Angelo Roncalli and Priestly Celibacy | Fr. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Ignatius Insight
Angelo Roncalli and Priestly Celibacy | Fr. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | Ignatius Insight
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.  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. 
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
Yet how often the image of
"The Good Pope John"  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
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
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. 
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.
 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,  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.
 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
 See Roger Aubert, The
Christian Centuries, vol. 5, The
Church in a Secularized Society
(New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 541-542.
 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.
 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 &
 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).
 See John Paul II, "The
Pope's Address", Part III, Origins
17 , 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.
 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"
 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.
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Father Van Hove, S.J., is on staff at the White House Retreat in
South St. Louis County, Missouri.
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