A Question of Rights
Mandatory Celibacy: Communion on the End of a Stick
By James E. Biechler
A lot has been written and
said about celibacy in the past few years. I know many Catholics have already
made up their minds about it, just as they have about birth control--they
cannot understand the fuss, and if a bishop sent them a married priest
tomorrow they would have no problem with that. Then why don't bishops do
that? It just doesn't compute.
--G.W.H., Madison, WI
I'm not surprised that a
reader of ARCC Light would hold that position. I only wish everyone
would be as understanding. For many Catholics, especially those who have
taken seriously the biblical teaching about the holiness of marriage, a
married pastor would be as acceptable as an unmarried one. For them a pastor's
value is measured in terms of charity and service.
But in that same parish there
most likely are people who feel that an unmarried priest is "holier" than
a married one. This is because they perceive that the unmarried priest
is "chaste" and "pure." That's what they have learned and have absorbed
from childhood. It is not so much a matter of knowledge as it is of feeling
and perception. By now it is "reality" itself.
When Roberto De Nobili went
to India in 1604 he had to convince his Hindu brahmin hearers that he was
not an unclean "parangi" (European). He adopted as many brahmanical customs
as he found compatible with Christianity. In order to maintain brahmanical
purity he gave communion to the lower castes on the end of a stick so that
he would not be contaminated by closer proximity to them.
The term "caste" comes to
us from the Portuguese and is etymologically related to the Latin term
"casta" (chaste, pure). The Hindu caste system is an ordered arrangement
of "pure" groups which can be maintained only if physical contact with
the impure is avoided.I do not wish to exaggerate but in a real sense mandatory
celibacy a simple matter of the pure vs. the impure. You don't have to
read much church literature on celibacy to discover that it's really about
"purity." That means that the non-celibate is, by comparison, less pure,
if not impure. The bottom line is that mandatory celibacy sets up a kind
of caste system and those on the other side of the purity fence must be
satisfied with the equivalent of communion on the end of a stick.
Let me make it even stronger.
One of the worst aspects of mandatory celibacy is that it limits full Eucharistic
communion. Notice I said "mandatory" celibacy. The adjective is crucial.
That's what makes it a "caste" reality.
Now you and I know that Eucharistic
communion cannot abide barriers. "Communion" and "exclusion" are diametric
opposites. Mandatory celibacy sets up an exclusionary fence which the priest
cannot cross. Again, it's the ritual equivalent of communion on the end
of a stick. It's Eucharistic apartheid.
No one is opposed to celibacy.
That can be as beautiful a way of life as marriage. It's the legally imposed,
mandated character of celibacy which gets in the way of full communion.
The essence of mandatory
celibacy lies in its exclusion of women. By now you may also have concluded
that mandatory celibacy's exclusion of women also requires their exclusion
from presiding at the Eucharist. Mandatory celibacy IS the exclusion of
women. Eucharistic apartheid must be thorough!
You may find this a bit strong
and you probably didn't bargain for this kind of argument when you submitted
your question. But I would like to go even further and suggest that it
may well be this Eucharistic apartheid which is the unconscious root of
young people's reluctance to enter the priesthood. Who can blame them?
Dr. Biechler, an emeritus
professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also
holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law
Society of America.
Comments to Dr. Biechler