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Cdl. Levada’s comments on continence occasion a note about history as a hermeneutic for law

August 8, 2012

Catching up on some more developments in the clerical continence discussions that occurred while I was away, I note that in November 2011, William Cdl. Levada, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed a clergy conference in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on the subject of clerical celibacy. I only spotted his text on the Vatican’s website as I was leaving for Vienna, however, so I could not comment on it then, but several of the prelate’s observations, especially those on clerical continence, bear underscoring.

Levada noted that he spoke out of “personal conviction, and not on behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” when he proposed “celibacy and continence as a tradition going back to apostolic times.”

I highlight the following excerpts (rearranged, sans footnotes):

1. In general, many of the Church Fathers in the Patristic period engaged in speculative theories about the possible marriage of one or other Apostle. But the Fathers are unanimous in saying that those Apostles who might have been married gave up their marital lives and practiced perfect continence. Cochini calls this “common opinion” of the Fathers an authoritative hermeneutic of the scriptural texts in which reference is made to the detachment practiced by Christ’s disciples, especially Matthew 19: 27 and Luke 18: 28-30.

2. Peter … says to Jesus, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And here is Jesus’ reply: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” Cochini comments that the common opinion of the Fathers that the “giving up everything” meant that the Apostles left their wives (if they indeed had been married). This common opinion was the official preaching of the early centuries in major Christian centers, beginning with Clement in Alexandria and Tertullian in Africa. Cochini calls it “the expression of the collective memory of the apostolic Churches with regard to the example left by the apostles for future generations – an argument from Tradition that cannot be overlooked.”

3. Perhaps the most suitable conclusion to this section would be that of Father Cochini, whose meticulous studies allowed him to “conclude that the obligation demanded from married deacons, priests, and bishops to observe perfect continence with their wives is not, in the Church, the fruit of a belated development, but on the contrary, in the full meaning of the term, an unwritten tradition of apostolic origin that, so far as we know, found its first canonical expression in the 4th century.”

The cardinal’s thoughtful appeal to history, notably his citations to the Jesuit historian Cochini (along with Alfons Stickler and Peter Brown), are very interesting, but it occasions me saying something that has occurred to me several times in this debate and needs to be said.

Briefly, my canonical arguments for clerical continence as binding married clerics do not, repeat not, depend on my ability to prove the “apostolic origins” of clerical continence. My arguments for clerical continence rest on what the law requires today. Yes I have, I suggest, proven that what the 1983 Code requires today is exactly what the 1917 Code required in its day, and my own studies (as yet unpublished) have found that identical requirement in the Ius Decretalium (dating to the 13th century), while others, like Liotta, have found it in Gratian (12th century). For that matter, the canonical expressions of the clerical continence obligation seem to me amply demonstrated by Cochini, et al., back to the Fourth Century and, having read Stickler, Heid, and others, my personal opinion is that the obligation of continence is, in fact, of apostolic origin. But, I say again, one need not prove the apostolic origin of Canon 277—or of any other canon in the 1983 Code—in order to find the canon clear and its force binding.

Many, probably the majority, of opponents to clerical continence ultimately base their arguments on practices alleged to have obtained in ancient times. As a matter of history, I find their arguments unpersuasive at best, but as a matter of law I find their arguments irrelevant. By claiming, as almost their sole objection to the modern law of clerical continence, the (alleged) witness of the ancient of Church, these persons commit, I think, the error of “primitivism” confronted by Pope Pius XII in his great encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei (1947) n. 61.

The pontiff wrote: “[S]ome persons [seem] bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately. The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They, too, owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit, who assists the Church in every age even to the consummation of the world. They are equally the resources used by the majestic Spouse of Jesus Christ to promote and procure the sanctity of man.”

Exactly the same thing may be said in regard to canon law. Even if (I say if) one could prove that married deacons, priests, and bishops, were allowed in ancient times to continue conjugal relations with their wives after ordination, that would prove nothing about what canon law expects of them under the 1983 Code, or indeed what it unquestionably expected of them under 1917 Code, or about what it has certainly expected of them for at least 1,000 years. The most that one could do with such a historical finding would be to appeal to it for a change in the modern law, chiefly in Canon 277. But one would not have proven that the canons in question mean something other than what they plainly say.

Which is my sole point.

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