Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Clerical marriage III
July 19, 2012, 6:54 am
Filed under: Opinion

The third of four posts on this subject. (scroll down for the earlier posts)

The drift of my argument, in relation to priesthood and marriage, has been that while the Church undoubtedly can decide, as a matter of policy, to ordain only unmarried men; and can inhibit the ministry of any who, in defiance of its canon law, nevertheless marry subsequently; it cannot actually invalidate the subsequent marriage of a priest or bishop. Article XXXII states an important principle, and one which I would claim to be an important element of “Anglican Patrimony”.

This leads to my final points. Celibacy, marriage and priestly ministry can all be termed “vocations”, but in somewhat different ways. The word “vocation” seems to express the idea that a particular form of life is being chosen from a conviction that God (or some higher power, however conceived) wants one to follow it, even though possibly it is not entirely congenial. So one may speak of a vocation to nursing, or teaching, and logically one could equally speak of a vocation to be an engine driver or a bank manager. The essential factor is that one believes that somehow one is “called” or at least “meant” to follow this path. In a religious context, to enter a religious Order would certainly qualify as a “vocation”, but equally to enter the married state, for a Christian, could and should be seen as a vocation.

Priesthood can be seen in the same way, but it is also a vocation in another sense as well. It is the Church, in the person of the bishop, who calls someone to the sacred ministry. Liturgically, this takes place within the Ordination service itself, when the candidate is called forward so that the bishop may lay hands upon him. The action of the bishop is also the action of Christ, since in every sacrament Christ is the principle minister, acting through the appropriate human minister. Thus when someone is ordained, it is undoubtedly Jesus Christ who has conferred that ministry on him, and he is truly “called by God” to it. This is independently of his own, or any one else’s, feelings about it. It is an objective fact. While his own consent is vital- one cannot be ordained against one’s will- ordination is something “done to him”. A decision to embrace celibacy, on the other hand, must come from within.

Clearly the Church may, as a matter of policy, choose to call to priestly ministry only those (with rare exceptions) who have freely chosen to remain unmarried. Technically, at least, that is what now happens when a candidate makes the promise of celibacy. There would certainly be no problem at all if the Church looked for priestly vocations from among those who have quite independently chosen to remain celibate- in religious life, for instance. What has tended to happen, however, is that young men are encouraged to think primarily of priesthood in terms of “vocation”, and only secondarily of celibacy as a necessary condition for following that vocation. Inevitably, this must mean that the choice of celibacy is not totally unconstrained, but is conditioned by the belief that, in order to respond to the inner Divine calling to priesthood, one must willy-nilly accept that one is called also to celibacy. Whether this is an entirely wise policy may perhaps be questioned.

(To be concluded)


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