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An odd occasion to discuss celibacy

March 18, 2013

One may disregard the near-constant harangue against clerical celibacy that comes from outside the Church; such criticism is routinely shallow (like, celibates don’t understand marriage) and sometimes ludicrous (like, allowing priests to marry would eliminate clerical sex abuse). More serious, I think, is the disconnect between ecclesial words in praise of celibacy and ecclesial actions in defense of it. I’ve outlined elsewhere what may be called a crisis (in the Greek sense of the word) over celibacy in the Church. Here I offer a different, if distressing, example of the gap between holding celibacy to be “a special gift of God” (c. 277) and actually defending celibacy in Church law and practice.

A Roman Catholic priest in England stands accused of—and denies—groping an under-age female. As part of his defense the accused priest will admit that for more than 10 years he has been civilly, but secretly, married and sexually active in that relationship. Per his lawyer, “Whatever the outcome of this case, his ministry as a Catholic priest is well and truly over.”

I’m not so sure about that claim. In contrast to older canon law, the 1983 Code visits, initially at least, near-nugatory canonical consequences on clerics violating celibacy.

Under the Pio-Benedictine Code, a cleric who attempted marriage faced excommunication (1917 CIC 2388), the gravest sanction that can befall an individual in the Church. The penalty was incurred for the act of attempting marriage itself and was not contingent upon a cleric’s persistence in the civil marriage (although such persistence was itself eventually punishable by dismissal from the clerical state). In other words, the 1917 Code punished the offending cleric himself, for the offense of attempted marriage itself, and gravely at that.

In contrast, the Johanno-Pauline Code (c. 1394), does not punish a cleric attempting marriage by excommunication, but only by suspension; now, suspension is a sanction that mostly impacts not the offender but the administrative acts of the offender (c. 1333). The attempted marriage is invalid (c. 1087), of course, and the moral condition of the priest and the woman is grave, but the canonical status of a cleric attempting marriage is far less serious under modern canon law than it used to be. An illegally married cleric faces dismissal from the clerical state (but still not excommunication) only if he refuses to repent of the civil marriage. In other words, this priest’s ministry is “well and truly over” only if he wants it to be well and truly over.

But don’t take my word for it: During the post-conciliar canonical revision process this exact problem was flagged: “A certain consultor proposes the penalty of excommunication instead of suspension, because [clerical marriage] is an act gravely contemptuous of ecclesiastical law and gives great scandal to the faithful…Suspension will not be a weighty penalty for the cleric” (Communicationes 9: 315, my trans). The proposal to beef up the penalty was defeated (for reasons that reflected a misunderstanding of the law on remission of sanctions, but that discussion is for another day), and the lesser penalty of suspension was retained for clergy who secretly marry.

Hardly a ringing defense of clerical celibacy, that.

The value of clerical celibacy has been amply demonstrated over the centuries, but the last four decades have seen, I suggest, a steady retreat from defending that value in canon law and pastoral practice—married clergy now outnumber celibate clergy in many arch/dioceses, thousands of married ministers have recently come into full communion with Rome and been ordained priests, the observance of clerical continence has been abandoned in the West, and the quasi-decriminalization of attempted clerical marriage itself (as opposed to remaining in pseudo-marriage) has been accomplished. Any one of these developments would have been portentous; but that they have occurred simultaneously is, I suggest, undeniable evidence that clerical celibacy is in crisis.

This crisis needs resolution.

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