Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sandro Magister on clerical celibacy and continence

Sandro Magister’s recent column on the debate over clerical celibacy and continence is worth a careful read. While continence is distinguishable from celibacy, of course, it is closely related to it in terms of history, theology, and canon law. I and others argue that continence is the primary good protected by Canon 277 (and by the unbroken line of legal provisions leading up to it) and that celibacy, although truly “a special gift from God” in its own right, is ordered to continence. But all of this is discussed elsewhere.

Here I limit myself to three remarks on Magistro’s essay.

Magister rightly names the Jesuit priest Christian Cochini and Alfons Cdl. Stickler as among major scholars refuting the received history that clerical celibacy/continence was optional for many centuries in Church life, that the West only gradually imposed these weighty obligations on its clergy, and that the East maintained the original institution of married clerics exercising their conjugal rights. There are other scholars pursuing these lines, of course, including the priests Stefan Heid, Donald Keefe, and Thomas McGovern, and some recent doctoral students.

I thought it a bit odd that Magister cited Eastern canon law on married clerics, but not Roman canon law, despite the fact that Western law (c. 277) expressly preserves the value of clerical continence (although, of course, that value has not been inculcated in formation programs for married clergy).

As for whether there are quite as few scholars pursuing the continence issue as Magister suggests, I grant that relatively few scholars are weighing in either way on this matter (most preferring, perhaps, to let only the most serious researchers wade into such deep and turbulent waters), but would add that at least some of those trying to have their views in behalf of clerical continence aired have run into problems over the years getting their works into print. In any case, that is changing in recent times and awareness that these serious questions are afoot is widespread now.

Finally, a reminder that, while reform in the Church is constant, it happens slowly. +++

ps: Readers know of my appreciation for those doing translations, so, a special note of thanks to Matthew Sherry for his consistently fine work in bringing Magister into English!