The book by renowned historian Hubert Wolf, Zölibat: 16 Thesen (“Celibacy: 16 Theses”), appeared today at Amazon.
This seems intended as a somewhat provocative or even polemical statement of the author’s strong opposition to mandatory celibacy. In the context of the upcoming Amazon synod, ongoing scandals, and Pope Francis’s efforts to renew and reform the church, the book is timely.
I admit to mixed feelings about this topic. My heart aches for people who have little or no access to Eucharist because of the priest shortage, and I feel I must be open to a change in discipline which would address this. But I would also regret if the Roman Catholic church were to lose the distinctive witness of a celibate clergy. And as a Benedictine monk, I worry a bit about our ability as a church to maintain the celibate witness of the religious orders if celibacy is not part of the normal fabric of church life experienced by every cradle Catholic from little on up.
I haven’t read Wolf’s book yet. Amazon.de allows me to “Look inside” (Blick ins Buch) and retrieve the 16 theses from the table of contents. They are given below.
Of course the wordings of the theses are brief to pack a punch. I’m sure that Wolf offers more scholarly nuance in the book itself. But #2’s reference to “priests” in the New Testament is a bit anachronistic; the use of the unflattering term “convert” in #11 is unfortunate; the developments (Neues) since Vatican II sound to me like something in place for 2000 years, ever since Ephesians was written; in #13 and #16 I take it he means the abolition of mandatory celibacy, not all celibacy; and of course #14 is disputed, and objective examination of the available data seems to suggest more than one possible conclusion.
Be that as it may – let the discussion continue. I offer Wolf’s 16 theses as a helpful means for both defenders and skeptics of mandatory celibacy to see more clearly which issues call out for further investigation.
1. Taboos have fallen. The priest shortage and accusations of abuse force the Vatican to address celibacy.
2. The mother-in-law of Peter. Celibacy cannot be justified biblically, since there are of course married bishops, priests, and deacons in the New Testament.
3. Celibacy is not the same as celibacy. Not only were there entirely different understandings of it in various eras; the regulations had to be repeatedly renewed, modified, and implemented against great resistance.
4. Pre-Christian origins. The notion of cultic purity of the priest derives from Jewish and pagan antiquity and no longer fits our era.
5. Jesus was no Stoic. The ideal of the ascetic priest goes back to notions of the philosophical life in antiquity and does not correspond to the model of Jesus.
6. Economic roots. Abstention from marriage in the Middle Ages and early modernity ensured that clergy would not bequest church resources at their disposal to their children.
7. Flying the flag in doctrinal battles. In the Reformation and Counter Reformation era, celibacy served as a mark of distinction from Protestants.
8. Priests too have human rights. Since the Enlightenment, the critique of celibacy as violation against nature has radicalized advocates of celibacy.
9. The leap into other realms. Since other justifications no longer held, Paul VI exalted celibacy spiritually.
10. It works without celibacy too. In the Eastern Catholic churches there are married Catholic priests as a matter of course.
11. Ever more exceptions. Protestant and Anglican pastors who convert to Catholicism receive priestly ordination with a papal dispensation.
12. Developments in sexuality. Since the Second Vatican Council, marriage is seen as an image of the covenant between Christ and his church and cannot be the reason to prohibit priestly service.
13. Not a dogma. Catholic church teaching allows for the abolition of celibacy at any time.
14. Dangerous promises. Obligatory abstention from marriage is a risk factor with respect to sexual abuse by priests.
15. Weighing goods. Faced with a choice between ameliorating the priest shortage or retaining celibacy, the Church must decide in the interest of the Eucharist which is necessary for salvation over celibacy which is not.
16. The old system has come to an end. The abolition of celibacy as an instrument of retaining power must be part of a foundational reform of the hierarchical clerical system.