Father John Wijngaards questions the roots of the belief in a celibate priesthood.

From The Catholic Herald (London) 7th August 1987. Review of A married priesthood in the Catholic Church by Raymond Hickey (Liverpool Institute of Socio-Religious Studies, £2.00).

Contrary to the testamony of scripture, contrary to the unanimous opinion of theologians, contrary to Eastern tradition, synodal statements and papal decisions many Catholics still believe that celibacy and the Catholic priesthood are inseparably linked.

The reason for this mistaken belief is the disciplinary practice of the western church, laid down in the Lateran Council of 1139, that requires candidates for the priesthood to take a vow of celibacy before ordination. The practise is still enshrined in canon law (art.1037). But such a practice does not show in anyway that celibacy belongs to the nature of the Catholic priesthood or that priests must be celibate.

Father Hickey presents a cautious, closely argued case for the Latin Church to start ordaining married men. He points out that no local community, and in fact no single Christian, can do without regularly participating in the Eucharist. There can be no Church, or built-up local church, without the Eucharist. Also, there can be no celebration of the complete Eucharist without a priest, so that the church must ensure that it ordains an adequate number of priests.

This means that the Church cannot afford the luxury of turning away from the priesthood candidates who do not have the charism of celibacy. In the four strongest pages of the booklet (pp 59-62) Hickey sketches the many areas of tension in the present practice. The law unfairly presumes the gift of celibacy in every priest. In fact, priests are treated as monks. Christ proposed celibacy as a counsel, not as a requirement for the ministry. At present the pastoral need of the faithful who go without Eucharist is sacrificed to a matter of discipline. Our practice of breeding (the word is mine) celibate clergy in seminaries is not the only nor, perhaps, the best way of forming mature spiritual leaders. There are cultural factors affecting celibacy that should be taken into account.

This is an informative booklet, presenting facts and reasons. Written as it has been by a missionary who has witnessed the pastoral needs of numerous young communities in Nigeria, it is a cri de coeur drawing cogency from the well of deep apostolic concern that lies at the heart of pastoral theology. Church leaders with the mind of Christ will, I am sure, be moved beyond the power of academic reasoning.

The same pastoral concern which fuels Father Hickey’s study may also have caused its one manifest weakness: its stopping short of the more radical implications inherent in his arguments. Hickey restricts his plea to the ordination of men who are already married. He summarily dismisses the ordination of women with a reference to the Declaration by the Commission for Doctrine in 1976.

He rejects as “contrary to the Apostolic Rule” that priests should be allowed to marry after ordination. Was he motivated, I wonder, by the fear that these latter two pastoral solutions stand so little chance of a hearing that he better dissociate himself from them? If Hickey aspires to base his arguments on theological grounds — as he claims he wants to — he should own up to the whole truth whether it is diplomatic to do so or not. If he writes from a deep personal love of the Church — which I do not doubt for a second — he is ill-advised to reject solutions that are equally promising to still people’s Eucharistic hunger. Is the church served best by defending half-truths, carefully packaged so as not to displease? Or by a respectful but frank criticism of prevailing practice and prejudice?

We all know that many priests who have “left the priesthood” in order to marry are spiritual and deeply committed Christians, who have partners with equally high ideals. They are, in a manner of speaking, the victims of the present practice of injudiciously linking celibacy and the priesthood. Depending on country and continent, they were trapped by the seminary system, by wrong spiritual motivations (the “ritual impurity of sex”) and by parental/cultural complexes.

Father Hickey implicitly admits this. Why does he not urge the Church to examine each of these cases and allow worthy candidates to continue exercising the ministry, even though they are married? To say that this is contrary to an “Apostolic Rule” holds no water. At the time of the Apostles such a rule did not exist, witness the New Testament: it only emerged three centuries later at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Even more important for the future of the Church is the ordination of women. The Commission for Doctrine’s Declaration of 1976 rejected it on theological grounds. The majority of Catholic theologians, however, disagree; they do not see any valid reason in scripture or tradition to deny ordination to women.

If such is the case, immense new possibilities will open up to ensure that communities all over the world will have their Eucharistic ministers. I can understand Father Hickey’s strategic anxiety lest the debate on women priests delay the ordination of married men. But he may not, for that reason, halt this very important and promising, independent line of theological, and pastoral research.

I hope that many people will read and discuss Father Hickey’s book. As a Church we will never fail if we allow the Spirit of Truth and Love to speak to us. Like the scribe in the Gospel we will discover in our treasury “things old and new” — which will surely include both a celibate and married clergy.

John Wijngaards