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The Dominicans, the Priesthood, and Celibacy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 29, 2008

In the case of the Dutch Dominicans vs. the Church in Holland (see The Mass and the Dominicans in Holland), there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the Dominican leadership in Rome, prompted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has finally corrected the three Dutch Dominicans theologians who authored and distributed a tract advocating lay celebration of the Eucharist when a priest is not available.

Also on the plus side, the Dominicans in Holland are now required to publicize the official correction in all the parishes which were subjected to the original distortions. The bad news is that no further disciplinary action was taken, either against the authors or their superiors, despite their deliberate advocacy of heretical views on the Mass and the priesthood in every parish in the country. Perhaps even worse, the Roman Dominican response expressed sympathy with the Dutch position on priestly celibacy, stating that “there must be debate” on celibacy and that “the current situation for priests is not the only one possible.”

Why do I regard the comments on celibacy as “even worse” than the failure to discipline? Because they indicate a profound misunderstanding of both the nature of priestly commitment and the proper way to attract vocations, a misunderstanding which will prevent significant spiritual progress until it is corrected or eradicated. While it is true that celibacy is a discipline which can be changed, and not a requirement of Divine Revelation, the Church has upheld this discipline throughout most of her history for so many deeply spiritual and practical reasons that it would strike a substantial blow against the nature of priestly ministry to change the practice.

Celibacy emphasizes the priest’s direct identification with Christ in the service of His spouse the Church. In contrast with married couples, whose personal sanctification and impact on the sanctification of others is properly and deliberately mediated through their own spousal relationship, the priest is directly espoused to the Church and serves precisely as an alter Christus, another Christ. The fundamental reordering of his person which takes place at ordination makes the priest a direct and living font of the life of Christ for all those in his pastoral care (and indeed, in the marvelous economy of salvation, for every human person throughout time).

It is completely appropriate that the sacrifice of the consolations of marriage should be both a sign and a facilitator of this radical reordering and commitment to the Church. Rightly lived, celibacy is an inexhaustible source of grace to the priest and a constant source of inspiration to those he serves. It is also a sign of otherness that is immensely attractive to young men who have a full, rich and proper understanding of what it means to be called to the priesthood. Renewed dioceses and new religious foundations which foster this understanding have proven repeatedly that they can significantly increase the numbers of candidates for ordination.

In the face of this mounting evidence, the continual efforts by some of the “old school” to revive interest in the priesthood by defining it down is a sign not so much of pastoral concern as of attenuated faith. Particularly in a context of teaching and correction, and in a document which is to be circulated in all Dutch parishes, this readiness to attack celibacy will cause confusion and lend credibility to those the document seeks to rebuke. The official statement did not state that celibacy may be discussed, as if making an important theological distinction, but that it must be debated, as in taking a position against a settled discipline of the Church. Call me a pessimist, but this cup strikes me as still half empty. Without the remarks on celibacy, it might have been half full.

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