Alan's Reviews > The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations

The Case for Clerical Celibacy by Alphons Maria Stickler
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Mar 15, 13


Card. Stickler was a Vatican archivist and accomplished scholar. This brief but thorough account of clerical celibacy in the Catholic Church has chapters devoted to the Western and Eastern churches' legal understanding of it, concluding with a chapter on the theological reasons.

Card. Stickler dispels the myth that celibacy did not exist until the 12th century. This is not true because celibacy was an unwritten law (iuris) from the very beginning of Catholicism, although it does have solid Scriptural support; only in the 4th century did the Spanish Council of Elvira first write down the law (lex) securing celibacy for the higher orders of the clergy (priests, deacons, subdeacons). The 2nd Lateran Council in the 12th century forbade the higher clerics from marrying, although, as always, one could still be married prior to ordination provided he renounces the privileges of marriage: remain 100% continent and separate from his wife. The Eastern Church was more lax in requiring a married cleric to separate from his wife although continence was always the law for the Universal Church; even if the Eastern Church convoked the Council of Trullo, which the Western Church did not recognize—it said priests must at least abstain during those days they had to offer sacrifice—complete continence still has binding force on the whole Church.

The last chapter on the theological reasons for celibacy, which I expected to occupy more of the book than the historical development, was not really what I expected. Card. Stickler focused more on positively explaining the priesthood than contrasting it with the married state, which would have helped me and most of his married readers understand celibacy better. I realize that the celibate priesthood helps raise a man's mind to God and His Kingdom by teaching others that there is more than the present, transient life; but I was certainly expecting him to quote at least St. Paul's 1 Corithians 7:7-8,32-35 ("...he that is with a wife [...] is divided [between 'the things of the world, how he may please his wife' and God]..."), although he does cite it in passing (pg. 98) and has a footnote (pg. 12) to St. Matthew 19:27-30 and quotes the similar passage in St. Luke's gospel that the apostles must leave even their wives to follow Christ. I would have liked him to be more explicit, though, about exactly why and how "he that is with a wife [...] is divided [between 'the things of the world, how he may please his wife' and God]."

Card. Stickler did not really cover the modern problems, e.g., whether a married man today can still receive Holy Orders provided he renounces the marriage privileges with his wife's consent and separate from her or whether a married Anglican priest, e.g., must renounce the marriage privileges in order to convert to a Catholic priest. He does not discuss whether complete continence is required for permanent deacons, which Vatican II re-instituted while abolishing the subdiaconate and minor orders. He does, however, do a good job discussing how Pope John Paul II emphasized the theological reasons for celibacy and the priesthood (cf. Pastores dabo vobis ), emphasizing that the priesthood--and celibacy, which is intimately connected to it—is a mystery that cannot be reduced into secular categories; it is a total gift of self for the priest's Bride, the Church. The implication is that married priests are bigamous, are divided between Church and wife.

Overall, this book is a must-read for all those who want to learn more about and appreciate the profound truths and beauty of the celibate priesthood.

Cf. "Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church" by Roman Cholij, Secretary of the Apostolic Exarch for Ukrainian Catholics in Great Britain
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