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Aging without grace

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 14, 2003

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Bishop Wilton Gregory was the recipient of a petition signed by 14 priests opposed to obligatory priestly celibacy:

The Southern Illinois Association of Priests ... mailed a letter to Gregory on Friday, urging him to "do all in your power to make the charism of celibacy a grace and not a mandated law for diocesan priests of the Roman Catholic church in America."

Anybody else find a theological problem in the proposal of a man's making something into a grace? Putting aside the bizarre tautological notion of turning a charism into a charism, if celibacy isn't already free gift of God, how can a merely human endeavor ("do all in your power") make it so? Further, doesn't the wording imply that the petitioners do not regard their own (putative) celibacy to be a grace, but rather a burden, or imposition, or (at best) personal lifestyle option?

We all know the Marvel Comix explanation that priestly celibacy was an 11th century novelty introduced as a parochial cost-saving measure, etc., etc., but the simple fact of the matter is that most priests forgo marriage because Jesus Himself did. Celibacy is a radical, literal, not very sophisticated form of the imitation of Christ.

Much (not all) of the respect traditionally accorded Catholic priests stems from an intuitive recognition that their celibacy reflects not simply conformity to institutional discipline but a sacrifice modeled, however imperfectly, on the sacrifice of Christ. Of course, this notion fell into disrepute in the theology departments and seminaries of the 1970s and 1980s, when "ministry" became to be viewed as execution of discrete tasks (preaching, counseling, dialog enabling) exercised by acquired human skills (e.g., training in theology and public speaking). In this scheme, what matters is whether the minister is a competent counselor or expositor of the Letter to the Romans -- whether he, or she, is married or unmarried is irrelevant. You don't care whether the person who sharpens your lawn mower blades is unmarried provided the blades come back sharp. Why should you care whether the guy who dresses in flowing polyester for you once a week to paraphrase the Jerome Biblical Commentary is celibate?

When priests organize themselves into a regional professional association (like teachers or librarians) and draft a resolution or petition to exempt themselves or their successors from a pro forma obligation, clearly they see their priesthood not as a covenant but as a contract for commodities and services delivered. Everything's negotiable, and re-negotiable, because everything that's given or withheld is less than and distinct from the Self.

But notice how faith and fidelity evaporate. If a husband asked his wife to do "all in her power" to make monogamy into "a grace and not a mandated law for married men," we could be pretty sure that his feelings about his own commitment were ... ambiguous. Almost certainly his wife would not feel flattered. Almost certainly she'd wonder whether her husband's support for optional openness was empirical and not purely theoretical.

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  • Posted by: - Sep. 15, 2003 7:33 PM ET USA

    Priests should not have a "workers union", their only union is with Christ, their Bishop and the Bishop of Rome. Theirs is not a "craft" or even a proffession, but a divine calling to serve, obey and sacrifice. They should look at the example of that angelic deacon St. Francis. To look for fellowship and brotherhood with their fellow priests is one thing, to become an organized workers union and to look for radical reforms is another.

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