Clerical Celibacy: A Good for the Whole Church

For years, people, both inside and outside the Church have called for the Church to lift Her ancient practice of priestly celibacy. This cry gained support with the drop in the number of vocations to the priesthood following the Second Vatican Council and the cry has recently been reenergized by the despicable heterosexual, homosexual and pedophilia abuses by some of the Church’s priests. The Roman Catholic Church’s discipline of celibacy for Her priests has been a common practice from the 4th century[1] and has been solemnly sanctioned since the first Lateren Council in 1123, which not only forbade priests to marry but also declared all marriages of priests at the moment null and void.[2]

Priestly celibacy is just that, a discipline, not a requirement for Holy Orders. While celibacy is not a necessity to be ordained, this discipline is for the greater good of the Church and Her ministers. By understanding the Christological, Ecclesiological, Pastoral, and Eschatological effects of priestly celibacy, the beauty of the Church’s discipline shines through clearly.

Before one can come to see the beauty of a celibate priesthood, one must have a clear understanding of what celibacy is. Clerical Celibacy is “a way of life characterized by a priest’s perpetual renunciation of marriage for the sake of the reign of God.”[3] This choice of the priest is a freely chosen life of sacrifice for Christ and His Church; following the teachings of Christ “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[4] This laying down of his life by the priest is a lifelong lifestyle choice, which must be assessed on not only the human, sexual level, but most of all as a work of grace in response to God’s invitation to give up the good of a natural family to work for the supernatural family.

Celibacy was not invented by the Church 300 years after the death of Christ; Christ himself encouraged those who could to take on the celibate state. “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”[5] The priest should desire an intimate relationship with Christ, an intimacy he wishes to share only with Christ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and with no one else. This does not denigrate marriage in any way but rather should be seen as complimentary to marriage.

The vow of celibacy unites the priest more closely to Christ. It calls for a complete abandonment of one’s life to Him. Just as the married man signifies a love without reservation to his spouse, so too does celibacy signify a love of Christ without reservation. This love of Christ and his Church is so great that the priest is actually betrothed to Her in an exclusive bond.

The priest is called to model his life after Christ who is the Great High Priest. No priest has a priesthood of his own; rather he shares in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Christ did not act as a priest simply at certain functions, but rather His whole life was dedicated to His Father as a priest. Christ himself lived a celibate life, which signified his total dedication to God and His people. In the same state of celibacy the priest is called to mirror the life of Christ and to live a life of complete dedication to God and his people. By living a celibate life, the priest demonstrates his trust, that Christ alone is sufficient and he places his entire trust in Him.

This complete love of Christ is a love, which is open to all people. The priest demonstrates this love to his people, to whom he is called to be an Alter Christus, another Christ. His total offering of himself to Christ gives the priest complete liberty to live his life as a life of service, to be a man for others. It is the calling of all priests to live the motto of the late Pope John Paul II, Totus Tuus, Totally Yours. Just as Christ loved the Church so much that He offered Himself up for Her the priest is called to offer himself up completely, including a natural family, for the Church.

The role of the priest is to be a mediator between God and man. His primary role is to offer sacrifice to God for his people. The priest belongs exclusively to Christ. It is the priest who shares Christ with the faithful enabling them to share Him with others. The priest gives up a natural family and joyfully embraces celibacy out of this sacrificial love. Through the gift of celibacy the priest becomes a man for others.

St. Paul himself notes the freedom celibacy brings. “I should like you to be free of anxieties. An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.”[6] The sharing in celibacy frees the minster from the bonds of flesh and blood. He has no children or familial responsibilities. He renounces the fatherhood proper to the married life seeking supernatural fatherhood, the fatherhood of Christ’s children. Celibacy enables the priest to serve, his children, God’s people, with a love that is undefiled and undistracted. Celibacy permits the priest to spend himself fully for others, which guarantees him a greater freedom and flexibility in his pastoral ministry.

A proper understanding of clerical celibacy leads one to look towards the eschaton, the end times. In a contemporary world that so often only looks at the present moment the example of the celibate priest forces people to consider the eschaton. Society today is fascinated with priestly celibacy. By foregoing much of this world’s expression of love, the priest makes a testimony that love does not cease at the end of our life on this earth, but rather a greater love is yet to come. Furthermore, by consecrating his life to celibacy for Christ’s sake, the priest makes a very bold statement. Through his celibacy, the priest claims he believes in the faith of the Catholic Church. By living this counter – cultural lifestyle the priest is a walking reminder of life after this world.

Priestly celibacy should not be seen as simply a job requirement to be a priest. Celibacy is in itself a vocation. God calls both men and women to a celibate life. The call to celibacy does not necessarily mean God is calling a person to the priesthood, however those whom God calls to the priesthood he also gives the vocation of celibacy.

Holy Orders is not a right. For those whom God does not give the vocation to celibacy, they should not present themselves for Holy Orders. The Church does not impose this gift on any one; rather She invites those who are called to share in it. A candidate for Holy Orders makes his commitment to priestly celibacy at his Deaconate Ordination. The bishop asks the candidate, “Do you resolve to keep forever this commitment to remain celibate as a sign of your dedication to Christ the Lord for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, in the service of God and Man?”[7] The Church does not force men to be priests; She invites them to enter into the ministerial priesthood of their own free choice.

The beauty of celibacy does not pull a cloud over the beauty of the married conjugal act. Celibacy is not a denial of sexuality. Both celibacy and marital sex when moderated by chastity are good and beautiful lifestyles. Those who argue that there is no beauty or that the counter – cultural lifestyle of priestly celibacy is out of date, clearly do not understand the Church’s teaching on celibacy. It is my prayer that by understanding the Christological, Ecclesiogical, Pastoral, and Eschatological effects of priestly celibacy highlighted above, critics of priestly celibacy can come to see clearly the reason for priestly celibacy and the good it brings about, not only for the priest, but also for the whole of Christ’s Church.

[1] See the Council of Elvira (306 AD) and the Council of Carthage (c.400 AD) for evidence of the common practice of celibacy for clergy.

[2] First Lateran Council Canon 21

[3] “Clerical Celibacy,” in The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard P. McBrien et al. (San Francisco: Harper Collins , 1995), 289.  

[4] John 15:13

[5] Mt 19:12

[6] 1Cor 7:32 – 34

[7] The Roman Pontifical (Vatican City VA: Vox Clara Committee, 2010),p. 129.

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