LAST 20 October 2009, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the former dicastery of Pope Benedict XVI—surprised the world with an announcement of a forthcoming Apostolic Constitution that would pave the way for the establishment of personal ordinariates for groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world, who have expressed their wish to enter into full visible communion with the Catholic Church. The announcement went on to say that “the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution provides a reasonable and even necessary response to a world-wide phenomenon, by offering a single canonical model for the universal Church which is adaptable to various local situations and equitable to former Anglicans in its universal application. It provides for the ordination as Catholic priests of married former Anglican clergy.”
Suffice it to say that at the mention of the ordination as Catholic priests of married former Anglican clergy, the old question of priestly celibacy has again come into public scrutiny. In fact, some commentators have immediately interpreted this move as the beginning of what could be a relaxation of the Catholic Church’s unflinching tradition requiring celibacy for its clergy.
Hence, reserving for the succeeding issues of CBCP Monitor the other important aspects of this new ecclesiastical circumscription (i.e., personal ordinariates), let us first take care of the red herring that has been once more foisted in front of the unwary reader: the possibility of Catholic priests getting married.
The Rule on Priestly Celibacy dates to Apostolic Times
The reason for the repeated re-examination of the ecclesiastical rule on priestly celibacy stems in great part from a wrong notion that it is a human law of relatively recent origin. I distinctly remember having to firmly correct a well-known cleric who affirmed—during a TV discussion some years ago—that the canon law on priestly celibacy did not come into existence until the 11th Century.
In fact, the Church's solemn Magisterium has been constant in enforcing ecclesiastical celibacy from the start. The Synod of Elvira (ca.300-303) prescribed in canon 27: A bishop, like any other cleric, should have with him either only one sister or consecrated virgin; it is established that in no way should he have an extraneous woman; in canon 33 the Synod declared: The following overall prohibition for bishops, presbyters and deacons and for all clerics who exercise a ministry has been decided: they must abstain from relations with their wives and must not beget children; those who do are to be removed from the clerical state.
The First Lateran Ecumenical Council of 1123, states in its canon 3: We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons to cohabit with concubines or wives and to cohabit with women other than those whom the Council of Nicea (325) permitted to live in the household.
The Council of Trent reasserted the absolute impossibility of contracting marriage for clerics bound by sacred orders or for male religious who had solemnly professed chastity and declared the nullity of marriage so contracted.
Priestly Celibacy was confirmed by Vatican II, the Code of Canon Law and the Recent Popes
In our era, Vatican Council II—in the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, n.16—reaffirmed the close connection between celibacy and the Kingdom of God, seeing in the former a sign that radiantly proclaims the latter, the beginning of a new life to whose service the minister of the Church is consecrated.
Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus of 24.VI.1967, debunked the objections raised against the discipline of celibacy. By placing emphasis on its Christological foundation and appealing to history and to what we learn from the first-century documents about the origins of celibacy and continence, he fully confirmed its value.
The 1971 Synod of Bishops, both in the pre-synodal program Ministerium Presbyterorum" (15.II.1971) and in the final document Ultimis Temporibus (30.XI.1971), affirmed the need to preserve celibacy in the Latin Church, shedding light on its foundations, the convergence of motives and the conditions that encouraged it.
The new Code of Canon Law of the Latin Church of 1983 reasserted the age-old tradition in its canon 277, §1: Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the service of God and humankind.
For his part, John Paul II—in the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (25.III. 1992), n.44—presented celibacy as a radical Gospel requirement that especially favors the style of spousal life and springs from the priest's configuration to Jesus Christ through the sacrament of orders.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992 reaffirms the same doctrine: All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate 'for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (n.1579).
Finally, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (22.II.2007) categorically states: “I reaffirm the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God, and therefore confirm that it remains obligatory in the Latin tradition. Priestly celibacy lived with maturity, joy and dedication is an immense blessing for the Church an for society itself (n.24).
The Possible Ordination of Married Former Anglican Clergy
The Vatican announcement states that the forthcoming Apostolic Constitution provides for the ordination as Catholic priests of married former Anglican clergy. What is the reach of such a provision, as far as the age-old Catholic discipline regarding priestly celibacy is concerned?
Even before the publication of the Constitution, we can already forestall useless speculations in the wrong direction with the following observations:
a. This is a concession to allow the ordination of married men. In fact, this is not the first time that such is allowed, even in the Catholic Church of Latin tradition. We have to remember that the Code of Canon Law allows the ordination of married men as permanent deacons—wherever the permanent diaconate has been established by the Holy See with prior petition of the Episcopal Conference—provided he has completed at least 35 years of age and has the consent of his wife (c.1031, §2). That this is a concession is clear from the very tenor of the canons, and by the fact that historical and ecumenical reasons preclude the ordination of married men as bishops—the fullness of the priesthood—in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
b. However, this does not imply the permission for ordained clerics to marry. The canonical impediment for marriage arises from the reception of Holy Orders. This is clearly stated in c.1087: Persons who are in holy orders invalidly attempt marriage. Thus, a person who is ordained—whether he is unmarried or married—is thereby canonically impeded from contracting any future marriage.
In the case of a married former Anglican cleric, his possible ordination as a Catholic priest would not nullify his existing marriage or bind him to renounce his wife. It would, nevertheless, impede him from getting married again in the future, should his present wife pass away.
Likewise, an unmarried former Anglican cleric, should he be ordained as a Catholic priest, would be impeded from getting married in the future. This is further stipulated by c.1037 which states—An unmarried candidate for the permanent diaconate and a candidate for the presbyterate is not to be allowed to the order of diaconate unless in a prescribed rite he has assumed publicly before God and the Church the obligation of celibacy.
In summary, we are dealing with a dispensation from the requirement of celibacy towards ordination as Catholic priests of those already-married Anglican clerics who wish to continue their ministry in the personal ordinariates which may be established to accommodate former Anglicans who wish to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. We are not dealing with a dispensation from those who are ordained as Catholic priests—whether unmarried or married—to subsequently marry after ordination.