Press Session Focuses on Priestly Celibacy

Discussion at the U.S. bishops’ council press panel centered on the subject of priestly celibacy, which Pope Paul VI has already ordered not to be discussed at the ecumenical council.

A large part of the discussion revolved around a figure given by one news agency that over the years 10,000 priests have requested the Congregation of die Holy Office for dispensations from celibacy.

Panelists agreed that there is no accurate figure as to the number of such cases. They also agreed that celibacy is not a major problem for the American clergy.

Auxiliary Bishop Gerald McDevitt of Philadelphia referred to his ordination class of 1942, saying that “no member … is not fully exercising his priesthood up to the present day.”

Msgr. George G. Higgins, director of the Social Action Department, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, said that discussion of clerical celibacy has been too frequently conducted in terms of celibate priests being better able to be ministers than those with families, and that the celibate clergy is less expensive than a married one.

Msgr. Higgins said that these “side issues” fail to underscore the fact that “there are serious and powerful supports for a celibate clergy” in Scripture and theology.

He said he wanted to stress the deep spirituality behind the ascetic discipline of celibacy.

A Jesuit expert on the Eastern Churches, Father John Long of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, pointed out that celibacy has always been seen as the ideal for priests in both the Eastern and Western Churches, despite the fact that the Eastern branches of the Church do permit a married clergy.

Father Long said that even in the East, marriage comes before ordination, and is not repeated even if the priest’s wife dies. There is no question of remarriage.

Father John J. King, O.M.I., superior of the Oblate house of studies in Rome, said that even if the figure of 10,000 were accurate — and nobody knows if it is — it would mean that only a little more than 5% of the world’s clergy has found celibacy unacceptable, and that this is a very small percentage. It means that 90% of the world’s clergy has said they have not found it impossible, and therefore it should not be eliminated.

Msgr. George W. Shea, rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary, Darlington, N.J., pointed out that whatever the number of priests who have asked for release from the vows of the priesthood might be, not all of them have requested this for reasons of celibacy alone.

Msgr. Mark J. Hurley, vice chancellor of the San Francisco archdiocese, injected a note of humor by observing that many of the same writers who have criticized the Church’s attitude toward birth control have, on the other hand, advocated a relaxation of the discipline of a celibate clergy.

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