The whole store is not for sale

A substantial number of priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese, 163, signed a letter sent to the USCCB president, Bishop Wilton Gregory, urging that “celibacy be optional, not mandatory, for candidates for the diocesan Roman Catholic priesthood.” The letter stresses that, “The primary motive for our urging this change is our pastoral concern that the Catholic Church needs more candidates for the priesthood, so that the Church’s sacramental life might continue to flourish.”

In an interview with the Associated Press (See story on page 3), Bishop Gregory addressed the letter, saying that the current situation is not a moment to review “our constitutive qualities and identities and beliefs and practices.” And he added, “It’s a moment of very intense feelings, raw feelings, but the whole store is not up for sale.”

Celibacy is an ancient tradition in the Church, consistently upheld and greatly valued as a spiritual gift to those called to serve as priests. The Second Vatican Council looked into the issue and recent popes have confirmed its value and strongly supported the discipline for the Latin Church. The norm of celibacy has been recently reviewed and affirmed.

Paul VI extensively and vividly reflected on the issue in his 1967 encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, (On the celibacy of the priest). In it, the pope writes that he had, “over a considerable period of time, earnestly implored the enlightenment and assistance of the Holy Spirit and … examined before God opinions and petitions which [had] come to [him] from all over the world, notably from many pastors of God’s Church.”

Even 35 years ago the arguments for eliminating priestly celibacy centered on a lack of vocations and the cultural atmosphere that considered celibacy “to be difficult or even impossible.”

His conclusion was that “the present law of celibacy should today continue to be linked to the ecclesiastical ministry. This law should support the minister in his exclusive, definitive and total choice of the unique and supreme love of Christ; it should uphold him in the entire dedication of himself to the public worship of God and to the service of the Church; it should distinguish his state of life both among the faithful and in the world at large.”

We strongly recommend reading the encyclical, available on the Vatican's website. Paul VI's analysis of the objections to celibacy and his reflection deserve to be considered carefully.

As recently as June of this year, John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Ecclesia in Europa, confirmed that “Celibacy is not merely an ecclesiastical discipline imposed by authority; rather it is first and foremost a grace, a priceless gift of God for His Church, a prophetic value for the contemporary world, a source of intense spiritual life and pastoral fruitfulness, a witness to the eschatological Kingdom, a sign of God’s love for this world, as well as a sign of the priest’s undivided love for God and for His people. Lived in response to God’s gift and as a mastery of the temptations of a hedonistic society, it not only leads to the human fulfillment of those who are called to embrace it, but proves to be a source of growth for others as well.” The pope goes on to say that “A revision of the present discipline in this regard would not help to resolve the crisis of vocations to the priesthood.”

Beyond the simple issue of the rule of celibacy in the Latin Church, it seems the underlying issue in this debate is a question of the nature of the Church.

If the Church is the congregation of those who hold certain common beliefs, then members may propose, discuss and approve new bylaws at will, following evolving cultural trends. As time passes, “the whole store” may have to be overhauled or even sold.

But if the Church, as Vatican II says, is the Body of Christ — the place where Christ planned to assemble all those who would believe in Him — then He, and the Holy Spirit who guides the Church “in the way of all truth,” become the source of real leadership in the Church.

Rather than accepting that view, the implication is made that change has to be produced by dialectical confrontation of existing Church structures. The truth instead, is that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and not by those who, as St. Paul warns us, are “tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery” on every issue. On the contrary, those in authority are chosen by Christ “for building up the Body of Christ.”

Reopening debate on this issue will not bring a “flourishing” of sacramental life but will further divisions and impede a spiritual renewal of the life of the Church. It is that renewal which will bring, as a precious fruit, a revitalization of the Christian family which is the source of all vocations, including that of living a celibate life either in the priesthood or the consecrated life.