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Priestly celibacy and problems

of inculturation

Polycarp Pengo

Archbishop of Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania)


Celibacy in the form demanded of the Roman Catholic priest, namely, a life-long abstinence from marriage, is probably foreign to all human cultures. No wonder, therefore, that priestly celibacy causes everywhere a number of problems in the question of inculturation of the faith. In the light of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II, I wish to make a brief study of some of those problems hoping thereby to point out some direction in which to look for the solution to some of those problems.


In number 50 of the above mentioned post-synodal Exhortation we read the following profound words:


Priestly celibacy should not be considered just as a legal norm, or as a totally external condition for admission to ordination, but rather as a value that is profoundly connected with ordination, whereby a man takes on the likeness of Jesus Christ... as a choice of a greater and undivided love for Christ and his Church.


For Tanzania, at least, I believe that priestly celibacy presents seemingly insurmountable problems for the inculturation of the Christian faith because this papal message has not been properly grasped and appreciated.


As a preliminary note I wish to express that, according to me, true and authentic inculturation is a form of ‘Incarnation’, meaning, introducing the spiritual, divine reality into a body, a tangible and comprehensible reality so that the spiritual or the divine can become tangible and comprehensible. Therefore, the predominant factor or element in the concept of inculturation is the divine or the spiritual. This is the primary concern and the ultimate goal in the entire process. In other words, the divine spiritual element must take precedence over the human, material reality or aspect in every task of inculturation.


In the above quotation of the Holy Father, an intrinsic connection is made between the notion of priestly celibacy and the very person of Christ: celibacy is not just a legal norm (a human affair) but the likeness of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that in the priestly celibacy of the Catholic Church there is also an element of ‘legal norm’ and of ‘external condition’. That element needs to be taken into consideration to the extent that it contains some human value or, I would even say, a cultural value. But such a human or cultural value cannot be the ultimate criterion for inculturation. It has to be weighed and evaluated against other human or cultural values for its determinative value in realizing inculturation.



Priestly celibacy as a purely human or cultural value


a. Priestly celibacy viewed from the economic point of view


There are quite a number of similarities between the priesthood in the Old Testament and the priesthood of the New Testament continued and developed in the Christian religion. One of the points of similarity is the lack of property for inheritance. Priests in the Old Testament had no land apportioned to them which they could bequeath to their descendants. The Lord was the portion of their inheritance, and so they lived out of the offerings presented to the Lord.

Similarly, priests in the New Testament have no property of their own which they might leave for their children to inherit. They live entirely dependent on the offerings of the community of believers and on the property of the entire Church. Thus, in both the Old and the New Testament, the priest depends entirely on Church possessions for his living.


Besides the points of similarity between the two priest-hoods, there are other points of considerable differences. One of these is the way the priesthood is transmitted. In the Old Covenant, no one could become a priest unless one was descended from the tribe of Levi. That meant, priesthood itself was inherited together with the economic assurance of living from the altar of the Lord. Even those descendants of Levi who for one reason or another could not exercise their priestly ministry still maintained the right to live from the altar of the Lord (cf Lev 21:16-23).


On the other hand, the priesthood of the New Covenant is single and perfectly realized in the one High Priest, Jesus Christ, who himself neither inherited his priesthood from Aaron or any Levite nor could he pass his priesthood to anyone else as an inheritance. He lives for ever and so he cannot be inherited; this being one of the main ideas in comparing Christ’s priesthood to that of Melchizedek in the Letter to the Hebrews (cf chapter 7).


Every priest in the New Testament simply participates in that priesthood of Christ; the priesthood he cannot pass on to his descendants. Thus while the children of the Old Testament priests were assured of their livelihood through the inheritance of the priesthood itself, those of the New Testament would either have to provide for their future without any assistance from their father or they would have to divide up Church possessions among themselves.


Already in the sixth century, Emperor Justinian realized the danger of the property of the Church being alienated through the inheritance of priests’ children who were themselves not-priests. Thus he issued decrees which were the first steps towards obligatory celibate priesthood. He demanded that «a person who had children could not be a bishop, and a married cleric must live with his wife as with a sister» (cf J.M. Ford, ‘Celibacy’ in A New Dictionary of Christian Theology). In fact, Emperor Justinian was continuing, perhaps in a more diplomatic way, the efforts already visible during the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) to try to make celibacy obligatory among clerics.


The Gregorian reforms in the eleventh century on this question of priestly celibacy can also be partly understood in the same economic perspective. The reforms were intended not only to encourage the semi-monastic standard and spirit among the clergy but also, and probably mainly, to prevent priests from being too absorbed in the feudal system with its central concern of material possessions.


There is no doubt that the question of material possession and the economic well-being of priests has always played some role in the maintenance of the institution of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church. It is not rare in our ecumenical dealings with the Protestant brothers to hear them speak approvingly of the Catholic Church’s maintenance of priestly celibacy. And their main reason for this is that priestly celibacy enables an economically better state for the Roman Catholic priest.


However, the economic aspect of priestly celibacy cannot be taken as the sole or even as the main reason for maintaining priestly celibacy. First of all, this reasoning as a basic attitude of mind expresses a rather selfish spirit in the priest. Moreover, such a reason alone would easily lead to infidelity which goes together with the alarmingly increased involvement of clerics in economic enterprises.


Coming to Tanzanian culture, the economic question would be even less of a reason for maintaining priestly celibacy. In the traditional Tanzanian extended family system, having no children of one’s own does not relieve one from the economic obligations to support the children of one’s relatives and even friends. Children of relatives and friends pose equal demands as one’s own children; and a person without children of his own faces even more numerous demands from children of relatives and friends.

Similarly, an individual who lacks personal means economically does not necessarily have his children economically doomed. All the relatives and friends who happen to be economically better off are required to come to his aid and save the children from their plight.


For this reason, the institution of priestly celibacy notwithstanding, the Catholic Church in Tanzania is actually facing a double problem: on the one hand, some priests who happen to fail in their vow of priestly celibacy manage to have the children thus begotten reared by their relatives without being economically overstrained themselves. This can easily encourage irresponsible parenthood in the true sense of the word.


On the other hand, economic demands from relatives and friends are pushing many a priest into all kinds of unacceptable economic involvements or into feeling inclined to misappropriate ecclesiastical funds for private family use. In this way, both the efforts of Emperor Justinian and the Gregorian reforms mentioned above become frustrated.



b. Priestly celibacy seen from the social point of view


From the social point of view, priestly celibacy seems to find even less backing from the surrounding human cultures. Both the Roman milieu and the accepted Jewish attitudes could not have inspired the early Church with the notion of priestly celibacy. On the contrary, relying on those surroundings would have proven a hindrance to any suggestion of the idea of priestly celibacy. To quote, once again, from the above mentioned article of J.M. Ford on celibacy:


The practice of celibacy in the primitive Church was hindered for two reasons: (i) Jewish law required every healthy male to procreate; (ii) Roman law discouraged celibacy, placed penalties on bachelors and rewarded women .who gave birth to three or more children.


It is a matter of fact that the urge to procreate is deeply engraved in human nature. It would, therefore, be a real surprise to find a human society which would engender practices discouraging the act of procreation. Periodical abstinence from sexual activity is a rather common practice in many ancient and present day societies. But the lifelong abstinence from marriage entailed in priestly celibacy has always been a socially rare commodity.


Even in the New Testament, in fact, there seems to be indications that presbyters (bishops) were expected to be married men. They needed to have proven themselves socially to be good leaders by managing their own families successfully in the eyes of their societies (cf e.g., 1 Tim 3:1-7).


In spite of the many modern efforts to discourage procreation on the pretext of the world’s overpopulation, children continue to be highly valued in Tanzanian culture. Procreation remains a precious social value and will, seemingly, continue to be so for a long time still. Failure to procreate continues to be one of the greatest misfortunes in society that can befall an African man or woman. Because of social pressure, an unfruitful marital union will end up either in polygamy with all its concomitant unhappinesses or in marriage breakdown, an equally unfortunate event.


It would, therefore, be a frustrating attempt to try to justify or disapprove priestly celibacy in the cultural context of Africa from the social point of view. Priestly celibacy did not start off as a social prompting of any culture. This is a very important element to consider if we are not to become involved in other more complicated problems. When people speak so much of Christianity in Africa having paved the way for Western colonialism and the current propaganda for birth control as being Western malicious moves for new-colonialism, priestly celibacy must be shown not to be a cultural imposition.


The desire to fit priestly celibacy into social environments of given cultures is, at present, leading to strange solutions totally unacceptable as modes of inculturating the Catholic faith. Realizing that celibacy is unnatural to African culture, advocates of inculturation are proposing:


1. Total elimination of priestly celibacy in the Church of Africa. This is usually suggested to be done gradually such as by introducing and popularizing in a special way the married diaconate as a step towards married priests. Should we really sacrifice the values behind priestly celibacy for the sake of social demands of inculturation?


2. Introduction and acceptance of traditionally accepted marriages for priests; such marriages would, of course, have no significance for the Church but would be fully recognized in traditional society. There is no need to say that such practices would lead to double living for the priests involved. Before the Church they would be celibates, but before their traditional societies they would be married. There is no doubt that for such priests to remain truly celibate would be most difficult. But even if some were to remain faithful, what message would that syncretistic life bring to the community?


3. Introduction of spiritual marriages for the celibate Catholic priests. Such marriages should, preferably, be with women consecrated in virginity for the service of the Church so as to ensure spiritual inspirations on both sides. Of course, the concrete practicability of such marriages is very doubtful. But the main obstacle to such marriages from the doctrinal point of view is the dualism involved therein. The idea of a married spirit in a celibate body is a strange way of resolving the problem of priestly celibacy as a social problem for inculturation.



Priestly celibacy as a religious value


The real reason and basis for priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church has always been the religious one, and it must always remain so. Economic and social environ’ments may be of some assistance to the realization of the religious reason as long as they are taken in subordinate relationship to the basic reason. Taken individually and in isolation from the religious basis, the social and economic reasons may even distort the true meaning of priestly celibacy reducing it to a meaningless, frustrating practice as we have been trying to show above. Yet, even the religious aspect of priestly celibacy must also be carefully and fundamentally analyzed and given proper orientation if it is to give the true meaning of that sacred institution.


In his Letter to the Corinthians (cf 1 Cor 7), St Paul had given instructions on the question of marriage or no marriage; instructions which, through misinterpretation, later led into quite questionable beliefs and practices. In 1 Corinthians 7:17, for example, St Paul writes: «Anyway let everyone continue in the part which the Lord has allotted to him as he was when God called him. This is the rule that I give to all the Churches.» Basing themselves on this instruction of St Paul, some Syrian Church were to come up with, in the second and third centuries, with demands for baptism which required the decision on the part of any aspirant to baptism to opt for either marriage or celibacy before the conferring of the sacrament of baptism.


In their typical heretical way, the Manichaeans were later on to go even further to the extreme. For them only celibates were the real and full members of the Church. Those who were married or who intended to marry could not be received into full membership of the Church. They remained, as it were, perpetual catechumens.


Now, the sacrament of baptism is basic for human salvation (cf Mk 16:16). Through baptism the human person is graciously introduced into the history of salvation. By making celibacy a precondition for baptism, the Manichaeans came to make it the means of salvation within reach of human means.


In African culture, priestly celibacy considered from the religious point of view presents a theological problem just opposite to that of the Manicheans. Unlike the Manichaean dualist who wants to realize his own salvation by liberating the spirit from bodily imprisonment by abstaining from procreation, the African traditionalist in his religious faith believes that he can avoid having his life end up in a meaningless existence after his death by continuing to live in his children. The African traditional believer holds that a person who dies without begetting any children has no chance for a happy meaningful life beyond the grave. Thus failure to procreate is equivalent to failure to attain salvation in the life after death. Humanity is, through procreation, their own saviour. The saving role of Christ is thus rendered superfluous.


As the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, put it, the true meaning of priestly celibacy is «profoundly connected with ordination whereby a man takes on the likeness of Jesus Christ», the true and only Saviour of humanity. By thus being connected with the person of Jesus Christ, priestly celibacy ceases to be a power for salvation independent of the only Saviour of mankind. It is no longer a merely negative act of self-denial; rather it is an act of self-giving to and in union with Christ.


In the same way, as that act of taking on the likeness of Jesus Christ, priestly celibacy for the African ceases to lead to self-destruction, to a meaningless existence devoid of real life. Rather, it leads to the person of Jesus Christ who is’ ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life» (cf Jn 14:6).




Priestly celibacy will continue to pose problems with regard to any efforts of inculturation. However, many of these problems are due either to a lack of appreciation for the profound religious meaning of celibacy or due to a misunderstanding of the true meaning of inculturation. When human cultural values take the upper hand, theology and faith become distorted. Instead of human culture being converted to the Christian faith, it attempts to convert the faith itself. In this question of priestly celibacy, it is imperative for everyone concerned to be aware of the profound religious meaning of the institution.