Metaphysics of a Celibate Priesthood
If one visits Benedictine College, in Atchison, KS, one will notice a curious admixture of architectural styles. The original St. Benedict’s College was founded in 1858; expansions and additions to the school have come through the past 152 years and have endured—some for the better, many for the worse—the various ideologies which moved men to build in such or another way. The original buildings have a beauty characteristic of the 19th century American style; far from ostentatious, they nonetheless convey something significant, through their arches, their brickwork, their solidity. Contrariwise, several of the academic and residence halls, built from roughly 1950-1975, are hideously bland. The aesthetic is structured purposefully towards a denial of purpose in aesthesis—in other words, they are structured so as not to impress, but deliberately to fail to impress; they are so devoid of artistry that they are, admittedly, quite flexibly functional. One could use the buildings for a great many purposes. It is or ought not to be any surprise that they were designed by Marxists—and it is or ought not to be any surprise that being flexibly functional for a greater number of purposes than any of the other more beautiful buildings, they are vastly inferior in supporting any of them. The ideal Marxist building can be anything—but to do so, it must divest itself of the possibility of truly being one thing at any time. As such, students looking to study would not meet in the common room of a stark, cold building, but rather move to one of the much nicer, more aesthetically pleasing; they would not pray in the Abbey church (itself a hideous structure) were the monks using the adjoining parish church—a beautiful but sadly underused place of spiritual elevation and significance. (Happily, the College is today emphasizing the aesthetics of its better buildings and shunning the regrettably unavoidable facilitative structures).
If someone were candidly asked, “What is a wall?” they would likely respond that it is part of a structure that helps hold up the roof, keep some things in, and others out. This is true; this is the function of the wall. But it is the function of the wall at its most basic, its most base level of being-a-wall. It can be a better wall; why else do people paint, use wallpaper, place pictures, paintings, tapestries, crucifixes, and images of the Blessed Mother upon the wall? They could just as well be placed on shelves, bookcases, countertops; they could be put on ceilings or strewn about a floor. It is not merely for the fact that most of these placements would result in gross inconvenience that things are placed on the wall; it is also due to the fact that one wants to beautify the wall, because the wall is not just the wall—it is the wall as a part of the room, of the house or church or whatever structure to which it belongs, and as such, its function is more than its mere function. There is a certain fittingness for every thing in every context into which it is placed. Some, in revolting against the one-thing-at-a-time monomania of Marxist, and its necessitated insubstantiality, would see in this ability of a thing by its accoutrements and by its context to be more than its mere functionality a pluralization of the thing’s being; it is both a wall and a place for art; it is both a church in which one may worship and a testimony to beautiful art and architecture; it is both a true statement and one beautifully put. This sort of plurality of function pervades American culture—with the obvious danger that it is in danger of, going the opposite direction, ending in the same place as the Marxist ideal—but fails to accurately characterize the more fundamental being of the more fundamental things. The wall, in holding a copy of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” is not a wall and an art-space; it is a beautified wall. The church is not both conducive to worship and aesthetically well-posed, but a beautiful place to worship. The statement is not separately true and beautiful, but its truth is conveyed through beauty, and its beauty permeates the truth it expresses.
If a wall is not beautiful and a supporting, protective part of a structure, but a beautiful wall, if a church is not a place of worship and beautiful but a beautiful place of worship, if a beautifully stated truth is not separately true and beautiful but beautifully true and truthfully beautiful, then what can be said of man as regards his functionality?
The function of man, in the eyes of the Church, is most lucidly stated in the Baltimore Catechism: to know, love, and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next. The goal is the same for all men; but though all men have the same goal, it is a phenomenological truth that every man is different, from different situations, different experiences, and is therefore in need of different means to bring him to God. This subjectively determined but objectively oriented means—in other words, suited to the individual but only insofar as it will bring him to sanctification—is what has long been called man’s vocation. Typically, vocations are broadly categorized: marriage, priesthood, religious life, single life. Yet the fact is that, despite these broad categorizations, each calling (for “vocation” is from the Latin vocare, “to call”) is particular to each individual; one married man’s marriage is not the same as others, for his wife is different, and his children are different, and incalculable, innumerable aspects of his life are unique to him, each providing him, according to Divine Providence, with that which he needs in order to find salvation. Likewise, a priest may be a diocesan priest, a mendicant, he may belong to a personal prelature, he may be in the Roman Rite or the Melkite, the Byzantine or the Ukranian Catholic. He may have a didactic talent, or a pastoral talent, or an evangelical talent; he may be the next great theologian or the next great Francis of Assisi—but he will never be St. Francis no more than he will be St. Thomas Aquinas, for he is himself, unique in his participation in the Being of God.
Would it not make sense, then, that for some men, the vocation could be within the categories of both marriage and priesthood, or marriage and religious life? Could there not be some blending of the priesthood and the single life?
Suppose a man wanted to travel from Chicago to Atlanta. He might do so by land, in a car, or by air, in a plane. Either way, he arrives at the same location; what he cannot do is travel by both land and air simultaneously, for the equipment required for each is different—never mind the principle of non-contradiction. If he wants to travel by both, he must switch back and forth, changing equipment each time (were he in a plane that can drive or a car that can fly, he would nonetheless switch the active equipment; tires for wings and vice versa). At no point in time is he simultaneously fulfilling both modes of transport, and thus at every point in time, if he is fulfilling one, he is leaving the other unfulfilled. At times, no doubt, this sort of travel is necessary, under circumstances that mandate abdication of one mode for the sake of the other at whatever time; to drive the car or fly the plane, to guide the small flock or to shepherd the larger.
It is, however, undeniable that this duality of roles is an unnatural division. Every man is responsible for others on the path to the Kingdom of Heaven; but for how many others, in how many ways, can one man help shoulder the burden? In less than perfect circumstances, he may adequately fulfill multiple such roles; but less perfectly than in more perfect circumstances; when one must fulfill multiple functions, being a limited being, of limited time, with limited abilities, the fulfillment of such more often than not becomes perfunctory. The less-than-perfect circumstance induces the would-be-perfect man to be merely adequate, merely functional; he may hold up the structure, but he does not hold it up beautifully. Should not then, in more perfect circumstances, man seek to do that which is more perfect? No man may reach God in this life or by his own means, certainly; all he may do is make the attempt to lessen his own imperfection, to draw as near to God as possible. A man’s spiritual life is indivisible from the rest of it; one’s work, one’s particular vocation, one’s socialization, all of it is of a unity; it is all part of his vocation, it is all to be ordained to the attainment of salvation, not as aggregate parts, but as a single organism. The fulfillment of function, the response to vocation, is not a juxtaposition of disparate parts, but a living response, one breath at a time, diffusing life into one bloodstream.
In the early Church, marriage and Holy Orders were both conferred, regularly, upon one man. Over time, as the East and West become distinguished from one another in liturgy and tradition, something happened in the West that did not in the East; something, always held in particular esteem for the priesthood, underwent greater scrutiny, study, and consideration: the practice of celibacy. In the first centuries of the Church’s existence on earth, celibacy was seen as admirable principally because of the examples of Christ and St. Paul, but was seen as a merely optional though encouraged discipline of those having received Holy Orders. The distinction between priest and lay was not so clear; how could it be? The priesthood introduced by Christ was totally unlike any other to have existed in human history; for whereas pre-Christian priests mediated between man and the gods through words and supplication, through offering and ritual, the Christian priest mediates between man and God by bringing God Himself to man and thereby sanctifying and elevating man himself. Though the profundity of this action, this vocation, was never lost upon the Apostles and their immediate successors, its place and its practice within the world could not fully be grasped so quickly; what is more, the world itself could not comprehend, was not ready—just as it was not ready to accept the Immaculate Conception as dogma until 1854. This slow progression, be it in dogmatic definitions or the strengthened reinforcement of long-standing disciplines, is the natural, organic development which has characterized the Western Church for over seventeen-hundred years. The fittingness of celibacy to the priesthood has been realized, recognized, articulated and understood; the wall has been built higher, and it has been built beautifully. Celibacy is not a mere adornment, external and removable; it is gold set into the very stone.
Marriage of the ordained and ordination of the marriage can, most certainly, be permitted, in extraordinary circumstances; but the Church is not historically, theologically, canonically recidivist; for She has, in the understanding of Her members, grown in wisdom and maturity, and cannot return to a state of infancy.
“Priests have a duty which, in a certain way, is higher than that of the most pure spirits ‘who stand before the Lord.’ Is it not right, then, that he live an all but angelic life? A priest is one who should be totally dedicated to the things of the Lord. Is it not right, then, that he be entirely detached from the things of the world, and have his conversation in Heaven? A priest’s charge is to be solicitous for the eternal salvation of souls, continuing in their regard the work of the Redeemer.” – Pope Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdoti, 45.