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Georg Kraus

Plea for the Voluntary Nature of the Celibacy of the Latin Catholic Priests


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 9/2010, P. 579-588
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Recently renowned theologians brought the call for a reform of the law of celibacy to public attention. GEORG KRAUS, professor of dogmatics at the University of Bamberg underlines this claim from the perspective of church history and dogmatics, and appeals to the responsible bishops to respond in accordance with the signs of the times.


Since in the last few months a number of bishops in several European countries publicly advocated the ordination of married "viri probati" (Norbert Brunner, Sitten; Alois Kothgasser, Salzburg; Hans-Jochen Jaschke, Hamburg; Ludwig Schick, Bamberg) {1}, a new theological reflection on the celibacy law is a timely request. It is about the basic question whether the law of celibacy in the current social constellation, and particularly in the current pastoral emergency situation of the Church is still to be maintained. In the scientific theology there are voices that advocate responsibly that the law of celibacy as exclusive prerequisite for the access to priesthood has to be abandoned, and married men are to be admitted to priestly ordination.

Celibacy means singleness and categorical sexual abstinence. In the Catholic Church priests who belong to a religious order adopt it by a personal vow, wheras it is imposed on the secular priests as a legal obligation that they accept before their ordination by a promise. Since secular priests are ordained for the service in parishes, the impact of celibacy for the pastoral care in the parishes is a key criterion. Currently, in the West European ecclesiastical provinces the pastoral care suffers from an extreme shortage of priests. With regard to this particular emergency, in theology the question is therefore discussed of whether it can still be justified that, in view of the pastoral misery, married men are excluded from ordination or whether - to say it more constructively - the ordination of married men who have proven themselves in faith and in marriage ("viri probati") is a pastoral necessity.

Given these problems, the following questions are now to be discussed: 1) What is according to the ecclesial Magisterium the positive meaning of celibacy? 2) With what arguments does theology plead for the voluntary nature of celibacy and the ordination of married men?


The Positive Meaning of Celibacy in the Perspective of the Ecclesial Magisterium

Compared to previous discussions on the legal linking of celibacy and priesthood, the Second Vatican Council has confirmed the traditional view in principle, but in the decree "Presbyterorum Ordinis (PO 16) it delivered a differentiated position.



Subsequently, in 1967 in his encyclical "Sacerdotalis caelibatus" (Priestly celibacy) Pope Paul VI fully defended the celibacy for secular priests. Also the Roman Synod of Bishops of 1991, where it was about "The Formation of Priests in Circumstances of the Present Day", has confirmed the continuity of the legal obligation of celibacy. This was reinforced and summarized by Pope John Paul II in his Post-Synodal Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (I will give you shepherds).

1) The positive point of view of celibacy in PO 16. In the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, the Council also dealt with the obligation of celibacy and discussed it in a precise and subtle manner in PO 16. In reference to Mt 19:12 the Council understands celibacy as "the complete and continuous abstinence for the kingdom of heaven's sake." In the more detailed description the Council distinguishes between necessity and appropriateness of celibacy and voluntary abstinence and celibacy prescribed by law.

Dogmatically, the unambiguous statement is fundamental that the priesthood is not necessarily linked to celibacy, celibacy "is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood." This statement is confirmed by the reference to "the practice of the early church and the tradition of the Eastern Churches ... where ... there are also married priests of highest merit." The Council expressly confirmed that in the Eastern Churches united with Rome the right to married priests remains in existence. Coupled with a warning to the married priests that they "persevere in their holy vocation", the Council recognizes that the married priests "fully and generously continue to expend themselves for the sake of the flock commended to them" (PO 16:1).

But then the Council advocates the appropriateness of celibacy: "Celibacy has a many-faceted suitability for the priesthood." Here some reasons for the appropriateness are listed very tightly. According to it celibacy promotes in priests the following basic attitudes: The priests adhere more easily with an undivided heart to Jesus Christ, they dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and men, and they more expeditiously minister to the Kingdom of God, they are willing to be dedicated to the office committed to them, they evoke the mysterious marriage with His Church established by Christ, they are a living sign of the world to come (PO 16:2).

Finally, the Council refers to the historical development from a recommendation of celibacy up to the obligation by law: "Celibacy, which first was recommended to priests, later in the Latin Church was imposed upon all who were to be promoted to sacred orders as a legal obligation (lege impositus)." Apart from the distinction between a recommended voluntary celibacy and a legal obligation of celibacy, the statement is important that the law of celibacy applies only to priests in the "Latin Church" (in contrast to the Uniate Eastern Churches).



Of course, then the validity for the Latin Church is decidedly confirmed. "This legislation, pertaining to those who are destined for the priesthood, this holy synod again approves and confirms" (PO 16:3).

2) The positive point of view of the celibacy law in two papal pronouncements. In his encyclical Sacerdotalis Celibatus on the celibacy of the priest of 1967 Pope Paul VI very decidedly advocates the legal obligation of celibacy for priests. The letter firstly lists "objections against priestly celibacy" (No. 5-12). Then the law of celibacy is confirmed as "a distinctive feature of the priest's state of life" (No. 14). Finally, reasons for the legitimacy and observance of celibacy are constructively explained (No. 17-34) - with due regard to a triple perspective: the Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological meaning of celibacy. Christologically, the celibacy of Jesus is presented as the model of "total dedication to the service of God and men" (No. 21), celibacy thus "signifies a love without reservations; it stimulates to a charity which is open to all" (No. 24). Ecclesiologically, celibacy promotes "the increase of the priest's power, his service, his love and sacrifice for the entire people of God" (No. 30). Eschatologically, continence for the kingdom of heaven's sake is "a special token of the rewards of heaven", because "it proclaims the presence on earth of the final stages of salvation with the arrival of a new world" (No. 34).

In his apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis [I will give you shepherds] (1992) Pope John Paul II emphasizes again "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." Celibacy is here determined in its core as "the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest's service to the Church in and with the Lord" (No. 29:4).


Contemporary Theology's Plea for the Free Choice of Celibacy and the Ordination of Married Men

In view of the Church's situation in today's world, a number of representative theologians (Medard Kehl SJ, Peter Hünermann, Peter Knauer SJ, Jürgen Werbick, Stefan Knobloch OFMCap, Ottmar Fuchs, Paul M. Zulehner, Hans Peter Heinz, last Hans Peter Schmitt {2}; Joseph Ratzinger, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann {3}) see the urgent need for a bold reform of the admission requirements for the priestly ordination. In concrete terms, the pope and the bishops as leaders of the Church are urgently called upon to repeal the law of celibacy, and to admit married men to the ordination.

Basically, the repeal of the celibacy law would mean in the threefold Hegelian sense: to eliminate the legal obligation of celibacy, to preserve the ideal of priestly celibacy; to elevate the priestly ministry.



With the distinction between "law of celibacy" and "ideal of celibacy" a double way is open: on the one hand, the course should be pursued to replace the legal obligation to celibacy by the recommendation of celibacy; on the other hand, all spiritual and educational resources should be used to motivate candidates for the ideal of priestly celibacy and to support celibate priest in the attainment of the ideal. On both paths the priestly ministry can thus be emphasized and promoted in its uniqueness and irreplaceability.

Then, under these basic assumptions, the individual arguments of theology can be seen as criticism of the legal linkage of priestly celibacy with the priestly ministry, and as constructive contribution to the connection of priestly ministry and married life. In their plea for a reform of the celibacy law the theologians use arguments from church history and dogmatics.


Arguments from Church History for the Rreform of the Law of Celibacy

There are historical facts which confirm that (as the Council formulated in PO 16) celibacy "is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood." Decisive reference points are already in the New Testament, where a difference exists between recommendations and practical behaviour.

So Jesus himself lives celibacy and recommends celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven with the comment, "He who are able to understand it, let him grasp it" (Mt 19:12). De facto, however, he does not make celibacy a condition in the calling of the apostles. Just about the apostle Peter, we know the fact that he was married, because Jesus has "in the House of Peter" cured his sick mother-in-law of fever (Mt 8:48 f.). The apostle Paul, too, lives in celibacy, and he recommends celibacy for the sake of undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Cor 7:32 to 34). But Paul expressly distinguishes between command and advice, "But concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give my opinion" (1 Cor 7:25). In addition, Paul emphasizes that he has chosen celibacy in a very personal freedom, because he had - like Peter (Cephas) - the right to be accompagnied by his wife on the mission journey, "Have we not a right to take round a sister as wife, as also the other apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?" (1 Cor 9:5). - Finally we see in the early church, namely in the communities of the Pastoral Letters, the fact of married bishops (1 Tim 3:2), presbyters (Tit 1:6) and deacons (1 Tim 3:12). There it says e.g.:



"The overseer (episkopos) then must be irreproachable, husband of one wife ... conducting his own house well, having his children in subjection with all gravity. He who does not know how to conduct his own house, how shall he take care of the assembly of God?" (1 Tim 3:2.4 f).

Summarizing the New Testament testimony, which is the ultimate ecclesiastical standard, it can be stated that - according to Jesus' and the apostle Paul's example - celibacy is only a recommendation and not a law; celibacy is chosen in personal freedom and is not imposed by legal obligation. Conversely, in the early Church applies that marriage is for all church officials the mandatory rule. At the origin of the church, celibacy therefore does clearly not belong to the nature of the ecclesiastical ministry.

The further historical development of celibacy shows equally clearly that celibacy is not inherently linked with the ecclesiastical ministry. It was not until the fourth century, when in Spain at the regional synod of Elvira (306 AD) an ascetic movement gained acceptance, and so sexual abstinence was imposed on married priests within their marriage. The main theological justification lay in the ideal of ritual purity, according to which a priest (from the Old Testament point of view in Lev 22:3 f.) may not participate in the sacred offerings in case of impurity caused by sexual intercourse. Since according to this view sexual intercourse was seen as pollution, the priests should - due to their regular ritual actions - continuously live abstinently with their wives.

While in the first millennium it was about the continence within marriages of priests, in the 12th century the trend prevailed to make celibacy mandatory for priests. This happened on the level of the ecclesiastical Magisterium at the first Lateran Council in 1123. Its decree reads, "We strictly prohibit priests from living together with concubines and wives" (DH 711). After the second Lateran Council in 1139, which in canon 7 annulled all marriages of clerics, celibacy for secular priests became a general law. During this period, two reasons, resp. motives for celibacy were predominant. First, the economic motive was that the church property was preserved when it was prohibited that children come into their inheritance. Second, the spiritual motive was that celibacy was rated higher than marriage; this view was still expressed in the Council of Trent in 1563 in the wording that celibacy was "better and happier" (melius ac beatius) than matrimony (DH 1810).

As summary from the facts of the historical development of celibacy law can be stated that in the entire first millennium priests were admittedly called upon to abstain from sexual intercourse within marriage, but there was no legal obligation of celibacy. There were very questionable motives in the justification of the legal obligation to celibacy, when in the 12th century the new law was enacted: ritual impurity, economical preservation of Church property, depreciation of marriage.



Also the historical development therefore confirms that the legally imposed celibacy is not intrinsic to the nature of the priestly ministry.

Furthermore, a look at the "Eastern Churches" united with Rome shows that the celibacy of priests is no generally valid Catholic principle. For the Uniate Eastern Churches have, regarding celibacy, the same legal system as the early Orthodox Churches, where the priests are married (and where celibacy is a prerequisite only for bishops). In the Decree on the Uniate Eastern Churches 'Orientalium Ecclesiarum' (OE), this regulation has been reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council by emphasizing that the Uniate Eastern Churches have in independence "their ecclesiastical discipline" (OE 3) and "their established way of life" (OE 6).

So we face the thought-provoking fact that within the Catholic Church two fundamental rights exist: the priests of the Eastern Churches have the right to marriage, while the priests of the Latin Church are obligated to celibacy by law. Basically, here is an additional proof that the priestly ministry and celibacy are not necessarily linked. In addition, the practical question of justice arises. Why are these people allowed to do what is forbidden others? Or to ask constructively, when this discrepance of justice is taken seriously, would not it be a strong impulse to ordain married men also in the Latin Church?

Finally, from the most recent church history since 1950, a contradictory behaviour of the popes can be noticed. On the one hand they impress upon priests of the Latin Church that they must live in celibacy, on the other hand they permit married priests who from other Christian denominations convert to the Catholic Church that they may continue their marriage in the ecclesiastical ministry. Such papal dispensation from celibacy was and is issued on the occasion of the conversion of Lutheran pastors, and priests of the Anglican and the Episcopal Church. - This behaviour of the popes raises the critical question: Where is the sensitivity to their own priests, who are obligated to celibacy, and who with a good deal of trouble lead an unmarried life? Or is it fair when the own priests who decide to marry are entirely removed from the priestly ministry, whereas converts with wives and children are allowed to exercise the priestly ministry?


Dogmatic Arguments for the Reform of the Celibacy Law

Starting point is the clear, highest magisterial statement of the Second Vatican Council that celibacy "is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood" but was imposed later "in the Latin Church ... as legislation" (PO 16).



It is therefore clear that celibacy has no dogmatic authority, but it is a canonical law. Since this law has its origin in history and since laws can be changed in a new historical situation, by taking its starting-point from the gospel, dogmatic theology is allowed or even obligated to present reasons that suggest the change of the law.

In the perspective of dogmatics it is necessary first to look at the testimony of Scripture and church tradition, because Scripture and tradition are the key standards for the church. As we have already seen, there is only a recommendation of celibacy in the New Testament. In addition, there is no tradition right from the start regarding the celibacy of priests, but only in the 12th century under specific historical conditions celibacy became a compulsory law. Thus, under new historical conditions, dogmatic theology can with justified arguments initiate and urge the change of the celibacy law.

The orientation towards the "signs of the times" is a basic principle of the Second Vatican Council, it has to be applied also in the celibacy issue. For "to carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel." (GS 4).

In the present time there is an extreme shortage of priests in certain regions of the Catholic Church. Thus over the last 50 years in Western Europe and North America the number of priests has fallen by more than half. The actual reason is that only a very small number of young priests follow. The deeper reasons for the decline in the number of priests are manyfold. First, the roots lie in a whole set of social changes, which are determined by the new secular values. Second, as polls clearly show, this decrease is caused within the church especially by the fact that young people do no longer want to shoulder the mandatory celibacy.


The Task of the Bishops

How do the bishops in charge respond to this phenomenon of the acute shortage of priests? Currently, they react with an administrative reform. They adapt the number of parishes to the low number of available priests. For example, in 2007 in the Archdiocese of Bamberg the former 367 parishes are merged to 96 "pastoral areas". In 2009 in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising 747 individual parishes were formed into 279 "pastoral units" (47 individual parishes and 232 parochial associations). In the parish associations a major consequence becomes evident: There is only one priest for several parishes; the priest thus becomes necessarily a manager, and it is de facto impossible that on Sunday in every parish a Eucharistic celebration takes place.



How is this bad pastoral situations to be judged from a dogmatic point of view? In principle, two guidelines should be observed: the parishes' right to the Sunday Eucharistic celebration and the responsibility of the local bishops as shepherds of their local church.

About the parishes' right to the dominical Eucharist the Second Vatican Council has quite decidedly emphasized that the Eucharist "is fount and apex of the whole Christian life" (LG 11), or more specifically for the parishes, that the Eucharist is "the center and culmination of the whole life of the Christian community" (CD 30). In these fundamental statements the right to the Sunday Eucharist is substantiated {4}. In LG 37 it says:

"The laity have the right ... to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments."

The Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops Christus Dominus says even more specifically, "it should be considered a general rule that each diocese have clergy, in number and qualifications at least sufficient, for the proper care of the people of God" (CD 23). The Roman instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum published in 2004 explicitly affirms the parishes' right to Sunday Eucharist:

"For “no Christian community is built up unless it is rooted in and hinges upon the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist”. Hence it is the Christian people’s right to have the Eucharist celebrated for them on Sunday" (No. 162).

The responsibility of the local bishops as pastors of their local churches: Wherever in local churches an extreme shortage of priests exists, and so the parishioners' right to the Sunday Eucharist is taken away, the local bishops are called on "to make available a sufficient number of clerics." In their special emergency situation the bishops must take responsibility and break new ground in order to remedy the priest shortage in their area.

They are not allowed to shirk their responsibility but must here and now act independently - even regarding the headquarters in Rome. For, according to the dogmatic constitution on the church "Lumen Gentium", the bishops "are not to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them." Just before this passage it says, "This power, which they personally exercise in Christ's name, is proper, ordinary and immediate (propria, ordinaria et immediata potestas) (LG 27). Invested with such responsibility the bishops should, in the network of their regional episcopal conferences, dare to take unconventional steps in order to get more priests.

What has to be done in the emergency situation of the shortage of priests from the perspective of dogmatics? The overriding principle for all church activity is the salvation of men, in concrete terms, the task of salvation of people [Heilsdienst].



Also the Code of Canon Law of 1983 acknowledges this principle in its last sentence, "the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church" (CIC/1983, can. 1752).

When now in many dioceses due to the shortage of priests the today needed task of salvation of people can no longer be provided, the bishops are obliged to tread new paths in their own responsibility. Since the priest shortage is caused substantially by the deterrent effect of celibacy, the bishops must as bishops' conferences with one voice in the headquarters in Rome advocate decidedly that the legal linking of the priestly ministry with celibacy is repealed. At least they have to obtain immediately an exemption clause for their region, so that they are allowed to ordain "viri probati" priests (i.e. men proven in faith, profession, and family) for the task of salvation in their emergency situation. It is an irresponsible excuse when bishops say, celibacy is a law of the universal church, and we can do nothing to change that. In the pastoral emergency situation, they must at least persistently advocate a regional exemption clause for the salvation of the people entrusted to them.

Finally, regarding the urgency of the abrogation of the celibacy law - while maintaining the ideal of voluntary celibacy - it should basically be noted that the bishops are directly responsible for the salvation of the people in their local churches. In secular regions with a shortage of priests there is needed a missionary pastoral care that attends people and requires therefore an extraordinarily large number of priests (and full-time employees). The method now practiced, i.e. the merging of parishes into spacious parish associations misses the fundamental mission of pastoral care. Pastoral care needs personal and physical proximity. Pastoral care needs personal interviews and guidance. In the secular regions pastoral care needs personal attendance, contacts and communication. This is made impossible by the present system with its large-scale structure and only one priest.

The signs of the times do not call for administering institutional necessities, but for remedying the pastoral misery! What is needed are more priests, in order to remedy the pastoral misery. Provided the law of celibacy substantially hinders the now necessary task of salvation, it must be repealed. The bishops in charge must ask themselves before their conscience whether a law is more important than the salvation of people? Due to the mission of Jesus Christ, the task of salvation for people is an absolute, always valid necessity, while celibacy is an alterable, contingent human law.



{1}In the recent past four German-speaking bishops publicly in interviews advocated an open discussion about the voluntary nature of celibacy:



Bishop Norbert Brunner, chairman of the Swiss Bishops Conference, said on 29th November 2009 in the "Neuen Zürcher Zeitung", "It should be possible to ordain married men priests" because "there is no inherent connection between celibacy and priesthood. - The Salzburg Archbishop Alois Kothgasser SDB said on 12th March 2010 in Austrian television, "The times and society have changed ... and that is why the Church must consider how she can further maintain this way of life, or what must be changed by her." - The Hamburg Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke said on 13th March 2010 in the Hamburger Abendblatt, "One should consider whether a greater diversity is possible in the Catholic Church by married priests." - The Bamberg Archbishop Ludwig Schick suggested on 5th August 2010 in "Spiegel Online", "Whether every priest has to live in celibacy ... I would suggest that we seriously think about it."

{2} In dogmatics and fundamental theology, for instance, the following theologians advocate the voluntary nature of celibacy and the ordination of viri probati: M. Kehl, Plädoyer für die "viri probati", in: ders., Die Kirche. Eine katholische Ekklesiologie (Würzburg 1992) 449 f.; P. Hünermann, Eucharistie - Gemeinde - Amt, in: the same, Ekklesiologie im Präsens (Münster 1995) 243-247; P. Knauer, Die "Ehelosigkeit um des Himmelreiches willen" u. das Zölibatsgesetz, in this journal 120 (1995) 823-832; J. Werbick, Ubi sacerdos, ibi parochia? Pastorale Konzepte u. theologische Schlüsselfragen, in: Abbruch oder Aufbruch? Von der Eigendynamik des kirchlichen Strukturwandels, edited by J. Först, F. Lappen u. J. Rahner (Münster 2010) 77-82. - In pastoral theology, the following theologians speak out decidedly: St. Knobloch, Seelsorge: mehr als Strukturreformen. Die Zeichen der Zeit verstehen, in: Anzeiger für die Seelsorge 118 (2009) 5-7; O. Fuchs, Im Innersten gefährdet. Für ein neues Verhältnis von Kirchenamt u. Kirchenvolk (Innsbruck 22010) 21-25, 129-131, 137 f.; P. M. Zulehner, Kirche in Ruf- u. Reichweite. Priestermangel, raumgerechte Seelsorge, Kirchenentwicklung, in this journal 228 (2010) 279-282; H. Heinz, Zeugnis u. Ärgernis. Zur fälligen Diskussion über den Pflichtzölibat, in: HerKorr 64 (2010) 335-339. - See recently H. Schmitt, Überforderung Zölibat, in: Diakonia 41 (2010) 283-289.

{3} A review of relevant theological statements dating back more than 30 years is very worrying, because up to this day no practical conclusions have been drawn. The statements come from professors of dogmatic theology who currently hold the highest positions in the Catholic Church. So Pope Benedict XVI said in 1969 in Hessischer Rundfunk on occasion of a prognosis for the year 2000, "the church of the future will be small ... She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings ... She will certainly know also new forms of the ministry, and ordain good Christians who are pursuing a professional career priests" (J. Ratzinger, Glaube u. Zukunft, München 1970, 123). - The recently retired Cardinal Walter Kasper said very clearly in 1978, "If it is true that we have enough lay people who are competent as humans and Christians to perform de facto the ministry of parish priests ... then I wonder why such laymen who proved themselves to be viri probati are not made parish priests de jure, that is, why does no imposition of hands take place and no ordination" (W. Kasper, Ausweg aus der Not des Priestermangels, in: ders., Zukunft aus dem Glauben, Mainz 1978, 10f.) - In view of the emergency situation in the parishes, the current bishop of Mainz, Cardinal Karl Lehmann argued in 1979 in favour of a new way of attracting more priests and warned "that in case of emergency the spiritual welfare of the parishioners has priority over specific historical forms of the ecclesiastical ministry, provided they are not divine law. That's why one should not refrain from asking whether the dogmatically possible decoupling of priesthood and celibacy can be realized for certain groups"; this means that "under changed conditions it is necessary to rethink the issue of the ordination of 'men proven in marriage, family and Church'" (K. Lehmann, Eucharistische Gemeinschaft u. kirchliches Amt, in: zur debatte 2, 1979, 9).

{4} About the parishes' right to the Sunday Eucharist see G. Kraus, Die Unersetzbarkeit der sonntäglichen Eucharistiefeier durch einen Wortgottesdienst, in: "Umbruch" - ein Zeichen der Zeit, edited by A. Hierold (Münster 2007) 119-136.


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