Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Msgr. David Q. Liptak

In ongoing articles and discussions about the so-called shortage of priests recently, suggestions were made repeatedly about ordaining women and abolishing celibacy requirements for priests. Sometimes surveys of the laity are cited in defense of such suggestions. Yet the doctrinal and theological aspects of these proposals are hardly known, much less appreciated; and the doctrinal and theological aspects are and will always be the key determinants.

Consider the first issue, that of calling women to Holy Orders. For doctrinal and theological reasons, it simply is not an option. From a doctrinal standpoint, the Church cites Apostolic Tradition (in the sense of an upper-case "T") as the main reason. Moreover, the Church has unequivocally stated that this is a Tradition which the Church views as "a part of the substance given her from her very foundation," as Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the greatest theologians of our time, once put it.

Furthermore, the doctrinal aspects of this Tradition have been reaffirmed by the Church in response to modern challenges. On 15 October 1976, in the Declaration Inter Insignores, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith described the practice of ordaining only men as possessing a "normative character" founded on "an unbroken Tradition" and both ancient and universal, a practice "based on Christ’s example." (Sec. 4) Hence "the Catholic Church has never thought that priestly or episcopal ordination can be validly conferred on women." (Sec. 1)

Pope John Paul II, in an Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, dated 22 May 1994, said: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful." (Sec. 4)

Even more recently, on 28 Oct. 1995, John Paul II, in a "Reply to a Doubt" promulgated through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated that priestly ordination must be viewed as "belonging to the deposit of faith and ‘requires definitive assent’ since it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium." This "Reply" was structured by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

For background reading on this topic, see Sister Sara Butler’s recent The Catholic Priesthood and Women. (Chicago: Hillenbrand. 2007) Sister Sara, the first American woman named to the International Theological Commission, teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y.

The issue of women’s ordination has also created serious problems in ecumenical relations, since it represents further erosion of Apostolic Tradition.

The second often-voiced, flawed suggestion regarding the "shortage" of priests is an end to clerical celibacy. Clerical celibacy rests on Apostolic origins. As early as 1979, in his Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, Pope John Paul II stressed this doctrine against modern errors.

Hence the law of priestly celibacy is not simply a relatively late development, but rather an expression of a Tradition dating from Christ and the Apostles.

One Biblical text witnessing to celibacy as a gift for those who opt for it for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom is Matthew 19:12.

In any discussion of celibacy it is important to stress the difference between ordaining married men (which is still a custom within autonomous Ritual Churches cradled in the East) and allowing priests to marry. Obviously married men were ordained from the beginning; but, once ordained, they could not marry.

One of the best sources for study of this entire subject is The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, by Jesuit Father Christian Cochina. (Ignatius, 1990)

Given the ancient Tradition, as well as the sign-value of clerical celibacy, clerical celibacy can hardly be radically altered. The great German theologian Karl Rahner reminded us that the Scriptures affirm that renouncing marriage is a genuine, noble, holy alternative in Christian existence. He also rejected the notion that the law of clerical celibacy distorts, in fact, a free charism.

Also, celibacy, Father Rahner argued, "does not draw nourishment from a subliminal fear of sex, a secret dualism, and indirect contempt for sex." Isn’t it just the opposite; specifically, that celibacy cannot be freely chosen unless the choice reflects a psychologically and spiritually healthy person? (See Servants of the Lord, 1968)

Incidentally, the answer to the perceived "priest shortage" is known from the Scriptures. It is recorded in Luke 10:2.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of

The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.