A Vatican ObserverWhy does celibacy matter in the end?

CNA 5911e013793eb 129879 Vatican City - May 7, 2017: Pope Francis ordains ten men to the priesthood in St. Peter's Basilica on May 7, 2017. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA

According to the French writer Jean Mercier, who passed away in 2018, the Church of the future will be a Church of small communities in the diaspora. For this reason, there will be a need for more "apostle priests," able to move. In this context, "priestly celibacy fits better to the current times."

Jean Mercier's points in favor of the priestly celibacy were published on the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Dec. 14, 2014. The article was a commentary to the Mercier's book "Celibat des pretres" (Priestly celibacy). The book investigated reasons and odds of priestly celibacy.

It is worth recalling the Jean Mercier's article at the eve of the Special Synod of the Pan-Amazonian region. While the discussion on the ordination of viri probati (married men of proven faith) seems to become one of the cores of the Synod, Jean Mercier, already in 2014, labeled the issue as a "false good idea."

In the article, Mercier noted that priestly celibacy is "now under accusation," considered "responsible for a certain number of sexual deviations among priests and the main cause of the lack of priests."

It is, he denounced, "a trial systematically instructed by media," especially when there are scandals or when a priest renounces to the priesthood to marry.

Mercier emphasized that even practicing Catholic ignore or do not understand the "theological challenges for the celibacy of their priests," as they consider scandalous that "a celibate priest cannot marry a woman if he is in love, but has to leave the ministry, especially in times of lack of priests."

However, Mercier noted that "the Church does not consider possible to withdraw" from the promise of celibacy of the future priests. So, the other way is that of the possible ordination of married priests.

The possible ordination of married people can count on some arguments in favor: it has an ancient tradition and sometimes the Church of Latin rite accepts married ministries that convert from other Christian confessions where "uxorate priesthood" is consented (see the Anglicans after the motu proprio 'Anglicanorum Coetibus').

However, "the ordination of married priests can be a false good idea if it creates new problems, more complex than the previous ones, as the divorce."

This is the reason why, the issue of viri probati needs "infinite discernment," even though "the priestly celibacy is one of the foundation of the Catholic tradition, that goes beyond a simple disciplinary or juridical issue."

A possible path could be that to "keeping the obligation to celibacy, with wider possibilities of an exception than the existent ones, that limited to former Anglican or Protestant ministry."

To Mercier, it is instead "a dangerous idea" thinking about married priests able to enter in the seminary as the celibate priests, and the solution of the viri probati is "in the end a false good idea."

Mercier noted that the viri probati issue "corresponds to a Church's mindset inherited from the 1950s and the 1960s, when people were Catholic by the majority, and it was a priority to keep the fabric of society."

"This Church does not exist anymore," said Mercier. Mercier also noted that, in the Internet age, the process of affiliation to the Church is not necessarily bound to the territory."

The future Church will be a Church of "small communities in the diaspora, built around Eucharistic poles," and so, Mercier underscored, there will be more need of "mobile priests," like the apostles.

For this reason, "celibacy is more fit to these times." The candidates of the priesthood are nowadays more motivated by missionary action than by the possibility of being a parish priest – official that reigns over one well delimited geographic parish" (State-clerics, Pope Francis would say).

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Mercier maintained that "celibacy has not had its last say yet," but it is instead garnering more traction as "a force to re-position the Catholicism as an anti-system resistance" against the "ultraliberal model."

Celibacy makes of the Church a counter-cultural space, able to "inspire a generation again," said Mercier.

He added that "young priests and young Catholic generation do not want a 'petty bourgeois' evolution of the priesthood," while "young parish priests have no wish to gather laypeople that cannot always give to prayer its right place."

In the end, the world of today sees "the return of missionary, itinerant characters, like the Jesuit missionaries in South America."

Mercier noted that "marriage and celibacy are two parallel vocations." Facing the denigration of the conjugal act, St. John Paul II re-sacralized marriage, and now marriage has "a prophetic, chivalric function" in front of the hyper-sexualization of society and the praise for adultery in the media.

Priests, on the other hand, decide for celibacy and renounce to sexuality "not for issues of ascesis or deprivation," but as "the choice for different happiness."

If both the vocations are total, it is tough to live both of the vocations at the same time, especially if "both the sacraments are conceived as two nuptial marches toward sanctity that involve different spiritual and theological scopes."

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Mercier then faced the issue of the lack of priests. "Priests, he wrote, are at the limit burn out, often submerged by organizational and administrative tasks, not only priestly tasks."

Christians, however, are not aware of the fact that the number of priests will significantly decrease in the next years, and "still wonder that the Church can keep on offering them a sort of public service in the religious area without they are called to commit themselves in the Church."

Mercier's conclusions were definitive: "The Church must convert or disappear. It will be always more difficult to be Christian in a society with the option that distance from the Gospel, and so the Catholics will have to face the truth of their relationship with the person of Christ, with their care of keeping the relationship with prayer and sacraments."

Communities will, in the end, understand that "it is not the priest that must go to them, but that they have to make an effort, for example, to receive the Body of Christ."

This is "hard to accept, as Communion was trivialized during the last forty years," Mercier concedes. But in the end, a renewed commitment. Catholics will become aware that "they must encourage the vocations to priesthood among their sons, in their parishes, in their schools and Catholic Universities. Otherwise, nothing will change."

In the end, Mercier underscored that "committing forever in a state, whether it is celibacy or marriage, is a challenge against fear. The fear of not being able, to make mistakes, to fail."

"Celibacy, as well as marriage, is about grace, that is the strength they God freely gives to carry forward, day by day," Mercier concluded.

All of his reflections must be taken into strong consideration during the upcoming Special Synod for the Pan-Amazonian region.

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