JANUARY 12, 2004
Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.






Priestly celibacy – the Spirit’s gift for the whole Church

Last month the leadership of Call To Action of Northern California sent to all the priests of the Oakland Diocese a survey whose principal question is “Do you favor open discussion of the mandatory celibacy rule for diocesan priests?” The survey’s sponsors indicate that they plan a press release for the results of their effort.

As I write this column I have not yet seen those results, so I cannot comment on them explicitly. However, I expect that they will receive a good bit of publicity, especially since the sponsors link their efforts to a similar and much publicized initiative in Milwaukee. So, in an effort to give pastoral guidance on this matter, I want to share with you my thinking on this topic.

An important place to begin is to make a distinction about what the phrase “open discussion” means. If it signifies that this survey is an effort to foster a deeper understanding of the meaning of priestly celibacy, that’s to the good. In fact, one of my goals in this first year of my service as Bishop of Oakland is to write a letter to our priests on celibate chastity.

I received confirmation last spring of how important this is. I had just given a conference to the priests of Crookston, Minn., on this topic, and a priest who was ordained for over 30 years told me that this was the first time anyone had ever offered to him a positive vision of the meaning of his celibacy. Given the foundational role of celibacy in the existence of priests, that is very, very sad.

I believe that one of the best services I can offer my brother priests is to confirm for them that the gift of their lives lived in celibate chastity is a great grace, rooted in the values of the New Covenant, and a share in the priestliness of Christ himself.

Of course, the request for an “open dialogue” could also be aimed at initiating a process of deliberation, an examination that would put into play the question of whether or not the Church would retain our current practice. On this score I need to point out that I am opposed to such an examination. In what follows I will briefly explain why.

Our discipline in the Western Church of admitting only celibates to the priesthood is a practice that has its roots in the first generation of the Church and has been reaffirmed by popes and bishops for centuries.

Within the living memory of many of us the current discipline received its most definitive reaffirmation at the Second Vatican Council. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church praises celibacy as “an incentive to charity” and “a particular source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world” (n. 42).

Building on this affirmation, the Council’s Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests goes on to explain celibacy’s “many-faceted suitability for the priesthood”:
“Through virginity, then, or celibacy observed for the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt. 19:12), priests are consecrated to Christ on a new and eminent basis.

“They adhere to him more easily with an undivided heart (cf. 1Co 7:32-34), they dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and men. They more readily serve his Kingdom and the work of heavenly regeneration, and thus they are suited to accept fatherhood in Christ more fully.

“They give, moreover, a living sign of the world to come, by a faith and charity already made present, in which the children of the resurrection neither marry nor take wives (cf. Lk 20:35-36).

“For these reasons, based on the mystery of Christ and his mission, celibacy was first recommended to priests. Then in the Latin Church it was imposed upon all who were to be promoted to sacred orders. This legislation, in so far as it concerns those who are destined for the priesthood, this Holy Synod again approves and confirms.

“It fully trusts that this gift of the Spirit, so fitting for the priesthood of the New Testament, will be given in abundant measure by the Father, provided that those who participate in the priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Orders, as well as the whole Church, humbly and fervently pray for it (n. 16, italics added).

For four decades now the People of God have with remarkable dedication worked most generously to implement the Council’s vision and to respond to its challenge to renew the Church so that she can more effectively fulfill her mission of evangelizing our age.

In the light of what the Council said about priestly celibacy, attempts to change the discipline seem to me to be a move to pull back from that commitment. The Council spoke of a “full trust” that this gift of the Spirit “will be given in abundant measure by the Father.”

I believe with all my heart what the Council teaches about priestly celibacy, and I share its trust about how abundantly the Father will bestow this grace, provided we ask for it.

I ask, please, that in the months ahead you pray to the Holy Spirit for me, so that in the letter I am composing I will be able to offer an exposition of the Council’s understanding of priestly celibacy that builds up not only the presbyterate but the whole Church in Oakland – one that leads all of you to share with me the confidence I share with the Council about the future.


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