Friday, August 26, 2005

Fr. Tucker Explains the Celibate Priesthood

The first distinction we need to make is between priests who are vowed Religious and those who are not. Vowed Religious would be friars, monks, Jesuits, and all those men who belong to this or that religious Order. They -- like any woman or non-priest who joins an Order -- make the traditional three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience -- what we call the three evangelical counsels. The religious vow of chastity is actually a vow of continence, the voluntary abstinence from all sexual gratification. Chastity in itself is not sexual abstinence, but rather the virtue of rightly ordering the sexual drive, and this applies to the unmarried and the married in different ways. Everyone is called to chastity, but not everyone is called to perpetual continence. It is to continence that members of the religious Orders vow themselves.

But not all priests belong to religious Orders. Considerable numbers of us depend directly upon the local bishop and, in fact, take no vows. We are called the "secular clergy." In a way analogous to the religious vows, at ordination we make public promises of celibacy and of obedience to the diocesan bishop and his successors. When the Church says "celibacy," she means celibatus, "the unmarried state." Indeed, if you look at public documents in Italy, for instance, in the marital status section, where an American document would say "single," the Italians still say "celibe," regardless of what sort of sexual life a person is leading. In English, the word has taken on connotations of continence, which is not what the canonical term means. So, canonically, the Religious priest takes a sacred vow to abstain from sexual activity; the secular priest makes a promise not to get married. A vow is more radical than a promise, and thus the spiritual rewards are greater for a vow -- and so are the penalties for breaking it. The Religious' vow (and this applies to priests, sisters, and brothers) is of higher perfection than the secular priest's promise.

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