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Cardinal Hummes on Priestly Celibacy

"Christ's Precious Gift to His Church"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is an article written by Cardinal ClŠudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, on "The Importance of Priestly Celibacy." It was published in the Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano.
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At the beginning of the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" of His Holiness Paul VI, the Congregation for the Clergy deems it opportune to recall the magisterial teaching of this important papal document.

Indeed, priestly celibacy is Christ's precious gift to his Church, a gift one needs to meditate on anew and to strengthen, especially in today's profoundly secularized world.

Scholars note that the origins of priestly celibacy date back to apostolic times. Father Ignace de la Potterie writes: "Scholars generally agree that the obligation of celibacy, or at least of continence, became canon law from the fourth century onwards. ... However, it is important to observe that the legislators of the fourth and fifth centuries affirmed that this canonical enactment was based on an apostolic tradition.

"The Council of Carthage (390), for instance, said: 'It was fitting that those who were at the service of the divine sacraments be perfectly continent (continentes esse in omnibus), so that what the Apostles taught and antiquity itself maintained, we too may observe.'"[1]

In the same way, Alfons-Marie Stickler mentions biblical arguments of apostolic inspiration that advocate celibacy.[2]

Historical development

The Church's solemn Magisterium has never ceased to reaffirm the measures regulating ecclesiastical celibacy. The Synod of Elvira (300-303?) prescribed in canon 27: "A bishop, like any other cleric, should have with him either only one sister or consecrated virgin; it is established that in no way should he have an extraneous woman"; in canon 33: "The following overall prohibition for bishops, presbyters and deacons and for all clerics who exercise a ministry has been decided: they must abstain from relations with their wives and must not beget children; those who do are to be removed from the clerical state."[3]

Pope St. Siricius (384-399), in his "Letter to Bishop Himerius of Tarragona" dated February 10, 385, affirmed: "The Lord Jesus ... wished the figure of the Church, whose Bridegroom he is, to radiate with the splendor of chastity ... all of us as priests are bound by the indissoluble law of these measures ... so that from the day of our ordination we may devote our hearts and our bodies to moderation and modesty, to please the Lord our God in the daily sacrifices we offer to him."[4]

At the First Lateran Ecumenical Council of 1123, we read from canon 3: "We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons to cohabit with concubines or wives and to cohabit with women other than those whom the Council of Nicea (325) permitted to live in the household."[5]

So too, at the 24th session of the Council of Trent, the absolute impossibility of contracting marriage for clerics bound by sacred orders or for male religious who had solemnly professed chastity was reasserted; and with it, the nullity of marriage itself was declared, together with the duty to ask God, with an upright intention, for the gift of chastity.[6]

In more recent times, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council reaffirmed in the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, "Presbyterorum Ordinis,"[7] the close connection between celibacy and the Kingdom of God. It saw in the former a sign that radiantly proclaims the latter, the beginning of a new life to whose service the minister of the Church is consecrated.

With the encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" of June 24, 1967, Paul VI kept a promise he had made to the Council Fathers two years earlier. In it, he examined the objections raised concerning the discipline of celibacy. Subsequently, by placing emphasis on their Christological foundation and appealing to history and to what we learn from the first-century documents about the origins of celibacy and continence, he fully confirmed their value.

The 1971 Synod of Bishops, both in the presynodal program "Ministerium Presbyterorum" (Feb. 15) and in the final document "Ultimis Temporibus" (Nov. 30), affirmed the need to preserve celibacy in the Latin Church, shedding light on its foundations, the convergence of motives and the conditions that encouraged it.[8]

The new Code of Canon Law of the Latin Church in 1983 reasserted the age-old tradition: "Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely ...

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