Published in Cumberland Times-News Thursday, May 26, 2011.
The Catholic Church’s diminishing presence in our area, attributed to a shortage of priests (and religious) and manifested in recent closure of St. Patrick in Mount Savage (and relocation of Christian Brothers from Cumberland), is troubling. The solution, seemingly impossible in today’s secular world, is to attract more seminarians.
Even conservative Catholics suggest priests marry, or more married men be ordained. They ask: How can priests live fulfilled, as celibates? How can unmarried, celibate men counsel on marriage and sex?
As a contented single woman, I respectfully challenge beliefs that sex is integral to happiness, or marriage is essential to maturity. For celibates, many aspects of life offer greater allure and growth -- like simplicity, service, solitude, or seeking God’s will.
One does not need sex to know lust is our strongest passion. Overcoming the basic urge for physical union, especially with someone we love, can seem impossible. Once conquered, though, relationships are pure; we interact with dignity, without innuendo, motive or guile.
Well embraced, celibacy detaches desires from the chaotic sexual, secular scene and frees thoughts and energies for the pursuit of holiness, the core of authentic happiness. Celibacy is a meaningful, healthy, joyful lifestyle that rings with clarity and purpose; work, play and relationships serve others and glorify God.
With special exception, particularly for Episcopalian ministers, married men are ordained Roman Catholic priests; if they become widowers, then they must be celibate.
In a Sept. 1, 1994 Arlington (Va.) Catholic Herald, Fr. William P. Saunders summarizes Pope Paul VI’s encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" (1967) to say celibacy identifies with Christ, a celibate. It is sacrificial love, “whereby a priest gives of himself totally to the service of God and His Church.” And it is a sign of the coming Kingdom of God, when, Jesus says (Mt 22:30), “In the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.
In an undated article, “Celibacy in the Priesthood,” Fr. Saunders points out St. Paul was unmarried (1 Cor 7:8); and as early as the year 215, Clement of Alexandria referred to priests being “saved in the begetting of children.”
The local Spanish Council of Elvira in 306, Saunders quotes, imposed celibacy: “all…engaged in the ministry are forbidden entirely to live with their wives and to beget children.”
However, at conclusion of the Council of Nicea in 325, Saunders notes, “no church-wide requirement for priests to be celibate was mandated.” At this time, though, he writes, “the new spiritual fervor of ‘white martyrdom’ arose.”
Their faith legalized by Constantine in 313, fewer Christians shed blood in public arenas. “With white martyrdom,” writes Saunders, “men and women chose to renounce the things of this world and to die to their old selves” and dedicate their lives to Christ – “the thrust behind monasticism and the vows of poverty, chastity (including celibacy), and obedience.”
While rules of celibacy differed between Western mad Eastern traditions, Saunders writes, Damasus I decreed it in 384. Following confusion and abuses in the Middle Ages, the Second Lateran Council in 1139 firmly “decreed Holy Orders as an impediment to marriage.”
The Council of Trent (1563) asserts celibacy is possible, writes Saunders, but recognizes celibates need the grace of God to remain faithful.
Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg has near-record enrollment this year, as do others. Former rector Archbishop Harry Flynn, in a spring newsletter interview, attributes the numbers to balanced formation, prayer and community.
Today’s seminaries are forming priests better than they have in more than half a century. Rather than bemoan or demean celibacy, let’s appreciate Catholic orthodoxy and pray for priests’ fidelity.