Priestly Celibacy
Christ's Gift to the World

Chapter 7: The Clergy - Guardians of Chastity

The conference of bishops gathered at Carthage in 390, passed a resolution which reflects Catholic wisdom down through the ages. The bishops renewed their resolve to be "guardians of chastity." They felt a responsibility to be the anchormen who firm up the practice of chastity among their people.

These African bishops were likely already aware that if ordained ministers are chaste, they become guardians of chastity in the community. Chaste bishops, priests, and deacons are dynamos capacitating believers to practice virtue. Chastity practiced "at the top" of the Church's structure tends to generate steadfastness in goodness down to the grass roots level.

From the beginning the Church was careful to ordain only men of proven virtue. One outstanding litmus test for candidates to the clerical state has been a positive answer to the question: Are you able and willing to live the celibate life?

The bishops at Carthage could already see, from the more than three centuries of Christian history which they knew, what effects their chastity inspires. Perhaps they sensed that the leadership of the clergy in the practice of chastity is a determining foundation on which rests both the virtue of Christians and the orderly civilization of the world. Where chastity is observed, there is faith, there is civic order. Where it is neglected, disorder spreads like wildfire. At any rate, the record states that the Cartheginian bishops, in 390, were resolved to observe their obligations to be celibate:

All the bishops said: We agree unanimously that a bishop, a priest, and a deacon - guardians of chastity - should abstain also from their wives; that chastity be observed completely by all who serve at the altar (Corpus Christianorum 149, p. 13).

Abandon Chastity and You Collapse Civilization

When humans abandon the discipline of chastity, civilized life collapses. The rape of Nanking is but one sorry example of the violence and destruction which follows repeatedly in history whenever soldiers ride the wave of fire power to unleash sexual permissiveness.

Unchaste lives now spew the contamination of AIDS into the global atmosphere; where the epidemic is rife, social and economic life become unglued. Orphans bury their parents and look to the future with hollow eyes. Where this pandemic and deadly virus is not put back into the bottle through virtue, nature cuts a swath of death and extinction.

A Chaste Pastor Provides Moral Strength to the Community

Well do I remember the influence of our pastor, Father Hubert Duren, on our education for chastity in the rural parish of St. Boniface in Westphalia, Iowa. Indeed he loved the good things of life. At hunting he was probably the best shot in the neighborhood; he could calmly pick off a cotton tale with his 410 with one shot; he would wait until the fleeing rabbit took a jump, then pick it off in mid-air. He led our marching band, all decked out in starched uniforms to win prizes at the county fair with its rendition of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." Our town had a baseball team to be reckoned with in the area. And this man was our natural support to strive for excellence in chastity.

He admonished us school children almost daily after Mass, unpacking wisdom old as well as new; one of his favorite quotes of scripture came often to his eloquent lips: "How beautiful the chaste generation with glory." He convinced us in the confessional; he lent dignity to couples who were getting married; he damned in no uncertain terms incipient probes on the borders of chastity by us high school students. The School Sisters of St. Francis and the parents had it relatively easy to train us, because the pastor generated in the parish an atmosphere conducive to virtue.

Chastity, Natural to the Human Condition

When a journalist asked experienced lawyers in Rome about Humanae Vitae, one of them responded as follows: it will prevail in the long run. Why? Because the chaste have a sense of superiority. They stand head and shoulders above the crowd being able to say: "I am better than thee." Virtue is power; vice shrivels the self-image. On the basis of the self confidence of the chaste, he predicted, HV will be a winner.

The law of chastity, one of the ten commandments, is branded upon our hearts forever; we, who are created in the image of God, are by nature inclined to think as He does about what is good and what is bad.

Deep within, man detects the law of conscience - a law which is not self-imposed but which holds him to obedience... For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (Vatican II, GS 16).

If an adulterer hangs his head, if a habitual masturbator avoids company, if rape is done secretly and violently, if fornicators avoid the lights, if husbands and wives are furious if there is cheating, if practicing sodomists feel compelled to rationalize their unnatural behavior - is the reason for all this not an inner voice which clamors for a better life, for chaste behavior? And does not humankind look to priests and religious leaders to constantly affirm and re-affirm, again and again, for each new generation, the norm of chastity?

Saint Epiphanius: The Power Structure in the Church Is Anchored on Chaste Priests

Saint Epiphanius (315-403), Bishop of Salamis, was a learned man who traveled much in the Mediterranean Basin during his long life. He tells us why the Church requires her priests to be chaste. He asserted that chastity in the state of virginity is a powerful dynamism that nourishes and supports the Christian people at their spiritual roots. He observed that, at his time, very many men and women were leading virginal lives, and the rest of the Christians had high esteem for them. There were solitary celibates, as well as monks and women virgins living in communities, who enjoyed the highest reputation among the Christians. They esteemed also continent widows and widowers, chaste single persons, and those who lived their married lives in Christian sanctity. All these virgins and married people enjoy the blessing and esteem of the Church, he wrote. But higher still is the esteem for priests guarding chastity.

The priestly order, he said, is the crowning structure of the Church. Epiphanius then salutes priests, attributing to them the dynamism which nurtures the Church in holiness. These priests who are virgins, he testified, or who abstain from the time of their ordination, are the Church's crown and glory. And they are the nurturing mothers in the Church. Therefore the Church recruits for priests first among men who are virgins, then among married men who are monogamists and who undertake to practice continence with their wives after ordination. But admitting a man who has married a second time, he added, is not permitted, even if he observes continence or is a widower (see GCS, 37, 522).

Christian Cochini observes that priestly celibacy, at the time of Epiphanius, was not considered so much a burden imposed by rule, but a key for admission to "participation in a peerless, enviable state" (The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy 80).

Epiphanius was a contemporary of the bishops of Carthage who, in 390, described the clergy as "guardians of chastity."

Pope Saint Siricius: Confirms Obligations of Celibacy

At about the same time, St. Siricius, who was Pope in 384-399, wrote a scorching letter to priests in Spain who were not observing chastity with their wives; some, he added, were even adulterers. Shame! Shame! he wrote. Why did the Lord forewarn those to whom sacred and holy things were to be entrusted by saying to them: "Be ye holy, because I your Lord God am holy." The Lord Jesus "has wished the beauty of the Church, whose Spouse He is, to radiate the splendor of chastity..." He continues:

All priests and levites are bound by the indissoluble law of these sanctions, so that from the day of ordination, we give up both our hearts and our bodies to continence and chastity...

(Transgressors) should know that by the authority of the Apostolic See they have been cast out of every ecclesiastical office, which they have used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the sacred mysteries ... so long as they give heed to impure desires (DS 89; trans. by Roy J. Deferrari, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, p.38. A footnote states that this document pre-supposes that the discipline of clerical celibacy had already existed for a long time before 384, the date of this document).

From the document it is evident that Pope St. Siricius knew what every cleric also knew, namely that the duty of celibacy is teamed up with ordination; and that this was so very important for the entire Church that those who do not agree to keep it are to be deprived of the clerical status.

Why Chastity?

The stability of marriage, a condition conducive to happiness of parents and children, is the chief source of law and order in a nation. But sex outside of marriage, no matter how sincere the current feelings of two lovers, does not guarantee stable unions. The gentle Cardinal Francis Seper, predecessor of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for Catholic Doctrine, wrote how weak are the intentions of lovers when there is not yet a marriage:

For, however firm the intention of those who pledge themselves to each other in such premature unions, these unions cannot guarantee the sincerity and fidelity of the relationship between man and woman, and, above all, cannot protect the relationship against the changeableness of desire and determination ("Sexual Ethics" 29 December, 1975; The Pope Speaks 1976, p. 64).

Experience and statistics amply illustrate that chastity before and during marriage is positively related to stability in marriage. And if the marriage is stable, the children are likely to be well adjusted. The prevalence of stable marriage is the prime factor of civilized life and of an atmosphere conducive to virtue. The 1976 document on sexual ethics continues:

Experience teaches that if sexual union is truly to satisfy the requirements of its own finality and of human dignity, love must be safeguarded by the stability marriage gives. (see Ibid. p.65).

The Church is not wrong in expecting that priests nurture chastity by their celibate lives. Generation after generation bears out the truth of this social reality. Are clerical vocations abundant, and are the priests chaste? If the answer is yes, then family life in that area is safe.

Next Page: Chapter 8: Christ the High Priest of the Cosmos
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