Plenary Council must discuss priestly celibacy

Nick Brodie (Hardie Grant Publishing)

Debates about priestly celibacy are almost as old as the Catholic priesthood itself, but they should be a feature of Australia's upcoming Plenary Council, writes Nick Brodie. Source: Eureka Street.

In a seemingly providential quirk, the first pope’s mother-in-law appeared just in time to set the record straight. Thanks to the cycle of readings in the Church’s lectionary, the Gospel of Mark’s account of Jesus healing St Peter’s mother-in-law was read from pulpits worldwide on Wednesday.

This was the very day after the question of priestly celibacy exploded in Rome in a quagmire of Church politics, becoming a timely reminder of facts for Australia’s Catholic Community.

News that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had co-authored a book with Cardinal Robert Sarah surprised many. Most of all, it seems, the Pope Emeritus and those close to him. Benedict’s private secretary clarified that Benedict did not co-author the volume and asked the publisher to remove Benedict’s name from the cover.

This scandal-causing book argues against possible changes to the rule of mandatory celibacy for Latin-rite Catholic priests. Its publication was rather transparently an attempt to thwart proposals coming out of the Amazonian Synod of 2019, where the idea of relaxing mandatory celibacy had been discussed.

Australian Catholics have a particular dog in this fight. Whatever the fallout from Rome over this book, it should not be allowed to scare Australia’s bishops off from discussing the subject during the Plenary Council which is opening in Australia this year. In fact – and this is hard for a historian to say – the bishops should perhaps stop worrying about history quite so much. Habit should never trump tradition.

Debates about priestly celibacy and sexual continence are almost as old as the Catholic priesthood itself. Progressive-minded commentators will usually point out than the strict, universal rule for Latin-rite priests is of medieval European origin.

On the other side, conservative-minded commentators tend to highlight that historic married priests were periodically discouraged from having sex until they gradually abandoned the habit of marrying in the first place, and that the last half a millennium bears witness to the ideal of sexual continence

Whether Australia’s bishops are willing to discuss seeking a local relaxation of the rule of mandatory celibacy, this is one of the big questions of Plenary 2020.

Nick Brodie is a historian and author.


Aussie bishops can't shy from celibacy questions (Eureka Street)


Committee to recommend Australian bishops give laity certain controls (NCR Online)

Catholics deserve openness on Australian Catholic Bishops Conference funding cuts (Canberra Times

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