Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Celibacy: The Bulwark of the Institutional Church

Mandatory Celibacy only is imposed on
the clergy of the Western Church in the
Central Middle Ages, principally during
the Gregorian Reformation  
I want to continue my theme from yesterday on the reason the Church continues to maintain the requirement of celibacy for its priests and bishops.  I pointed out in the several historical entries that the practice was mandated by a series of local councils as early as the fourth centuries but that it became part of the universal law of the Church only on the central Middle Ages when the canons of these early regional synods were collected into a coherent body of Canon Law.  The unspoken issue behind celibacy was not about a sexually abstinent clergy but about the need to protect the properties belonging to the wide-flung network of parish and other churches passing from the patrimony of the Church into the hands of clerical families.  Declaring the marriages of the clergy to be null and void did not so much deprive the priest of the comforts of a wife and children as it did ensure that those children could neither be ordained themselves (illegitimacy being a bar to holy orders) nor make inheritance claims upon the lands pertaining to church where their father was rector.  Since the issue was not sex, much less any sort of “ritual purity,” clerical concubinage was tolerated and in fact a widespread practice.  As I said in my entries, such arrangements should be seen not as the priest “having a mistress” but more as having a (common-law) wife.  Generally—there are always exceptions—such clergy were (at least relatively) faithful to their partner, begat and raised children, considered themselves married and were considered by the common folk around them, especially in rural areas, to be married.  Indeed in the outlaying regions of Europe—Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, such clerical wives often held prestigious and even a semi-sacral position of their own even as the priest’s wife does even today in many Orthodox Parishes.  It would only be at the Council of Trent that celibacy of the clergy becomes not only the official position of the Church but the widespread practice. 
     As I mentioned in the last post, celibacy permits the Church Institution to hold the priest in a financial and often psychological dependency in which his loyalty to the Institution is strengthened.  Some priests have felt “victimized” by this imposed dependency.   Many, realizing the dynamics of this dependency, have fled the priesthood to salvage their identity as self-motivating and autonomous adults.  Even more (fortunately) have developed healthy strategies to keep their maturity and psychological autonomy  intact while continuing to minister to God’s people.  But many priests have allowed their psychological and even spiritual growth to be stunted by what is an unhealthy system of rewards and punishments that bolster the power of the Institution over them and even over the weaker sheep in the flocks entrusted to them.
      You will notice that I speak not of “the Church” but of “the Institution.”  I want to make a clear difference here between the divinely established Community of Faith and the Faithful that we call “The Church” and the humanly and historically developed Institution that tries—with both holy and sometimes unholy means—to serve that Community.  I also want to point out that I don’t make this distinction or use this language in any theological sense—which is beyond my capacity—but speaking strictly from a historical viewpoint, which is not beyond my credentials.    
      Sometimes it is argued that permitting priests to marry would be financially crippling to the Church.  Actually, with sound and professional reorganization of Church finances it would be quite feasible, at least here in North America.  This again though would challenge the power of the Institution as such financial reorganization would require a transparency and accountability that is not current practice nor long—if ever—has been such practice.  
      What is probably the greater fear of many who cannot see beyond the Institutional model of Church is that marriage would encourage priests to a psychological maturity that would undermine the power of the local bishop.  A priest who has a wife (and children) has a divided loyalty.  Marriage would not divide the loyalty of the priest to God, or to the Gospel he is ordained to preach, nor to the Church, i.e. the people whom he serves; it would however make him face choices between his family’s demands and those of his bishop.  “We are not going there” a wife might say “our children need better schools.”  Or “I am not raising our children in that house!”  Or “I have my career too and I am not sacrificing it to move two hours away.”  Gone would be the days of the docile Father O’Malley with his one valise and his straw hat getting on the street-car and moving cross-town to St. Mary’s, bells or no bells.  Marriage does not make all men grow up, alas, but many a bishop would want to make sure than none of his priests made his life complicated by thinking for himself or having a wife who would have voice in his decisions.  Marriage could bring down the whole system.  And wouldn’t that be too bad!!!!    

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