The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Marriage and celibacy in the Church: Ongoing prophetic voices

We live in an era of rapid social and sociological change. Modern life and prevailing attitudes have made individuals, female and male, more independent in their minds and ways of living. All this has had its effects on the stability of marriage. Ours is also an age of a sexual revolution which has consequences in a variety of ways for Christian living. The church’s position, and its social standing, have been affected in a very special way by the scandal of clerical child, or minor, sexual abuse. Even while only a minority of priests are involved – between three or four per cent, three or four out of every hundred – the scandals have made a great impact on Irish society and the Irish church. It has been suggested by persons in reputable legal positions that the clerical sex scandals involving minors is connected with their celibacy. Given all this, many of us will naturally ask whether the time has come to regard the traditional Catholic position on celibacy and marriage as something not for our age, of the past and to be set aside in this new age of free thinking.

            In situations such as this, it would be unwise to think of any immediate change. The history of church and society in one’s country merits consideration. Marriage in the earlier Irish church was rather unstable, and calls for reform in this area were many in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Irish monasticism, in which celibacy was central, has had a glorious history, even if, like the church in the course of its history, it has had its share of scandals. It has survived, however, and looks forward in confidence to an equally dedicated ministry of bearing witness to the Gospel. The church, all in the church from the Pope to ordinary members of the faithful, retains confidence in overcoming current problems because the church’s strength comes from the power of God, which is stronger than human weakness.

It is worth reflecting on some modern problems with an eye on God’s activity in nature and with his chosen people. A message to be learned from the liturgical readings of the Second Sunday of Advent (Year A; 2014) was that we should learn to live in patience and perseverance with the Living God. Modern science has made us aware of the slow development that has led up to our modern world and modern universe, of which we are still learning more of its secrets. The same is true of the millennia lying behind the evolution of the human race as we now know it. For those who believe in a God who has created and governs the universe and the human race, this means that God was active in all this. Science, then, makes us aware of the hidden activity of our God over countless millennia.

            This activity was silent. In our Judeo-Christian tradition there is another divine presence, one of divine communication to God’s own chosen people, and through them to the entire human race. This communication is through God’s word which, in God’s own words, lasts forever. The expression “word of the Lord” is generally associated with God’s revelation through the prophets. Divine revelation, of course, is not just through the prophets. In the Bible God’s revelation to his people was through Moses and the Law. Moses was a prophet in a very special sense in that he saw God face to face (Deut 34:10; Exod 33:11). The prophets received God’s word. Prophecy in this sense was believed to have begun with Samuel. In Samuel’s youth “the word of the Lord was rare” (1 Samuel 3:1,7). The word of the Lord, once spoken by God, lasts for ever (Isaiah 40:8). It is regarded as a force within history; like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces (Jeremiah 23:29). The prophetic word came eventually also through the written word. The prophetic word of God was not always immediately fully fulfilled, but once given, under divine guidance it inspired later generations. What the book of Isaiah had originally to say about the Servant of the Lord had a message for the prophet’s contemporaries during the exile in Babylon. It also had later, when applied to Jesus Christ.         Jesus said that, together with marriage, there are, and will be, some who dedicate themselves to God’s service in celibacy (“eunuchs for the sake of kingdom of heaven”, Matthew 19:12). The married state is a sign of the kingdom of God. So, too, with celibacy: it is and will be sign, when humbly lived in constant response to God’s all-powerful grace.

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