Page 2, 25th November 1966

25th November 1966
Page 2
Page 2, 25th November 1966 — The meaning of celibacy: Readers reply to Fr. Davis

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Organisations: Catholic Church
Locations: Hamlet, Edinburgh


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The meaning of celibacy: Readers reply to Fr. Davis

SIR,—In the article in the CATHOLIC HERALD (Nov. 11) on "The Meaning and

Privations of Celibacy'. Charles Davis makes a most interesting statement. He says: "There are good arguments in favour of having a married ministry alongside the celibate ministry, and I see no reason in principle to exclude this." This is, of course, only one aspect of the article, and Fr. Davis shows that celibacy has a meaning, an eschatological significance, but it is the above aspect of his article that I would like to draw attention to.

A big talking point today is whether the time has come for priests of the Western Catholic Church to be permitted to marry. The Universe newspaper also carried an article about the crisis caused by the drop in vocations. The Christian Community itself was blamed for this, and also priests in so far as they do not give the impression of leading a happy life. Yet for some priests it is simply not possible to give such an impression sincerely and truthfully, because they are in fact not happy. The giving up of marriage, a voluntary act but an obligatory one for one who wishes to become a priest, is a real privation, and many must agree with Charles Davis when he says : "I remain unconvinced by all attempts to -find a substitute for what is renounced.. .. There are some blessings that a man in his life ineluctably wants, and without them he remains empty and deprived in that area of his existence. They have no substitute. A wife and children are among these."

It is quite clear, however, that the state of dedicated virginity is higher than the married state—see the encyclical "Holy Virginity" of Pius XII—and it is true, as Fr. Davis says, that every Christian has to give witness that human fulfilment for him is ultimately eschatological, i.e. a fulfilment that will be achieved only in the next world. A voluntarilychosen state of celibacy is an excellent means of witnessing to this truth. But let us make it truly voluntary. At the moment he who wishes to become a priest has no choice in following his vocation to the priesthood, He has to accept, even though the acceptance is voluntary, the celibate life.

In the past the mistake was made of overstressing the value of married life. It was said by some to he essential to a person's true development. This was rightly refuted in Phi§ Xll's "Holy Virginity". But this must not lead us to the opposite extreme of saying that it is no use at all to the ministry of the priesthood. Far from restricting the apostolate of many priests it would increase their effectiveness tremendously, by giving a new dimension to their lives, psychologically, physically, and socially. And priests' wives, like doctors' wives now, would join in their husband's vocation and take in their stride demands on his time at unusual hours.

Many today are saying that permission for priests to marry has to come. There is absolutely 'nothing fundamental standing in the way of its being permitted. The late Pope John XXIII himself, although he did not see his way clear to permit priests to marry, was

nevertheless keenly aware of the burden it imposed. Speaking to Etienne Gilson in December, 1960, he said:

"Can I do it? In itself it is not impossible. Ecclesiastical celibacy is not a dogma. It is not imposed by Scripture. It would be easy. We take a pen, sign a decree, and tomorrow all the priests who wish to can get married. But we cannot do it. Celibacy is a sacrifice which the Church has taken upon itself freely, generously, and heroically."

I hope it is not thought impertinent to comment here that even with permission to marry there would no doubt be many who would still find the way of celibacy their way. The solution here seems to be to perrnit priests to choose for themselves.

However, the question in the minds of many today is not will it come, but when will it come. By permitting priests to marry we could solve many problems pressing hard on the Church today. It would solve altogether the vocations shortage, it would rapidly increase the growth of the Church, and it would bring joy and happiness—no mean consequence—into the lives of many of the clergy whose lives at the moment may be far from happy.

Presbyter read Fr. Charles Davis's "The Meaning and Privations of Celibacy" (November 11) with great interest, and his observations on the nonsense talked about "human fulfilment" are so excellent that I must file the article for future use and reflection.

Yet I find the article sadly lacking for this reason: though he set out to deal with the meaning of celibacy, the meaning has clearly eluded him. God is mentioned rarely in the article, once as the Maker of an unpleasant world, and at other times in such phrases as "God's transcendent salvation," "God's transcendent gift," and "transcendence of God's gift."

These phrases are colourless and cold in this context, and therefore celibacy, as described by Fr. Davis, seems insipid and inhuman since celibacy is not just a correct, cool thought in the head but a yielding of the heart.

He wrote that he remained unconvinced by all attempts to find a substitute for human fulfilment in marriage. It would seem that this is so because he discussed celibacy at some length without even mentioning Our Lord, God-mademan, and without giving any glimpse that celibacy, to be genuine, must be a love affair, a total love of God which must fill the heart and therefore will substitute for married love even if it is not the same thing.

To write of celibacy, with reference to the Tremendous Lover only in terms almost as impersonal as an algebraic symbol, and leaning on such considerations as eschatological witness or witness of Christian reality, is to cry with a vengeance for Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark . Ophelia tends sooner or later to become the main object of interest.

John McKee (Fr.) Davidson's Mains, Edinburgh.

Sir,—May I say how pleased I was to see Fr. Charles Davis's lucid and sympathetic discussion of celibacy. But may I add, humbly and diffidently, that to a layman a married ministry seems not merely unobjectionable in principle but positively desirable.

Few would deny the value to the Church of voluntary celibacy but I find compulsory celibacy, as a condition of ordination, very hard to defend. Indeed, I would blame it for much of the dissociation between clergy and laity within the Church and for the remoteness, all too often, of the Church from the problems of everyday life and the thinking of the world.

The clergy can best describe the personal problems that celibacy has for some of them; one of them, Pierre Hermand, has done so recently in an illuminating if terrible book ("The Priest: Celibate or Married"). But acute as those problems may be, a far worse aspect is the slur on family life implicit in the rule: the hands that tend a wife and child in the primal community of love, the family, are disqualified by that from celebrating the Sacred Mysteries. Is not that near to blasphemy?

They order these things better in the East.

C. J. Cunningham


Sir,—How satisfying was Fr. Charles Davis on celibacy (November 11). Not that he said anything original, but plain common sense on any topic related to sex begins to sound like it. His remarks on the tragedy of the human situation and the Christian meaning in suffering might well have been Addressed to the Slant group.

Stephanie Moffat Clacton-on-Sea.

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