At the beginning of this year a colloquium was held in Ars, France on the theme: "Priestly Celibacy: Foundations, Joys and Challenges". The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, gave a series of talks on the teachings of the Popes from Pius XI to Benedict XVI. The following is a lecture that the Cardinal gave on Pius XI.
The genuine passion that Pius XI had for priestly vocations is well illustrated historically, as is his indefatigable work for the building of seminaries in the whole Catholic world, in which the young might receive an adequate formation to prepare them for the sacerdotal ministry.
Within this frame of reference the Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii of 20 December 1935, promulgated on the occasion of the 56th anniversary of the Pontiff's priestly ordination, must be adequately understood. The Encyclical is made up of four parts. The first two are more specifically dedicated to the foundations, from the first title, "The sublime dignity: Alter Christus" and the second, "Radiant Jewel", while the third and the fourth are of a more normative-disciplinary character and concentrate their attention on the preparation of young men for the priesthood and on some characteristics of spirituality.
Of particular interest for our subject is the second part of the Encyclical, which dedicates an entire paragraph to chastity. However, this is found in the second part just after the paragraph that speaks of the priest as an "imitator of Christ" and of "priestly piety", showing in this way how Pius XI's concept of the priesthood was — as the Church always holds — that of an ontological-sacramental character. From this derives the need for the imitation of Christ and of the excellence of the priestly life, above all in the order of sanctity. In fact, the Encyclical states, "Eucharistic Sacrifice in which the Immaculate Victim who taketh away the sins of the world is immolated, requires in a special way that the priest, by a holy and spotless life, should make himself as far as he can, less unworthy of God, to whom he daily offers that adorable Victim, the very Word of God incarnate for love of us" (n. 35), and again: "And since the priest is an ambassador for Christ, he should so live as to be able with truth to make his own the words of the Apostle: "Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ"; he ought to live as another Christ who by the splendour of His virtue enlightened and still enlightens the world" (n. 38).
Immediately before to considering chastity, as if to underline the inseparable bond between them, Pius XI emphasizes the importance of priestly piety, stating: "the piety of which We speak is not that shallow and superficial piety which attracts but does not nourish, is busy but does not sanctify. We mean that solid piety which is not dependent upon changing mood or feeling. It is based upon principles of sound doctrine; it is ruled by staunch convictions; and so it resists the assaults and the illusions of temptation" (n. 39). From this one can see how the very understanding of Holy Celibacy is a close and profound relationship to good doctrinal formation, faithful to Sacred Scripture, the Tradition and the constant Magisterium of the Church. It is likewise in relation to the practice of an authentic piety, which today we would call an intense spiritual life that avoids either sentimentalist tendencies, which can easily degenerate into subjectivism, or the far more wide-spread rationalistic tendencies, which can produce cynical criticism that is a long way from an intelligent and constructive critical capacity.
Chastity is seen as intimately associated with piety in the Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii when it says: "from piety springs the meaning and the beauty of chastity" (n. 40). From that derives an attempt to provide a rational justification, according to Natural Law, when it says: "A certain connection between this virtue and the sacerdotal ministry can be seen even by the light of reason alone: since "God is a Spirit", it is only fitting that he who dedicates and consecrates himself to God's service should in some way "divest himself of the body" (n. 40). Following this affirmation — which appears rather weak to our eyes today and which is, in any case, tied to the chastity of ritual purity that would consequently tend to exclude its perdurance, if it were to be seen as linked exclusively to the times and rites of Worship — is the affirmation of the superiority of the Christian Priesthood with regard both to the priesthood of the Old Testament and to the natural priesthood proper to every religious tradition.
At this point the Encyclical places Jesus' own experience at the heart of the reflection, intended as a prototype for every priest. It states, "For the Divine Master showed such high esteem for chastity, and exalted it as something beyond the common power.../... All this had almost inevitable consequences: the priests of the New Law felt the heavenly attraction of this chosen virtue; they sought to be of the number of those "to whom it is given to take this word (cf. Mt 19: it)" (n. 43).
It is possible in these statements of the Encyclical to notice that two intentions are complementary, the one to base priestly chastity on the need for purity, the other, much wider in scope and better understood today, the need to present it as an imitatio Christi, the manner par excellence in which to imitate the Master, who lived a poor, chaste and obedient fashion to an exemplary degree.
Pius XI does not fail, indeed, to quote dogmatic pronouncements regarding the obligation of chastity, in particular the Council of Elvira and the Second Council of Carthage, which, albeit in the fourth century, testify distinctly to a much more ancient and consolidated practice that, furthermore, may be carried into law.
With an extraordinarily modern accent, in the sense that it is immediately accessible to our mentality, the Encyclical speaks of the freedom with which the gift of chastity is to be received, stating, "We say "freely", for though, after ordination, they are no longer free to contract earthly marriage, nevertheless they advance to ordination itself unconstrained by any law or person, and of their own spontaneous choice!" (n. 46). We could deduce, in response to some contemporary objections about the presumed stubbornness of the Church in imposing Celibacy on the young, that the Magisterium of Pius XI shows that it is the result of freely welcoming a supernatural charism, which no one imposes, nor could it be imposed. Above all, the ecclesiastical norm is to be understood as the choice of the Church to admit to the priesthood only those who have received the charism of celibacy, and that they have freely chosen it.
If one might legitimately sustain, taking into account the climate of the time, that the foundation of ecclesiastical Celibacy in the Encyclical Ad Sacerdotii Catholici of Pius XI is based above all on reasons, still valid, of purity, nonetheless it is still possible to recognise in the same text an important exemplary dimension both of the Celibacy of Christ and of His freedom, which is the same freedom to which priests are called.