William E. PHIPPS, Clerical Celibacy: The Heritage. New York: Continuum Press, 2004. pp. 272. $27.95 hb. ISBN 0-8264-1617-9.
Reviewed by Mary GAUTIER, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20007

I must admit to having very mixed feelings about this book. Although the book was sent to me in error, I agreed to do the review and looked forward to reading it. The author claimed the book was a "historical study" based on his lifetime research focus on celibacy issues in the church. Phipps says that his unique contribution to the literature is that "No other treatments scrutinize relevant biblical texts with the methodology of modern literary-historical criticism." He would have been better served had he stayed with what he knows and not tried to extend his historical study of celibacy to claim that it has "corrupted Christian theology and practice."

Phipps provides a comprehensive, historically-based account of the Roman Catholic Church's commitment to a celibate priesthood. He does this by careful exegesis of pertinent biblical passages and by an exhaustively documented search of historical church documents. His best argument against the Roman Catholic position in favor of clerical celibacy comes early on, when he explores the centrality of marriage in Jewish culture—particularly for religious leaders. Jesus would have had a difficult time proving his credibility as a religious leader of his day had he NOT been married, according to Phipps. The fact that no spouse is mentioned for Jesus or his apostles (with the exception of Peter, who has a mother-in-law) merely demonstrates that their marital state was consistent with the expectations of the society in which they lived.

The author loses the secure footing of his argument when he moves beyond his expertise in biblical criticism and historical review and attempts to second guess the motives of Rome's stance on clerical celibacy. He allocates a major portion of the book to discrediting the notion of the celibate state as being somehow more perfected than the married state (a position to which the Vatican no longer adheres) but dismisses in a sentence or two the eschatological symbolism of celibacy, which is the currently favored justification for the discipline. The author's ideological position as a Protestant minister is all too apparent in his dismissal of celibacy as a countercultural sign of the kingdom of God on earth.

The chapters that claim to assess clerical celibacy as somehow causing the clergy sexual abuse crisis are the weakest part of the book. The citations here refer to newspapers, magazines, and other journalistic coverage from the media furor surrounding the crisis. The citations are often incomplete and inaccurate, reducing their credibility. Even the books cited in these chapters are mostly those that have been written to promote an agenda, with little attempt at providing a balance of viewpoints. Finally, despite the extensive use of footnotes, the book has only a little more than a page of "selected bibliography," a serious shortcoming for a work that purports to be a historical study.

I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in a thorough examination of the biblical texts used to advocate for and against celibacy. Nothing that he says here contradicts, or extends, the exegesis of those same biblical texts that I learned in my Roman Catholic scripture and Church history classes. The book does little, though, to advance the author's thesis that the discipline of celibacy was a direct causal factor in the clergy sexual abuse scandal. In this argument he goes beyond his historical evidence and fails to make a balanced and convincing case.


Amazon.com - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books