Jun 29, 2017
There are many and widely varied arguments as to whether or not married men should be ordained to the priesthood. My purpose here is not to engage in these debates, but to focus on something more fundamental – what is the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood really about?
Celibacy is the norm for the priesthood in the tradition of the Latin Church. Among the Eastern Churches, celibacy is highly esteemed, but a strictly celibate priesthood did not develop in the East as it did in the West. The Latin Church’s tradition of a celibate priesthood is a thousand years old, starting with Pope Gregory VII (Roman Council VI, Can. 3). The notion of a celibate priesthood did not originate with the pope, but he did solidify the tradition for the Latin Church. The two traditions, a celibate priesthood in the West and the ordination of married men to the priesthood in the East, are complimentary and should be treated with mutual respect and reverence. The question of ordaining married men to the priesthood is a question of a Church’s particular tradition.
In 1967, shortly after the second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled, On the Celibacy of the Priest. This encyclical was a response to those who were asking the Latin Church to reconsider celibacy as the norm for the priesthood. After reaffirming the Vatican Council’s support of the Eastern tradition (e.g. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16), a tradition the pope says “…the Holy Spirit has providentially and supernaturally influenced” (On the Celibacy of the Priest, 38), he goes on to state the following: “the Church of the West cannot weaken her faithful observance of her own tradition. Nor can she be regarded as having followed for centuries a path which instead of favoring the spiritual richness of individual souls and of the People of God, has in some way compromised it, or of having stifled, with arbitrary juridical prescriptions, the free expansion of the most profound realities of nature and of grace” (On the Celibacy of the Priest, 41).
This statement of Pope Paul VI is important for understanding what the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood is about: “the Church of the West cannot weaken her faithful observance of her own tradition.” The faithful observance of tradition means to remain in continuity with what has been handed on in the Church over the centuries. It is not a blind or arbitrary adherence to the past. It is not conservatism or mere resistance to change. Tradition develops like an acorn that grows into an oak tree or a baby that grows into an adult. The pope insisted that priestly celibacy is in continuity with the Latin tradition. He rejected the idea that the Latin Church, having followed the tradition of celibacy for centuries, has acted in a way contrary to the good of individual souls and the people of God.
It is important here to distinguish between the traditions of particular Churches (i.e. ecclesial tradition) and Apostolic Tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way: “The Tradition here in question [Apostolic Tradition] comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition. Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium” (CCC, 83). The Latin tradition of celibacy, as the norm for the priesthood, is a discipline (CCC 1580), and as such, falls into the category of “traditions born in the local churches over time.” As the Catechism teaches, such traditions can be changed “under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.”