Letter Regarding the Interview of Archbishop Scicluna in Favor of the Marriage of the Priests
Last month, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a senior Vatican official and advisor to Pope Francis as well as Archbishop of Malta, said in an interview that the Catholic Church should “think seriously” about allowing priests to marry. Words that were obviously welcomed by mainstream thinking, but at the same time caused bewilderment and displeasure among many Catholics.
An expert on ecclesiastical celibacy, Monsignor Cesare Bonivento, now intervenes on Monsignor Scicluna’s statements. For many years a missionary in Papua New Guinea for PIME (the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Milan) and today bishop emeritus, Monsignor Bonivento (who at the ripe old age of almost 84 still works as a trainer and spiritual assistant to seminarians) has dedicated in-depth studies to the question of ecclesiastical celibacy, the latest of which is Celibacy and Ecclesial Continence. Breve compendio storico-teologico (a publication Duc in altum has dealt with here). And from the height of his expertise, he judges Scicluna’s words not only wrong but irresponsible.
by Mgr. Cesare Bonivento*
On January 8th, the international press widely reported the interview granted by Mgr. Scicluna, Archbishop of Malta and Deputy Secretary of the Vatican Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, to the Times of Malta. In this interview it seems that the Archbishop of Malta is very much in favor of optional celibacy or, more clearly, the possibility of allowing priests to marry. According to numerous newspapers, Monsignor Scicluna said that the Catholic Church should “reflect seriously” on the possibility of allowing priests to marry. During this interview, Pope Francis’ advisor declared that celibacy “was optional for the first millennium of the Church’s existence and should return to being so”.
This interview had a huge impact on the world, with the approval and appreciation of most of them. For example, on 23 January in the Gazzetta di Malta Claudia Gravili, reporting the reactions of many media, wrote that: “…the declarations of Archbishop Charles Scicluna on priests and marriage have gone around the world as they are courageous, unequivocal, broad and coming from a senior Vatican official at a time when the Church is seriously considering change”.
According to the National Catholic Reporter’s Vatican correspondent, Christopher White, with the exception of the debate over homosexual blessings, it was the most talked about Vatican news story this month. “It wasn’t just the Archbishop of Malta who declared it, but a senior official which is expressly affiliated with the Vatican’s doctrinal office,” he said.
However, these statements have caused great surprise and perplexity among many lay people and ecclesiastics both for their inaccuracy and for the role played by their author. In fact it seems impossible that Archbishop Scicluna made such statements, since Archbishop Scicluna knows very well both the history and the content of theology, especially regarding celibacy. It would therefore be crazy to attribute the authorship of these phrases to him without giving him the benefit of the doubt. However, since these statements have been widely circulated and have not been denied by the interested party even after a few weeks, we are obliged to respond to them, inviting Archbishop Scicluna to rectify them in case they have been unduly attributed to him.
As for the numerous questions that many friends have asked me regarding this interview, I can respond briefly as follows.
The first objection that arises spontaneously regarding the surprising statements made by Archbishop Scicluna is of a historical nature. He says about celibacy: “It was optional for the first millennium of the Church’s existence and should return to being so”. This is absolutely not true, because even if it is true that the Catholic Church has always allowed access to Holy Orders to married men as well as to celibates, the Catholic Church has always required perfect abstinence from any sexual activity after Holy Ordination from all clerics established in Holy Orders. Consequently, no document of the Catholic Magisterium can be found that allows marriage or the use of marriage after the reception of Holy Orders. This refers to both the Western and Eastern Churches. This discipline, which goes by the name of “law of celibacy”, has always included both the obligation of perfect continence for married people who received Holy Ordinations, as well as the obligation of perpetual celibacy for celibates who received the same Holy Ordinations. This discipline dates back to the origins of Christianity, and it derives its teaching directly from the Apostles, from the first documents of the Church Fathers and from the sub-apostolic Church.
Its codification occurred progressively starting from the Council of Elvira in 305, and then with the councils of Arles in 314, Amcyra in 314, Neocesarea in 315, up to the great Council of Nicaea in 325 which teaches the obligation of celibacy/continence for all Bishops, Priests and Deacons of the whole Catholic Church. Therefore, stating that in the first millennium celibacy was optional, and that it became obligatory only in the second millennium is an unacceptable inaccuracy in a high official of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The second objection concerns the fact that Archbishop Scicluna, by saying he is very in favor of the marriage of priests, does not realize that he not only does go against history, but he also goes against the profound theology on which the discipline of ecclesiastical celibacy is based.
In fact this discipline:
is based on the will of Christ, as it appears from the structure of the college of the Apostles. In fact among the Apostoles there were both married men like Peter and celibate people like John: however, all of them had been invited by Jesus to follow him, abandoning everything, even their families. Which the Apostles did (Mt 19, 27-29);
is of Apostolic origins. It was taught directly and repeadedly by the Apostles: St. Peter (Mt 19, 27-29) and St. Paul (I Cor, 7; 1 Tim 5, 9-10, Tit 1, 89; Hebr. especially 5, 1-10);
has been defended by the Magisterium for over two millennia for its biblical and patristic foundations. In fact, its apostolic origin has been underlined by the Magisterium countless times: cf. e.g. Siricius I, Innocent I, Gregory the Great, Council of Carthage of 390, can. 2;
was legislated for the entire Catholic Church by can. 3 de Conc. of Nicaea, and was solemnly sanctioned by can. 9 of the 24th Session of the Council of Trent, which absolutely prevents the marriage of Clerics established in Holy Orders. This canon is considered by many to be dogma;
was the cause of the initial split between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. In fact, it was only in 691 that the Second Trullan Council, giving in to many pressures within the Eastern Churches, granted the use of marriage to married clerics when they were not serving at the altar. This happened despite the strong opposition of the Catholic Church. It should be noted, however, that the discipline concerning Bishops was not modified in the slightest: even today it is the same that is observed by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
It has always been confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church, particularly by Vat. II with PO 16, and by the post-Council Popes: Paul VI, GP II, Benedict XVI.
It has been dogmatically illustrated in its profound connection with the unique and eternal priesthood of Christ by Paul VI. In the great encyclica Sac. Cael. n. 19 Paul VI admirably explains the theological reason why the discipline of celibacy/continence is essential to the ministerial priesthood. He says: “The Christian priesthood, which is new, can only be understood in the light of the newness of Christ, Supreme Pontiff and eternal Priest, who established the ministerial priesthood as a real participation in his unique priesthood (15). The minister of Christ and administrator of the mysteries of God (16) therefore also has in him the direct model and the supreme ideal (17). Christ, the only son of the Father, by virtue of his own incarnation, is constituted Mediator between heaven and earth, between the Father and the human race. In full harmony with this mission, Christ remained throughout his life in the state of virginity, which signifies his total dedication to the service of God and men. This profound connection between virginity and the priesthood in Christ is reflected in those who have the fate of participating in the dignity and mission of the eternal Mediator and Priest, and this participation will be all the more perfect, the more the sacred minister is free from the constraints of flesh and blood.”
From all this we must conclude that the two thousand year old discipline of ecclesiastical celibacy is not just an ecclesiastical discipline, but an ecclesiastical discipline based on the Mystery of Christ.
The third observation concerns the principle on which ArchBishop Scicluna relies to suggest the change of this two-thousand-year-old discipline, based on the will of Christ and the teaching of the Apostles. Unfortunately, from what he has written and said, the only principle he uses is sociological in nature: avoiding scandals. Too little, indeed. If this criterion were truly a theological one, it would soon lead to the elimination of a large part of the ten commandments and particularly of the sixth one. But sociology is not the path that theology must follow to understand the Mystery of Christ.
Such a delicate discussion can only take place in the context of faith and not in a secularized context. Only in the light of faith can celibacy for the Kingdom of Heaven have meaning and be freely embraced. Outside of a faith-based perspective, it will only ever appear as an incomprehensible norm or even senseless repression.
Finally, we must ask ourselves, what is the function of Monsignor Scicluna as assistant secretary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith? Isn’t it up to him to remind all the Bishops of the Catholic Church that the two thousand year old discipline of ecclesiastical celibacy is based on the very person of Jesus Christ, the High and Eternal Priest, the only Mediator between God and men? And if he doesn’t do it, who owes it to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith?
It certainly wasn’t a great idea to have made the above statements, speaking as Assistant Secretary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. These statements are not at all a sign of clarity and courage, but only of very serious imprudence. Just think of the enormous damage that these words of his have caused and are causing to the priests tempted to abandon the Priesthood and to the seminarians in priestly formation. If Archbishop Scicluna really wanted to make his doubts about ecclesiastical celibacy known to the general public, it would have been much more appropriate if he had first resigned from his prestigious office, and had then spoken in a personal capacity without compromising the authority of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith.
Courage. Best wishes to everyone to be firm in the Faith (I Cor. 16.13)
*emeritus of Vanimo, Papua New Guinea