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Cardinal Walter Brandmüller as a Defender of Priestly Celibacy

September 2, 2016 breaking No Comments

Maike Hickson

As reported on 31 August on OnePeterFive, the German lay organization Zentralkomittee der deutschen Katholiken (ZdK – Central Committee of German Catholics) has now proposed to slacken the demands for priestly celibacy in light of the decreasing numbers of German priests. Thomas Sternberg, the president of the ZdK said in an 29 August interview with the German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine: “If it does not work any more otherwise – if we are losing personnel in the field of pastoral care – and if it is the case that celibacy is an obstacle [sic], then it has to be slackened, because it is less important,” Sternberg explained. In his eyes, to have “imported priests” from other countries cannot be a solution in the long run. Following the Sternberg initiative, the German author Mathias von Gersdorff reports now that representatives of two political parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as well as the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) – have added support for the discussion about a gradual loosening of priestly celibacy. Von Gersdorff strongly resists such an intrusion by political parties into the Catholic Church’s doctrinal and disciplinary debates, and he calls upon all Catholics in Germany “to resist such an aggressive action against the Catholic Church.”

In light of this recent push for married priests, the arguments in favor of the slackening of priestly celibacy – which are not new – deserve to be analyzed and, as appropriate, refuted. It is thus important to know that Cardinal Walter Brandmüller – who was for more than twenty years the president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences – had, already in 2011, written an excellent and lucid defense of priestly celibacy: a defense rooted in “the apostolic patrimony.” His arguments are still as valid as they were then. In the following, I shall thus present his main line of argumentation stemming from his own scholarly introduction to a 2011 book, entitled Reizthema Zölibat: Pressestimmen (The Provocative Topic of Celibacy: Press Commentaries), which was published by the German publishing house fe-medienverlag. (Mr. Bernhard Müller, editor of the publishing house, was so kind as to make available to me a PDF file of the entire book which has now been completely sold out. As I later discovered, the Italian journalist Sandro Magister had earlier published Cardinal Brandmüller’s defense of celibacy in 2014, and in another English translation. I give here the link to that presentation for the sake of those who wish to read a fuller account of the Cardinal’s work here: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350847?eng=y)

In his introduction, Cardinal Brandmüller reminds the readers of the biblical foundation of priestly celibacy by quoting three different Gospel passages (St. Matthew 19:29; St. Mark 10:29; St. Luke 18:29), according to which Jesus Christ Himself openly promised abundant eternal rewards (and also temporal ones) for those who generously and sacrificially leave “house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.” The German Cardinal explains that this invitation and promise was not addressed “to the people in general, but to those whom He specifically wished to send out [as missionaries] in order to preach the Gospel and the coming of the Kingdom of God.”  Brandmüller continues: “In order to fulfill this mission, it is also necessary to free oneself of all earthly, human attachments.” For this sacrifice, Jesus Christ has promised an “over-abundant ‘compensation,’” according to the Cardinal.

Brandmüller also discusses the mentioning of a certain woman in the letters of St. Paul (1 Cor. 9:5). Here, he explains that the woman mentioned was not St. Paul’s wife but, rather, a companion and helper, just as Jesus Himself, together with the Apostles, had women following Him and assisting Him on His travels, as mentioned in the Eighth Chapter of St. Luke.  Brandmüller also points out that St. Paul (1 Cor. 7:29ff.) himself emphatically recommends “not to marry, or alternatively, to live chastely in marriage.”

The Church historian then shows in this text how the Church for a certain while allowed married men to become priests and bishops as long as they were living chastely. Usually, these ordained men were older men. Already in 305-306 A.D., according to Cardinal Brandmüller, the Council of Illiberis-Elvira “put this practice of apostolic origin into the form of a law.” Priests and bishops (as well as deacons) were disallowed to have any conjugal relations with their wives. As the Cardinal then shows, from the Fifth Century on, the Church more and more began to ordain only unmarried men. This principle was taken up into Canon Law in the Middle Ages. The 87-year old Cardinal admits that this “canonical discipline” has “not always and everywhere been lived,” and he shows how at times there was even a violent resistance against those reformers within the Church who pushed for a full and consequent implementation of this canonical law of priestly celibacy.

Cardinal  Brandmüller then makes a very important observation when he says: “It is remarkable that in the past, the adverse questioning, and further disregard, of the state of priestly celibacy have always been going along with other symptoms of the Church’s decadence and decay – while times of religious blossoming and of cultural renewal were marked by a conscientious observance of celibacy.” He concludes with some incisive words: “It is not difficult to draw from these historical observations consequences for our current crisis.”

At the end of his introduction, Cardinal Brandmüller touches upon the challenges posed by two questions which could also be used to undermine the Catholic understanding of celibacy, namely: the exceptions made for the Eastern Churches and the additional concessions for Anglican converts. With regard to the Eastern Churches, the Cardinal explains that it was initially the Church in the East which had especially stressed the “apostolic practice of abstinent celibacy to be formally binding.” He then explains that “under the influence of the general religious-cultural and political decline of the Byzantine Empire, there came to be the breach with the apostolic tradition.” However, one local ecclesiastical Council which had permitted these confused disciplinary conditions, and which had been inordinately influenced by the Byzantine Emperor, “was never recognized by the popes.” From thence, says the German Cardinal, stems the current mixed practice of the Eastern Churches. However, for the sake of the unity of the Church, those orthodox churches who later wanted to re-unite with Rome themselves in the 16th and 17th centuries were wholeheartedly  welcomed back, and without any requirement on their part to implement the priestly celibacy, as Brandmüller explains.

Moreover, he says: “In a similar way, one also justifies the dispensation from celibacy which has been granted, since Pius XII, to individual Protestant ministers who have converted to the Catholic Church and have then requested to become ordained priests.” As the Cardinal shows, Pope Benedict XVI accepted the same rules for the not-so-few Anglican ministers who came into the Church “according to the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus.” The well-informed Church historian concludes: “It is the greatly valued good of the unity of the Church that justifies these exceptions.”

In the conclusion of his introductory essay, Cardinal Brandmüller makes clear that priestly celibacy is part of the apostolic patrimony that cannot be given up for any reason. He shows that one needs to remind Catholics “of the binding character of the apostolic traditions” and continues, as follows: “It might be helpful in this context to raise the question as to whether it would be possible to abolish – with the help of a Council – the celebration of Sunday which, by the way, has much less of a Biblical foundation than celibacy.”

In his answer to the question about what should be done with regard to the shortage of priests in modern times, Cardinal Brandmüller reminds us that all fruitful reforms stem, and must stem, “from a deeper understanding of the Church’s Faith.” Thus, there needs to be, in his eyes, “a new and deeper grasp of the essence of the Catholic priesthood.” He explains that the priesthood “is not an institution of service, exercised on behalf of the parish,” but that it “consists in the fact that the priest – by virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders – teaches, suffers and sanctifies ‘in persona Christi’.” Only if we come to understand this (supernatural and incarnational) aspect of the priesthood, says Brandmüller, “we will understand anew that he [the priest] also imitates Christ’s own way of living.” Such an understanding of the priesthood, Brandmüller is convinced, will deeply and fittingly attract “the elite of the youth.”

The German Cardinal concludes his essay with the following trenchant and convincing words: “Furthermore, celibacy – as well as virginity – chosen for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven will always be a stumbling block for those with a secular understanding of life. Jesus Himself already spoke on this matter, when he said: ‘He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.’”

May many Catholics learn from Cardinal Brandmüller’s deep understanding of the supernatural-incarnational institution of the Catholic priesthood which is not of this world and not made only for the world. May we grow in our understanding that the priesthood – just like a good marriage – can only be lived and sustained with the help of supernatural Grace and our co-operation; may we thus return to a deep prayer life, liturgical practice and loyal devotions in order that we all may better live our state in life and our special individual vocation and mission on earth. And, with our collaboration, may the soil be prepared upon which the good fruit of many holy priests may grow and persevere – unto Eternal Life.

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