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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Mandatory celibacy splits church & world

By James E. Biechler

By James E. Biechler I still do not understand the big fuss ARCC (and especially your column) makes about celibacy. You never seem to base your argument on the so-called priest shortage but seem to think that mandatory celibacy has broader and more important implications than that. Could you elaborate?
--G. C., Gettysburg, PA 

In one of my earlier columns I offered the view that mandatory celibacy is not so much a matter of church discipline; it is a question of doctrine and faith. The present requirement is based upon the supposition that celibacy is the divine preference for human beings. God has really made us to be celibate but because some of us are weak and sinful he permits us to be married, for, as Paul has written, "It is better to marry than to burn." All the lofty churchtalk about the dignity of marriage has to be put into this context. Marriage has a dignity higher than fornication or mere selfishness but it does not compare with virginity or celibacy. When the deacon in the seminary studies the tract on marriage, one of the first questions addressed is "De honestate matrimonii" [on the honorableness of marriage], the assumption being that by this time in his training the deacon has absorbed so much myth about the superiority of celibacy that it is necessary to add some slight adjustment lest he think that marriage is hopelessly corrupt. 

Now, as anyone who knows a bit of church history is aware, once upon a time priests and bishops were married. Most of the apostles were married. Even Paul was able to suggest that marriage was a "symbol" of the union of Christ and the church. Of what, then, is celibacy the symbol? How might that question be answered? 

First of all, when and why did celibacy become the definitive discipline in the Western Church? It was during the 11th-12th century Gregorian Reform. The chief issue then was the freedom of the church from lay control, the so- called Investiture Controversy. Lay nobles claimed the right to invest bishops and abbots with the symbols of office, thereby implying their subservience to and dependence upon the lay lords. Pope Gregory VII mounted a strenuous campaign to "free" the church from this alleged dependence. The abolition of clerical marriage was one of the cornerstones of his reform program. The outcome of the Investiture Controversy found the church victorious--the church was freed from the world. But, as the historian Paul Johnson put it, in so doing the church "lost" the world. Church and world became separate, with church "above" and world "below." 

As marriage is the symbol of the union of Christ and the church, clerical celibacy is the symbol of the separation of church and world. Celibacy allegedly raises the cleric above the married laity whose proper domain is the "world." To emphasize the "otherworldliness" of the celibate cleric, he has traditionally been forbidden from engaging in worldly pursuits, as today he is prohibited from holding political office. 

Of course, there is a sense in which the church and the world are separate. Church represents the divine ideal toward which we strive; its standards transcend those of the world. The goal of the church is to present and embody the ideals of the gospel and thereby to transform society. Celibacy and virginity rightly understood and correctly lived might indeed give symbolic expression to that dimension of the gospel which is "not of this world." 

So whatþs the problem? It is that celibacy legally imposed as a condition of presbyteral ministry, making Holy Orders an invalidating impediment to Christian marriage, misrepresents the relationship between the world and the Christian by symbolizing a radical dichotomy between world and church, a complete otherness. Should a person in Holy Orders exchange marital vows with the woman he loves, he is not doing anything like his fellowmen do when they marry. He is turning his beloved into a "concubine" or "mistress," and any offspring are regarded as bastards. Imposed celibacy turns the worldþs positive valuation of marriage and family into something ugly and debased. By doing this it underlines and reinforces the division between church and world. This was the goal of the Gregorian reformers and we have not yet been able to rise above it. Vatican II did its best to mend the breach between church and world but that breach can never be mended as long as the churchþs ministers are not free to embrace marriage if they wish. Mandatory celibacy is a symbolic barricade between church and world. 


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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