Angelo Roncalli and Priestly Celibacy [from Ignatius Insight, 2008]

Angelo Roncalli and Priestly Celibacy | Reverend Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Ignatius Insight

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Since his death on June 3, 1963, many biographies and studies of Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) have appeared. In the month of his death was the article of Roger Aubert, “Jean XXIII: Un ‘pape de transition’ qui marquera dans l’histoire”. The same year, and revised in 1981, is Leone Algisi’s John the Twenty-Third / Giovanni XXIII. In 1965 there appeared that of Edward Elton Young Hales, Pope John and His Revolution. In 1973 Pope John XXIII by Paul Johnson, and in 1979 Bernard R. Bonnot’s Pope John XXIII: An Astute, Pastoral Leader.

We are told the writer who had access to the greatest quantity of primary, original sources is Peter Hebblethwaite. In 1984 the British edition of his John XXIII: Pope of the Council appeared, and in 1985 the American version was published as Pope John XXIII: Shepherd of the Modern World. [1] The Hebblethwaite contribution is considered the “definitive” biography. It was reprinted in 1994. In 2000 and 2005 it was reprinted in a revised and abridged edition by Margaret Hebblethwaite, Peter Hebblethwaite’s wife whom he married after leaving the priesthood and the Society of Jesus.

Yet Hebblethwaite never refers to the only source we have on Angelo Roncalli and the question of priestly celibacy. This is curious because the topic has recurred as a burning one during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, at the time of the French Revolution, and during the Restoration period of the nineteenth century, especially in the German universities. After the collapse of the Austrian Empire it was addressed specifically by the famous consistorial allocution of Pope Benedict XV on December 16, 1920, when Benedict said priestly celibacy was “irrevocable”. A formal schism in Bohemia ensued. [2]

In the period of the Second Vatican Council this was even more exacerbated with reports of neo-concubinage being practiced in parts of Western Europe, South America, Africa, and the Philippines. Some bishops at the Council wanted the question re-examined. The rationale for abolishing it is not new, either, because as early as the time immediately following the French Revolution the “shortage of priests” has been traditionally adduced as sufficient in itself to merit a change in what is looked upon as mere discipline.

We all know that the Second Vatican Council in the end strongly supported the spiritual tradition of priestly celibacy in Presbyterorum ordinis, #16, and that Pope Paul VI strengthened this still further with his encyclical of June 24, 1967, Sacerdotalis caelibatus. Surely along with Humanae vitae it was his most unpopular and “politically incorrect” encyclical.

Yet how often the image of “The Good Pope John” [3] is skillfully invoked by those who wish to abolish priestly celibacy. John XXIII Roncalli was the “good” pope, while Paul VI and his successor John Paul II Wojtila are “bad” popes. They are called intransigent, while he is called open. If only Roncalli had lived long enough, they insist, things might have been different, and this useless and archaic norm might have been done away with. He was open to change, while others have closed the door to change. But the historical record suggests the exact opposite in the question of priestly celibacy. We must reclaim the real Angelo Roncalli of church history.

The eminent historian of science and winner of the Templeton Prize for Religion in 1987, Stanley L. Jaki, reports the following in his article entitled “Man of One Wife or Celibacy” [4]:

It is enough to recall the reply which John XXIII, the proverbial embodiment of compassion, gave to Etienne Gilson who in a private audience in December 1961 touched on the agonizing trials of some priests. For in that reply, later reported by Gilson, one could feel the reverberations of the age-old resolve of the Church: ‘The Pope’s face became gloomy, darkened by a rising inner cloud. Then the Pope added in a violent tone, almost a cry: “For some of them it is a martyrdom. Yes, a sort of martyrdom. It seems to me sometimes I hear a sort of moan, as if many voices were asking the Church for liberation from the burden. What can I do? Ecclesiastical celibacy is not a dogma. It is not imposed in the Scriptures. How simple it would be: we take up the pen, sign an act, and priests who so desire can marry tomorrow. But this is impossible. Celibacy is a sacrifice which the Church has imposed herself–freely, generously, and heroically”.’ [5]

As for interpreting the mind of John XXIII Roncalli, Pope John Paul II has done so, addressing bishops, in an explicit reference to seminary formation and the aspirations of the Council: “In particular I ask you to be vigilant that the dogmatic and moral teaching of the Church is faithfully and clearly presented to the seminarians, and fully accepted and understood by them.”

On the opening day of the Second Vatican Council, Oct. 11, 1962, John XXIII told his brother bishops: “The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be more effectively guarded and taught.” What Pope John expected of the council is also a primary concern for priestly formation. We must ensure that our future priests have a solid grasp of the entirety of the Catholic faith; and then we must prepare them to present it in turn to others in ways that are intelligible and pastorally sound. [6]

There is no evidence in the historical record to think the real Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII, was of a mind to compromise on the ancient Catholic spiritual tradition of priestly celibacy. [7] The “Good Pope John” mythology is a problem for us, not a solution. And it is a problem from which we must recover, not only to have a more truthful record, but to be rid of a mechanism that has been used to undermine the requirement of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church. While appreciating Roncalli’s undoubted and real goodness, [8] we should also be led to admire his strength and firmness. He promoted that unique context for priestly life which is demanded by the non-functional and sacrificial nature of the Catholic priesthood itself where the priest is a living icon of Christ.

Exceptions to that norm (the Eastern practice of “one wife before ordination”, and the selective case-by-case ordination of once-married convert-clergy originally initiated by Pius XII for Germany, then renewed for new circumstances in the United States in 1980) only highlight its relevance for the whole of the Church.

If every seminarian took a minimum of two semesters of rigorous academic instruction in the history and theology of chaste priestly celibacy, we might partially realize the hopes of the real Pope John XXIII.

An earlier version of this article appeared as “Angelo Roncalli and Priestly Celibacy,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, vol. XCII, nos. 11-12 (August-September 1992): 79-82.


[1] See Peter Hebblethwaite, Pope John XXIII: Shepherd of the Modern World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1985).

Alberto Melloni says in 1986 of Hebblethwaite’s work: “Peter Hebblethwaite published in England in October, 1984, and in the United States last spring the most in-depth biography of Pope John XXIII ever printed. The author had the advantage of being able to consult more sources than any other biographer of Roncalli. Neither Leone Algisi nor Meriol Trevor, neither Bernard R. Bonnot nor Paul Dreyfus had access to the 13,000 printed pages (i.e., more than 6,000,000 words) of Roncalli’s writings which have not been made available. The same may be said for all those scholars who, during the same years, wrote unsystematic, although sometimes more readable profiles, such as Edward E.Y. Hales’ book, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro’s famous lecture, the inquiries of Giancarlo Zizola, and the research carried out by Franz M. William and the Alberigos (whose “Bologna School” often reflects the thought of Giuseppe Dossetti [1913-1996] with special reference to the so-called “spirit” of the council or the council as “event” versus the “letter” of the official documents). Besides all the edited material, Hebblethwaite had access to some unpublished or almost unknown manuscripts and a few other primary sources. This book therefore, deserves a detailed analysis, insofar as it could represent within the limits of the biography format, a valuable synthesis of the knowledge and questions which concern such an important man.” Alberto Melloni, “Pope John XXIII: Open Questions for a Biography,” The Catholic Historical Review 72 (1986): 51-53.

[2] See Roger Aubert, The Christian Centuries, vol. 5, The Church in a Secularized Society (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 541-542.

[3] This expression is actually found as a book title: Wit and Wisdom of Good Pope John, collected by Henri Fesquet, translated by Salvator Attanasio (New York: P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1964). Even the venerable Paul Horgan seems to indulge in the sentimentalizing mode when he credits Pope John with permission to see the archives in the fall of 1959 for his research on Jean Baptiste Lamy. One wonders if he would have so honored Paul VI for granting the same permission. See “The Adventure of the Hundred-Year Proviso”, America, March 23, 1991, pp. 309-314.

[4] See Stanley L. Jaki, Catholic Essays (Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1990), pp. 77-91. Hebblethwaite does refer to Elliott, but not to any of his references to Roncalli’s attitude to celibacy found on pp. 188-189 and 286-287. See Lawrence Elliott, I Will Be Called John (New York: Reader’s Digest Press/E.P. Dutton & Co., 1973).

[5] Ibid., pp. 85-86. Jaki goes on to say: “Gilson released details about his conversation with John XXIII, in a letter to the Parisian weekly, Match then the French equivalent of Life, following the publication there (November 30, 1963) of a splashy and tendentious discussion of priestly celibacy. Gilson’s statement was reported in the May 15, 1964, issue of Commonweal (p. 223), and from there found its way into a report on celibacy in Time magazine (Aug. 28, 1964, p. 56) which, although it carried the title, ‘The Case Against Celibacy’, should seem a paragon of objectivity and decency in comparison with its latter-day reporting on the topic.” (n. 6, p. 91). Margaret Hebblethwaite mentions Gilson only in connection with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas on page 109 of her abridgement John XXIII: Pope of the Century (London and New York: Continuum, 2000 and 2005).

[6] See John Paul II, “The Pope’s Address”, Part III, Origins 17 [1987], pp. 266-267. Quoted in the context of the nature of the priesthood in Donald J. Keefe, S.J., Covenantal Theology, two volumes (Lanham, MD: The University Press of America, 1991), I: p. 154.

[7] R.C. Zaehner supports this by quoting from Roncalli’s book Journal of a Soul. In referring to Paul VI, Zaehner says: “This has led him to act on his own initiative in the matter of both birth control and the celibacy of the clergy. That he has been tactless and heavy-handed on both issues few will deny; but on neither is there any justification for questioning his integrity. Nor is there any reason to suppose that Pope John would have taken a different line; for on 11 August 1961 he wrote in his diary: ‘Sins. Concerning chastity in my relations with myself, in immodest intimacies: nothing serious, ever‘. Certainly his manner would have been different, but in this matter of chastity he might well have taken as tough a line as his successor but scarcely with the authoritarian overtones that have so distressed the progressives.” See Robert Charles Zaehner, Zen, Drugs and Mysticism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 204. Carlo Falconi maintains that we can know John XXIII best from his own works, especially the autobiographical ones. See his The Popes in the Twentieth Century From Pius X to John XXIII, tr. Muriel Grindrod (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), p. 378. Generally Falconi subscribes to “The Good Pope John” school.

[8] The late Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics in the University of Oxford once wrote this of him: “…maybe a saintly priest or two who, like Pope John, are good not because they try to be good but because they don’t need to try since they have lost their ego and therefore all egoism, and are thus open to that spontaneity which is the Holy Spirit.” See R.C. Zaehner, ibid., p. 133.

Related Articles, Interviews, and Book Excerpts:

Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler
Pray the Harvest Master Sends Laborors | Rev. Anthony Zimmerman
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
The Hour That Makes My Day | Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Practicing Chastity in an Unchaste Age | Bishop Joseph F. Martino
Liturgical Roles In the Eucharistic Celebration | Francis Cardinal Arinze
The Role of the Laity | Carl E. Olson

Father Brian W. Van Hove, S.J., is the rector of the Shrine of St. Joseph in St. Louis, Missouri, and is also a spiritual director at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

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