflicted' him, because of the 'grave attitude of disobedience' to the law of the Latin Church which they implied.[16] Paul VI was concerned not only because of the negative effects these statements would have on the Church in Holland as a whole, but in particular because of the scandal they would cause for young men preparing for the priesthood. These declarations, he said, created a great deal of uncertainty. What he found particularly unconvincing in the arguments of the Dutch priests was the diminution in the authentic concept of the Catholic priesthood which they implied.

In some quarters it had been expected that the 1971 Synod would modify the Church's stance, and in the lead-up to it a campaign for a married clergy had been conducted, as one commentator describes it, 'with an almost prophetic fervour'. [17] A report of the International Theological Commission, published before the Synod, suggesting that celibacy should be optional, had perhaps fuelled these expectations. Whilst maintaining that celibacy is the better way, the Commission affirmed: 'The hierarchy responsible for a proclamation of the gospel that is permanent, efficacious, and universal, as a word of truth and a sacramental instrument of grace, may choose for the exercise of the apostolic ministry both persons who have been called to, and already live, the charism of virginity, and those who, after an experience of many years in marriage, have achieved human and professional maturity, domestic balance and above all apostolic worth in the sense indicated in the pastoral epistles'. [18]

The Synod refused to be pressurised and affirmed categorically that 'the law of priestly celibacy existing in the Latin Church is to be kept in its entirety'. [19] But the pressures to make celibacy an optional requirement for the priesthood have continued unabated.


Up to the early seventies in Ireland vocations were still flowing into the seminaries. They reached a peak in the sixties but they started to decrease gradually. In the last five years there has been a rapid decline, and 1996 saw the lowest intake this century.

One has to ask: What is it that has brought about such a significant change? Why are vocations now reduced to a trickle by comparison with the steady stream of a generation ago? Why is it that the priesthood no longer seems to be regarded as an attractive, challenging life-style? Is it the so-called 'compulsory' celibacy which puts off young men aspiring to the priesthood, or are there deeper, structural reasons at work?

The last thirty years since Vatican II have been times of great change in the Church. This has given rise not only to a different perception of the faith but also to a diminished commitment to it, resulting in a dramatic fall-off in practice, especially in urban areas.

The findings of surveys of young people's attitudes to religion indicate a rejection of core elements of the faith. Significant aspects of Christian mora1 teaching have failed to be presented effectively to increasing numbers of the younger generations. This credibility gap, if one might so define it, relates particularly to sexual mores. [20] The reality of this change in attitude is substantiated by the rapid growth in the levels of illegitimacy and abortion over the past twenty-five years. [21]

Because of the way chastity is trivialised in the media it is no longer highly regarded as a virtue. Thus for many people the idea of living the traditional demands of purity in thought and action is considered as scrupulosity or fastidiousness. Consequently promiscuity, or what is frequently referred to as recreational sex, is increasingly becoming 'normal' behaviour among teenagers. [22] Among married people changes in moral outlook are also reflected by the fact that a high proportion of couples are now using some form of artificial contraception. [23] In a society where such attitudes are becoming more pervasive it is inevitable that difficulties arise for understanding the very idea of celibacy, not to mention a personal commitment to it.


We might ask what were the causes of this change of attitude to the faith, to priesthood and to chastity? What were the non-theological reasons which affected the perception of priesthood in the past thirty years? Like most other countries of the West, a number of different influences have impacted on the Irish social and cultural environment. These influences have operated in different ways but perhaps especially through the mass media, educational philosophy and legislation. Many of them have been positive, producing a greater openness to ideas, a deeper appreciation of other cultures, and more awareness of the needs of third world countries and of Ireland's contribution as a member of the internationa1 community.

Other influences of a less positive nature have also been at work. While one can attempt to identify them individually, because of the social dynamics of a culture, many will be seen to be not only interrelated, but also at times interacting with each other. Modern society and culture are multidimensional, and while common trends do emerge, different areas have shifting nuances of their own.

Still, I think it will be a useful exercise to try to distinguish some of the trends which underlie existing cultural attitudes. It will at least provide a perspective against which to evaluate the current outlook on priesthood and the vocation to celibacy, and, hopefully, it will help priests themselves understand why things have changed so much in the last thirty years or so.


The quest for personal freedom is one of the more defining characteristics of comtemporary culture. It is generally regarded as a superior good to which other competing values should be subordinate, especially those which would seem to restrict freedom. Hence anything which is considered a taboo, or a relic of archaic prohibitions or fears, is seen as a fetter on human freedom and self-expression. Consequently the concept of a personal, permanent commitment to anything is increasingly regarded as an imposition, if not impossible of attainment.

The general cultural environment encourages people to feel free to determine their own moral code and not to accommodate themselves to any system which they consider imposed from outsíde.[24] This concept of freedom, the absence of any permanent or stable commitments, sees no obligation to maintain any bonding with the past, and thus precludes the possibility of providing any personal inheritance for those who come afterwards.

However, the increased affirmation of freedom does not seem to lead to a greater degree of happiness and self-fulfilment. Indeed there is much evidence to suggest that the opposite is the case when we consider the rapid increase in crime, vandalism, drug addiction, family breakdown and sexual exploitation. This is because such a vision of freedom is selective and one-sided, and frequently at the expense of truth.

Psychoanalysts and behaviourists have divorced guilt from personal responsibility, the correlative of freedom, and declared that sin is the result of various forms of conditioning - hereditary, social, cultural etc. There is a radical loss of the sense of sin. [25] Man thus becomes less and less aware that he is in need of redemption, but his sense of alienation does not go away. On the contrary, it becomes more oppressive. And so, paradoxically, while sacramental confession has almost disappeared as a sacred ritual from the lives of many, psychiatry and other forms of secular counselling have become a growth industry.


The eighteenth-century Enlightenment had promised to get rid of what it saw as myth and taboo (especially the Faith), and to replace it with a humanistic ethic and a rational social equilibrium. It aimed at a contractual code of ethics based on consensus rather than conviction, expressly rejecting the notion of absolute truths, particularly in the area of morality. Ethical choices, according to this system, were personal ones rather than rational ones, and religious belief was regarded as a type of personal experience which should not overflow the bounds of personal conscience.

Thus it said that education should be value-free, untrammelled by religious influence. What such an attitude failed to recognise is that there is no such thing as a value-free educational policy; it is an illusion to think otherwise. The vacuum will always be filled by the ideology of the educationa1 philosohers who determine the syllabus in the absence of a particular school ethos. An educational philosophy which emphasises values clarification and training for 'safe sex' sows the seeds for a subjectivist morality independent of objective moral criteria. The bitter fruits of this exercise have been reaped with disturbing consequences in the educational systems of other jurisdictions.

In Ireland, somewhat belatedly, we have embarked on our own Enlightenment project over the past three decades without, it would seem, learning very much from the negative experiences of other countries. We have reproduced the consequences of this philosophy with a rapidity which has surprised our European neighbours. The level of crime, drug-taking, suicide, sexual assault, and family disintegration has escalated at a rate that now seems to be out of control. Many projects in social engineering have been tried to solve these problems, but with little apparent success. What is striking is the failure of public authority to invoke the idea of personl moral responsibility as the fundamental antidote to the breakdown of traditional values. It is perhaps part of the current malaise that there is a reluctance to talk about morals or the teaching of morals in public discourse. [26]

In public life there seems to be a fear of asserting the truth, of pointing out that a particular position - legal, political, or moral - is in opposition to it. This is perhaps indicative of how deeply moral relativism pervades cotemporary culture, and of how much our own attitudes are influenced by it. If all truths are relative - the basic assumption of a pluralist philosophy - then nobody is prepared to articulate the idea of absolute ethical values, either out of lack of conviction or for fear of being ridiculed by the media. [27]

It is not surprising that in such a cultural context celibacy as a life-style would seem marginal and esoteric, not to mention the idea of considering such an option for oneself.

Second part of Introduction to Celibacy for Today

Section Contents Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern

This version: 17th January 2003

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