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

A Question of Rights
Mandatory Celibacy: Communion on the End of a Stick

By James E. Biechler

A lot has been written and said about celibacy in the past few years. I know many Catholics have already made up their minds about it, just as they have about birth control--they cannot understand the fuss, and if a bishop sent them a married priest tomorrow they would have no problem with that. Then why don't bishops do that? It just doesn't compute.
--G.W.H., Madison, WI 

I'm not surprised that a reader of ARCC Light would hold that position. I only wish everyone would be as understanding. For many Catholics, especially those who have taken seriously the biblical teaching about the holiness of marriage, a married pastor would be as acceptable as an unmarried one. For them a pastor's value is measured in terms of charity and service. 

But in that same parish there most likely are people who feel that an unmarried priest is "holier" than a married one. This is because they perceive that the unmarried priest is "chaste" and "pure." That's what they have learned and have absorbed from childhood. It is not so much a matter of knowledge as it is of feeling and perception. By now it is "reality" itself. 

When Roberto De Nobili went to India in 1604 he had to convince his Hindu brahmin hearers that he was not an unclean "parangi" (European). He adopted as many brahmanical customs as he found compatible with Christianity. In order to maintain brahmanical purity he gave communion to the lower castes on the end of a stick so that he would not be contaminated by closer proximity to them. 

The term "caste" comes to us from the Portuguese and is etymologically related to the Latin term "casta" (chaste, pure). The Hindu caste system is an ordered arrangement of "pure" groups which can be maintained only if physical contact with the impure is avoided.I do not wish to exaggerate but in a real sense mandatory celibacy a simple matter of the pure vs. the impure. You don't have to read much church literature on celibacy to discover that it's really about "purity." That means that the non-celibate is, by comparison, less pure, if not impure. The bottom line is that mandatory celibacy sets up a kind of caste system and those on the other side of the purity fence must be satisfied with the equivalent of communion on the end of a stick. 

Let me make it even stronger. One of the worst aspects of mandatory celibacy is that it limits full Eucharistic communion. Notice I said "mandatory" celibacy. The adjective is crucial. That's what makes it a "caste" reality. 

Now you and I know that Eucharistic communion cannot abide barriers. "Communion" and "exclusion" are diametric opposites. Mandatory celibacy sets up an exclusionary fence which the priest cannot cross. Again, it's the ritual equivalent of communion on the end of a stick. It's Eucharistic apartheid. 

No one is opposed to celibacy. That can be as beautiful a way of life as marriage. It's the legally imposed, mandated character of celibacy which gets in the way of full communion. 

The essence of mandatory celibacy lies in its exclusion of women. By now you may also have concluded that mandatory celibacy's exclusion of women also requires their exclusion from presiding at the Eucharist. Mandatory celibacy IS the exclusion of women. Eucharistic apartheid must be thorough! 

You may find this a bit strong and you probably didn't bargain for this kind of argument when you submitted your question. But I would like to go even further and suggest that it may well be this Eucharistic apartheid which is the unconscious root of young people's reluctance to enter the priesthood. Who can blame them? 


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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