Letter: Challenges to celibacy rule

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Challenges to celibacy rule

Sir: Bishop Lindsay's criticism (8 September) of Lynne Edwards' letter on the law of the clerical celibacy (3 September) is mostly incorrect. The law is in no way founded on scripture. The two New Testament verses he quotes refer neither to the priesthood nor to a law. They suggest that celibacy is a gift to be valued when given. There is no reason to connect that gift with the priesthood and many of the greatest celibates in church history - Benedict, Francis of Assisi and, one may add, Mother Teresa - were not priests.

Secondly, it is quite untrue that the bishops at the Second Vatican Council "discussed the Church's present law" before reaffirming it. They were, on the contrary, explicitly forbidden by Pope Paul to do so (11 October 1965). This was because so many had written in to challenge it. What the council said on the subject in no way reflects a mature debate. Nevertheless it remains striking that, for the first time in a Roman document, the council favourably commented on the married clergy of the Eastern Church: "There are many excellent married priests." Why what can be commended east of the Mediterranean is to be prohibited west of it, no one has tried to explain.

However, in the Episcopal Synod of 1971, Pope Paul did allow the subject to be discussed owing to great pressure from bishops in many countries. A majority of the diocesan representatives at the Synod actually voted in favour of a change in the law. It was only the votes of the Pope's appointed representatives which prevented this from being approved.

The theological, pastoral and missionary reasons for a change are even more evident in 1997 than they were in 1971. It is more than time that this be recognised.


Department of Theology and Religious Studies

University of Leeds