The Question Of Priestly Celibacy
Published: March 1, 2007
I was recently asked to answer a number of questions on the practice of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church, and I began to realize that this way of life, which is so dear to me, is often unknown and misunderstood, even by people who have practiced the Catholic faith all of their lives. It is sometimes the subject of veiled and less-than-veiled maligning and suspicion, as people look at me out of the corners of their eyes and say: Isn’t that something strange? What odd consequences might it have? What sort of man would embrace such a life?
To them I would like to say: No! Not at all! How many saints have been nurtured by the asceticism of celibacy? How many generous priests have been able to pour out their whole lives in love of God and care of their people, thanks to the freedom from worldly concerns that celibacy has given them?
The history of celibacy in the Catholic Church is a long history, and there are many details over which scholars are still in dispute. It is believed without question, though, that the practice of celibacy harkens back to one man, who chose not to take a wife or know the joys of his own family, so that he might give himself totally to the Father and to mankind. That man, of course, is Jesus Christ.
The Catholic priest is called to unite himself closely with Christ Jesus—to become so like Him that when people see the priest, they encounter Christ, for when the priest acts in the Church, he acts in the place of Christ—as “an other Christ” in the service of God’s people. Christ’s commitment to His mission was total, and such must be the commitment of each of Christ’s priests. The choice to embrace Christ’s Church as the Lord, Himself, did is a total commitment—every other priority and attachment must be made subject to the one priority of living and dying for the Church even as Christ did. The whole Church must be the priest’s family—it could not compete with a family of his own, beautiful as the gift of marriage may be.
All of the details of the historical development of celibacy in the first centuries of the Church are not known. Most probably, in the earliest times, priests who were married were expected to practice continence—to refrain from marital relations so that they would be free for the Lord. But even in those earliest days, celibacy was not unknown. Indeed, even as St. Paul praised the goodness of marriage in the seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, he affirms that it is better to live like Paul himself did, and refrain from marriage. In this way, one could be anxious about the things of the Lord and not divided in his attachments.
Chapter 14 of the book of Revelation again praised those who have embraced that state in life, seeing it as a special consecration to God. So has it proven to be throughout the many centuries of the Church: a call to dedicate everything to God.
If celibacy has always been relevant, it is all the more so today. In a society where license is lauded and commitment may seem unrealistic, there is a special need for the witness of men whose commitment to the Lord leads them to renounce all carnal attachments. In a world where it may seem that there is nothing worth living for or dying for, the life of a man who chooses to die to the world that he might live for Christ has a special value. Even priests, themselves, need the affirmation that what they have embraced is more than a job or a few years’ service, but a total commitment that demands a whole life. True, refraining from marriage is not identical to dedicating one’s life to God, but it is a powerful reminder that priesthood needs to be much more than a job.
The world recognizes the witness of priestly celibacy. Look at the recent scandals when a number of priests were found to be have betrayed their sacred calling. The depth of the outrage in response shows that the world knows that priests are different, that they have made a unique commitment. When the federal government recently reported that almost 10 percent of children are sexually abused by educators in public schools, no similar outcry occurred. More is expected of priests.
The ultimate purpose of priestly celibacy, however, doesn’t need to be defended by elaborate arguments. It is as simple as the word that is used to address those who serve as priests: “father.” A priest can be a true spiritual father to his people because they are the family that God has entrusted to him.
In Mark 10, Jesus promises that whoever gives up children for His sake will receive a hundred times more in this life, and every priest who has embraced celibacy for the sake of Christ’s kingdom knows that His words are true. He gains many spiritual children, and the people of God gain a father who will give his life to bring them to their true Father in heaven.
Father Theodore Book is director of the archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship and chaplain at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home for cancer patients.