Fr. JOHN SYMON
VOWS OF CELIBACY
Question—Does a secular priest take a vow of celibacy for all time, or are these vows taken only by monks? Does this help to explain why a Monsignor in Rome was recently dispensed from his vows and allowed to marry?
Mrs. W., E.17.
Answer — Let us disentangle two questions. the first of which was discussed in this column last September. Although at that time I failed to convince several readers and they subsequently wrote to express their disagreement, I argued then that celibacy is not a part of the priesthood in the way that, according to common Catholic teaching, indissolubility is a part of marriage.
It follows that, however shocking as it may seem to many Catholics, the Church is not illogical in forbidding the subsequent re-marriage
of divorced persons and at the same time being much more lenient with priests who request a dispensation from the law of celibacy.
This week's questioner has raised a rather different point, whether a diocesan priest takes a vow of celibacy at all. My answer is that, a year or more before he becomes a priest, the candidate is ordained by a subdeacon; by the fact ,of freely accepting the office of subdeacon, the candidate also accepts the obligation of celibacy which goes with it and so he makes, if not a vow, at least an implicit promise on the matter.
When he is ordained subdeacon, at the beginning of the ceremony he stands, surrounded by the local church, laity, clergy and the officiating bishop.
In the name of God and of the congregation. the bishop warns him: "As yet you are free but, after you
have received this order, you will be free no longer and you will be under obligation to observe chastity. Therefore, while there is time, reflect. If you decide to persevere in your holy resolution. Come forward in the name of the Lord."
Only when the candidate has made a symbolic step forward, does the ordination continue.
From all this rather awesome solemnity simpleminded people like myself would think that the young subdeacon was making a vow of celibacy and explicitly renouncing his right to marry. However, along come the canon lawyers and they point out, what is certainly true, that at no time during the ceremony is there any explicit talk of celibacy.
True, the bishop tells the candidate that he is expected to observe chastity but, if it comes to that. so are his father and mother, and everyone else, Catholic or not, married or single. It seems to follow that, in the technical sense of an explicit and formal vow, diocesan priests are not bound to celibacy.
At the same time. by being ordained subdeacon, the future priest does accept an office from the Church and he knows perfectly well hat the obligation of celibacy is attached by the Church's law to this office. Until he is ordained subdeacon, he is not bound to celibacy; by accepting the office, he undertakes its obligations.
In case I am misunderstood, I would like to point out that I am not concerned to defend the policy of making celibacy a matter of legal obligation. It is perfectly possible to set a very high value on celibacy as one of the Holy Spirit's most fruitful gifts to the Church and yet to maintain that, precisely because it is a gift of the Spirit, it should not be a matter of rigid legal obligation. That is a long story, and a different one.
In answer to this week's questioner, all I want to say is that, on the most traditional grounds of theology, whether Catholic or Reformed or indeed Jewish, once a man has given his word to God, he should try to keep it.
Although a diocesan priest does not seem to make a formal vow of celibacy, at least implicitly he does make a promise to God and the Church—and surely that amounts to the same thing.