Some time ago, the Holy See gave episcopal conferences the possibility of introducing into their particular calendars the liturgical observance of the feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ Eternal High Priest on the Thursday after Pentecost.1 The bishops of England and Wales took up that invitation; the bishops of the United States did not. I think that was a missed opportunity. Of course, if the Thursday after Pentecost is a ferial day, any priest can celebrate the Votive Mass of Jesus Christ Eternal High Priest. That’s not the point. Celebrating that Mass as a nation would be a communal affirmation of the Sacred Priesthood and an implicit invitation for the Catholic community to pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into His harvest (cf. Mt 9:38) and for young men to consider that call in a serious way.
That said, I would like to focus on one particular aspect of the priesthood, namely, celibacy, which has been under fire since the 1960s; indeed, it has been under fire throughout history. So, why are priests of the Latin Church celibate?2
In truth, the connection between priesthood and celibacy is not unique to Catholicism. We find such linkage in various pagan cults of Greece and Rome and, even more radically, in Stoicism’s overall rejection of sexual pleasure. While these historical precedents may offer interesting angles of insight or a “natural” intuition in this regard, Christian faith sees something much deeper here.
Catholics believe that through the Sacrament of Holy Order, a man is “configured” or “conformed” to Christ the High Priest. In other words, no Catholic priest “has” a priesthood of his own; rather, he shares in the priesthood of the one and only Priest of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ. Our participation in that priesthood needs to be as full and visible as possible; “maleness” is one such sign; celibacy is another. The first is an absolute, while the second is not – although the appropriateness of the sign of celibacy touches very closely on the nature of the priesthood.3
Jesus was a priest at the core of His being, which is to say that He did not simply function as a priest on certain occasions (e.g., in offering Himself to the Father on Good Friday); rather, His entire life was an oblation given to the Father, thus uniting within Himself the roles of Victim and Priest. The priests of the Old Covenant functioned at the Temple according to a schedule; while “on duty,” they lived at the Temple to ensure ritual purity. Among other things, that meant abstaining from marital intercourse. The tenth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us that our great High Priest fulfilled all those holy sacrifices by His one eternal offering; in that moment, He also abolished priestly functionalism. That is, priesthood is not what one does but who one is. Since the Lord’s entire life was a priestly offering, His observance of continence was not an on-again, off-again phenomenon. And it was the self-same approach to which He called His disciples when He urged them to leave house, wife, brothers, parents, and children “for the sake of the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:29).
Therefore, we see that the Twelve, although probably many of whom were married, were obedient to the Master’s command; they left all to follow Him in a radical response to prepare the way for that time and place in which “men neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mt 22:30). Was this expected? Hardly. Judaism had a keen sense of the meaning and beauty of marriage and family.4 Jesus’ approach went against the goad here, but that was not the only instance of such a departure from the expected pattern of teaching or behavior on His part. Can we forget that for centuries Jewish law had permitted divorce and remarriage? Our Lord’s reversal of that norm was so unexpected that it caused the disciples to suggest that perhaps it might be better not to marry at all (cf. Mt 19:10)! The Savior was not simply pleased to be counter-cultural (although He was certainly that); He was quite intent on presenting Himself – and any who wanted to be a part of Him – as eschatological signs, that is, as living pointers to the age to come, wherein every human good (even married love) is subsumed into the Summum Bonum (the Highest Good), allowing God to be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).
Clear evidence from the Early Church5 demonstrates that when married men were admitted to the priesthood, they and their wives gave up their marital rights and lived as brother and sister.6 With the passage of time, the Church in the West took a slightly different tack by calling only men who showed a capacity to live the charism of celibacy, not unlike the Lord’s admonition found in Mt 19:12.
The first major departure from the expectation of priestly continence occurred with the Council of Trullo.7 Its most problematic canon dealt with clerical marriages and effectively turned the entire Tradition on its head not only by permitting married men to be ordained but by allowing for their continued use of marital rights. The legislation, however, was rather convoluted and demanded continence before a priest could celebrate the Eucharist. In many ways, unwittingly, Trullo set the stage for what later became the Protestant notion of priesthood, reducing priesthood (where it survived) to a liturgical role. The ontology of Holy Order (namely, that a man is changed in his very being, which identity is a constant aspect of his existence) had been downgraded to functionalism (that is, that a man is a priest when he is “doing” something priestly). Doing had replaced being – the very dichotomy the eternal High Priest had reversed. Not surprisingly, ten centuries later, the functional concept of priesthood among the Protestant Reformers came to allow, and even demand, the demise of mandatory celibacy.
Besides the ontological nature of the priesthood, celibacy is particularly appropriate because Catholic theology assigns a sacramental meaning to matrimony as well as to priesthood. It was undoubtedly this very notion which brought Paul to conclude that the married state and full-time discipleship were in conflict (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-33). Now, while some observers have argued that Paul simply had a negative assessment of marriage, an objective reading of the passage will not bear out such a reading. It would seem that Paul is saying, however, that given the radical nature of Christian discipleship and the pressing (and good) demands of marriage, the two states are incompatible within one person. Seen in this light, what the Apostle was holding out for and what the Latin Church has opted for is an understanding of Matrimony and Holy Order as both deserving of a full commitment, with no divided existence. Far from being a negative judgment on marriage, then, the Church’s position exalts Christian marriage and urges taking that vocation and sacrament seriously – as seriously as priestly ordination.
Clerical celibacy also bears an eschatological meaning, that is, it points man here below to a life to come. As we saw earlier, our Lord Himself spoke about this dimension when He reminded His audience that in the age to come human beings take on an angelic aspect as they exchange their physical desires for contemplation (cf. Mt 22:30). Celibacy, then, is not simply a lifestyle, it is a message – a prophetic message – that helps the human race in general and Christians in particular to remember that there is more to life than the sensual and encourages them not to get lost in the ephemeral. In our contemporary, sex-saturated world, this word needs to be spoken as often and as loudly and clearly as possible. In fact, the visible but silent presence of Catholic clergy and religious on the streets of the secular city constitutes a most eloquent testimony to the existence of the transcendent and stands as an on-going invitation to the world to move beyond that which is passing; this witness is not unlike that of Ezekiel, who is told by the Lord that his very life should stand as a sign for the people (cf. Ez 24:24). The priest, as an alter Christus, experiences in his person a foretaste of the life of Heaven by being focused solely on God; and, on the basis of his personal experience, he likewise appeals to his fellow men to follow him as he has followed Christ. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, the eschatological sign par excellence, is similarly celebrated most fittingly by one who is himself an eschatological sign. In 1988, then-Archbishop J. Francis Stafford summed up this aspect of clerical celibacy thus:
Since Christ was unmarried, we may find it strange at first that the [Second Vatican] Council speaks of fatherhood in Christ. Yet the hymn Summi Parentis Filio speaks of Christ as father of the world to come. If we bear in mind what St. Paul teaches us about the spousal love of Christ for His Church, we will see that this “world to come” is nothing less than the child of that union, the fruit of that love. . . . It is not for nothing that the priest is addressed as “Father” by his people.
As with the fatherhood in Christ, that of the priest points to the world to come: His solitude and earthly barrenness, a prefiguring of death; his prayer, pastoral charity and spiritual fruitfulness, a sign of God’s power which is at work now to sanctify and so to yield eternal life.8
The most obvious benefit of celibacy is pastoral, as it “is lived in an atmosphere of constant readiness to allow oneself to be taken up, as it were ‘consumed,’ by the needs and demands of the flock” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 28). In saying this, Pope John Paul II was merely echoing the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, who declared that “this perfect continence for love of the Kingdom of Heaven has always been held in high esteem by the Church as a sign and stimulus of love, and as a singular source of spiritual fertility in the world” (Lumen Gentium, n. 42). Who can fail to be impressed by the missionary labors of millions of priests in history or the witness of thousands more in the gulags and concentration camps of the past century? Can one doubt that their celibacy allowed them – even challenged them – to be such constant and faithful signs of Christ’s saving message of truth and love? Humanly speaking, could we have expected such dramatic testimony from one rightly concerned for the welfare of a wife and children? Much less dramatic – but no less impressive – is the pastoral service of hundreds of thousands of celibate priests whose day begins before sunrise and ends as the clock’s hands move into a new day. Like a candle, the celibate priest fulfills his mission by “burning himself out” for Christ, His Gospel, and His Church,
Apart from these more “pragmatic” considerations on celibacy, a quick re-reading of what I have written here shows that I have often relied on comparisons between priesthood and marriage. And I think that, although accidental in part, this tendency has been fortuitous. Both vocations are highly demanding, requiring tremendous amounts of self-sacrifice. In fact, I am reminded of an exhortation that once formed part of the marriage liturgy (a part I still use). The bride and groom were instructed that for a marriage to succeed, self-sacrifice had to become a fixture in the relationship. But the text went on to note, both realistically and hopefully: “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome; love can make it easy; perfect love can make it a joy.” It is the Church’s conviction – after centuries of experience – that perfect love can make celibacy a joy for the priest himself and for the whole Church he serves.
Pulling together theology and spirituality, we bring to mind that as all was being consummated on Calvary, we encounter three virgins – Jesus, Mary, and John – forming the ecclesiola, the “little Church” about to be born from the wounded side of the Lord (cf. Jn 19). That Church embodied the seeds of a virginity destined to bear fruit, both in time and unto eternity. It is the Church’s hope and desire that her celibate clergy (and her consecrated religious, too) would show forth to the world, in a unique manner, the Church’s identity as both the virginal mother and the fruitful spouse of Christ. Proposition 11 of the 1990 synod on priestly formation echoed that hope:
The Synod would like to see celibacy presented and explained in the fullness of its biblical, theological and spiritual richness, as a precious gift given by God to His Church and as a sign of the Kingdom which is not of this world, a sign of God’s love for this world and of the undivided love of the priest for God and for God’s People, with the result that celibacy is seen as a positive enrichment of the priesthood.9
Nearly thirty years on, that wish of the Synod Fathers is yet to be realized. For those who argue that “optional celibacy” would reverse the downward spiral of priestly vocations, I would note that regions that have not produced priestly vocations (as in the Amazon) do not have a problem with celibacy (unless we are suggesting that young men today are more sexually out of control than in past centuries – as perhaps in the dying Roman Empire?)? No, the problem is not celibacy; it is a failure to present the priesthood as a vocation worthy of sacrifice. Further, if “optional celibacy” is the panacea for the priest shortage, please explain the terrible shortage of priests among the Eastern Orthodox (who have had “optional celibacy” for a millennium).
Gabrielle Brown, a non-believer, offers a most positive assessment of celibacy in The New Celibacy, dispelling many myths perpetuated in some versions of a “black legend”:
There are many priests, nuns and monks who have confronted and accepted their sexual natures so completely that they are happily and comfortably celibate.
Freud was surprisingly open to the positive results of celibacy. He observed that people can achieve happiness by transcending sexuality for a higher experience of love and took examples from religious life.
Celibacy can both strengthen a man and soften him.
In ancient Rome, despite its dissolute reputation, the effort of continence was greatly admired and thought to represent a superior nature and a character verging on the divine.
Love is less likely to be restricted in its nonsexual expression than in a love relationship focused on that one overriding concern – which often occurs when sexuality dominates the relationship.
Those [celibates] who have achieved a permanent state of pleasure or fulfillment are said to radiate a kind of energy of love which is constant, unbounded, brilliant, and truly universal.
Celibacy is a style of life known only to humans.
In recent times, there has been a revival of the old canard that celibacy fosters unnatural and sinful behavior. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, took on that issue in the nineteenth century:
I state my deliberate conviction that there are, to say the least, as many offenses against the marriage vow among Protestant ministers, as there are against the vow of celibacy among Catholic priests. . . . But if Matrimony does not prevent cases of immorality among Protestant ministers, it is not celibacy which causes them among Catholic priests. It is not what the Catholic Church imposes, but what human nature prompts, which leads any portion of her ecclesiastics into sin. Human nature will break out, like some wild and raging element, under any system; it bursts out under the Protestant system; it bursts out under the Catholic; passion will carry away the married clergyman as well as the unmarried priest. . . . Till, then, you can prove that celibacy causes what Matrimony certainly does not prevent, you do nothing at all.
Blessed Paul VI begins his 1967 encyclical, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, by referring to celibacy as “a brilliant jewel.” The preface for this lovely feast sings: “As they [priests] give up their lives for you and for the salvation of their brothers and sisters, they strive to be conformed to the image of Christ himself and offer you a constant witness of faith and love.” May Christ the Eternal High Priest, from the throne of His Cross, accompanied by His virginal Mother and virginal disciple, aid the Church in coming to an ever- deeper appreciation for that “brilliant jewel.”
1 With the insertion of the obligatory memorial of Mary Mother of the Church on the Monday after Pentecost and the possibility of this feast on the Thursday after Pentecost, are we on our way toward the restoration of the unfortunately jettisoned Octave of Pentecost?
2 Presently, we leave aside a contrary practice in the Churches of the East and dispensations granted to convert clergy. For the moment, I simply note that I think Pope John Paul II’s pastorally sensitive and generous willingness to dispense convert clergy from continence after Catholic ordination was the “camel’s nose in the tent” for subsequent calls for deviation from the norm.
3 n 2001, I edited Priestly Celibacy: Its Scriptural, Historical, Spiritual, and Psychological Roots (Newman House Press). Interestingly, of all the contributors, the psychiatrist and I were the only “cradle” Catholics; perhaps most interesting was the chapter by the wife of a married minister, whose union ended in divorce. This book has been used widely in seminary courses on celibacy.
4Yet, even within Judaism, one finds certain of the prophets living celibately, and convincing evidence from Qumran suggests that at least some members of that community lived in celibacy. Interestingly enough, rabbinic literature also recounts a tradition that Moses – after beholding God on Mount Sinai – never again had sexual relations with his wife, the obvious implication being that once one had seen God, all other relationships and loves paled into insignificance. See, in this regard, Anthony Opisso’s “The Perpetual Virginity of Mary in the Light of Jewish Law and Tradition,” in The Catholic Answer (July-August 1996).
5 Roman Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West (Herefordshire, England: Flower Wright Books, 1989); also Christian Cochini, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990).
6 Indeed, St. Paul speaks of various apostolic men who are accompanied, not by a “wife” (as some mischievous English translations put it), but by a “sister” (1 Cor 9:5), that is, a Christian woman who tended to the needs of these men in much the same way as the women who accompanied Jesus (cf. Lk 8:1-3).
The movement away from married clerics who abstained from sexual intercourse when “on duty” toward demanding “perfect continence” is already documented in the acta of the Council of Carthage in 390. Furthermore, the reason given for this discipline is the intercessory and mediatory nature of the priesthood in se and not merely through isolated mediatory or liturgical acts. Another point to note regarding Carthage’s dealing with the matter is that bishops, priests, and deacons alike fall “under the same obligation of chastity” because of their liturgical ministry, indeed, their liturgical way of life. Finally, it is worth observing that already in 390 we find an emphasis on the fact that the Fathers of Carthage are not inventing new legislation but simply enforcing what was “taught by the apostles and observed by antiquity itself” (Cochini, 4-5; emphasis added).
7 This council was an eastern regional synod, convoked ten years after the Second and Third Councils of Constantinople and intended to enact disciplinary canons. This controversial synod had to wait nearly two centuries to find a Roman Pontiff to ratify its laws – and then only cautiously.
8J. Francis Stafford, “The Mystery of the Priestly Vocation,” Origins 18.22 (Nov. 10, 1988).
9 Cited in Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 29.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!