“Being Celibate Means Having the Heart Intact for God”
The Archbishop of Mendoza offers a necessary reflection on priestly celibacy, a subject reanimated by the case of Father Francisco Armendáriz.
Diario Los Andes
April 15, 2001
[Translated into English by BishopAccountability.org. Click below to see original article in Spanish.]
The case of Father Francisco Armendáriz, accused by a young woman of fathering her eight-month-old baby, has strongly impacted public opinion. It was also inevitable that the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Mendoza would be affected, and more intimately; Armendáriz, after all, was ordained by Archbishop José María Arancibia.
The affair reopened a debate that the Church has engaged in with particular intensity: religious celibacy. Critics abound on this issue: ex-priest Rolando Concatti told Los Andes that “celibacy is a form of domination by the ecclesiastical authorities;” the pastor of Quilmes, Luis Farinello, told our reporters that celibacy, since it is a gift of God, should be optional; in this way, the priests who wish to have a family would not be deprived of it.
Given the importance of the debate, the following interview with the Archbishop had this issue as its focal point. From his episcopal office, and on break from Holy Week activities, Monsignor Arancibia opened himself to philosophize in a frank and spontaneous dialogue:
-Should priestly celibacy be permanently established within the Church?
-It’s a frequent topic, yes, that is discussed, pondered, argued, questioned. Incidentally, within a couple of months, there’ll be a conference in which priests from all over the country will meet with an Italian professor who is an expert in the subject of affective human behavior.
-What is the purpose of this dialogue?
-We’d like to better prepare ourselves to attend to priests.
-Does the Church see this as a problem or a routine matter?
-It experiences it as a value and a problem, among many other things.
-In what sense?
-People sometimes ask us why we are not allowed to marry. In reality, it isn’t that we are disallowed to marry, but rather that the Church ordains individuals who gravitate to celibacy. It is true that celibacy, chosen at an early age, then requires a certain maturity, strength and fortitude to be maintained throughout one’s life.
-What does it mean to be celibate?
-It means, in the words of the Bible, to have the heart intact for God, for one’s people, for one’s ministry. It’s a matter of love and exclusive dedication. We do not choose celibacy because we are against marriage or because we prohibit it, but rather because it is a value in and of itself.
-It doesn’t imply living separated from the world?
-In some sense, it does. If separated from the world means to know God, dedicate oneself to the things that concern God, and be able to better spread the message, presence, and gestures of God, it is worthy. In truth, people come to us to help them find God.
-How is the world understood in this context?
-There are various interpretations. The world is called the world for its miserly, unwholesome, selfish, and materialistic reality. And the world is called the world because it is the reality of life. The priests do not want to be distant from that reality, the reality of the people.
-But not what is mundane…
-No, not what is miserly in the world, what is immoral, what is opposed to God. In that sense, we do not want to be of the world. The expression of Jesus is: you are in the world, but don’t be of the world. In other words, you don’t have to identify with or judge yourself by the criteria of the world. In short, the message is: offer something new to the world.
-Speaking of the message, at what moment did God expressly issue the mandate of celibacy to his shepherds?
-Jesus did not mandate celibacy to his shepherds, not exclusively or explicitly. In fact, there were married priests in the Catholic Church of the first centuries (and there still are today in the East), just as there are married deacons. Celibacy became firmly established as a value from the example of Jesus and the Apostles.
-There are writers and filmmakers who have portrayed Jesus maintaining a relationship with Mary Magdalene, as though she were his wife. They believe this further magnifies Christ in his human dimension. How do you see it?
-It’s an interpretation that has no basis in either Biblical study or historical study.
-Exactly, it’s an artistic interpretation.
-Yes, well said. In that sense, I respect it. But it seems to me that it confuses those who are the true seekers of the image of Jesus.
-Because if laypeople simply want to have pictures, writings, and accounts that allow them to know Jesus as Christianity has presented him and preserved his memory, then this kind of things sometimes slightly distorts.
-What the poets say, in short, is that Jesus knew what true love was…
-I am an adherent of love taking many forms. It is true that the love between a man and a woman that is full, permanent, fertile, devoted, is a very high expression of human love. And the Church’s teachings on marriage are very beautiful. All the churches that preach from the Bible and from Genesis tell the wonder of man-woman emerging from the hand of God. Which is to say, the joining of two people is not conceived as any less deserving or dignified.
-But you were talking about other forms of love…
-That’s right. Humanity has had other forms of love that are also very precious. When the Church and the world extol the figure of Mother Teresa, one doesn’t think that she didn’t reach self-actualization, or that she didn’t love or open her heart to the people.
-The psychologists say that the religious have to appeal to sublimation in order to be complete.
-This is another way of understanding love. Sublimation does not mean letting go of love. Rather, it is a distinct way of experiencing love in which feelings, affection, and charity are expressed differently. But not without love. We teach priests that the main virtue they have to cultivate is pastoral love. That is, the central figure around which we educate a seminarian is the Good Shepherd.
-What makes a good pastor?
-According to the Gospel, it is he who, if needed, gives his life to the flock, guides them to finer pastures, feeds them, reorients them if they go astray; he who breathes life into those who are broken.
-Returning to sublimation, when one reads the poems of Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, what is grasped is a sort of mystical marriage she establishes with Christ. But this is more difficult to apprehend in, for instance, a man like St. John of the Cross.
-But God transcends gender. God is neither male nor female. Commitment to God, to mystical love, doesn’t make it a woman only because one imagines God as a man. Commitment to God can also be a man who finds in God an object capable of being for him his everything. That is what it’s about: God is, for me, my everything.
-You referred to the joining of two people celebrated by the Bible. Did you, on a personal level, ever feel that your life lacked that marvelous part? Did you feel that something was missing?
-Of course! Celibacy is also a renunciation. There is no denying it.
-But did it pain you? Bother you? Did you ever doubt it?
-Doubt it, no. That I felt it as a sacrifice, a renunciation, an absence, is true. But I should also recognize that I’ve had many pleasures and much happiness that would’ve been withheld from me if I weren’t a priest.
-What kinds of happiness are you referring to?
-Being able to be close to people, relieve their pains and sorrows; being able to console; allowing people to find God. All this is for us a kind of spiritual paternity that is very beautiful.
-You said that priestly celibacy is permanently debated within the Church. Is that to say that it could be revised?
-In absolute terms, yes, because it isn’t a dogma of faith. Neither is it an evangelical requirement necessarily directed at all priests. But it seems to me that, at this point in time, the Church sees it fit to confirm the benefits of celibacy. For that reason, I don’t predict a change…