Thursday, 8 August 2013

Married priests: a hermeneutic of choice

That the Catholic Church should allow for married men to become priests (or for priests to marry) is frequently put forward as a must and as a sure-fire way to address the current dearth of priests in many parts of the world. Celibacy, it is argued, is an outmoded idea and one that presents an obstacle to otherwise great candidates for the priesthood. And, it is suggested that having married priests would both make them better understand their parishioners and avoid crimes like pedophilia, which are laid at the feet of celibacy. The hope then is that a “modern” pope, e. g., like Francis, would finally see sense and do the right thing.

As should be obvious from the tone of the above, I have never seen these as being good grounds for changing the practice of requiring Roman Catholic priests to be celibate (for that is all it is - practice, not dogma, and the desire for its change is furthermore directed primarily at the Roman rite and not, e. g., the Eastern Catholic ones, where married priests have always been an alternative to celibate ones).

First, I don't believe having married priests would lead to more priests (the low numbers today deriving from what Pope Francis has called a “fascination with the temporary”, equally affecting the sacrament of marriage). Second, I consider celibacy to be a treasure - different from, yet equal to marriage in its potential for sanctification. Third, I have my suspicions about those who today would opt for the priesthood in the Roman rite if only it allowed for marriage too (note the specific wording of this point). Fourth, I don't believe that shared experience is a necessary prerequisite for understanding - it can help, but it is not what is essential (otherwise - via reductio ad absurdum - understanding would be impossible - see Nagel's bats). Fifth, linking pedophilia to celibacy is a red herring, and, sixth, you can bet your bottom dollar that Francis will do the right thing - it's only its level of "modernity" that remains to be seen.

And then there is probably the most serious reservation I have about married priests - that it is just too hard! Being married asks for 100% of one's capacity and, I am sure, so does being a priest. Even with the above I wouldn't have said that I am against married priests though, as I have seen great ones both in the Catholic Church an the Anglican Communion. It undoubtedly is challenging, but I wouldn't exclude its being an option just on those grounds.

A couple of weeks ago I read a book chapter about this subject (in the book “La grande meretrice”) and it changed my mind. Its author, Prof. Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian from Rome's La Sapienza University, presents the history of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church and has the following to say about the reasons for allowing priests to marry that were put forward in the Church's early days:
“The problem of clerical celibacy, and its eventual imposition, clashed with another point that was one of the principal innovations of Christian culture: the value of free choice, especially in the context of spiritual life. [...] The high regard enjoyed by chastity meant that, since the first centuries, many clerics spontaneously practiced celibacy, especially in the West, where it was particularly valued. But the Church has not declared a norm with regard to it. The married state too, in fact, had a religious and spiritual value, which made it difficult to exclude clerics from it without provoking its devaluation.”
What struck me about the above was that the argument pivoted around an insistence on the fundamental value of choice and therefore on freedom. It was an argument that decidedly was not pitting celibacy against marriage but presented this important choice as being both orthogonal to that of the priesthood and as having great importance, which in turn placed equal value on the two choices: celibacy and marriage. How strongly this was believed is exemplified by the following canons of the Synod of Gangra in 340 AD:
“Canon 1: If any one shall condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout, and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom [of heaven] let him be anathema.

Canon 4: If any one shall maintain, concerning a married presbyter, that is not lawful to partake of the oblation when he offers it, let him be anathema.

Canon 9: If any one shall remain virgin, or observe continence, abstaining from marriage because he abhors it, and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema.

Canon 10: If any one of those who are living a virgin life for the Lord's sake shall treat arrogantly the married, let him be anathema.”
Not only were married priests to be treated as the equals of celibate ones and marriage be afforded with reverence, but anyone who acted contrary to this teaching was anathema and therefore subject to excommunication.

While the above is a strong argument already, what really clinched it for me is the realisation that Jesus himself called married men to the priesthood, while he could have just as easily chosen only unmarried ones. St. Peter was certainly married (the Gospel referring to his mother-in-law, cf. Matthew 8:14-15) and in all likelihood so were more of the apostles. Even being sure only of St. Peter's married state is sufficient for knowing that Jesus called married men to go out in His name and proclaim the Good News. St. Peter having been the first pope further underlines the deliberate character of Jesus' choice and it can't be argued that only some peripheral apostle was married and that this was some anomaly (and even that would be a weak argument). As it stands though, we have Jesus call a married man to be not only a priest and bishop but also the first pope.

There are certainly challenges with opening up the choice between celibacy and marriage to priests (both practical and psychological), but I am left with standing on the side of those in favor of it, predominantly because Jesus himself chose to stand among them too (as he chose to stand among those in favor of celibacy (e.g., cf. Matthew 19:12). In no way is this in opposition to celibacy though, which I consider to be a great good when chosen for the sake of giving one's life to God. Neither is this a call to disobedience with the Church's norms or a demand for a change. Instead, it is a (albeit minuscule) contribution to a discussion of the topic and, I believe wholly consonant with the magisterium of the Church. For example, the Vatican II decree Presbyterorum Ordinis clearly states that celibacy “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches” (§16). Pope Francis too has spoken on this subject in a way that is open to discussion, while being clear about the norm in force today, when he said that priestly celibacy “is a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change, [but] for the moment, I am in favor of maintaining [it], with all its pros and cons, because we have ten centuries of good experiences rather than failures” (On Heaven and Earth). Even though I don't dispute at all that priestly celibacy is working well “for the moment,” an understanding of the reasons for having it co-exist with priestly marriage in the Early Church has made me understand that this co-existence was a "discipline" practiced for profound, and to my mind, very strong reasons of choice and freedom.