Jesus Our Shepherd
The Church's Ministry Of Leadership
Hans Kung

The Church’s ministry of leadership does not have to be celibate; the single life need not be a part of it. Even those in the Catholic Church who still defend celibacy as compatible with the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and also as pastorally expedient will admit that it is a matter of a purely ecclesiastical law from the Middle Ages.

There is however an increasing majority among the Catholic clergy and laity which is convinced that celibacy can be defended in the light of the Gospel only as a freely embraced calling (charism) and not as a universally binding law. The Church will continue to find celibate ministers on the missions and at home useful for special tasks which impose particularly heavy demands (traveling, long absences, etc.). Jesus and Paul set an example of celibacy in the service of people; but they expressly assured freedom in this matter to the individual. Peter and the rest of the apostles were married in their ministry. For many centuries this practice was taken for granted for those at the head of the community: bishops and presbyters. It still prevails in the Eastern churches (including those reunited with Rome), at least for priests. (Inconsistently and with negative effects, celibacy is still required of bishops in the Eastern churches.)

In the High Middle Ages, the law of celibacy was extended from the monastic communities to the whole of the secular clergy by a kind of pan-monasticism. It was then radically questioned at the Reformation and is again today. This law contradicts not only the original Church order based on freedom but also the modern understanding of human rights and individual liberty.

This tradition, peculiar to the Latin Church and upheld today by all the resources of spiritual authoritarianism and pseudo-theological argumentation, tries to ignore the fact that in every age of the Church’s history from the first to the twentieth century there have been married Catholic presbyters who exercised their ministry well, often in an exemplary fashion. As a result of the blindness and rigidity of the Church’s leaders, the law of celibacy undeservedly has become for many a pastor and curate the test question for renewal of the Church’s ministry and system.

The mass departure from the Church’s ministry will force a change, but too late and with enormous loss. The popes and episcopate of these years will stand before the bar of Church history as the ones responsible for a development that could have been foreseen long in advance. A satisfactory solution to this problem will not be reached through such illogical compromises as the admission of married men (who will of course be older), but only through the restoration of that original Christian liberty that even Church leaders have no right to violate. The crisis of the Church’s ministry involves more than a crisis of celibacy. But there should be no disputing the fact that this crisis of ministry is manifested most clearly and (for the individual minister) very often in its most threatening form precisely in the crisis of celibacy.

The Church’s ministry of leadership does not have to be exclusively male; it need not be a men’s association. Full participation of women in the Church’s life on the basis of equal rights is something that belongs to a suitably renewed Church today. This means not only including women as co-responsible in the different advisory and decision-making bodies, but also the admission of women to all the Church’s special ministries and to ordination…

Socio-cultural reasons have been advanced against the ordination of women; but no decisive theological reasons have been presented. The New Testament too must be seen in its time-conditioned character and re-interpreted as the radical obliteration, in Paul’s sense, of the difference between man and woman. The New Testament congregations were ahead of their time in their attitude towards the positions of women. Our congregations today are limping along behind the times. Inhibitions and rejections regarding the full equality of women…can be overcome in the course of time, as experience in the political sphere shows.