A priest was recently asked about priestly celibacy on a network television program. Sad to say, he responded by nonchalantly stating that the celibacy requirement for priests was only instituted about 800 years ago — “to keep property out of the hands of family heirs.”

If that were true, celibacy would be worse than wrong.

Why a cleric with virtually no critical competence should have been called on as a “spokesman” for the Church can only be explained by the network. The man himself made things worse by his off-handedness.

The history of celibacy, as it has been subject to intense scholarly review in recent years, does not deserve glib treatment. Rather, it deserves the kind of thoughtful reflection it receives in Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood by Opus Dei Father Thomas McGovern.

Published by Four Courts Press in Dublin, this work presents a deft response to shallow perception. It follows Father McGovern's previous, equally worthwhile Four Courts book, 1998's Priestly Celibacy Today, which was similarly mindful of celibacy as a charism.

A close reading of the new work will do much to enlighten the faithful on the true nature of priestly identity — an understanding of which is essential for any who would speak out on priestly celibacy.

Indivisible Identity

Recent crises in the Catholic priest-hood have provoked hostile demands for restructuring. Many of these calls are notable only for their lack of understanding about what a priest is and why Christ instituted the priesthood the way he did. Father McGovern explains the big picture in clear language, paying close attention to detail.

The romantic utopianism that animated many naive churchmen in the period of Vatican II was sorely dashed by the volcanic eruption of defections from the priesthood and the decline in vocations, especially in the West. The author writes from Ireland, which has experienced the sharpest rate of decline in the number of seminarians in all of Europe.

Papal teaching since Vatican II will be as highly regarded in future generations as it has been ignored in our time. That neglect is in part accountable for the moral disarray around us. Yet people continue to look to their priests and have even become almost presbyterian in their support for faithful priests — and their frustration with an episcopate that has become, in popular opinion, excited by the secular media: a symbol of clericalism impeding priestly life. A high theology of the priesthood cannot be separated from a high theology of the episcopate that embodies the fullness of the priesthood. Such theology cannot breathe if the priesthood degenerates into a bureaucratic caste.

Father McGovern recovers the essence of such seminal documents as Pope John Paul II's 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day) to explain what the Church means by the man ordained for others. He divides his analysis into three sections that parallel, perhaps by a happy intuition of grace, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: His account of the priestly life is in terms theological, spiritual and pastoral. As the Holy Trinity is undivided, so can these aspects of priestly life be isolated one from the other only at the price of priestly integrity.

Most people know their priests from their words at the altar, in the confessional and behind the pulpit. And, indeed, all other aspects of the priest's work flow from these places. Josef Pieper said that the crisis in priestly identity is rooted in a defective faith in the sacrifice of the Mass. Father McGovern is very practical in describing what has happened to the liturgy, preaching and spiritual direction, profiling a priesthood that transcends “democratic” and “autocratic” models alike.

It is not impious to say that papal documents generally lack popular diction. Apologists exist to popularize them; good apologists render them in the vernacular without abusing them. The McGovern book, not prodigal with words, would be valuable if only for its bibliography. This cites not only the expected conciliar documents and classical sources, but also the likes of such popular popularizers as Joseph Pierce, Catherine Pickstock, Wanda Poltawska, Malcolm Muggeridge, John Saward, Janet Smith, Eamon Duffy, Alec Guinness and Aidan Nichols.

Gift and Mystery

Soul-numbing mistakes have been made in the liturgy and seminary formation. Even earnest churchmen invested so much of themselves in those miscalculations that, in their sunset years, they cannot admit the essential defects in their dated enthusiasms. Meanwhile saintly modern examples of priestliness have been undercut by a failure to correct bad examples.

A notorious instance was the 1982 visitation of seminaries in the United States, whose failure has only now been acknowledged. A new generation has appeared for whom all that is a curious history. Its members need good guides. What Father McGovern writes could not be more timely.

The ranting of Pharisees in the press is a warning of how much ignorance fuels a hatred of the priesthood which, as one French historian wrote of the Revolution of 1789, is the oldest animus in Western civilization. With prescience — if understatement, in light of the present crisis — Father McGovern says: “One cannot help feeling at times that the active prosecution of failure in celibacy by the media is another way of attacking the Church's stand on sexual morality by trying to show it to be self-contradictory.”

As the priesthood is Christ's gift to the Church to enable the Church to be the Church and given the confusion over the priesthood in our time, Priestly Identity should be required reading for lay faithful as well as priests.

Father George W. Rutler is pastor of The Church of Our Saviour in New York City. Both Priestly Celibacy Today and Priestly Identity: A Study in the Theology of Priesthood can be ordered over the Internet at http://www.four-courts-press.ie