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Aussie bishops can't shy from celibacy questions

  • 16 January 2020


By a seemingly providential quirk, the first pope's mother-in-law appeared just in time to set the record straight. Thanks to the cycle of readings in the Catholic Church's lectionary, the Gospel of Mark's account of Jesus healing Saint Peter's mother-in-law was read from pulpits worldwide on 15 January 2020.

This was the very day after the question of priestly celibacy exploded in Rome in a quagmire of Church politics, becoming a timely reminder of facts for Australia's Catholic Community.

News that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had co-authored a book with Cardinal Robert Sarah surprised many. Most of all, it seems, the Pope Emeritus and those close to him. On 14 January, Benedict's private secretary clarified that Benedict did not co-author the volume and asked the publisher to remove Benedict's name from the cover.

Of course, behind the covers was a debate about sex.

This scandal-causing book argues against possible changes to the rule of mandatory celibacy for Latin-rite Catholic priests. Its publication was rather transparently an attempt to thwart proposals coming out of the Amazonian Synod of 2019, where the idea of relaxing mandatory celibacy had been discussed. If Sarah's intervention hoped to dampen debate, his book has of course had the opposite effect.

Australian Catholics have a particular dog in this fight. Whatever the fallout from Rome over this book, it should not be allowed to scare Australia's bishops off from discussing the subject during the Plenary Council which is opening in Australia this year. In fact — and this is hard for a historian to say — the bishops should perhaps stop worrying about history quite so much. Habit should never trump tradition.

Debates about priestly celibacy and sexual continence are almost as old as the Catholic priesthood itself. Progressive-minded commentators will usually point out than the strict, universal rule for Latin-rite priests is of medieval European origin. In other words, for more than a millennium, western priests could be married until — as my former hometown country priest once put it with some exaggeration but also a sprinkling of truth — 'monks became popes'.


"The Universal Church's own history bears out the fact that priestly celibacy is not mandatory."


On the other side, conservative-minded commentators tend to highlight that historic married priests were periodically discouraged from having sex until they gradually abandoned the habit of marrying in the first place, and that the last half a millennium bears witness to the ideal of sexual continence