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Sure, celibacy is “disciplinary”, but then, so is …

April 10, 2014

In the wake of the latest off-hand, private, ambiguous, papal comment to be trumpeted around the world as a harbinger of impending change, I note that, for the proverbial umpteenth time, solemn heads are nodding in agreement that clerical celibacy is “merely disciplinary.” Good grief, everyone knows that. The question is not whether clerical celibacy is “merely disciplinary”—unquestionably it is; rather, the question is, What does it mean to designate an institute or practice as “merely disciplinary”?

In Catholic circles the phrase “merely disciplinary” conjures up things like the Communion fast or giving up meat on Fridays. In a very well-read crowd, perhaps the directing of bishops to make ad limina visits or requiring canonical form for marriage would be recognized (and rightly) as “merely disciplinary”. Now, provided one means by the technical phrase “merely disciplinary” that the institute or practice in question could be changed, even eliminated, without the Church ceasing to be the Church, then yes, Friday abstinence, ad limina visits, and clerical celibacy are all “merely disciplinary.”

But, considered from that technical perspective, there are very few things about the Church that aren’t “merely disciplinary”, that is, there are very few things in the Church that, when push comes to shove, are essential to her existence. An episcopal hierarchy would make the short list of non-negotiables, as would the seven sacraments. Eliminate the hierarchy and the Church ceases to exist, jettison even one sacrament from the Church and whatever that institution would be, it couldn’t be the Church founded by Christ.

So, yes, eliminate clerical celibacy and the Church would still be, in essence, the Church founded by Christ. No one can plausibly dispute that narrow claim. But those pushing for the elimination of clerical celibacy, touting the fact that it is “merely disciplinary”, should advise their audiences that, by the very same token, many other things could be eliminated in the Church as well, including:

• the Sunday obligation (not to mention all holy days)

• religious congregations, third orders, and secular institutes

• Catholic schools (including seminaries and universities)

• virtually everything in the liturgy

• parishes, arch/dioceses, provinces, etc.

• the College of Cardinals (and papal conclaves), and so on and on and on.

Each of these things appeared only in the course of Church history (sometimes only recently) and all have undergone major changes over time (sometimes in our very own lifetimes). Any of these things, and indeed all of them, could be altered, or even eliminated, and yet the Church would still be the Church founded by Christ. But is there (serious) talk about tossing them? Of course not. Just because something is “merely disciplinary” does not mean that it bears no connection to divine law (consider the Sunday obligation), or that it does not contribute to the holiness of the Church (consider religious life), or that ecclesiastical authority cannot impose its observance under pain of sin (consider liturgical law). This is so obvious it almost defies demonstration.

But if one can scarcely imagine (let alone seriously propose) doing away with any of these long-standing and spiritually formidable Catholic institutions and practices simply because they are “merely disciplinary”, then how do some propose eliminating an observance like clerical celibacy, of all thingssomething much older than most of the items listed above and at least as great a fount of holiness as the otherswith the facile assuagement that clerical celibacy is, after all, “merely disciplinary”?

You know, like we’re talking about a little Communion fast or something.

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