Splendid foolishness

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. And I, among them. Why else would I, a priest, be tempted to comment on a book called Priests in Love (John Garratt Publishing, 2005)? To address this topic with angelic confidence, I would need an adamantine reputation for being free of vested interests, for having my sexual act securely together, and for being totally unintimidated by the dictates of clerical solidarity or authority. Were I so lucky!

But why not be foolish? Jane Anderson has interviewed many Australian priests, and uses these interviews to make a strong case against compulsory clerical celibacy. Her stories are moving. They describe men unprepared for the life to which they have committed themselves, coping as best they can with great emotional pressure, often by forming deep sexual relationships. In her account, the enemy of these men’s need to reconcile their desire for sexual intimacy and their desire to minister as priests is the Vatican. It originally imposed celibacy on priests because it believed sexual relations to be incompatible with celebrating the Eucharist. It maintains celibacy as an instrument of control. She concludes that the inadequacy of the arguments for compulsory clerical celibacy, the right of the people to the Eucharist, and the sufferings imposed by clerical celibacy urge its reform.

Although I agree with the practical conclusions of Anderson’s thought-provoking book, I have reservations about the shape of her argument. She bases it in the personal unhappiness of people who are helpless before the arbitrary demands of an external institution. The proper response, therefore, is to reform the institution of celibacy. In this argument, the personal responsibility of priests plays little part. They are simply victims in a sad tale.

This kind of argument for change is also deployed on other social issues such as divorce. It deserves to be heard. But in the field of everyday Catholic life, clerical celibacy has perhaps been earthed more deeply than this argument recognises. It is set in an account of human life that is still residually held in churches and society. This account emphasises responsibility and faithfulness. The good human being is honest and craftsmanlike in work, truthful in word, and faithful in commitments once made. The account allows that we may enter commitments rashly, and be blown off course by our affections. Our circumstances, too, may erode our original hopes. This is not merely sad; it is the stuff of tragedy, which has to do with the gap between our commitments and our capacity to live them. It calls for sympathy, and not for judgment.

In this world, too, enduring faithfulness is its own reward. But when we meet it, it also confirms our trust in a moral universe, and inclines us to esteem the persons to whom the commitments were made.

Within the Catholic community, something like this was the context of the priest’s commitment to live celibately. It involved a commitment to God and to the Catholic community. Like any life commitment, it was hostage to an unknown future. When lived happily, it invited Catholics and others to take seriously the God and Church to whom such an extravagant commitment was made.

For many reasons this ethic of faithfulness is waning. But it is still honoured by many. It would be a pity if, in making a good case for optional clerical celibacy, we were to focus solely on the defects of the Vatican. The splendid foolishness that underlay compulsory clerical celibacy fertilised grass-roots Catholicism.              n

Andrew Hamilton SJ teaches at the United Faculty of Theology.



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