Program #0449 for Tuesday, January 15, 2013: Fr. Joseph Fessio on crucial questions about priestly celibacy

January 15, 2013

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Fr. Joseph Fessio on crucial questions about priestly celibacy

Fr. Joseph Fessio on crucial questions about priestly celibacy


Summary of today’s show: When the topic of priestly celibacy and married priests comes up, the same set of questions is always trotted out: Isn’t it unnatural? Didn’t priests used to marry? Don’t they get lonely? Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, joins Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor to discuss a new book from Ignatius Press, “Married Priests? 30 Crucial Questions about Celibacy,” that answers the common objections with clear, concise, and convincing language.

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor

Today’s guest(s): Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ

Links from today’s show:

Today’s topics: Crucial questions about priestly celibacy

1st segment: Scot Landry welcomed listeners to the show. Today’s topic is priestly celibacy and he noted some of the current objections to celibacy today. The discussion will center around a new book from Ignatius Press called “Married Priests?: 30 Crucial Questions about Celibacy”. Fr. Chris O’Connor had asked Scot before Christmas for a show on priestly celibacy and then this book came in. Fr. Chris said this book has all the most common questions and gives great answers you can give back to people. Scot compared it to the YouCat, the youth catechism that asks questions that everyday people ask and gives plain-language answers, and this book does the same.

Scot welcomed Fr. Fessio to the show. Fr. Fessio said two crucial questions are whether the Patriots will meet the 49ers in the Super Bowl and which team will win.

Scot asked how this book came about. Fr. Fessio said when he was in Rome last year, Cardinal Raymond Burke had recommended this book to him. Cardinal Burke often reads books written in other languages that Ignatius Press should publish in English. He had said this book would be a real service to the Church.

One of the misconceptions some Catholics have about celibacy, Scot said, is confusion with chastity and continence. Fr. Fessio said celibacy is technically priests not getting married. Continence is married people refraining from sex. Chastity is the proper regulation of one’s sexual life, whether single, married, or priests. Chastity depends on the state in life. He added that permanent deacons are members of the clerical state and he said all clerics are bound by continence. And even in the early church, married priests would promise to refrain some sexual relations. Scot said his sense of things is this hasn’t been part of the permanent diaconate. Fr. Chris O’Connor clarified that once ordained priests and deacons cannot marry or if already married can never remarry. This is true in the Orthodox Church, too. Also married clergy are not eligible for the episcopacy.

Scot said Catholics hear that married priests are allowed in the Orthodox Church and wonder if that wouldn’t be better in the Roman Catholic Church. Fr. Fessio said we go back to the beginning. Jesus is the Priest. When priests celebrate Mass they are in the person of Christ. Christ is the one who voluntarily did not marry because the Church was his bride and he’s anticipating heaven where there is no marriage. The Eastern Church does it differently. They are a separated Church and they made some mistake in history, particularly in 692. The question of married priests came up at a council in the Eastern Church, the Council of Tertullus. There was a forged document at the council that resulted in the doctrine being changed.

Scot asked Fr. Chris the difference between discipline and dogma. Fr. Chris said dogma is something absolutely defined by the Church and can’t be changed. Discipline could be changed, but as far as the gift of celibacy it will not be changed. This is not a whim of the Church. The Church in the West has kept the discipline of celibacy and kept these high standards. Scot said we are called to give our all in our vocations. A married man gives his all to his wife and a priest gives his all to the Church in the same way.

Fr. Fessio said it’s not just a practical question, but it also demeans marriage. Marriage is a primary vocation on an equal level with priesthood. Marriage is not a career. We’ve lost the sense of a man as husband and father and not just a wage-earner and career man. On dogma and discipline, Fr. Fessio said we are inheritors of the Enlightenment, which always wants clear distinctions. But there isn’t always a definitive line. How does one say where a bay ends and the ocean begins? It’s similar with dogma and discipline. Celibacy is not “only” a discipline. It is the teaching and practice of the Church for 2,000 years.

He said after the Council, a lot of people said if we keep the essentials, we can changed the accidentals. Think of a spaghetti dinner. We have tablecloth, candles, nice dinnerware. What if we take away the tablecloth, the candles, dinnerware? It’s still a spaghetti dinner, but the difference between a nice dinner and sitting on the floor eating with your hands is vast. He asked why people don’t believe in the Eucharist like they used to. People don’t act like there’s anything special there.

Fr. Chris said this Saturday, four or five of the seminarians will be ordained to the transitional diaconate and they will make their promise of celibacy to the cardinal and the entire Church.

Scot read from the foreword to the book by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy:

Over the centuries—and this dynamic has been evident in recent decades as well—there have been plenty of attacks on ecclesiastical celibacy. It is necessary to recognize that not infrequently they come from contexts and mindsets that are completely foreign to the faith, understood both as doctrine and practice, and, unfortunately, are often orchestrated by interest groups that do not even disguise the fact that their goal is the gradual weakening of one of the elements that makes witness to Christ more effective: virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Celibacy is no more foreign to contemporary culture than marital fidelity or premarital continence might seem to be. We must recognize that we are faced with one of the greatest educational challenges of the modern era; ever since the 1968 revolution, which promised the liberation of man but in reality made him a slave to his own instincts, it is urgently necessary to reeducate the whole emotional sphere, acknowledging its greatness and dignity but at the same time placing it within the framework of objective limitations that theology calls original sin, with the consequences that result from it.

The underlying logic of priestly celibacy is the same one we may encounter in Christian matrimony: the total gift of everything forever in love. Behind the dynamic of self-giving on the part of the priest is the primacy of God and, consequently, also the primacy of his will, which freely calls those whom he wants.

Scot said he liked the comparison between attacks on celibacy and attacks on marital fidelity and single chastity. Which parent would want their married child to promiscuous? So why do we not want priests to be faithful? Fr. Fessio said we each have a witness to give. Scot witnesses to marital fidelity and FR. Fessio and Fr. Chris witness to apostolic fidelity to Christ. One is not more holy, but they are distinct.

Scot said Question 12 in this book asks: “Is not celibacy unnatural and therefore not the cause of existential angst on the part of some priests?” Question 18 asks whether it is the cause of sexual abuse.

Fr. Fessio said the answer in both cases is No. The largest number of sexual abuse cases occur in families where the abusers are not celibate or continent. As to whether it is unnatural, Jesus seemed to do quite well with celibacy. Look at all the great saints and other priests through history who weren’t going through existential crises. It’s true that there are sacrifices you make, like not having your own children. It’s also a sacrifice to be alone. But there are crises in everyone’s lives. Priests are going to suffer. Married people suffer too. Suck it up.

More questions ask how one discerns a call to celibate life and how celibacy as a charismatic gift can be imposed by Church law. Fr. Chris said when he interviews future seminarians, he asks them if celibacy is a sacrifice or a gift. The answer is both, just like marriage is a sacrifice and a gift, committing oneself to one another and giving oneself totally. Celibacy is a gift of oneself totally to God and through him to the Church. Fr. Chris said celibacy is unnatural in a certain sense, but it is supernatural. God does not want a man to be alone so he gives them the grace to live the life they are called to.

Scot said you hear that if we allowed married priests, we would have more priests. Fr. Fessio said once again all the empirical data is against it. It’s not just Catholics who have a decline in vocations. Episcopalians and other Protestants have similar declines. Making it easy doesn’t attract people. Why do the Marines attract men and women. Because it’s a noble and difficult calling. The calling has to be attractive. Why does a man sacrifice all the other woman in the world to marry one? Because this one is The One and all the others aren’t attractive anymore. When you find The One, Jesus, then you sacrifice all others for Him. It is a joy when you are called to follow in the footsteps of the Master. You want priests who are willing to sacrifice all for the vocation, not to settle for easy life.

Fr. Fessio said he knows many good priests he would like to be just like. They are solid, human, happy, manly. He said the most well-known Father int he world is the Holy Father. John Paul II’s fatherhood was radiant. Celibacy becomes attractive in the lives of priests whose beautiful vocation is lived out with joy and radiance. He told the story of Sr. Dolores Hart who was a Hollywood starlet in movies alongside Elvis who gave it up for the life of the convent and in pictures you see her absolute joy.

Fr. Chris said he remembers a particular priest who has drawn several men to the seminary. they asked the seminarians what it was that attracted them. They said he ate with them, prayed with them, and listened to them. Young men are looking for priests who articulate the Church’s teaching on the priesthood. Scot recalled the story of Joe D’Arrigo on the show before Christmas who told the story of the priest who made himself totally available to Joe’s wife when she was gravely ill. He was available because of the sacrifice of his life.

Fr. Fessio told the story of a reporter he’d known, a Catholic reporter who he says was hostile to the teachings of the Church. They had become friends despite their differences. One day, Fr. Fessio received a call that the reporter was dying and wanted to have Fr. Fessio hear his confession. Who did he call when he was dying? He called the old-fashioned, traditional, conservative priest. It’s not because of Fr. Fessio’s personality, but because he wants to be a priest in the tradition of the Church.

Fr. Chris said he hears similar stories every time he talks to priests. Another question asks about whether celibacy leads to loneliness. Fr. Chris said he sometimes longs for a day of loneliness. A priest’s life is filled with people. Particularly diocesan priests, they are with people at all the key moments of their lives, being invited into those grace-filled moments. They teach seminarians how to be comfortable with themselves in moments of solitude and how necessary they are, just like Christ who needed time away from the crowds. Fr. Fessio said Jesus promised a hundredfold to those who sacrifice family for him. He said he doesn’t do social media, but recently read an article about a professor who gives students an assignment to be alone for one hour, no phone, no iPod and then write about it. They couldn’t do it. People don’t know what silence and solitude are. We are bombarded by sound and images constantly.

One of the blessings of the priesthood is on the one hand, tremendous experiences of families, while on the other hand, having time for prayer. Most parents would love to have just a few minutes of quiet. Time for quiet is necessary not just for sanctity, but for sanity. Spend time on social media as long as you spend as much time on praying.

Scot said the next question is most annoying: “Since most laypeople are married, would not a priest understand them better if he is married?” Scot said he’s been married 11 years. He’s probably counseled or given advice to 5 men on marriage. His brother as a priest for 12 years has counseled more than 1,000. Who would have more experience. It’s much better that someone objective, who won’t bring a bias from his own experience. Fr. Fessio said even in marriage, especially when there are difficulties, there are things a spouse won’t tell their husband or wife that they will tell the priest in confession. Fr. Chris said the question is as if priests dropped out of the sky, instead of coming from families themselves. Also, it’s like saying you need a cardiologist who has the same illness in order to treat you.

Scot asked Fr. Fessio about what else Ignatius Press has available. He said there’s a YouCat prayer book coming out in a month and while it’s meant for young people, it’s great for everyone. It introduces prayer with traditional prayers, a simplified liturgy of the hours and more. Scot said they also have the new book by James Hitchcock called “History of the Catholic Church”. Fr. Fessio said it’s a thick book but not that long. It’s got a great layout to let you make notes and more.

Scot mentioned “The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church” by Dr. Christopher Kaczor, who we’ve had on the show. It’s been very successful.

Fr. Fessio said every day Ignatius Press ships out a stack of books that is higher than the Hancock Building in Boston. It’s encouraging to see that people are still reading books. He added that industrywide 25% of sales are electronic, but only about 4-5% of sales are ebooks. He thinks it’s because they have older people who read their books, but also there are certain books you want to have on your shelf as reference. Fr. Chris said this book from today’s show is one of those books.

Scot ended by reminding everyone about last night’s lecture by George Weigel on Vatican II and the Birth of Evangelical Catholicism. People can watch the lecture at Boston Catholic Live

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