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  • Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations by Gary Selin
  • Sara Butler M.S.B.T.
Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations. By Gary Selin. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2016. Pp. xxi + 210. $29.95 (paper). ISBN: 978-0-8132-2841-9.

Is the “law of celibacy” only an ecclesiastical tradition, or might it also be an apostolic tradition? Does this long-standing discipline chiefly serve a practical purpose, or does it have theological roots attached to the nature of the priesthood? Do the theological arguments advanced to support it depend on flawed and obsolete theories, or has there been a doctrinal development that supplies a positive and convincing rationale? Is the celibate vocation of secular priests the same as or different from the vocation to chastity in the consecrated life?

In Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations, Fr. Gary Selin addresses these questions and opts for the second alternative in each instance. He presents the case for “continence-celibacy” as an apostolic tradition whose theological roots reveal it to be profoundly suitable to the nature of the priesthood, above all to the episcopate. He shows how the Second Vatican Council’s theological arguments concerning the Christological, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions of priestly celibacy have been developed into a solid, positive rationale. Given this new context, he is able to discover how celibacy, as a charism, is integral, though not essential, to the priesthood, and how it is ordered, not only to personal asceticism, but also to priestly ministry and in particular to the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Selin successfully establishes his thesis that the reasons for observing priestly celibacy are doctrinal and not merely pragmatic or disciplinary. He documents a development that shifts attention from the doctrinal reasons given in the past—ritual purity and the superiority of consecrated celibacy to the married state—to those that highlight the imitation of Christ’s own celibate condition, the newness of his priesthood, and his role as the Bridegroom who sacrifices his life for the Church. This project is in some ways related to the task of defending the Church’s practice of reserving priestly ordination to men. It requires retracing the history of the tradition with the [End Page 605] help of contemporary scholarship, evaluating inadequate and incomplete explanations, and formulating theological arguments of fittingness that are fully evangelical and supported by the analogy of faith.

In treating the biblical foundations of priestly celibacy, Selin distinguishes texts that portray virginity or celibacy as a Christian ideal for everyone (Matt 19:11–12; 1 Cor 7:25–40; and Matt 22:30–32) from those that seem to require continence of the Church’s ministers—bishops (1 Tim 3:2), presbyters (Titus 1:6), and deacons (1 Tim 3:12). He draws on Ignace de la Potterie’s theory that “man (or husband) of one wife” in the Pastoral Letters is a technical expression referring to the early Church’s practice of ordaining mature married men with the expectation that they would thereafter be bound by perfect and perpetual continence. The scholarly study of “continencecelibacy” in the patristic era (e.g., the work of Christian Cochini, Alfons Stickler, Stefan Heid, and Roman Cholij—building on the earlier thesis of Gustav Bickell) favors this interpretation and offers new grounds for discovering the antiquity, and possible apostolic authority, of clerical celibacy. A growing consensus has gradually replaced the view that the Church imposed the discipline of celibacy on the clergy at a much later date. Selin’s summary of the historical evidence will help make the origins of the practice better known, and it corrects the impression that the argument from ritual purity is indebted to non-Christian influence. Selin gives a brief account of the subsequent history and theology of celibacy in the Latin Church, leading up to the Funk-Bickell debate and the seminal work of other nineteenth-century scholars such as Johann Adam Möhler, Blessed John Henry Newman, and Matthias Scheeben. He points out, however, that the reasons given to justify clerical celibacy in the early twentieth century were often merely pragmatic (e.g., freedom from distractions and worldly concerns), or defensive and apparently negative (ritual purity, superiority to...


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