Paul VI’s Solutions to the Clergy Crisis? Be Bold in Faith...

For Paul VI, asceticism, self-denial and self-control were ways to prepare the Church and its priests for successful spiritual combat

Pope Paul VI leaves the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth after celebrating Mass on Jan. 5, 1964.
Pope Paul VI leaves the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth after celebrating Mass on Jan. 5, 1964. (photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Yes, the Church is in difficulty. Even some of her sons, who have sworn their love and loyalty [to the Church], are leaving; not a few seminaries are almost deserted, religious families could hardly find new followers; and faithful who no longer fear of being unfaithful. . . The list of these ailments that afflict today the Church of God – despite the Council – could continue, until we find that a large part of them does not attack the Church from the outside, but it afflicts it, weakens it, from the inside. The heart is filled with bitterness.

This is how Pope Paul VI addressed the people gathered for the general audience on Nov. 11, 1974. Yes, the Catholic Church was in crisis — an unprecedented-post-conciliar crisis in the Church which was reflected in a steep drop in priestly vocations and ordinations, and a rise in the number of priests who voluntary were abandoning their priestly vocation—as was the case of Mario Renato Cornejo Radavero, auxiliary bishop of Lima, Peru, who resigned and married Marta Fernandez Trevino. The trend against celibacy and de-clericalization was gaining momentum. The root cause of the crisis was a failure in celibacy. In fact, the post-conciliar crisis of the 1960s and 1970s had much to do with the crisis in vocations of the longstanding Tridentine-celibate model of priesthood.

In an effort to resolve the crisis in priestly vocations different proposals were made to Paul VI, including opening priestly ordination to married men of proven quality, otherwise known as viri probati; ad tempus celibacy, which could be periodically renewed; compulsory celibacy for full-time clergy and freedom to marry for part-time clergy; and married priests for small parishes as discussed and proposed by the Italian Episcopal Conference in 1969. The solutions proposed sound familiar and were intended to resolve the abuse crisis and the contemporary crisis in priestly vocations.

Although homosexual activity of the clergy might not have been reported in the 1950s and 1960s, the symptoms of the crisis are not unlike those of the current crisis. What was Paul VI’s solution to the crisis?

For Paul VI, married clergy was not the answer. Celibacy and chastity were.

On Sept. 23, 1950, Pope Pius XII, in his exhortation Menti Nostrae addressed to the clergy and the Catholic world, offered sound tradition-tested solutions to the contemporary challenges in living in celibacy and chastity — the practice of Christian asceticism, as a way to preserve priestly celibacy and control the human passions “because the more firm and effective their [passions’] control will be, the more the soul can make progress in the other virtues and the more certain their priestly ministry will be.”

Paul VI followed in the same vein. Almost two years after the conclusion of Vatican II, on June 24, 1967, Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Sacerdotalis Coelibatus. In the post-conciliar climate a number of Catholic priests were requesting to be laicized, arguing publicly the motives for their decisions. Paul VI had studied carefully the objections against celibacy presented by the priests, bishops and cardinals. One cardinal who argued in this vein was Cardinal Bernardus Johannes Alfrink, archbishop of Utrecht, Netherlands, who in 1966 proposed a new, more collegial model in Church leadership which put at the same level bishops, priests and the faithful and proposed a model of voluntary celibacy for future priests. This was the beginning of the controversy in the Dutch church. Three years later, nine Dutch bishops, including Cardinal Alfrink, voted in favor of the Independence Declaration, refusing the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Moreover, the Dutch Pastoral Council supported the New Catechism, refusing the corrections suggested by Rome and calling for the Church to remain open to “new radical approaches” to moral issues.

Paul VI was conscious that the topic of ecclesiastical celibacy needed a more thorough exploration in all its aspects, including doctrinal, historical, sociological, psychological and pastoral. He scrutinized with rigor objections presented against celibacy and the view that priestly celibacy was the main cause for the decrease in vocations and the low morale among the clergy.

Paul VI returned to Church tradition, theology and the Church Fathers for answers. Additionally, “the immense ranks of men and women in religious life who lived faithfully and authentically in perfect chastity” were a constant inspiration for Montini since early in his vocation. During all his life, he maintained great respect for men and women religious and the laity who lived “[lives] of courageous self-denial and spiritual joyfulness with exemplary fidelity and also with relative facility,” honoring their commitments to religious and marital chastity respectively. It was because of this majority and because of these dedicated men and women that Paul VI confirmed the law of ecclesiastical celibacy in the Church, applying the teaching of Vatican II—specifically, the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests—which decreed that “celibacy is to be embraced and esteemed as a gift. Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, commended by Christ the Lord.”

There was no way that Paul VI was going to make any concession, loosen or weaken Church’s observance and teaching on ecclesiastical celibacy and chastity. Paul VI’s view of priestly celibacy was positive. For him, celibacy was an asceticism of freedom; it was a demanding but not suffocating and impossible asceticism. For Paul VI, asceticism, self-denial and self-control were ways to prepare the Church and its priests for successful spiritual combat with modern morals. His understanding of ecclesiastical celibacy was strictly connected to the Vatican II ecclesiology of communion. The Holy Father valued the life in community for the clergy as part and parcel of Christian asceticism — “a life lived in common and directed entirely toward their sacred ministry; the practice of having frequent meetings with a fraternal exchange of ideas, counsel and experience with their brother priests; the movement to form associations which encourage priestly holiness” were, according to Montini, a healthy way to live ecclesiastical celibacy.

Interestingly, Montini commended the laity: the immense ranks of men and women who lived their marital vows faithfully and authentically in perfect chastity. He considered the laity a great asset to assist the clergy. The laity can “enlighten” and “encourage” the priests to live fully and authentically their priestly vocation and save them from “the contamination by a destructive worldliness.” The laity provided a special witness of holiness to the world. For Montini, both priestly and lay holiness were witnesses of the goodness which is made possible in a life of service dedicated to God and family.

Then, what would the Pope of Sacerdotalis Coelibatus (1967) and Humanae Vitae (1968) propose to us today to resolve the current crisis of clergy sex abuse, cover-ups and moral scandals?

Focus on chastity, celibacy and lifelong commitment to God and neighbor. The Church needs all of us, she has a lot of trust “in you and in the People of God.” In this time of crisis “the kind must be more strongly kinder and the faithful more strengthened in faith.”

Estote forte in fides – Be bold and strong in faith.