"Even if there were married priests, it would still make sense to me... how can one not find meaning in what one lives?"
By Pascal Wintzer | France
The current synod, whose title may seem abstruse — a "Synod on Synodality" —, is perhaps best expressed by the three words that follow its title: "Communion, Participation and Mission".
I want to emphasize the call to mission. This is indeed what the Lord asks for in the final lines of the Gospels, including that of Saint Matthew.
We suffer when we see that there are people in the Church who are obstacles to the encounter with God.The urgency of a more faithful Church was received with such force that the synodal consultation began at the same time as France's Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) published its report was published.
As for the whole of society, the difficulty lies in the exercise of authority.The Church is suspected of abuse, of not respecting minorities and even of covering up abuse, and Pope Francis has expressed this well by pointing out that the three types of abuse – abuse of power, as well as spiritual and sexual abuse – often feed off each other.Many words, or writings, conclude that the cause of all this is the specificity of priests and bishops, meaning both their lifestyle, including celibacy, and the authority they exercise in the Church.They say that changing both would be the remedy for the excesses that have produced so many offenses and crimes.
A possible path forward
I resist this causal link.I might be told that the reasons for my resistance is that I am defending and justifying who I am: a celibate and an archbishop. I want to go beyond this argument that stops all reflection.
Both the CIASE report and the synodal syntheses question the systematic character of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite — it must be remembered that the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite have preserved the tradition of a married or celibate clergy.
I have spoken about the possibility of the Latin Church ordaining married men to the priesthood.This possibility would not be a solution to the number of priests, which is estimated to be low in Europe today, nor would it be a guarantee against possible deviances, especially sexual ones.
I have written the reasons why I believe this path is possible and undoubtedly desirable. But this would not call into question the possibility of a celibate clergy, nor would it lead current priests to be able to marry.
Indeed, the Gospel calls for fidelity to commitments and the tradition of the Church commits those whom it ordains to remain in the state which they were when they were ordained.
A misunderstood choice
Many years ago I did not want to consider the possibility of ordaining married men, because I saw in it an argument that would be understood as denying all meaning given to celibacy.I am aware, as are many priests, that our choice of celibacy is often misunderstood, even mocked, or even suspected of not being faithfully lived out in private.
Without deluding myself about the falls and failures, and without presuming to speak for others, I want to express everything about the meaning behind the celibacy that I strive to live.Even if there were married priests, it would still make sense to me... how can one not find meaning in what one lives?
First of all, I want to affirm that I did not choose to be a priest, I was called to it.Of course, none of this happened without my consent, nor even without my expressing a certain expectation and a certain desire, but it is through being called that I am a priest.
The Church, through men and women, has been the interpreter and the servant of God's call.
Excellent priests, but bad celibates
As for celibacy, I chose it. Others like me have discerned and verified their ability to be a priest in the Catholic Church in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but it was I, myself, who perceived that celibacy suited me.Of course, this celibacy is the corollary of my availability to be a priest, but it must also correspond to a human and psychological state, allowing me to experience it as a path of humanization.
I have known several young people who had the desire to be priests, but they could not see themselves living without a wife or children. They would have made excellent priests, I am certain, but bad celibates.
The rule of mandatory celibacy thus deprives the Catholic Church of some excellent priests and some excellent pastors.
There is certainly no one way to live out priestly celibacy, as psychologies and cultures are different.Of course, this life makes you feel the absence... of an emotional life, of a sexual life, of touching someone else's body. The absence of children, of intellectual intimacy... For each person the absence will take on a different aspect.
Yet, what human life is not without some kind of absence? It is a lie to think that a person could experience everything that the human race knows.
Attitudes of seduction
Each one of us lacks something; it is the consumer society that seeks to make it unbearable, to immediately offer a remedy with an object which, for hard cash, will fill it.However, one must learn to live with absences, to suffer from them certainly, but also to find ways of sublimation. It seems to me that this is the way to envisage a life of celibacy before finding spiritual or religious reasons for it.These reasons certainly count, but if they are not anchored in the heart of the person, they run the risk of being nothing more than external justifications that will not nourish one's existence.The consequence will be to seek gratification in the eyes of others, or even to beg for it, developing attitudes of seduction, including religious and spiritual ones, even to the point of taking control. The person who behaves in this way will never acquire true freedom for himself and will not allow others to grow in freedom.
Rather, it is a man who is called to be a priest, and a man who has been verified as being more or less balanced!
Attachment to Christ
I am increasingly convinced that the priestly celibacy, which has been understood and lived above all as a means of availability for mission, can and will only make sense – notwithstanding human capacities – for spiritual reasons, thus coming closer to the celibacy of religious and consecrated persons.The conditions of Christian life in a secularized world have done away with the social and reputational rewards that priests previously received. This affects all Christians.
Therefore, without a life of attachment to the person of Christ, a life of prayer and of giving, all believers – including priests – can feel a loss of meaning in their lives.We must always be aware that we live not by what we do, but by the gift of ourselves; without having the exclusive right to do so, celibacy is an expression of this.
Pascal Wintzer has been the Archbishop of Poitiers in Western France since 2012 and currently heads the Observatory on Faith and Culture within the French Bishops' Conference. This article is an excerpt from his recent pastoral letter to the priests of his diocese.