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Preface and Contents to Priestly Celibacy Today

by Fr Thomas McGovern

To write a book about celibacy at the present time could be regarded as a foolhardy enterprise. Over recent years the impression has been created by the media that this is a discipline of the Catholic Church more honoured in the breach than in the observance. In addition, there seems to be a widespread expectation that optional celibacy, despite what John Paul II may say, is inevitable and, indeed, long overdue.

However, current discourse on this topic suggests that there is a confused understanding of the historical development of this charism in the Church, which inevitably leads to erroneous judgements and conclusions. There are also, it would appear, large gaps in the scriptural and theological appreciation of celibacy which result in a reductionist approach to it, causing people to see it primarily from a human and sociological perspective.

What I am attempting in this book is to try to present again the wisdom of the Church and the memory of a tradition about a particular aspect of the Catholic priesthood. Recovering this tradition is important if priests are going to have a sense of conviction about their commitment, and be able to offer reasons for the hope that they have for the future. They also need a sense of discrimination to recognise the shallowness and ideologica1 bias which characterise much of contemporary comment about celibacy. Indeed, Pope John Paul II refers to 'a systematic propaganda which is hostile to celibacy' and 'which finds support and complicity in some of the mass media'. [1]

A theological and historica1 study of celibacy explains many basic ideas about this discipline. Still, this is never a substitute for the witness of celibacy as lived by priests who have been faithful to their calling, both in times when they were revered for doing so, and at other times, as now, when perhaps they feel they are regarded as freaks. The lives of such priests are the best advertisement for celibacy, and it is their example, more than anything else, which will continue to inspire young men to respond to the Master's invitation.

In 1992 I gave a seminar for diocesan priests to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Paul VI's encyclical
Sacerdotalis caelibatus on priestly celibacy (1967). In the intervening years much has happened, and a lot has been written or said on this topic, both in the documents of the Magisterium and in public discourse. As a contribution to the ongoing debate, I have developed my original seminar paper to look in more detail at the historical, scriptural and theological basis for celibacy, as well as dealing with its ascetical consequences. In Pastores dabo vobis, which contains the most recent statement of the Magisterium on priestly celibacy, there is an appeal that this charism be 'presented and explained in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness'. [2] This volume is an effort to respond, even if only in an outline way, to this concern.

In doing so, it will become clear that I draw heavily on John Paul II's teaching on celibacy as he has developed it over the twenty years of his pontificate. His clarity, theological penetration, and supernatural optimism when he speaks about this topic should be an inspiration for every priest.

As a result of researching and writing this book three fundamental ideas have crystallised in my mind. In the first place, to study priestly celibacy is, to paraphrase Newman, to be deep in history. And, without an awareness of the historical tradition related to celibacy, it is impossible to appreciate or understand it fully.

Secondly, it is not feasible to penetrate the meaning of this charism, or to justify it, without a deep appreciation of the virtue of chastity. Here, I am referring to a chastity, not in the diminished or anaemìc sense in which it is perceíved by a sensate culture, but to one which has all the vigour and freshness of a Christian virtue.

Finally, and at first sight paradoxically, only the person who grasps the greatness of the Christian vocation to marriage will be able fully to appreciate the call to priestly celibacy. The interdependence of these three ideas will be a recurring theme of the chapters ahead.

This volume is not meant to be an academic treatise about celibacy. It has a different objective. Its purpose is to draw attention to some basic considerations related to the charism of celibacy which are frequently absent from current discourse about it, and thus enable people come to a more balanced judgement regarding this gift of the Spirit. It is also my hope that a fuller presentation of the supernatural richness of this commitment will help to reinforce in priests their conviction and pride in the gift that is theirs. If it achieves this aim, I will feel that this effort has been well worthwhile.

I would like to express my gratitude to Fr Brendan Purcell for his encouragement to complete this study. In addition he read through the entire text and made many helpful suggestions. My thanks also go to Fr Jimmy Gavigan, Fr Pat Gorevan, Fr Gerry Healy, and Fr Tom OToole for reading through the typescript and eliminating a number of obscurities in the text. Fr Gerry Hanratty read three of the chapters and helped me at many points to articulate more clearly what I was trying to say. They dont necessarily agree with everything I have written, so any deficiencies that appear in the final form of this book are ultimately my responsibility.


1. Addrcss, 27 Octobcr 1990. All the papal addresses referred to in thc text are available in thc English language weekly edition of Osservatore Romano, usually about one week after thc evcnt. Since these arc easily accessible, to avoid overloading the footnotes we will omit thc actual dates of publication.

2 Apostolic Exhortation, 25th March 1992, No. 29

   PREFACE                                       9
   INTRODUCTION                                 13
   Church teaching on celibacy                  14
   Theological influences on priesthood         15
   New interpretations of priesthood            17
   Celibacy after Vatican II                    19
   Changing moral perspectives                  20
   Intellectual and cultura1 influences         21
   Freedom and truth                            22
   Relativism                                   23
   Scientism and utilitarianism                 24
   Individualism and democratisation            25
   Privatising morality                         26
   Recovery                                     27
   Renewal                                      30

1   A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE                    32
   Celibacy in the Latin Church                 35
   Council of Carthage                          36
   Decretals of Pope Siricius                   37
   Patristic evidence                           39
   Sixth-century legislation                    41
   Attempts at reform in the West
      from the seventh to the tenth centuries   42
   The Gregorian reform                         44
   Developments leading up to the
      Council of Trent                          47
   Response to the Reformers                    49
   Council of Trent                             50
   From Trent to the present                    54
   Oriental Church legislation                  55
   Imperial laws                                57
   Council of Trullo (691)                      58
   Consequences of Trullo for 
      Western canon law                         64
   The compulsory marriage of priests           65
   Consequences of Trullo for 
      the theology of priesthood                67
   Temporary continence and the 
      introduction of celibacy                  68

2   SCRIPTURAL FOUNDATIONS                      70
   Old Testament attitudes                      72
   Jeremiah's celibacy                          74
   Virginity a misfortune                       75
   The nuptial mystery                          75
   Friend of the Bridegroom                     76
   Christ preaches on celibacy                  77
   Celibacy a turning point in salvation history79
   Christ calls to celibacy                     80
   Celibacy and self-giving                     81
   Pauline teaching                             82
   Priesthood, celibacy and service             84
   Levitica1 priesthood and continence          85 
   Cultic argument for celibacy                 86
   Marriage, continence and cult                87
   Man of one wife: unius uxoris vir            89
   A woman companion                            92
   Covenant and Scripture                       93
   Marriage as covenant                         94
   Covenanta1 dimension of celibacy             95

3   THEOLOGY OF CELIBACY                        99
   Christologica1 significance                 100
   Ecclesia1 considerations                    102
   Spousa1 love                                104
   Mary and Joseph                             107
   Spiritual paternity                         108
   Eschatologica1 and sa1vific meaning         111
   Celibacy and marriage                       112
   Celibacy, freedom and faith                 114
   Celibacy and holiness                       116
   Theology of relationships with women        117

   Development of a Christian anthropology     120
   The nuptia1 meaning of the body             123
   Old Testament teaching on chastity          124
   Consequences of the Fall                    126
   Adultery of the heart                       127
   Chastity in the teaching of 
      the New Testament                        128
   Chastity and the call to holiness           129
   Modesty and chastity                        130
   Marriage and earthly life                   131
   Marriage in Ephesians                       133
   Old Testament references for Pauline analogy135
   Conclusion                                  136

5   FORMATION FOR CELIBACY                     139
   Formation in chastity                       141
   Christian philosophy of sex education       142
   Call to holiness                            143
   Supportive virtues                          143
   John Paul II and response
      to youth about chastity                  144
   Formation of seminarians in celibacy        145
   Presuppositions for training in celibacy    147
   Formation in human maturity                 148
   Affective maturity                          149
   Training in asceticism                      151
   Perseverance in vocation                    152
   Celibacy - formation in freedom             153
   Freedom and conversion                      156
   Freedom and adoration                       157
   Mary and freedom                            158

6   CELIBACY A WAY TO HOLINESS                 160
   Vocation to sanctity                        160
   Ascetica1 formation for celibacy            161
   Prayer life                                 162
   Preservation of chastity                    165
   Celibacy and devotion to our Lady           166
   Spiritua1 guidance                          167
   Objective self-knowledge                    168
   Priestly fraternity                         171
   Guard of heart                              173
   Practical considerations                    175
   Pastora1 relationship                       176
   Celibacy and marriage - mutual relationship 178
   The Cross in the life of the priest         180
   Mortification                               181
   Purity of Christ                            182

7   OBJECTIONS TO CELIBACY                     185
   Celibacy not a datum of Revelation          185
   Rights of the individual                    186
   Shortage ofpriests                          187
   North American experience                   188
   Increase in vocations                       189
   Different caste                             191
   Celibacy as isolation                       193
   Affective needs                             194
   Priest and people                           195
   Celibacy the price of priesthood            197
   Persona1 responsibility                     198
   Lack of formation                           198
   Formation in fidelity                       199
   Frustrations                                201
   Media presentation of celibacy              202
   Celibacy and anthropology                   205

   Newman and celibacy                         207
   Bishop Alvaro del Portillo                  212
   Mother Teresa of Calcutta                   215
   Disadvantages of a married clergy           217
   Under the Chinese Communists                218
   The lost Christians of Nagasaki             220
   Love for Christ                             221
   John Paul II on celibacy                    222
   EPILOGUE                                    224
   BIBLIOGRAPHY                                235
   INDEX                                       243


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Section Contents Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern1998-2000

This version: 17th January 2003

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