Murmuratio About Priestly Celibacy

When the Society of Jesus gathers its representatives to elect a new boss, part of the process is several days of "murmuratio," essentially water-cooler chat about who might be a good candidate. No electioneering is allowed, but this informal dialogue among the members is an important aspect of the election.

There seems to be underway a murmuratio of another sort. Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Pope's Secretary of State has noted that celibacy is an open question: "Celibacy is not an institution but look, it is also true that you can discuss (it) because as you say this is not a dogma, a dogma of the church."

Absolutely true. And it immediately sparked sharp reaction from the right. Here's Jimmy Akin at The National Catholic Register, insisting that nothing significant was said and we should all just ignore it: "What significance does this actually have? Not much. There is, actually, nothing new here. The archbishop is correct in stating that clerical celibacy is not a dogma."

Parolin did go on in the same interview (this from John Allen at NCR,) both to shore up the tradition of priestly celibacy, but also to make this intriguing comment:

It has always been said that the church is not a democracy. But it would be good during these times that there could be a more democratic spirit, in the sense of listening carefully, and I believe the pope has made of this one of his pontificate's objectives. A collegial movement of the church, where all the issues can be brought up, and afterward he can make a decision.


Tom Reese months ago tracked down some comments by the pontiff-to-be on the question. After reaffirming the status of the current rule, the Pope said "If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option."

But this is a global murmuratio, not just a Western one. Consider this report from Frederick Nzwili in the WaPo about schismatic priests in Africa whose primary issue seems to be celibacy. Breakaway groups have formed in "Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and South Africa, according to Bishop Peter Njogu, a former Catholic priest, now married, and working in Kenya." Ignoring the rules of celibacy (everything from intermittent misbehavior to long-term relationships that have everything marriage has except responsibility and commitment,) isn't unknown in Africa, just as it isn't unkown here. Broader dialogue, however, is resisted by Roman Catholic authorities in the region:

In March this year, the Rev. Anthony Musaala, a Ugandan Catholic priest, shocked the church when he wrote a letter published in the Ugandan press saying that many bishops and priests in the country had failed the celibacy test. Musaala was immediately suspended for urging open and frank dialogue about priests marrying.

Many Africans (and Latin Americans, I'd add,) find obligatory celibacy not just difficult, but a counter-witness: “We must realize, for example, the lack of children is the worst evil for man in the African tradition,” Njogu commented.

And others wander past the water cooler. Tracy Connor examines the possible ramifications of a married priesthood. The financial case--we can't pay married men as poorly as we pay our priests now, doesn't hold water. The average salary of clergy in other denominations isn't much higher. And as Sr. Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, said, "Catholic churches always find the money for what they need." Plus, perhaps the reality of priests with families who need a little financial help might inspire Catholics to kick in more than the 1/3 to 1/2 of the proportion of their incomes that Protestants give.

That piece does end with this stunner from Mark Shea, who "said that while celibacy is not dogma, there are solid theological reasons for holding priests to a different standard. 'Is marriage good? Marriage is absolutely good,' he said. 'But virginity is a higher call.'" Really? On what "solid" grounds, unless you want to ignore the spirit of Vatican II, our own theology of vocation, and a whole heap of contemporary theology that doesn't reduce human interpersonal familial commitment to some kind of consolation prize for the second-rate? That kind of clerical triumphalism really doesn't stand up very well anymore--and that's before we consider the scandals--financial as well as sexual--that reveal the cracks and strains of trying to live a "higher" calling.

And a final voice in this stage of the murmuratio is that of Kevin O'Brien, S.J., who chimes in on the value of celibacy in his own life. While I have issues with some of his statements (one quick example: surely being pastorally available to 6,000 students is fundamentally different from actual fatherhood!!) what sticks with me is his conclusion:

Trying to live chastely, poorly, and obediently frees me to love and serve in ways that give me great joy. This life is no better or worse than any other vocation (like marriage) or way of life, but it is mine.

Maybe, if this murmuratio continues, we can begin there--with respect for vocation, in light of the fundamental commandment to love as well as we can. I'm confident that God is calling more than enough people to serve the Church as priests. God doesn't always seem to bundle that call with the call or ability to live celibate chastity with peace. It seems to me that if the leaders of the Church mean to respond to Jesus' command to "feed my sheep," they'd do well to listen to the murmuratio.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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