21 March 2013

Uganda: It Is Time to Rethink Catholic Celibacy


No sooner had the white smoke emerged on March 13, 2013, than debates of the changes needed in the Catholic Church gathered pace.

By the time the world knew, "Habemus Papum", (we have a new pope), the most prominent of these debates focused on priesthood celibacy, homophobia, female priesthood and the ban on condoms.

However, recent scandals world over have brought the issue of priesthood chastity to the forefront of world news. Meanwhile a Catholic priest, Father William Finnegan, is to be sentenced on April 11, 2013, after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenage girl in Bradford.

His attorney, in defending him shocked the court by saying the priest was indeed so in love with a mother of two, he ignored the Catholic Church's ban on marriage and married her in secret in Cyprus in 1999 and as such could not have been sexually frustrated as he was enjoying a fulfilling sexual life whilst performing his priestly duties to the oblivion of the church.

This is one of many scandals associated with some Catholic priests the world over which include sodomising boys and men, impregnating nuns, paedophilia, abortions in convents, fathering secret children, among other celibate-related scandals. On March 20, 2013, Father Anthony Musaala was also suspended from church service following his advocacy concerning the marriage of catholic fathers.

This was justified a day before by Kampala Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga saying Anthony Musaala published a document that was damaging to the morals of the Catholic Church, faulted God's gift of celibacy and brought the Catholic church into disrepute. So, why is chastity very important in Catholic priesthood and is still relevant in this day and age? Celibacy is seen as a virtue or discipline; a free choice interrelated to holding Catholic priesthood.

Exception to this is in the Eastern rites of the Church where married men can be ordained priests. Also, in the Latin rite, married men or converted ministers from other faiths can also be ordained Catholic priests. However, one can not marry after they have been ordained, except in extraordinary circumstances. Chastity justifications are both theological and canonical. Theologically, by remaining celibate and devoting themselves to the service of the church, priests more closely model, configure themselves to, and consecrate themselves to Christ. Paul makes it very clear that remaining single allows one's attention to be undivided in serving the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

However, historically, priests married. Peter, the first pope, and the apostles that Jesus chose were, for the most part, married men. Only in the fourth Century after Pope Siricius left his wife in order to become pope did he decree celibacy. In centuries that followed, several priest dispensed themselves from celibacy and resigned in order to marry. At least seven popes are documented to have been married before the end of the 15th century.

There is a bit of inconsistency on priesthood chastity. The general principle is that priests should be celibate. However, married men have been, and still are, allowed to become priests, provided that they belong to a tradition within the church that allows for married clergy. The Eastern rites and the new Anglican personal ordinariates are within such traditions; the Roman rite is not.

With the vow of chastity being broken often by Catholic priests, is there a need to rethink the vow? Are we as human beings naturally inclined to conjugate or can the vow be achieved with not only priests and nuns but anyone who wants to? Are there any encumbrances to other religious denomination leaders who choose not to be celibate in executing their duties? Can man accomplish Christ-like constraint physically whilst carrying out the Lord's work?

No one is forced to become a priest. One makes a personal decision, and vows before God that he has offered himself to Him for life. If one falls short of this vow, does it stop him continuing his service? Aren't those who have left priesthood and married still priests?

They are, because ordination makes an indelible mark on one's soul; one is a priest forever. However, once the vow of celibacy is broken, he is not allowed to exercise this faculty. Whether this vow continues or not in the future, time will tell. Its relevance in executing religious duties will always be a controversy whose burdens only those battling it will understand.

The author is a lawyer living in the UK.

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