IS CELIBACY STILL RELEVANT TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?
The seminary formation (where priests are trained for seven years) needs to be re-visited and find out how the formation can be improved so that it suits the science of times otherwise these scandals will continue destroying the image of the Church.
The Catholic Church as an institution has suffered a lot because of its members that is the pope, the bishops, the priests and the laity. There have been a lot of debates about the vow of celibacy that priests take when they are ordained. The debates were prompted by sexual scandals that the Church experiences the entire world.
Some of the cases have be taken to courts, some dioceses have paid a lot of money after being sued by the victims. Some have gone unreported because of fear of victimization. Botswana is not exceptional to these cases. Let’s look at the issue from a critical point of view. Is mandatory celibacy still relevant to the Church? Can optional celibacy be a solution to sexual abuse in the Church? Let’s trace the history of celibacy in the Church. The history supports a married priesthood. For the first 1200 years priests, bishops and 39 popes were married. Celibacy existed in the first century among hermits and monks, but it was considered optional. Medieval politics brought about the discipline of mandatory celibacy for priests. Jesus said to Peter: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” St. Peter, the first pope who was closest to Jesus, was married. There are three references in the Gospel about St. Peter’s wife, his mother-in-law and his family. Based on Jewish law and custom, we can safely assume that all of the Apostles, except for young John, were married with families. Married priests and bishops were the first missionaries. They carried the message of Jesus across cultures and protected it through many hardships. They guided the fragile young Church through its early growth and helped it survive numerous persecutions. In 1993 Pope John Paul II recognized this when he said publicly that “celibacy is not essential to the priesthood”.
The Sacred Scripture (the bible) supports that priests and bishops of the early Church were married. In the New Testament, in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 3, verses 1 through 7, St. Paul discusses the qualities necessary for a bishop. He describes a “kind and peaceable father, a man with a family”. As part of his description, St. Paul even asks the question, “…how can any man who does not understand how to manage his own family have responsibility for the church of God?” St. Paul established many small communities and left them in the hands of married priests and bishops.
How did celibacy among priests come about? Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313 within the Roman Empire. With his legislation, the early Church evolved from a persecuted group of small communities to become the official faith of a world power under Emperor Theodosius in AD 380.
The intentions of Constantine in adopting Christianity were not spiritual at all. His position was being challenged by political groups so he wanted to display his power. He forced other politicians to become Christians as a test of their loyalty. Christianity strengthened his political power. Constantine was also faced with unifying many people his armies had vanquished. Christianity was the key to establishing a new Roman identity in the conquered peoples.
Many things changed very quickly in the Church when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. Priests were now given special social rank. They no longer had to hide from Roman soldiers and fear for their lives. Instead, they received pay for their services as priests and enjoyed special privileges in Roman society. Bishops were assigned with jurisdiction over the people in their area. They were given power to rule. The Romans who converted to Christianity became priests and rapidly moved into positions of leadership in the Church.
The Roman politicians, with their newly acquired priesthood, brought the impersonal and legalistic attitudes of government to the Church. An institutional Church structure emerged mirroring that of the Roman government. The new Roman priests worked to shift authority away from the married priests in the small communities and consolidate political power around themselves. Church leadership became a hierarchy that moved away from its family origins and into the Roman mindset of a ruling class that was above the people in the street. The Church adopted the Roman practice of men alone holding institutional authority.
As time goes by, celibacy took on the status of a special spirituality. The Roman practice of abstaining from marital relations to conserve energy before a battle or a sporting event found its way into liturgical practice. Priests were ordered to abstain from intimacy with their wives the night before they celebrated Mass. The resultant message was that sexuality and marriage were no longer holy.
Celibacy became yet another political opportunity in the hands of ambitious priests and bishops. They used the celibate lifestyle as a political tool to lessen the influence of the married priests. This established celibacy as the highest state of holiness and the eventual suppression of the married priesthood. In the year 385, Pope Siricius abandoned his own wife and children in order to gain his papal position. He immediately decreed that all priests could no longer marry.
In the twelfth century, a negative and legalistic mindset pervaded the Church’s hierarchy. Celibate bishops and priests put great emphasis on sin and guilt in an effort to establish uniformity and control. Married priests were viewed by the hierarchy as an obstacle to their quest for total control of the church. They used mandatory celibacy to attack and dissolve the influential priestly families throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world.
In the eleventh century, the attacks against the married priesthood grew in intensity. In 1074, Pope Gregory VII legislated that anyone to be ordained must first pledge celibacy. In the year 1095, there was an escalation of brutal force against married priests and their families. Pope Urban II ordered that married priests who ignored the celibacy laws be imprisoned for the good of their souls.
During the Second Lateran Council under Pope Innocent II celibacy was optional. The laws demanding mandatory celibacy for priests used the language of purity and holiness, but their true intent was to solidify control over the lower clergy and eliminate any challenge to the political objectives of the medieval hierarchy. The respected tradition of the married priesthood was virtually destroyed by the new celibacy laws. Many of the problems we face in the Church today can be traced back to this period of our Church history.
Celibacy is a not a divine law but is a church law which can be changed anytime. I suppose young people will respond to this vocation with more zeal if celibacy could be optional. Shortage of local priests will be history in our country with fewer scandals.
Remember the words of the late Pope John Paul II; I quote “Celibacy is not essential to the Priesthood.” Pope Francis was ones reported saying celibacy is “a gift for the Church, but since it is not a dogma, the door is always open,” and that the issue of married priests is in his “diary”. Is it not high time the Vatican re-visit mandatory celibacy and change it for the salvation of all souls? Mandatory celibacy is truly a man-made rule, a discipline. It is not a God’s law.
In another hand, celibacy has made what the Church it is today. We can still argue that the strength of the Catholic Church is on its mandatory celibacy. Scandals that the Church is going through do not mean that marriage could be a solution to them. Just like couples who are married and they are faced with infidelity like what is happening now, can we still say polygamy is a solution to monogamous marriages? I doubt we can say that. Priests are not the only ones who are called to holiness. Even married couples are called to live a holy life whereby they need to respect and honour their vows.
After such analysis the Church has to go back to the drawing board and find out what went wrong. The seminary formation (where priests are trained for seven years) needs to be re-visited and find out how the formation can be improved so that it suits the science of times otherwise these scandals will continue destroying the image of the Church the body of Christ.
Tshiamo Stephen Takongwa
(P O Box 643, Mochudi, 72193936)