Celibacy and Crisis of Faith, by Dietrich von Hildebrand

Author: Fr Vincent Miceli, S.J.


Fr Vincent Miceli, S.J.
Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the Angelicum University

There is a saying among the sages that when virtue is abandoned, its symbols must also be discarded. Thus, in an age in which patriotism is dying, flags of the patria are burned. In an age when reverence is forgotten, the Pope and the Pietà are attacked. And likewise in an age in which the Christian faith is enfeebled, the symbol of celibacy is under attack. Dietrich von Hildebrand, world-renowned philosopher, a married layman who has written so brilliantly and profoundly on the grandeur, beauty and sacredness of marriage, now masterfully exposes in his book CELIBACY AND THE CRISIS OF FAITH, published in Chicago by the Franciscan Herald Press, the principal secular myths that have contributed to the "abolish celibacy" syndrome.

In his introductory chapter Hildebrand demonstrates how virtues are frequently abandoned because people uncritically succumb to prevailing but false philosophical trends and theological theories. The attacks on celibacy, mounted by so many bishops, priests and laymen even after Pope Paul's celebrated encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, appear definitely motivated by just such wholesale swallowing of modern myths destructive of the faith. Unmasked as pure fabrications are the following errors. We treat only a few of them.

1. The error of the myth of modern man, which claims that today man is so essentially changed that he cannot any longer accept a Gospel and Church with a supernatural origin and destiny. Hildebrand replies: "A spirit of an age never touches the deepest roots of man and his nature which, in its ontological structure, its character of imago Dei, as spiritual person destined for God, cannot be changed." Not changing history, but the unchanging Gospels and the living, organically developing tradition of the teaching Church are the source of truth, revelation and moral goodness. Moreover, contemporary, anti-Christian intellectual trends do not infect everyone in our age. This is a pure fable of many sociologists. Great converts still enter the Church, e.g. Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Gabriel Marcel and, I may add, Hildebrand himself. The Word of God is not bound, not even by the scientific mentality.

2. The error that the "form" of revelation has to be diluted. Hildebrand quotes Pope John XXIII for his reply: "The Church must imprint her seal on every age and nation, not the other way around. The Church must above all fight against everything which is incompatible with the Spirit of Christ; she must make no compromise and must not formulate the Christian message in a way completely inadequate to its real substance and thus falsify it." Of course, she will know the intellectual trends and languages of the times and welcome and "baptize" what is good in them.

3. The error that the sacred must give way to the secular. Hildebrand shows that the sacred and religion are inseparably bound together, even in those religions which contain errors. When the sacred was eliminated from pagan religions, faith was lost, spiritual power dissipated, families and nations destroyed. Whoever would eliminate the sacred from the Catholic Church has lost the faith. For the supernatural, which is found only in the Christian Revelation, always includes the sacred and incomparably more. Hatred of the sacred, therefore, leads inevitably to hatred of God through a rejection of the holy which, as the Old and New Testaments testify, comprises the absolute moral goodness and the sacred, as these are seen in a marvellous manner in the holy, sacred Humanity of Christ, the supreme Epiphany of God in time.

4. The error of substituting an "earthly messiah" in place of Christ. The reduction of Christ from being a God-Man of mercy to being a man of kindness is a grave falsification. Christ is the Saviour, called Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. Thus Christ liberated man from spiritual bondage to Satan, sin and death. Mercy is the basic message of his divine revelation. For mercy reveals man's complete creaturehood, his complete failure in sin, and yet it also reveals the glory of the infinite, incomprehensible God who, in his crucified Son, leads man to repentance, redemption and glorification. Mercy is God's challenge to sinners to take up the action of metanoia, to put off the old man of sin and to come to birth as sons of God in the Son of God.

5. The error of putting unity above truth. The idea that unity is more important than truth is a particularly pernicious myth of our times. It leads to the disastrous conclusion that schism is a greater evil than the heresies and immoralities that penetrate and thrive within the Church. A doctor who cuts out a malignancy in time saves his patient, whereas one who leaves a malignancy untreated for fear of hurting his patient condemns that patient to certain death. Hildebrand uses Pascal most appropriately to refute this false irenicism;

"It is not clear that it is as much a crime to disturb the peace when truth prevails, as it is a crime to keep the peace when truth is violated. There is therefore a time when peace is justified, and a time when it is not justified. For it is written that there is a time for peace and a time for war, and it is the law of truth that distinguishes the two. But at no time is there a time for truth and a time for error, for it is written that God's truth shall abide forever. That is why Jesus Christ, who said that he will bring peace, also said that he has come to bring war. But he does not say that he has come to bring both truth and falsehood. The truth, therefore, is the primary judge and ultimate goal of all things."

Unity founded on truth

It is a fundamental error to put unity above truth. Indeed real unity can only be founded on the truth; all men can become one only in the truth that is Jesus Christ and his holy Church.

In his treatment of celibacy and the priesthood throughout the remainder of the book, Hildebrand not only brilliantly handles the objections against celibacy, but more importantly he presents his reader with some magnificent and inspiring insights into the sublimity, sacredness and sanctity of the office of the priest. We wish to stress here some of these positive aspects. In an attitude of deep reverence, wonderment and astonishment, he reflects on the essential greatness and beauty of this office and demonstrates most cogently the profound affinity that celibacy has for the sacred office of the priest. He makes his own the sentiments of St. Francis of Assisi who expressed awe-full reverence for all priests in these words: "If I were at the same time to meet a priest and St. Laurence the Deacon, I would first kiss the hands of the priest and say: 'Forgive me, St. Laurence, but the hands of the priest touch the body of Our Lord each day.'"

Priest's unique dignity

The power to consecrate is a unique dignity bestowed on the priest through Holy Orders. Then too, only a priest can absolve sins in the sacrament of penance which restores divine life and increases its vigour, thus giving pardon and peace to the penitent. Whatever the priest binds or looses on earth, Christ does the same in heaven. But the priest's unimaginable gift and grandeur is to glorify God through the sacrifice of the Mass and to bring him to men through sacramental communion and the preaching of the Word of God. This is the same sublime vocation the Son of God lived during his sojourn on earth. Thus, the priest establishes the kingdom of God in souls for whom his whole life is dedicated. He is called to be the father of the poor, the persecuted, the humiliated. The sanctification of souls is his whole mission. His motto is: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice." This is also the very raisond'etre of the Church. To establish the kingdom of God in the souls of men, to give glory to God through their sanctification and to accomplish their eternal salvation. This means that the priest fights against evil, against the prince and powers of this world, against all attempts to spread errors and lead men away from God by false teachings and scandalous conduct. Thus the priest must clearly oppose heresies; he must protect the faithful from the ravages of false teachers. Pope Paul VI has written: "Like Christ himself, his minister is wholly and solely intent on the things of God and the Church, and he imitates the great High Priest who stands in the presence of God ever living to make intercession for us... The priest with grace and peace in his heart will face with generosity the manifold tasks of his life and ministry. If he performs these with faith and zeal, he will find in them new occasions to show that he belongs entirely to Christ and his Mystical Body, for his own sanctification and the sanctification of others."

In order to dedicate himself totally to his divinely-given mission, the priest accepts willingly, even gladly, the sacrifice of celibacy. This sacrifice consists in his renouncing the communion of love in marriage for the communion of love to be found in being a full-time ambassador for Christ to all men, that he may lead them all to communion with Christ. His ideal is that of St. John the Baptist: "He must increase; I must decrease." The priest is not just a bachelor, an unmarried man for some natural reason or other, good or bad. Here Hildebrand quotes Newman's beautiful sermon on consecrated virginity: "The Virginity of the Christian soul is a marriage with Christ... O transcending condescension that he should stoop to be ours in the tenderest and most endearing way—ours to love, ours to consult, ours to minister to, ours to converse with, ours to joy in. Ours so fully that it is as if he had none to think of but each of us personally. The very idea of matrimony is possession—whole possession—the husband is the wife's and no other's, and the wife is the husband's and none buthis. This is to enter into the marriage bond... And this itis to be married to Jesus. It is to have him ours wholly, henceforth, and forever—it is to be united to him by an indissoluble tie—it is to he his, while he is ours—it is to partake of that wonderful sacrament which unites him to his Blessed Mother on high."

Total self-giving

Priestly celibacy, then, is a total self-donation to Christ. This total self-donation, this dwelling in his temple, this sealing off of the sensual sphere and dying to oneself for the love of Christ, far from emasculating or neutralizing the celibate as a person, actually develops him into a saint, into one who has grown up to the perfect manhood of Christ. The triumph of celibacy is a holy anticipation of eternity "where there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, but all are like the angels of God," those perfect heralds of his Word and doers of his Will. Celibacy can never be understood by mere reason; it can only be understood by the man of faith. For only the man of faith sees it as the expression of ultimate love for Christ, as a burning desire to imitate Christ's total self-donation as man and God to men when he emptied himself to become their Saviour and servant. When the priest takes his vow of celibacy he testifies that this earthly existence is only a status viae a temporary trial and that the real, truly valid life of divine fulfilment lies in eternity, the statustermini.

Thus the vow of celibacy transfers into eternity the yearning for and expectation of happiness which is so deeply rooted in man. The life of celibacy is an expression of triumph over this world—which is our faith. Here faith becomes unconditional; a man does not want to enjoy this life and hope for happiness here, but rather he chooses a state of life in which he burns his bridges behind him and, emptying himself of himself in imitation of his Lord's putting off the glory of his divinity, lives only from faith in that same Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Through the vow of celibacy the priest is no longer anchored to this world; he is free to take upon himself sacrifices, even poverty and persecution. Ex officio too, he can raise his voice in public like St. John the Baptist and Christ himself, whenever influential leaders give public scandal, persecute the Church or legalize immoral practices. Bereft of family ties, the priest like the Good Shepherd, can give his life for his sheep in his struggle against the wolves who attempt to scatter the flock of Christ.

Freedom to serve others

It is clear, then, that celibacy bestows a glorious, virtuous freedom upon the priest, giving him full time to dedicate himself to his fellowmen in the things that pertain to God. And just because this virtuous freedom demands personal sacrifices in things pertaining to this world is no reason for eliminating obligatory celibacy. After all, the priest spends many years preparing for his choice of self-donation to Christ. Though obligatory, the choice is freely made, else how could it prove one's exclusive love for Christ? Moreover, we are dealing here with divine realities not with earthly things. The priesthood of Christ is continued in the holy Church; it is of divine origin; its meaning and justification are derived from the missions of the Holy Trinity to mankind. Therefore, the office of the priest does not depend for its meaning on the structure of natural, temporal life. Rather the dignity, validity and value of the office of the priest are founded on the priesthood of Christ who bequeathed this holy office to the Church he founded.

Hildebrand demonstrates how the thoroughly secularized mentality that causes so many Christians to question the veracity of long established dogmas of the Church is at the root of the attempt to overturn her discipline and training for the priesthood. When revealed doctrines are reduced to being explanations of existentialist and relativist philosophies, then the nature of the Church and her essential organs are reduced to being historically changing and humanistically secularized institutions. Then the calling of the priest is seen as just one more profession among others, like that of doctor, teacher, researcher. The priest is seen to be a mere benefactor rather than a man of God. And, of course, since these professional men marry, why shouldn't the priest? Celibacy is now seen as an unnecessary ballast, an unnatural repression on the manhood, maturity and mission of the priest.

In the end Hildebrand brilliantly calls Christians back from the sterile task of trying to accommodate the Church and her priests to the modern world. He reminds them that neither the Church nor her priests are called to create a social order; they are called to create a supernatural order. This means that the Church must use means of heroic perfection as well as more normal means to create a community of saints. Thus the Church must lay down holy conditions, furnish holy means to accomplish her supernatural mission. And here Hildebrand notices a strange coincidence, namely, that the very same people who revolt against the institutional Church seem to be the ones against obligatory celibacy. Their secularizing antipathy for the so-called "institutional Church" so blinds them that they refuse to see that the priest gives his life not only to Christ but also to his Church. They forget that the priest's life belongs to the holy Church, that he works in her and through her and with her in the vineyard of the Lord. They forget that priests can only be made by the hands of the holy Church. That is why they will not admit that it is only just and right that a candidate for the priesthood trust himself completely to the authority of the Church, allowing her as the Mystical Body of Christ to lay down the holy, even heroic, conditions for participation in the office of Christ's divine priesthood. "The law of ecclesiastical celibacy," wrote Pope John XXIII, "and the efforts necessary to preserve it always recall to mind the struggles of the heroic times when the Church of Christ had to fight for and succeeded in obtaining her threefold glory; for celibacy is the sign of the victory of Christ's Church, employing all her strength to be free, chaste and catholic." Hildebrand concludes his reflections on the relationship between the priest and his holy Church thus: "The true vocation to the priesthood demands of me that I give myself totally to Christ and his holy Church and that I desire to hold this great office according to the laws of holy Church." When such faith and fidelity are revived, then the priesthood will flourish again.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 January 1973, page 9

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