Home > Correspondence, General > Metaphysics of a Celibate Priesthood

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.

Benedict Hall, Atchison KS

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.

Pope Pius XI

“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.

  1. June 19, 2010 at 10:44 am

    thanks for the story

  2. June 21, 2010 at 11:21 am


    I’ve read your article and I appreciate the less polemical formulation of your argument.

    You write that, “It is, however, undeniable that this duality of roles is an unnatural division.”

    And here is the crux of our disagreement. In life, we are called to fulfill multiple roles each day. A man might be at once a construction worker — but he’s also someone’s son, someone’s husband, someone’s father. When he’s not winning bread, he’s at his son’s baseball game or spending time with his wife.

    The priesthood is undeniably unique, and a much higher calling than that of a construction worker. But given that the Church does not teach that marriage and holy orders are mutually exclusive, can it not be that some men are called by God to both matrimony and the priesthood?

    The Church answers in the affirmative.

    This is why I even bother to bring the Eastern churches into consideration, because what we’re really discussing the discipline of celibacy in the Latin Church. Holding celibacy in the highest esteem, I only suggest that mandatory celibacy for the priesthood be reexamined in the light of the common history, tradition, and experience of the entire Church.

    Pope Leo XIII writes in Orientalium Dignitas that the Eastern churches are “…worthy of the glory and reverence that they hold throughout the whole of Christendom in virtue of those extremely ancient, singular memorials that they have bequeathed to us.” (http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13orient.htm)

    And so I think it is right that the Western Church draw on their experience of the priesthood.

    The Vatican II Decree Orientalium Ecclesarium notes that, “The Catholic Church holds in high esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and the established standards of the Christian life of the Eastern Churches, for in them, distinguished as they are for their venerable antiquity, there remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church.”

    And Pope John Paul II observes in his own encyclical, Orientale Lumen, that, “Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.” (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_02051995_orientale-lumen_en.html)

    In an interview Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) gave in 1997, he defends the legitimacy of mandatory celibacy for the Western Church. Check it out here: (www.stoneswillshout.com/Celibacy%20by%20Ratzinger.doc). But even he concedes that, “One ought not to declare that any custom of the Church’s life, no matter how deeply anchored and well founded, is wholly absolute.” I’m curious, then, as to the seemliness of your comparison of mandatory celibacy with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The organic development of discipline and doctrine are similar, no doubt, but hold very different implications.

    You and I are in complete agreement about tradition. It is organic, like Newman’s tree. It grows, like a rolling snowball. So I would never argue that mandatory celibacy be abolished solely on the grounds of the primitive practice of the Church. We can draw on the richness of the past, but attempting to artificially return to it is an indefensible form of antiquarianism.

    But since mandatory celibacy is a discipline, I believe that the Latin Church will need to question the legitimacy of maintaining it presently and in the future. Even Ratzinger (who has qualms with a married clergy) states that: “To be sure, the Church will have to ask herself the question again and again…” In the organic development of ecclesiastical discipline, the Church could very well decide that mandatory celibacy is no longer useful to its mission. That decision wouldn’t be recidivism, but part of the organic development of the Church’s discipline.

    I doubt we’re going to reach any agreement here, as it feels like we’re beating a dead horse. But let me know what you think.

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