Cardinal Piacenza’s Address to Priestly Celibacy Congress

“The Teaching of the Pontiffs From Pius XI to Benedict XVI”

ARS, France, JAN. 27, 2011 ( Here is the address Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, delivered Monday to the Colloquium “Priestly Celibacy: Foundations, Joys and Challenges,” which took place this week at the Foyer Sacerdotale Giovanni Paolo II in Ars. The three-day conference, organized by the Society of John Mary Vianney and the Ars Shrine, ended today. The cardinal’s address is titled “The Teaching of the Pontiffs From Pius XI to Benedict XVI.”

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Esteemed Brothers in the Episcopate,
Dear Priests and Friends,

With this intervention of mine I wish to express, with a word of encouragement, first and foremost my profound esteem, and that of the Congregation for the Clergy, for the organisers of the Colloquium, who have chosen a theme that is more timely than ever. This is particularly so since the event is occurring in the place which has witnessed the work of St. John Mary Vianney, the comprehensive model of the Sacerdotal ministry and a figure who continues to be a point of reference for the priests of our own time.

The theme that has been given to me is very specific and regards the teaching of the Popes from Pius XI to Benedict XVI. I will approach the presentation by examining some of the more notable documents of the Pontiffs in question, showing the contemporary relevance of their teaching and drawing a synthesis of a number of lines of thought, which I hope might find a place in ecclesiastical formation.


1. Pius XI and the Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerotii

The genuine passion that Pius XI had for priestly vocations is well illustrated historically, as is his indefatigable work for the building of seminaries in the whole Catholic world, in which the young might receive an adequate formation to prepare them for the sacerdotal ministry.

Within this frame of reference the Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii of 20 December 1935, promulgated on the occasion of the 56th anniversary of the Pontiff’s priestly ordination, must be adequately understood. The Encyclical is made up of four parts. The first two are more specifically dedicated to the foundations, from the first title, “The sublime dignity: Alter Christus” and the second, “Radiant Jewel”, while the third and the fourth are of a more normative-disciplinary character and concentrate their attention on the preparation of the young for the Priesthood and on some characteristics of spirituality.

Of particular interest for our subject is the second part of the Encyclical, which dedicates an entire paragraph to chastity. However, this is found in the second part just after the paragraph that speaks of the priest as an “imitator of Christ” and of “priestly piety”, showing in that way how Pius XI’s concept of the priesthood was – as the Church always holds – that of an ontological-sacramental character. From this derives the need for the imitation of Christ and of the excellence of the priestly life, above all in the order of sanctity. In fact, the Encyclical states, “Eucharistic Sacrifice in which the Immaculate Victim who taketh away the sins of the world is immolated, requires in a special way that the priest, by a holy and spotless life, should make himself as far as he can, less unworthy of God, to whom he daily offers that adorable Victim, the very Word of God incarnate for love of us” (n.35), and again: “And since the priest is an ambassador for Christ, he should so live as to be able with truth to make his own the words of the Apostle: “Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ”; he ought to live as another Christ who by the splendour of His virtue enlightened and still enlightens the world” (n.38).

Immediately prior to considering chastity, as if to underline the inseparable bond between them, Pius XI emphasises the importance of priestly piety, stating: “the piety of which We speak is not that shallow and superficial piety which attracts but does not nourish, is busy but does not sanctify. We mean that solid piety which is not dependent upon changing mood or feeling. It is based upon principles of sound doctrine; it is ruled by staunch convictions; and so it resists the assaults and the illusions of temptation” (n. 39). From this one can see how the very understanding of Holy Celibacy is close and profound relation to good doctrinal formation, faithful to Sacred Scripture, the Tradition and the constant Magisterium of the Church. It is likewise in related to the practice of an authentic piety, which today we would call an intense spiritual life that avoids either sentimentalist tendencies, which can easily degenerate in to subjectivism, or the much more widespread rationalistic tendencies, which can produce a cynical critique that is a long way from an intelligent and constructive critical capacity.

Chastity is seen as intimately associated with piety in the Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii when it says: “from piety springs the meaning and the beauty of chastity” (n.40). From that derives an attempt to provide a rational justification, according to Natural Law, when it says: “A certain connection between this virtue and the sacerdotal ministry can be seen even by the light of reason alone: since “God is a Spirit,” it is only fitting that he who dedicates and consecrates himself to God’s service should in some way “divest himself of the body” (n. 40). Following upon this affirmation – which appears rather weak to our eyes today and which is, in any case, tied to the chastity of ritual purity that would consequently tend to exclude its perdurance, if it were to be seen as linked exclusively to the times and rites of Worship – there follows the affirmation of the superiority of the Christian Priesthood with respect both to the priesthood of the Old Testament and to the natural priesthood proper to every religious tradition.

At this point the Encyclical places Jesus’ own experience at the heart of the reflection, intended as a prototype for every priest. It states, “For the Divine Master showed such high esteem for chastity, and exalted it as something beyond the common power…/…All this had almost inevitable consequences: the priests of the New Law felt the heavenly attraction of this chosen virtue; they sought to be of the number of those “to whom it is given to take this word (cf. Mt. 19: 11)” (n.43).

It is possible in these statements of the Encyclical to notice that two intentions are complementary, the one to base priestly chastity on the need for cultic purity, the other, much wider in scope and better understood today, the need to present it as an imitatio Christi, the manner par excellence in which to imitate the Master, who lived in a poor, chaste and obedient fashion to an exemplary degree.

Pius XI does not fail, indeed, to quote dogmatic pronouncements regarding the obligation of chastity, in particular the Council of Elvira and the Second Council of Carthage, which, albeit in the fourth century, testify distinctly to a much more ancient and consolidated practice that, furthermore, may be carried into law.

With an extraordinarily modern accent, in the sense that it is immediately accessible to our mentality, the Encyclical speaks of the freedom with which the gift of chastity is to be received, stating, “We say “freely,” for though, after ordination, they are no longer free to contract earthly marriage, nevertheless they advance to ordination itself unconstrained by any law or person, and of their own spontaneous choice!” (n.46). We could deduce, in response to some contemporary objections about the presumed stubbornness of the Church in imposing Celibacy on the young, that the Magisterium of Pius XI shows that it is the result of freely welcoming a supernatural charism, which no one imposes, nor could it be imposed. Above all the ecclesiastical norm is to be understood as the choice of the Church to admit to the Priesthood only those who have received the charism of celibacy, and that they have freely chosen it.

If one might legitimately sustain, taking account of the climate of the era, that the foundation of ecclesiastical Celibacy in the Encyclical Ad Sacerdotii Catholici of Pius XI is placed above all on reasons, still valid, of cultic purity, nonetheless it is still possible to recognise in the same text an important exemplary dimension both of the Celibacy of Christ and of His freedom, which is the same freedom to which priests are called.

2. Pius XII and the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas

An influential contribution is made, from the magisterial point of view, by the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas, of 25 March 1954, of the Servant of God Pius XII. Like all of the Encyclicals of that august Pontiff, it is resplendent for its clear and profound doctrinal contribution, for the wealth of its biblical, historical, theological and spiritual references, and it constitutes even today a point of reference of notable merit. 

If the Encyclical has as its formal objective, in its strict sense, not ecclesiastical celibacy but virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven, nevertheless there are many points of reflection and explicit references to the celibate condition and the Priesthood that may be found in it.

The Document is constituted of four parts: the first outlines “the true idea of the virginal condition”; the second identifies and responds to some contemporary errors, which have not ceased to be a source of difficulty even today; the third part outlines the relationship between virginity and sacrifice, while the last part, by way of conclusion, outlines some hopes and fears with regard to virginity.

Virginity is presented, in the first part, as an excellent way of following Christ. “For what does following mean but imitation? …/…Hence all these disciples and spouses of Christ embraced the state of virginity, as St. Bonaventure says, “in order to become like unto Christ the spouse, [… ] it would hardly satisfy their burning love for Christ to be united with Him by the bonds of affection, but this love had perforce to express itself by the imitation of His virtues, and especially by conformity to His way of life, which was lived completely for the benefit and salvation of the human race. If priests […] cultivate perfect chastity, it is certainly for the reason that their Divine Master remained all His life a virgin” (n.19).

In truth, and not at all by chance, the Pontiff compares the virginal priestly condition with that of religious, male and female, showing in that way how Celibacy, which differs from the normative point of view, has the same theological and spiritual foundation in reality.

Another reason for Celibacy is identified out by the Pontiff in the need, connected with the Mystery, of a profound spiritual freedom. The Encyclical states: “it is that they may acquire this spiritual liberty of body and soul, and that they may be freed from temporal cares, that the Latin Church demands of her sacred ministers that they voluntarily oblige themselves to observe perfect chastity” (n.22), and he adds: “Consider again that sacred ministers do not renounce marriage solely on account of their apostolic ministry, but also by reason of their service at the altar” (n.23). In this way emerges how the Magisterium of Pius XII ties the cultic reason to that of the apostolic and missionary motivation for Celibacy in a synthesis that, far from opposing them, represents a complete unison in favour of priestly celibacy.

Pius XII had already stated in his Apostolic Exhortation Menti Nostrae: “by this law of celibacy the priest not only does not abdicate his paternity, but increases it immensely, for he begets not for an earthly and transitory life but for the heavenly and eternal one” (n.26).

Mission orientation, the sacredness of the Ministry, realistic imitation of Christ, spiritual fatherhood and fruitfulness constitute therefore the irreplaceable frame of reference for priestly celibacy. Contemporaneous with this is the correction of some persistent errors, such as the misapprehension of the objective excellence, as distinct from subjective sanctity, of the virginal state with respect the married one, the assertion of the human impossibility of living the virginal state, or the distance of consecrated persons from the life of the world and from society. With regard to this the Pontiff says: “although all those who have embraced a life of perfect chastity have deprived themselves of the expression of human love permitted in the married state, nonetheless it cannot thereby be affirmed that because of this privation they have diminished and despoiled the human personality. For they receive from the Giver of heavenly gifts something spiritual which far exceeds that “mutual help” which husband and wife confer on each other. They consecrate themselves to Him Who is their source, and Who shares with them His divine life, and thus personality suffers no loss, but gains immensely” (n.39).

Such statements should be enough to answer with sufficient clarity the many objections of a psychological-anthropological character are raised by some propel even today against priestly Celibacy.

The last fundamental theme considered by the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas is the relationship between virginity and sacrifice, which is particularly sacerdotal. The Pontiff observes, citing St. Ambrose, that: “We are, therefore, merely invited by counsel to embrace perfect chastity, as something which can lead those “to whom it is given (Mt. 19:11) […] Wherefore it is “not imposed, but proposed” (n.47). In that sense Pius XII’s invitation has two aspects: on the one hand he affirms the need to, “measure one’s strength” to understand whether one is capable of welcoming the gift the grace of celibacy, in this way leaving to the Church, especially in our own day, a solid criterion for honest discernment; on the other hand the Pontiff emphasises the intrinsic bond between chastity and marriage, teaching, with St. Gregory the Great, that chastity sustains marriage and represents, in very age, the highest and most efficacious form of witness.

It is clear to all how, especially in our secularised society, perfect continence for the Kingdom of God represents one of the most effective and potent witnesses to “provoke” the intelligence and the heart of our contemporaries in a healthy way. In a climate which is eroticised to an ever greater degree, and almost violently so, chastity, above all of those in the Church who are imbued with the ministerial priesthood, represents an ever more powerfully eloquent challenge to the dominant culture and, in the end, concerning the question of the very existence of God, proclaiming the possibility of knowing Him and entering into relationship with Him.

I feel obliged to bring some attention to a final reflection of Pius XII’s Encyclical, because it seems to go decisively against the flow of many habits that are found today amongst not a few members of the Clergy and in various places of “formation”. Citing St. Jerome, the Pontiff places in evidence, “For the preserving of chastity, […] flight is more effective than open warfare […] Flight must be understood in this sense, that not only do we diligently avoid occasion of sin, but especially that in struggles of this kind we lift our minds and hearts to God, intent above all on Him to Whom we have vowed our virginity.” Look upon the beauty of your Lover,” St. Augustine tells us” (n.54).

Today it would seem almost impossible to the educator to convey the value of celibacy and of purity to young seminarians in a context in which it is, as a matter of fact, beyond the bounds of practical possibility, to control the sights, literature, internet use and knowledge which present themselves pervasively. If it is increasingly evident and necessary to have the mature engagement of the freedom of candidates in a voluntary and conscious collaboration in the work of formation, nonetheless the Encyclical identifies an error, and we are fully in agreement with this, that permits candidate for the priesthood to enjoy every experience, without the necessary discernment and the required detachment from the world. Allowing this is to understand nothing of man, of his psychology, of society and of the culture that surrounds him. It means being closed into a sort of preconceived ideology that goes against reality. We have only to look around us. How realistic is the verse of the psalm, “They have eyes but they do not see…”!

I have to admit, at the end of this brief excursus on the Encyclical of Pius XII (even if the same could not be said to the same degree concerning that of Pius XI), that I remain continually surprised by their modernity and relevance. While allowing for the preeminent concentration on the sacral aspect of Celibacy and on the bond between the exercise of the Divine Cult and virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven, the Magisterium of these two Pontiffs presents a celibacy that is christologically founded, both in its pointing to the ontological configuration to Christ Priest and Virgin, and to that imitatio Christi.

If there appears to be a certain justification that sees the papal Magisterium before the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council an insistence on sacral-ritual argumentation and in that after the Council an opening to more christological-pastoral reasons, nonetheless one must recognise – and this is basic for the correct hermeneutic of continuity, namely for the “catholic” hermeneutic – that both Pius XI and Pius XII amply underline those reasons that are of a theological character. Celibacy is presented in the above mentioned pronouncements not only as particularly suitable and appropriated to the sacerdotal condition, but also intimately connected to the very essence of the priesthood, understood as a participation in the Life of Christ, in His Identity, and, therefore, to His Mission. It is not by chance that those Churches of Oriental Rite that ordain viri probabti absolutely do not admit married presbyters to episcopal ordination. 

3. John XXIII and the Encyclical Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia

As you know quite well, Blessed John XXIII dedicated an entire encyclical to the Saintly Curé of Ars, upon the first centenary of his birth into Heaven. In that Encyclical, the fundamental themes of virginity and celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven, developed by Pius XI and, above all, by Pius XII, are received by John XXIII, and he progressively finds them illustrated in the exemplary figure of St. John Mary Vianney, whom he sees as almost the quintessential representative of the Catholic Priesthood. 

The Pontiff shows how all the virtues that are necessary and proper in a priest were found to have been welcomed and lived by St. John Mary Vianney, and he stresses in the Encyclical the asceticism of the priest, the role of prayer and of Eucharistic worship, and the consequent pastoral zeal. Indirectly citing Pius XII, the Encyclical recognises how, for the fulfilment of one’s priestly functions a sanctity even greater than that of the religious state is required, and he states that the greatness of the priesthood is the imitation of Jesus Christ. John XXIII states: “It is said that the face of the Pastor of Ars shone with an angelic purity. And even now anyone who turns toward him in mind and spirit cannot help being struck, not merely by the great strength of soul with which this athlete of Christ reduced his body to slavery, but also by the great persuasive powers he exercised over the pious crowds of pilgrims who came to him and were drawn by his heavenly meekness to follow in his footsteps” (n.24). It is clear that, for Blessed John XXIII, the bond between ministerial efficacy and fidelity to perfect continence for the Kingdom of Heaven is brilliantly manifested in the Curé of Ars, and that perfect continence is not determined by the demands of the Ministry but that, on the contrary and against every functionalist reduction of the priesthood, it is the Ministry itself, in its widest manifestation, which is moulded, almost as a result of fidelity to Celibacy. The Pontiff continues: “The ascetic way of life, by which priestly chastity is preserved, does not enclose the priest’s soul within the sterile confines of his own interests, but rather it makes him more eager and ready to relieve the needs of his brethren. St. John Mary Vianney has this pertinent comment to make in this regard: “A soul adorned with the virtue of chastity cannot help loving others; for it has discovered the source and font of love—God” (n.25).

From this way of perfectly theological reasoning, one can see how the spirit of the World and the Spirit of God are diametrically opposed. In this way we have the parameters for understanding and edification.

The constitutive bond between celibacy, priestly identity and the celebration of the divine mysteries is emphasised in the Encyclical. A particular emphasis is placed on the bond between the Eucharistic offering of the Divine Sacrifice and the daily gift of oneself, even in holy Celibacy. Already in 1959 the papal Magisterium recognised how a great part of the disorientation with respect to the fidelity and necessity of ecclesiastical celibacy depended, and in fact still depends, on the inadequate comprehension of its relationship with the Eucharistic celebration. In it, in fact, the priest participates, not in a functional but in a real manner, in the unique and once for all offering of Christ, which is however sacramentally actualised and represented in the Church for the salvation of the world. Such participation implies the offering of oneself, which must be fully integral, even to one’s own flesh in virginity.

Who is unable to see now that there is a vital bond between the Eucharistic – Divine Worship and the ordained Priesthood. The lot of divine worship and the Priesthood are bound together. It is not possible to take care of one sphere without the other. It is necessary to reflect upon this when one gets involved in priestly formation and it is also important to be conscious of the fact that to the outcome of the reform of clerics is tied the outcome of the new evangelisation, which is absolutely indispensable.

The observation of the Blessed Pontiff continues to be valid today, perhaps in an even more dramatic fashion: “We urge Our beloved priests to set aside a time to examine themselves on how they celebrate the divine mysteries, what their dispositions of soul and external attitude are as they ascend the altar and what fruit they are trying to gain from it” (n.59). The Eucharist is thus at one and the same time the source of holy celibacy and an “examination” of one’s fidelity to it, a concrete measure of the real offering of oneself to the Lord.

4. Paul VI and Sacerdotalis Caelibatus

Published on 24 June 1967, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus is, until now, the last Encyclical dedicated by a Pontiff completely to the theme. In the immediate post-conciliar context and receiving entirely the conciliar Doctrine, Paul VI felt the need to underline with an authoritative magisterial act, the perennial validity of ecclesiastical celibacy, which, in a manner more vehement than even today, was contested by both historical-biblical and theological-pastoral means in a true and real effort at its removal.

As is known, Presbyterorum Ordinis distinguishes between celibacy in itself and the law of celibacy, when in n.16 it states, “Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, commended by Christ the Lord and through the course of time as well as in our own days freely accepted and observed in a praiseworthy manner by many of the faithful, is held by the Church to be of great value in a special manner for the priestly life…/… For these reasons, based on the mystery of Christ and his mission, celibacy, which first was recommended to priests, later in the Latin Church was imposed upon all who were to be promoted to sacred orders”. Such a distinction is present both in the third chapter of the Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii of Pius XI and in N.21 of the Encyclical of Paul VI. Both documents always refer the law of celibacy back to its true origin, which was given by the Apostles, and, through them, by Christ himself.

The Servant of God Paul VI states at n.14 of the Encyclical: “Hence We consider that the present law of celibacy should today continue to be linked to the ecclesiastical ministry. This law should support the minister in his exclusive, definitive and total choice of the unique and supreme love of Christ; it should uphold him in the entire dedication of himself to the public worship of God and to the service of the Church; it should distinguish his state of life both among the faithful and in the world at large”. As is immediately evident, The Pontiff takes up the cultic reasons typical of the preceding Magisterium and he integrates them with those theological, spiritual and pastoral reasons more underlined by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, emphasising how the double order of reasoning is never to be thought of as in antithesis, but more in reciprocal relationship and fruitful synthesis with one another.

The same approach is found in n. 19 if the document, which recalls the duty of the priest, as a Minister of Christ and dispenser of the Mysteries of God, culminating in n.21, where it states: “Wholly in accord with this mission, Christ remained throughout His whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified His total dedication to the service of God and men. This deep concern between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood”. Wavering, therefore, in the comprehension of the inestimable worth of holy Celibacy and the consequent adequate evaluation of it, and its strenuous defence, were it might be necessary, could be understood as an inadequate comprehension of the real import of the ordained Ministry in the Church and of its insuperable ontological-sacramental, and thus real, relationship to Christ the High Priest. 

To these inescapable cultic and christological references, the Encyclical flows with a clear ecclesiological reference, which is also essential for an adequate comprehension of the value of Celibacy: “Laid hold of by Christ” unto the complete abandonment of one’s entire self to Him, the priest takes on a closer likeness to Christ, even in the love with which the eternal Priest has loved the Church His Body and offered Himself entirely for her sake, in order to make her a glorious, holy and immaculate Spouse. The consecrated celibacy of the sacred ministers actually manifests the virginal love of Christ for the Church, and the virginal and supernatural fecundity of this marriage, by which the children of God are born, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh.” (n.26). How could Christ love the Church with anything other than a virginal love? How could the Priest, alter Christus, be a spouse to the Church in anything other than a virginal manner.

From the complete reasoning of the Encyclical there emerges the profound interconnection of the merit of holy Celibacy, which, from whatever aspect one might consider it, is shown ever more radically and intimately connected to the Priesthood.

Continuing to consider the ecclesiological reasons that sustain Celibacy, the Encyclical, at nn. 29, 30 and 31, emphasises the insuperable relationship between Celibacy and the Eucharistic mystery, stating that, with Celibacy: “the priest unites himself most intimately with the offering, and places on the altar his entire life, which bears the marks of the holocaust (n.29)…/… by a daily dying to himself and by giving up the legitimate love of a family of his own for the love of Christ and of His kingdom, the priest will find the glory of an exceedingly rich and fruitful life in Christ, because like Him and in Him, he loves and dedicates himself to all the children of God (n.30)”.

The last great cycle of reasons that are presented as a support for holy Celibacy concerns its eschatological meaning. In recognising that the Kingdom of God is not of this world (cf. Jn. 18: 30), that at the resurrection there neither the taking of neither wife nor husband (cf. Mt. 22: 30) and that, “he precious and almost divine gift of perfect continence for the kingdom of heaven stands out precisely as “a special token of the rewards of heaven” (cf. 1 Cor. 7: 29-31)”, Celibacy is shown also as, “stands as a testimony to the ever-continuing progress of the People of God towards the final goal of their earthly pilgrimage, and as a stimulus for all to raise their eyes to the things above” (n.34).

He who is placed in authority to guide the brethren to the acknowledgement of Christ, to welcoming the revealed truth, to a way of life that is ever more irreproachable, and, in a word, to sanctity, finds in Celibacy a most fitting and extraordinarily strong prophecy, capable of conferring a singular authority on one’s Ministry and a fruitfulness, both exemplary and apostolic, to one’s action.

The Encyclical also responds with extraordinary contemporary relevance to those objections which would see in Celibacy a mortification of humanity, deprived in that way of one of the most beautiful aspects of life. At n. 56 it states: “In the priest’s heart love is by no means extinct. His charity is drawn from the purest source, practiced in the imitation of God and Christ, and is no less demanding and real than any other genuine love. It gives the priest a limitless horizon, deepens and gives breadth to his sense of responsibility—a mark of mature personality—and inculcates in him, as a sign of a higher and greater fatherhood, a generosity and refinement of heart which offer a superlative enrichment”. In a word, “celibacy sets the whole man on a higher level and makes an effective contribution to his perfection” (n. 55).

In 1967, the year in which the Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus was published, the servant of God Paul VI gave one of the most courageous and exemplary clarifying acts of the Magisterium of his entire Pontificate. It is an Encyclical that should be studied attentively by every candidate to the Priesthood, from the very beginning of his journey of formation, but certainly before asking for admission to diaconal ordination. It should be taken up periodically in the course of one’s ongoing formation and be made the object not only of a careful biblical, historical, theological, spiritual and pastoral study, but also of deep personal mediation.

5. John Paul II and Pastores Dabo Vobis

From the beginning of his Pontificate the Servant of God John Paul II gave great attention to the theme of clerical celibacy, repeating its perennial validity and placing in evidence its vital bond with the Eucharistic Mystery. On 9 November 1978, but a few weeks since his election to the Pontificate, in his first allocution to the clergy of Rome, he said: “The Second Vatican Council recalled to us this splendid truth regarding the “universal priesthood” of the whole People of God, which is derived from participation in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. Our “ministerial” priesthood, rooted in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, differs essentially from the universal priesthood of the faithful…/… Therefore our priesthood must be clear and expressive […] closely linked with celibacy, […] due precisely to the clarity and “evangelical” expressiveness referred to in Our Lord’s words on celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Mt 19:12)” (n.3).

Certainly a point of particular note, within the sphere of all the themes regarding the Priesthood and priestly formation, was the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, in which the gift of celibacy is received as a bond between Jesus and the Priesthood and, for the first time, the psychological importance of such a bond is also mentioned for the first time, but not in a way separate from the ontological importance. In fact we read at n. 72: “In this bond between the Lord Jesus and the priest, an ontological and psychological bond, a sacramental and moral bond, is the foundation and likewise the power for that “life according to the Spirit” and that “radicalism of the Gospel” to which every priest is called today and which is fostered by ongoing formation in its spiritual aspect”.

Life according to the Spirit and evangelical radicalism represent the due essential guidelines along which proceeds the well documented and reasoned permanent validity of priestly celibacy. The fact that the Servant of God John Paul II immediately underlines its validity, proposes the ontological-sacramental reading of it, pushing himself even to welcoming the right psychological implications that the charism of celibacy has in the working out of a mature Christian and priestly personality, encourages and justifies the reading of such an irreplaceable ecclesial treasure within the teaching of the great and uninterrupted continuity and most audacious prophecy.

We could in fact say that placing holy Celibacy in question or relativising constitutes an attitude which goes against the breath of the Holy Spirit while, on the contrary, its full estimation, its adequate welcoming, its brilliant and insuperable witnessing constitute an opening to prophecy. True prophecy, even in the Church of today, even under the weight of recent dramatic events, which have horribly stained its bright vesture, bears witness in an ever more evident fashion, especially in the face of our hyper-eroticised society in which the banalisation of sexuality and the body reigns supreme.

Celibate chastity cries out to the world that God exists, that he is Love and that it is possible, in every epoch, to live totally from Him and for Him. And it is entirely natural that the Church chooses her Priests from amongst those who have welcomed and matured, at a level thus measured and therefore prophetic, this pro-existence: existence for Another, for Christ.

The Magisterium of John Paul II, so attentive to the value of the family and of the role of women in society and in the Church, was not afraid to underline the perennial value of Celibacy. There are already many studies that consider the interesting theme, pregnant with enormous consequences, of ‘bodilyness’ or the “theology of the Body” in the Magisterium of the Servant of God.

It was the Pontiff himself who, perhaps more than most in recent times, both developed and lived a great theology of the body, who gives to us a radical affection for Celibacy and the overcoming of any attempt at a functionalistic reduction, by means of the clear ontological-sacramental and theological-spiritual dimensions.

Another element which emerges in the Magisterium of John Paul II (and already present in Presbyterorum Ordinis), not indeed as a novelty so much as a precious emphasis, is that of priestly fraternity. It is considered not from the reductive perspective of its psychic-emotional aspects, but in its sacramental roots, both in relation to the sacrament of Order and in relation to the Presbyterate united to its particular Bishop. Priestly fraternity is constitutive of the ordained Ministry, making its nature as a “body” evident. It is the natural locus of those healthy brotherly relationships, of concrete help, both spiritual and material, and of companionship and support along the common journey of personal sanctification, which is achieved precisely through the Ministry that is entrusted to us.

I would like to make a final reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published during the Pontificate of John Paul II in 1992. It is, as has been noted in various environments, the authentic instrument at our disposal for the correct hermeneutic of the texts of the Second Vatican ecumenical Council. It must also be said that it becomes, which is ever more in evidence, the irreplaceable point of reference both for catechesis and for all apostolic action. The Catechism repeats authoritatively the perennial validity of priestly Celibacy when, in n. 1579, one reads: “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.” Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord,” they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God”.

All of the themes we have seen heretofore, touched upon by the Magisterium of the Pontiffs, are wonderfully synthesised in the definition of the Catechism: from the ritual-cultic reasons to the imitatio Christi in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, from those that derive from apostolic service to those that are ecclesiological and eschatological in nature. The fact that the reality of Celibacy has entered into the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of how it is intimately related to the heart of the Christian faith and it testifies to that radical proclamation of which the same text speaks.

6. Benedict XVI and Sacramentum Caritatis

The last Pontiff that we will examine is Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning, whose Magisterium with regard to priestly Celibacy leaves no room for doubt both with regard to the perennial validity of the disciplinary norm and, above all and as a matter of precedence, with regard its theological foundation, particularly that which is christological-eucharistic. 

In particular, the Holy Father dedicated an entire number of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis to the theme of Celibacy. There we read. “The Synod Fathers wished to emphasize that the ministerial priesthood, through ordination, calls for complete configuration to Christ. While respecting the different practice and tradition of the Eastern Churches, there is a need to reaffirm the profound meaning of priestly celibacy, which is rightly considered a priceless treasure, and is also confirmed by the Eastern practice of choosing Bishops only from the ranks of the celibate. These Churches also greatly esteem the decision of many priests to embrace celibacy. This choice on the part of the priest expresses in a special way the dedication which conforms him to Christ and his exclusive offering of himself for the Kingdom of God. The fact that Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the Cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life. This choice has first and foremost a nuptial meaning; it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride. In continuity with the great ecclesial tradition, with the Second Vatican Council and with my predecessors in the papacy, 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 I 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 and for society itself” (n. 24).

As is easily seen, the Apostolic Exhortation presents multiple reasons why the Priest must by self-offering, even to the sacrifice of the cross, in order to reach a complete and exclusive dedication to Christ. Of particular relevance is the bond that the Apostolic Exhortation repeats between Celibacy and the Eucharist; if such a theology given by the Magisterium is received in an authentic manner and concretely applied in the Church, the future of Celibacy will be luminous and fruitful, because it will be a future of freedom and priestly sanctity. We could, thus, speak not only of a “spousal nature” of celibacy, but also of its “eucharistic nature”, based on the offering Christ continually makes of Himself for the Church, and which is reflected in an obvious way in the lives of priests. They are called to reproduce in their own existence the Sacrifice of Christ, to which they have been assimilated by virtue of priestly Ordination.

From the eucharistic nature of Celibacy a great many theological developments may be derived, which holds the Priest up to his most fundamental duty: the celebration of Holy Mass, in which the words, “This is My Body” and, “This is My Blood” are not only determinant of the sacramental effect which is particular to them, but must mould the oblation of the priest’s very life in an ongoing and concrete fashion.

The celibate Priest is thus personally and publicly associated with Jesus Christ: he renders Him really present, becoming a victim himself in that which Benedict XVI calls, “the eucharistic logic of Christian existence”.

When the centrality of the Eucharist, worthily celebrated and constantly adored, is increasingly recovered in the Church, all the greater shall be the faithfulness to Celibacy, the comprehension of its worth, and, if I may say so, the flowering of many holy Vocations to the ordained Ministry.

In his Allocution when receiving the Roman Curia 22 December 2006, to convey his Christmas greetings, Benedict XVI again said: “The true foundation of celibacy can be contained in the phrase: Dominus pars mea – You are my land. It can only be theocentric. It cannot mean being deprived of love, but must mean letting oneself be consumed by passion for God and subsequently, thanks to a more intimate way of being with him, to serve men and women, too. Celibacy must be a witness to faith: faith in God materializes in that form of life which only has meaning if it is based on God. Basing one’s life on him, renouncing marriage and the family, means that I accept and experience God as a reality and that I can therefore bring him to men and women”.

Only the experience of the “inheritance”, which the Lord is for every sacerdotal existence, makes that witness to the faith, which celibacy is, efficacious. As the same Pontiff repeated in his Discourse to the participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy on 16 March 2009, it is the: “apostolica vivendi forma […] a participation in a “new life”, spiritually speaking, in that “new way of life” which the Lord Jesus inaugurated and which the Apostles made their own”.

The Year for Priests, which has recently concluded, saw numerous interventions on the part of the Holy Father on the theme of the Priesthood, particularly his Wednesday catecheses that were dedicated to the tria munera, in his interventions upon the inauguration and conclusion of the Year for Priests and in the catecheses connected to the anniversaries of St. John Mary Vianney. Of particular note is the dialogue that the Holy Father held with priests during the Vigil for the closure of the Year for Priests. Asked about the meaning of Celibacy and its challenges, which are encountered in the living of it in contemporary culture, He responded by beginning from the centrality of the daily Eucharistic Celebration in the life of the Priest, who, acting in Persona Christi, speaks of the “I” of Christ, thus becoming the realisation of the continuance in time of His unique Priesthood. He then adds: “This unification of his “I” with ours implies that we are “drawn” also into the reality of his Resurrection; we are going forth towards the full life of resurrection…/… In this sense, celibacy is anticipation. We transcend this time and move on. By doing so, we “draw” ourselves and our time towards the world of the resurrection, towards the newness of Christ, towards a new and true life”. In this way the intimate relationship between the Eucharistic source and the eschatological dimension anticipated and realised in priestly Celibacy is confirmed by the Magisterium of Benedict XVI. Overcoming in one bound every attempt at a functionalistic reduction of the Ministry, the Holy Father repositions it in a broad and exalted theological frame of reference, he sheds light upon it, emphasising its constitutive relationship with the Church, and he robustly evaluates all of the missionary potency that derives precisely from that “more” for the Kingdom that Celibacy brings about.

On the same occasion the Holy Father stated, with prophetic audacity: “It is true that for the agnostic world, the world in which God does not enter, celibacy is a great scandal, because it shows exactly that God is considered and experienced as reality. With the eschatological dimension of celibacy, the future world of God enters into the reality of our time”.

How could the Church live without the ‘scandal’ of Celibacy? How could she live without men ready to declare, in the here and now, the reality of God, even and above all with respect to their own flesh? These assertions were completed and, in a certain sense, crowned in the extraordinary Homily pronounced during the Closure of the Year for Priests – which I recommend that you read – in which the Pope prayed that we might be liberated, as a Church, from lesser scandals so that the true scandal of history should revealed, Christ the Lord.

Conclusions (7 points)

At the end of this journey, which has seen us drawing attention to some significant passages of the papal Magisterium from Pius XI to Benedict XVI, we shall now try to draw out an initial summation by way of conclusion, which might offer a working basis for the formation of Priests for the welcoming and living in a fulsome manner of this gift of the Lord.

1. Above all there emerges the radical continuity between the Magisterium that preceded the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and that which came after it. Albeit with accents that demonstrate the different sensibilities of the times, some more liturgical-sacral, other more Christological-pastoral, the unbroken Magisterium of the Pontiffs in question is consistent in basing Celibacy on the theological reality of the ministerial Priesthood, on the ontological-sacramental configuration to Christ the Lord, on the participation in His unique Priesthood and on the imitatio Christi which is implied in that. Only an incorrect hermeneutic of the conciliar texts could lad to the conclusion that Celibacy is something left over from the past and from which one ought to liberated at the earliest opportunity. Such an approach is not only historically, doctrinally and theologically erroneous, but it is also extremely damaging to the spiritual, pastoral, missionary and vocational outlook.

2. The reduction of Celibacy to a mere ecclesiastical law, common in some environments, is to be absolutely overcome in light of the papal Magisterium that we have examined. It is a law only because it is an intrinsic demand of the priesthood and of the configuration to Christ that the sacrament determines. In this sense, formation for Celibacy, above and beyond every human and spiritual aspect, must include a solid doctrinal dimension, because it is with difficulty that one lives that which one does not understand.

3. The debate concerning Celibacy, which is reignited periodically over the centuries, does not contribute to the serenity of the younger generations in coming to an understanding of a fact that is to determinant of the sacerdotal life. What is authoritatively expressed in n.29 of Pastores Dabo Vobis is true for all when it assumes word for word the opinion of the entire Synodal Assembly, stating: “The synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church’s firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite. The synod would like to see celibacy presented and explained in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness, as a precious gift given by God to his Church and as a sign of the kingdom which is not of this world – a sign of God’s love for this world and of the undivided love of the priest for God and for God’s people”.

4. Celibacy is a question of evangelical radicalism. Poverty, chastity and obedience evangelical counsels that are not reserved exclusively to religious, but are, rather, virtues to be lived with intense missionary ardour. We must not betray our young! We must not lower the level of formation, nor, in fact, what the faith proposes. We must not betray the holy People of God, which awaits saintly pastors, such as the Curé of Ars. We must be radical in the sequela Christi! Let us not be afraid of the fall in the number of clerics. The number decreases when there the temperature of the faith is lowered, since vocations are a divine “affair” and not a human one, and they follow the Divine logic, which is foolishness from a human point of view. Faith is called for!

5. In a world which is gravely secularised, it is ever more difficult to understand the reasons for Celibacy. However, we must have the courage to ask ourselves, as the Church, if we wish to resign ourselves to such a situation, accepting the progressive secularisation of society and of culture as an unchangeable fact, or if we are prepared for a task of a profound and real New Evangelisation at the service of the Gospel, and thus of the truth of Man. I hold, according to that meaning, that the reasoned support of celibacy and adequately evaluating its worth in the life of the Church and the world, might represent some of the most effective means to overcome this secularisation. What else could the Holy Father Benedict XVI means when he says that celibacy shows that, “God enters into the reality of our time”?

6. The theological root of Celibacy is to be engraved into the new identity that is given to him who is invested with the Holy Orders. The centrality of the ontological-sacramental dimension and the consequent Eucharistic dimension of the Priesthood are the spheres of the natural understanding, development and existential fidelity to Celibacy. The essential question, then, is not to direct the debate so much to Celibacy as to the quality of the faith of our communities. Could a community which lacks great esteem for Celibacy, as an “awaiting” for the Kingdom or as a Eucharistic “yearning”, be truly said to be alive?

7. Your colloquium has “Foundations, joys, challenges” as a subtitle. I am persuaded that the first two, knowledge of the foundations and the joyous experience of Celibacy lived to the full, that is thus profoundly humane, provide a response not only to the challenges that the world always makes to Celibacy, but that this will also make of Celibacy a challenge for the world. As already alluded to in the first point of these conclusions, we must not allow ourselves to be conditioned or intimidated by a world without God, which does not understand Celibacy and that would like to remove it. On the contrary, we must recuperate the reasoned understanding that our Celibacy offers as a challenge to the world, placing its secularism and agnosticism in profound crisis and crying out, through the centuries, that God is Present and Active!

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