German Liturgist: Loss of Celibacy Would Not Be Progress

Heeeeere we goooo.

After an exciting and exhausting synod process on marriage and family that involved the entire Catholic Church in heated discussion, rounds are already being fired in the run-up to next synod – and this before we even know what its topic is. Unconfirmed rumors are that Pope Francis wants the next Synod of Bishops to take up the question of ministry, including the possibility of optional clerical celibacy. So, let the discussion on celibacy begin!

winfried-haunderlandBreaking some stereotypes about what regions are supposedly ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal,’ out of Germany comes a defense of celibacy. The professor of liturgy at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, Winfried Haunerland, speaks out in an interview in the Sunday edition of the Münchner Kirchenzeitung (“Munich Church Newspaper”).

Haunderland states that the unmarried state of priests is not based upon a devaluation of marriage and sexuality. Rather, the renunciation of something good and valuable sends the signal that this world is not everything. Citing the words of Jesus on eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12), he states that the church, and also the individual Christian, should not act in this world as if there is no future with God.

Haunerland notes that the Eastern Orthodox churches as well as the Eastern Catholics have married priests, and hence it is not absolutely mandatory. But he believes that lifelong celibacy and sexual renunciation makes concrete the total readiness of the person to serve Christ and the church.

On the shortage of ordained ministers, and proposals to address the shortage by a change in discipline, he says, “Certainly in the first phase there would be more men who would be ready to be ordained to the priesthood. But the deep cause for the small number of priests is more far-reaching. Life-long decisions, commitment to institutions such as the church, and a public life of faith have become more difficult today…”

Haunerland concludes as follows:

Priestly celibacy lives essentially from the fact that it is the common form of life of a group. If the individual repeatedly has to justify his celibacy, the freedom to marry would very rapidly have the consequence that any priest who does not wish to be an oddball will marry. The history of Protestantism is instructive in this. But above all everyone must be clear that loss of celibacy as the mandatory form of life of Catholic priests would necessarily have implications for the societal form of the priestly office. The married priest must repeatedly bring his availability for service to people into balance with his responsibilities for his own family. Of course many women and men in other vocations must also face this challenge. Not infrequently they protect themselves by making a sharp distinction between their work and the rest of their lives. But being a priest must be not only a job that concerns me within a limited time frame, but rather should characterize the person as a whole. The readiness to present myself for ordination as a priest presupposes the willingness not merely to make available my working hours and working abilities, but rather to let my very self be taken in service. And this must somehow be concretely perceptible in ones life. The celibate way of life calls to mind this high challenge very clearly, and it admonishes one ever again to be taken into service comprehensively. The complete loss of celibacy would thus be, for me, no progress.

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13 comments

  1. “If the individual repeatedly has to justify his celibacy…”
    Celibacy for the kingdom is a prophetic way of life. Prophetic living involves challenge to the prevailing culture. The justifying of this way of life is to be found in the prophetic message challenging the prevailing culture.
    “The married priest must repeatedly bring his availability for service to people into balance with his responsibilities for his own family.”
    The priest, married or celibate, is not in a job within a limited time frame, but is priest both in service to people and to family, whether the priest is married or not. This is a false disjunction.
    “The complete loss of celibacy would thus be, for me, no progress.”
    Since the celibate life for the kingdom is prophetic, yes, complete loss of celibacy would not be progress. The question, rather, is whether mandatory celibacy is helpful to the prophetic message. As I see it, it would be helped more by having both celibate and married priests, each in its own way prophetic.
    “Haunderland states that the unmarried state of priests is not based upon a devaluation of marriage and sexuality.”
    This is true. But marriage is also a prophetic way of life. Marriage for the kingdom and celibacy for the kingdom both represent the eternal life-giving loving God before the world, each in their own way.

  2. An important question we must also ask is how many priests have we lost because they had to leave when they fell in love and wanted to get married? Also, how many were driven to alcoholism or other self destructive behaviours because they fell in love and were unable to reconcile this with their mandatory celibacy?

    Are we willing to accept the ongoing destruction of dedicated people because of a stricture imposed for economic reasons a thousand years after the establishment of the church?

    Sure, there will always be a place for celibacy, but we must recognise that the call of the Spirit for celibacy is a distinct call from that to the priesthood, and that those calls are not always made together.

    For myself, I felt the call to the priesthood and also the call to marriage. I chose the latter, but the other call is still present to me. Some would argue that the church has been spared great angst by my ineligibility, but I’ll leave that judgement to the Spirit.

    1. @Paul Robertson:
      No matter what were to happen, a priest would never be allowed to marry. A married man may be ordained to the priesthood, but an ordained man can never marry. This is the way it is done in the Eastern Churches, the diaconate, etc.

      1. @Geoffrey Lopes da Silva:
        I suppose we do have a tradition of oppressing our priests to maintain. We have married priests in the Catholic church, of course. Just as long as they were ordained outside the Catholic church and crossed over. Staying loyal to the RCC means that you don’t get to be married. The same way, if you didn’t become a priest first, you are free to leave in order to marry; someone who was not a priest can join married, but you’re screwed if you are a priest and then want to marry.

        It doesn’t solve the problems that we lose priests to marriage and we lose priests’ mental health because they cannot follow the call to marry once they have been ordained.

        Never, it seems, is the Church happy to propose a solution to a problem that actually solves the problem. No, any solution proposed must oppress someone somehow by showing them how close they came but were still denied.

  3. It has been some three years since PopeFrancis told a Brazilian bishop that he was ready to entertain proposals from episcopal conferences regarding a change of the discipline that restricts ordination in the Latin rite to men who consent to celibate chastity. One conference–The UK–explicitly decided it would not consider any such proposal. The rest have been silent. As usual, there hasn’t even been an invitation extended by the bishops to priests, religious, and laity to discern the will of the Spirit on this important matter. Instead, in many places they proceed with parish consolidations and closures to adjust to the number of celibate priests. Should we suppose that this policy has no impact on the number of people who are abandoning the Catholic Church? Must be the clown masses and the insipid homilies.
    There are and have been an untold number of priests who have struggled to live without the love and support of wife and children while laboring in the Lord’s vineyard. Those actually called by grace to the celibate state have been and are towering witnesses to the conviction that God’s grace is sufficient for our needs. For countless others it has posed a tremendous struggle. Thousands of priests had to resign from the priesthood when they realized they did not have a vocation to celibacy. Many of them were vilified at the time by church authorities. The signs of the times surely call for an end to linking mandatory celibacy with priestly ordination. The vast majority of priests and laity are ready to welcome mature married men priestly ministry. This has nothing to do with permitting celibate priests to marry after ordination. Only with a change in discipline that allows proven married men to discern a vocation to the priesthood.

  4. ……and it is now, in this short window of opportunity, that national commissions should be established to examine the detail and implications of the non-celibate option. Why can’t we have courageous conversations with both laity, clergy and religious participating for the sake of the Church?
    I am Secretary for the Movement for Married Clergy here in the UK. Our requests have so far proved fruitless.

    1. @Chris McDonnell:

      Regarding Catholics having “courageous conversations”: I would observe that most Catholics are not experienced in communal discernment and the kinds of conversation that are fruitful in that regard. The people most inclined to talk (regardless of “side”) are those with deeply developed views and when such people join the mass of Catholics who do not have deeply developed views, the latter tended to be active or passive targets of cooption by the former, and “consensus decision-making” becomes more of a game than a reality (been there, done that, got the cigars and T-shirts on several occasions). For some strange reason that escapes me {sarcasm alert} , Catholics have a strong tendency to resort to our own personal infallibility switch when we feel we have Truth and Justice on Our Side. There’s little of the self-discipline of historical Quaker practice where one learned how to reduce displays of egoism in communal gatherings (memorably caricatured in “Friendly Persuasion” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGo3VY9gclE).

      To be clear: I strongly WANT Catholics to develop this art. My view is that it’s the work of many generations, I am not hopeful that such work can be elided.

  5. “Sure, there will always be a place for celibacy,”

    Will there? There are any number of single lay men and women in the church who feel marginalized in parishes that revolve around couples and families with children and in a wider church that does little to acknowledge their existence. The recent Synod on the Family virtually ignored their existence. Will that change with a married priesthood, or will the last recognized form of single life be lost?

    1. @Norman Borelli:
      Unvowed singlehood that does not pass through the doors to Vows/Orders is simply elided in Catholic culture. In my experience, it seems to be a shade less elided in university/collegiate parishes – possibly because there are also so many younger people who have yet to pass through those doors.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Obviously, a celibate priesthood has not prevented the marginalizing of single folk mentioned by Norman Borelli. Yet with religious of either sex either absent or pretty much invisible in many parishes, the celibate priest at least remains a visible symbol that the church doesn’t consider singleness somehow pathetic or defective.

        Recent statistics apparently indicate a growing number of adults in US society who are not married (whether not yet, not any more, or never, some by choice, some not). So if one accepts the idea that a married priest could better minister to the married, as an argument for married priests, one needs to consider that there will be more, not less, need for celibate priests, for the same reason.

        The ancient practice, preserved by the Eastern churches, to ordain both married and single men, does seem to work for them. (FWIW, their bishops have told ours that it’s no panacea, you just trade one set of problems for another.) But in those churches there is a strong role for and deep spiritual influence of monastics. I can’t help but be afraid that Haunderland is right, that in the Western church, the option to marry would quickly become pressure to marry, lest one be considered an oddball. (Our Protestant brothers and sisters have relevant cautionary experience here.)

        And I fear Liam is right about the damage potential of “courageous conversations”.

  6. Katherine Christensen : @Karl Liam Saur: Recent statistics apparently indicate a growing number of adults in US society who are not married (whether not yet, not any more, or never, some by choice, some not). So if one accepts the idea that a married priest could better minister to the married, as an argument for married priests, one needs to consider that there will be more, not less, need for celibate priests, for the same reason.

    A recent census report indicated that a majority of adults in the US are single. It was a bare majority, 50.2%, but for the first time since such data was kept a majority of the US adult population is not married.

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