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Britsh peers’ letter on celibacy occasions a distinction

March 28, 2013

Politicians are prone to exaggerating their expertise and influence, so, when several British Catholic politicians and peers published a letter to Pope Francis calling for an end to celibacy, I thought, meh. Their letter falls within the bounds of Canon 212 § 3 on the public expression of opinions in the Church, and Rome doubtless has a big drawer somewhere marked “Polite Letters from People with Essentially Nothing New to Say about This or That but, by Writing to Us, Made Themselves Feel Better”, wherein this note can be filed. If there’s still room in the drawer.

But the peers’ call, by implicitly linking two related but distinct issues, makes an error that is routinely made in calls to abolish celibacy in the West.

It is commonly asserted that celibacy is “merely disciplinary”, implying thereby that celibacy can be turned on or off in the Church like a light bulb (or at any rate changed like Friday abstinence or the length of the Communion fast). Such a portrayal is, I suggest, a disingenuous way to refer to “a special gift from God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart” (Canon 277 § 1) and shows, moreover, little understanding of the ecclesial weight to be accorded “disciplines” that have been observed unquestionably for a millennium and which can be traced to ancient days. Those arguments, however, are better made by others (scroll to Historical Studies).

But, whatever pastoral expediencies are served from time to time by the admission of married men to holy Orders, such men are, and in the Roman Church always have been, bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, even in marriage. The very recent practice of ordaining thousands of married men to Western diaconal and presbyteral orders without any awareness of this obligation and without personal or uxorial consent to it, cannot be explained by developments in canon law (that clearly did not occur) or by developments in theology of Orders (that, so far at least, have not been identified).

That’s the problem with the peers’ call, one shared by, as far as I can see, every modern call for an end to celibacy in the West: arguments applicable to the merely disciplinary character of clerical celibacy are not necessarily applicable to the discussion of clerical continence. Because these two institutions are distinguishable in law and theology, people calling for a modification in one (celibacy) need to be aware that the other (continence) raises very different, and much harder, questions.


Additum: A parish priest writes “I keep reminding others and myself: I did not give up marriage for the sake of a ‘discipline’. Continence is intrinsic to Holy Orders. Celibacy is the means to achieve it.”

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