Celibacy of Priests

Interview conducted by Miren de los Reyes

What is the theological basis for the Church's ruling on the celibacy of priests?

All those who embrace the priestly life have to embrace as well a celibate way of life. That's the idea. Is that a theology? The answer is no. Celibacy, in this context, refers to a way of life, a discipline. It is an ecclesiastical law (one made by the Church) made after years and years of experience. Those years of experience have shown that celibacy is in harmony with the priesthood so that the priest's way of life is in fact made fruitful to the maximum.

In your opinion, what is the degree of compliance of Filipino priests to the ruling on celibacy? Do you think we are better off in this regard than other countries plagued by scandals such as the United States?

It's very difficult to speak of the degree of compliance. In the first place, what is the value of this ruling on celibacy? Before we can determine if priests really comply with this and to what degree, first we must know what celibacy is all about. In general, celibacy is when a person decides not to get married. Why is it that the Church asks a person who wants to become a priest to remain celibate? What will this celibacy mean for him?

First of all, it means that the person has a personal love for the Lord. As Christians, we are all called to love the Lord. But celibacy is a way of loving the Lord totally because you have found Him to be someone on whom you can center all your life. In other words, it is a question of total love for the Lord. It is like saying "Lord, You are sufficient to me and I would like to dedicate my life to You.”

Celibacy is expressed as a total union with Christ that involves saying no to something that is good but not absolute good. What is this "something" to which the man says "no"? It is the capacity to have a companion - a lifetime partner, in fact - and the capacity to have a family. I choose to let go of that not because it is bad but because it is not meant for me.

The second point concerns the priest's relationship with his community, his flock. From a practical point of view, how can a priest give himself wholly to the demands of being a prophet, shepherd and father of his flock if his time and energy are divided between his community and his own family? When one chooses a celibate way of life, one also makes an act of love that demands sacrifice. This sacrifice is letting go of the beautiful experience of having one's own partner and children. However, being totally dedicated to the service of the church, makes the priest a father to a much bigger, more fruitful family: his flock.

Third, celibacy points to what will happen at the end of time - when people are not married to one another. The whole focus will be on God. A priest who remains a celibate, who dedicates his life united with Christ and the community, gives people a "sneak preview'' of what will be in the end. Those are the three levels that illustrate the beauty of a celibate life.

What is the Philippine Church's official stand on priests who have violated the ruling on celibacy and have committed sins against chastity?

Celibacy is mandatory for priests and if a priest chooses not to remain celibate anymore, then he has already decided that the priesthood is not for him. When it is said that celibacy is "mandatory" it does not mean that it is imposed on you and you are not free to choose otherwise. That is why in the formation process, a priest is asked, "Is this the kind of life you want?” If that is the kind of life he wants, then he is asked to say yes to a celibate life. The priest has to remain unmarried, to choose to let go of something which is good but not absolute. The stand of the Church therefore is that priests who find celibacy very difficult and cannot live up to it violate the rule of celibacy. Priests who consistently violate this law not out of a sense of weakness but out of a sense of personal choice are asked to leave. We have priests who have left the priesthood to become lay again because they realize that celibacy as a way of life is not for them. Such priests have been laicized.

For sexual sins that are very serious, like child abuse, these are crimes that have to be dealt with according to the law. While the Church will try to help the priest as much as possible, the Church will still have to follow the law, as child abuse is a crime. Therefore, when it concerns sexual crimes, the priest has to be given up to the law for him to face the consequences of his actions. At this point, the church's official stand on such cases is still in progress.

Right now we are coming up with a protocol on how to handle such situations should they happen. Discussions are being made openly and a definitive text on the matter will most likely be released by January of next year.

In your opinion, what is the proper way of treating priests who have violated the ruling on celibacy?

In a Christian way, we try to help the sinner; we try to make him aware of his sins and try to see if he can come back. We allow him to undergo programs where he is made to face his weakness and see if he can grow out of it. For those who still have a difficult time, then they are asked in the end of the process to leave. Treating a brother who is wounded means helping him so that he can come up with his own decision as to whether he will continue to embrace the priestly life.

What can you say to people who keep on criticizing the Catholic Church about the sexual misconduct of some priests?

There are people who get scandalized. It is a time when we the Church must acknowledge things like these that cause scandal and pain. Because we have been the sources of pain, we must ask for forgiveness and make an apology. But forgiveness, apology and the showing of contrition demand some restoration. One way of restoring things is to first be aware that priests are human and therefore not perfect. There are moments of weakness. When we realize this weakness, we should humbly ask the Lord and the Church for healing. The idea of trying to hide, of not talking about it, of taking away from the priest the responsibility of answering up to his own actions - all of these are not healthy. I think what we should do is face the weakness and, if need be, suffer the consequences of being laughed at, which would be part of the purification process. Just like you, we are sinners and just like you when we face the Lord we will say, "Lord, we are sinners; have mercy on us".

One of the arguments concerning the issue is that the original apostles of Jesus were not required to remain celibate.

I don't think all the apostles were married people; John the Apostle, for one, remained single all the way. I think the consciousness of celibacy as a way of life linked with apostles or the priests took time. Christ did not require celibacy of His disciples although He did say "For those who are called to be eunuchs'' (called not to live the married state of life). I think that awareness of celibacy took some time. In the beginning they allowed married men to be priests because there simply weren't enough single men available to exercise the ministry. So they had to call in married people.

Jesus, in the course of searching for disciples, saw certain people who had the basic disposition to become His disciples. Married or not, he called them to be His disciples. Jesus did not require his disciples to be celibate; therefore the call to follow the Lord was open to all. However, in time, certain groups began to live out this celibate life because they sensed this to be a powerful witnessing of their own dedication to Christ, of their union with Christ, because Christ Himself was celibate. Christ chose to remain celibate. Celibacy is a way of trying to be like Christ; it is a way of imitating Christ, more fully if you want.

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