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Philippa Martyr: Better men make better priests

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Bishop Richard Umbers and a fellow priest pray over the newly ordained. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Bishop Richard Umbers and a fellow priest pray over the newly ordained. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

This week it’s clerical celibacy, thanks to my Gentlemen Correspondents. A recurring theme in their arguments is that celibacy is only a discipline, and that priests should be allowed to marry.

Apparently, the National Council of Priests (NCP) in Australia is overwhelmingly in favour of married clergy. And yet I never hear about any of the NCP’s members getting married. This seems to indicate a certain lack of resolve on their part.

We tend to forget that chastity in singleness isn’t ‘just a discipline’.

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It’s a moral requirement for any unmarried person in the Catholic Church, and those who are divorced and can’t remarry. And it’s difficult to live out faithfully. This is partly because of the sexual revolution. This has left a lot of human wreckage, and certainly these days marriage isn’t for everyone. (Try reading a book called Single for a Greater Purpose which I reviewed recently.)

One of the best articles on clerical celibacy I’ve ever read is by married priest Fr Dwight Longenecker. He says that clerical celibacy only works if it’s lived faithfully, and it’s the work of a lifetime of prayer and discipline.

But when done properly, it transforms a man to the depths of his being – body, soul, and spirit – into another Christ.

Celibacy acts as a ‘graced tool’ to reconfigure him across the whole masculine spectrum of life, love, creativity, and power.

Fr Dwight says, “Through this process, the Holy Spirit patiently, step by step, straightens out every kink, purifies every stain, unlocks every hidden secret, forgives every sin and remakes the man from the inside out. The Spirit’s work is like the sculpture chipping away at the block of marble to bring out the masterpiece and I reckon celibacy is his sharpest chisel.”

Priestly celibacy isn’t a magical cure for sexual addiction. It can go horribly wrong in immature, undisciplined, dishonest and weak men. Seminary authorities can choose to turn a blind eye to entrenched masturbation and porn habits to keep their numbers up. Seminarians who are really struggling can choose to lie about it.

Chastity for any person has laws of growth, and the Catechism warns us that no-one can think they’ve achieved it once and for all. But Fr Dwight says that the work of this process “is the beauty of the priesthood as I have seen it in action.”

“I see it in the lives of my priest friends. I see it at work behind the scenes in the most mundane aspects of church life. I see it in their devotion and calling. I even see it in their disasters, the foolish vanities and their hopeless failures.”

You can embrace chaste celibacy with bad grace, and let it weigh you down so that you never get off the ground. Or you can embrace it and learn to fly (with a lot of false starts and bumpy landings). I’d suggest that marriage isn’t the path to better priests. Better men might be the real answer.

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