Pius XII and Sacra Virginitas

Author: Cardinal Mauro Piacenza

Pius XII and Sacra Virginitas

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza

Priestly celibacy in the teachings of the Popes

At the beginning of this year [2011] 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 XII.

An important contribution was made from the magisterial point of view, by the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas, of 25 March 1954, of the Servant of God Pius XII. Like all of the Encyclicals of that Pontiff, it is resplendent for its clear and profound doctrinal approach, for the wealth of its biblical, historical, theological and spiritual references, and it constitutes even today a point of reference of notable value.

Although the Encyclical has as its formal objective, in the strict sense, not ecclesiastical celibacy, but virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven, there are many points of reflection and explicit references to the celibate condition and the priesthood in it.

The Document consists of four parts: the first outlines "the true idea of the virginal condition"; the second identifies and responds to some errors of the time, which have continued to be a source of difficulty even today; the third part outlines the relationship between virginity and sacrifice, while the last part, by way of conclusion, outlines some hopes and fears with regard to virginity.

Virginity is presented in the first part as an excellent way to live the sequela of Christ. "For what does following mean but imitation?" the Pontiff asks, and he replies: "All these disciples and spouses of Christ embraced the state of virginity... in order to become conformed to Christ the Spouse,... it would hardly satisfy their burning love for Christ to be united with him by the bonds of affection, but this love had perforce to express itself by the imitation of his virtues, and especially by conformity to his way of life, which was lived completely for the benefit and salvation of the human race. If priests... cultivate perfect chastity, it is certainly for the reason that their Divine Master remained all his life a virgin" (n. 19).

In fact, and not at all by chance, the Pontiff compares the virginal priestly condition with that of men and women religious, showing in that way how celibacy, which differs from the normative point of view, has the same theological and spiritual foundation in reality

Another reason for celibacy is identified by the Pontiff in the need, connected with the Mystery, for a profound spiritual freedom. The Encyclical states: "it is that they [the holy Ministers] may acquire this spiritual liberty of body and soul, and that they may be freed from temporal cares, that the Latin Church demands of her sacred ministers that they voluntarily oblige themselves to observe perfect chastity" (n. 22), and he adds: "Consider again that sacred ministers do not renounce marriage solely on account of their apostolic ministry, but also by reason of their service at the altar" (n. 23). Thus what emerges from Pius XII 's Magisterium is that the cultual, the Apostolic and the missionary reason merge in a synthesis beyond any polarization, that represents the real overall unity of the reasons in favour of priestly celibacy.

Moreover Pius XII had already stated in his Apostolic Exhortation Menti Nostrae: "by this law of celibacy the priest not only does not abdicate his paternity, but increases it immensely, for he begets offspring not for this earthly and transitory life but for the heavenly and eternal one" (n. 26).

Mission orientation, the sacredness of the Ministry, realistic imitation of Christ, spiritual fatherhood and fruitfulness therefore constitute the irreplaceable frame of reference for priestly celibacy. Contemporaneous with this is the correction of some persistent errors, such as the misconceptions of the objective excellence, as distinct from subjective holiness, of the virginal state with respect to the married one, the assertion of the human impossibility of living the virginal state, or the consecrated person's distance from the life of the world and from society. With regard to this the Pontiff says: "although all those who have embraced a life of perfect chastity have deprived themselves of the expression of human love permitted in the married state, nonetheless it cannot thereby be affirmed that because of this privation they have diminished and despoiled the human personality. For they receive from the Giver of heavenly gifts something spiritual which far exceeds that 'mutual help' which husband and wife confer upon each other. They consecrate themselves to him Who is their Source, and who shares with them his divine life, and thus their personality suffers no loss, but gains immensely" (n. 39).

Such statements should be enough to answer with sufficient clarity the many objections of a psy-
chological-anthropological character raised by some people even today against priestly celibacy.

The last great and fundamental theme treated by the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas is the relationship between virginity and sacrifice, which is particularly sacerdotal. The Pontiff observes, citing St Ambrose, that: "Perfect chastity is no more than a piece of advice, a means that serves to lead those 'to whom it is given' more easily to Gospel perfection (Mt 19:11). Wherefore it is not imposed, but proposed" (n. 47). In that sense Pius XII's invitation has two aspects, following in the wake of the great Fathers: on the one hand he affirms the duty to, "measure one's strength" to understand whether one is capable of welcoming the gift of the grace of celibacy, in this way leaving to the Church, especially in our own day, a solid criterion for honest discernment; on the other hand the Pontiff emphasises the intrinsic bond between chastity and martyrdom, teaching, with St Gregory the Great, that chastity sustains martyrdom and represents, in every age, the highest and most efficacious form of witness.

It is clear to all how, especially in our secularised society, perfect chastity for the Kingdom of Heaven represents one of the most effective and convincing witnesses to "provoke" the intelligence and the heart of our contemporaries in a healthy way. In a climate which is eroticized to an ever greater degree, and almost violently so, chastity, above all of those in the Church who are imbued with the ministerial priesthood, represents an ever more powerfully eloquent challenge to the dominant culture and, ultimately, concerning the question of the very existence of God, proclaiming the possibility of knowing him and entering into relationship with him.

Now, it seems necessary to draw attention to a final reflection on Pius XII's Encyclical, because, more than others, it seems to decisively oppose many habits that are found today among not a few members of the Clergy and in various places of "formation". Citing St Jerome, the Pontiff stresses: "For the preserving of chastity, [...] flight is more effective than open warfare [...] Flight must be understood in this sense, that not only do we diligently avoid occasions of sin, but especially that in struggles of this kind we lift our minds and hearts to God, intent above all on him to whom we have consecrated our virginity. 'Look upon the beauty of the One you love', St Augustine tells us" (n. 54).

Today it would seem almost impossible to the educator to convey the value of celibacy and of purity to young seminarians in a context in which it is, as a matter of fact, beyond the bounds of practical possibility, to control the outlook, reading, Internet use and friends. If it is increasingly evident and necessary to have the mature engagement of the freedom of candidates in a voluntary and conscious collaboration in the work of formation, nonetheless the Encyclical identifies an error, and we are fully in agreement with this, that permits the candidate to the priesthood to enjoy every experience, without the necessary discernment and the required detachment from the world. Allowing this is to understand nothing of man, of his psychology, of society and of the culture that surrounds him. It means being closed into a sort of preconceived ideology that goes against reality. We have only to look around us. How realistic is the verse of the psalm: "They have eyes but they do not see"!

I have to admit, at the end of this brief excursus on the Encyclical of Pius XII (even if the same could be said concerning Ad catholici sacerdotii of Pius XI), that I remain continually surprised by their modernity and relevance. While allowing for the preeminent concentration on the sacred aspect of celibacy and on the bond between the exercise of worship and virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven, the Magisterium of these two Pontiffs presents a celibacy that is Christologically founded, both in its pointing to the ontological configuration to Christ, Priest and Virgin, and to that of imitatio Christi.

If there appears to be a certain justification that sees in the Papal Magisterium on celibacy, before the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, an insistence on sacred-ritual argumentation and in those after the Council an opening to more Christological-pastoral reasons, nonetheless one must recognize — and this is basic for the correct hermeneutic of continuity, namely for the "catholic" hermeneutic — that both Pius XI and Pius XII amply underlined the reasons that are of a theological character. Celibacy is presented in the above-mentioned pronouncements not only as particularly suitable and appropriate to the priestly condition, but also intimately connected to the very essence of the priesthood, understood as a participation in the Life of Christ, in His identity, and, therefore, to His mission. It is not by chance that those Churches of Eastern Rite that also ordain viri probati absolutely do not admit married presbyters to episcopal ordination!

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 August 2011, page 11

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