The issue of priest celibacy pops up from time to time triggering a silent debate on the pros and cons of this thousand year old Catholic tradition.
Most recently, Reuters reported that a group of 26 Italian women, claiming to be in love with Catholic priests, have petitioned Pope Francis to make celibacy optional. The petition, according to Reuters, was published in the Vatican’s website.
In 1970, a German newspaper Sueddeutche Zeitung Daily reported that a group of nine German theologians wrote a letter to the bishops of Germany asking whether the practice of celibacy was still necessary. Citing archives in Regensburg, the newspaper alleged that among the signatories was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who eventually became Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2011, in the wake of widespread allegations of sexual misconduct that rocked the Catholic Church, more than 140 Catholic theologians from Germany, Switzerland and Austria called for an end to celibacy.
How did the practice of celibacy in the Catholic Church start?
For more than a thousand years after the Lord Jesus Christ started his ministry, priests were allowed to marry.
St. Peter, whom the Church considers as the first Pope, was married. He had a mother-in-law whom the Lord Jesus Christ healed. Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul the Apostle, was also married. The other apostles are presumed to be married since it was the custom in the Jewish community to marry early.
During the first three centuries, celibacy was not even discussed, much less prohibited. Celibacy was a matter of choice for the religious. Celibacy was first discussed during the Council of Elvira in 306 AD. But it took another 700 years for celibacy to be required of clerics by virtue of the First Lateran Council in 1123. Celibacy was reiterated in the Second Lateran Council in 1139 and again in the Council of Trent in 1545.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus” on the priestly vows of perpetual celibacy.
Still, celibacy is not dogma or a law of divine origin. There is no direct commandment in the New Testament that the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ have to live in celibacy. Celibacy is but a tradition of the Church. While dogma can not change, tradition can.
In his book “On Heaven and Earth,” published in 2012, Pope Francis, then known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, wrote:
“For the moment I’m in favor of maintaining celibacy, with its pros and cons, because there have been 10 centuries of good experiences rather than failures”. But he also noted that “it is a question of discipline, not faith, it could change.”
Since becoming Pontiff, Pope Francis has not said anything on the matter. But only last February, Pope Francis gave permission for a married man to be ordained in the Maronite Catholic Church in United States.
The Maronites are part of the Eastern Catholic Church. They accept the authority of the Pope but have their own rituals and liturgy. The Archdiocese of St. Louis congratulated the new priest and reiterated the archdiocese’ strong relationship with the Maronites in St. Louis.
Traditionalists are quick to point out that Pope Francis’ approval of the marriage does not lift the ban on married priests and that it was simply an exception. In fact, prior exceptions have been given by other pontiffs. Pope Benedict XVI allowed two exceptions towards the end of his tenure.
Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, in a recent interview said: “Making celibacy optional for priests would be very expensive because the faithful will have to support not only the priest, but his family as well.”
Others see it differently: “There are a lot of people who have it (the priesthood) in their hearts. This (making celibacy optional) opens it up for other people.”
Still others cite practical reasons for lifting celibacy, e.g., 1. There is now a shortage of priests because of the celibacy issue. 2. A married priest and his family would be an example to other Catholic families in the parish. 3. A married priest would have more understanding and credibility in counseling married couples.