Celibacy and Priesthood


By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

Debate is a necessary thing in Catholic culture if that culture is to be vibrant rather than moribund. Pope Francis has encouraged frankness of expression in the belief that baptized Catholics are called to a mature faith—open, inquisitive, searching and charitable.

Celibacy and priesthood is a case in point. The pope’s opening address last week at the Simposio Sacerdozio—a Vatican conference organized by Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet—to examine the future of the priesthood is illuminating on several grounds. Francis celebrates the charism of clerical celibacy and gives little ground to believe that he will change the celibacy obligation for those on the path to presbyteral ordination.

The Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, earlier this month indicated that he would prefer voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy (religious order clerics are a different matter obviously) saying in an interview with the German daily Sϋddeutsche Zeitung that “it would be better for everyone for there to be both celibate and married priests.” Meanwhile, another cardinal and Francis favourite, fellow Jesuit Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and President of the EU Bishops’ Conference Commission, said in Herder Korrespondenz that he favoured making celibacy voluntary.

It is a mark of a healthy church that the expression of such opinions is not seen as a diminution of faith nor as an illustration of an ideological advocacy or indeed as self-posturing, but rather as a sign of mutual respect—Newman’s dynamic collision of Catholic intellects.

The Francis pastoral strategy is to open up discussion, moderate expectations, move cautiously on the neuralgic issues, and create an environment of deeper understanding not dependent on media-driven priorities or angry zealots. To that end he invites participation and not condemnation. But he knows where he stands.

Personally, I am not persuaded that the celibacy charism can be effectively legislated, I don’t think it should be a pre-condition for ordination, and I think that the co-existence in diocesan ranks of both celibates and married clergy would be an ecclesial boon and not a burden. Not a panacea, for sure, but still an enrichment.

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