With the explosion of the sexual revolution and its attendant harms, the precipitous collapse of priestly vocations, and the various scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church, many Catholics have asked whether it is not time to revisit the question of mandatory priestly celibacy for Latin rite Catholic priests. The question has reached the highest levels of the Church with the publication of the Instrumentum Laboris for the upcoming Pan-Amazon Synod. In paragraph 129, the document proposes to investigate the question whether or not married men can be ordained in the Amazon to help make the sacraments available. Of course anyone who has followed the Church in recent years recognizes that synodality quickly becomes uniformity so that if married men are permitted to be ordained in the Amazon, the same likely will soon follow in Germany, and then the rest of the Latin Church.
Given how other “options” within the Church have become the rule rather than the exception in the nearly 55 years since the end of Vatican II, it is not hard to see what optional celibacy would mean for the Latin Church. The question of celibacy has even been discussed here at Catholic World Report with Fr. Thomas Loya offering thoughts on the question as an Eastern Catholic priest. (I will return to Eastern-Western difference on this later.)
It is to this question of celibacy that Fr. Carter Griffin directs his recent book, Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest. Fr. Griffin, a convert, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., and the recently named Rector of the Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington D.C., offers a beautiful and compelling apologetic for celibacy and why the Latin Church should maintain her teaching and practice. With his book, Fr. Griffin hopes to “confirm priests in the wisdom, beauty, and fruitfulness of their celibate priesthood.” He states that the “conviction expressed” in the book “is that priests embrace celibacy as a radical choice to give themselves to God and neighbor in such a way that they are enabled to generate new spiritual life.” Fr. Griffin argues that priests “are celibate … because their celibacy—when lived well—is a privileged way of embracing a fatherhood that transcends nature alone; it is ‘supernatural’ fatherhood in the order of grace.”
His book is not aimed only at priests. All Catholics can benefit from understanding the logic and gift of priestly celibacy. In making his case, Fr. Griffin avoids denigrating the venerable Eastern Catholic tradition of ordaining married men to the priesthood. Rather, he gives his readers a persuasive argument why priestly celibacy is fitting and should, despite all the pressures, questions, and doubts, be maintained in the Latin Church. The Church would be sacrificing much—too much—if she were to do away with mandatory celibacy.
The fatherhood of Christ and the priest
Paradoxically, any explanation of celibacy must begin with the word, “Father.” As Father Daniel Scheidt, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, writes, in a beautiful essay entitled, “The Seminarian, Father-to-Be,” the “Church tacitly sums up” a priest’s “identity and proposes him to the world in a single word—‘Father.’”
Fr. Griffin agrees. Near the beginning of his book, he quotes Cardinal Henry Edward Manning: “The ‘title of father is the first, the chief, the highest, the most potent, the most persuasive, the most honourable of all the titles of a priest.” Indeed, as Manning notes, while a priest may receive many titles and honors during his life, “none but the spiritual fatherhood will pass into eternity.”
It is through the lens of fatherhood that the celibacy of the priest must be understood. The celibate priest truly is a father—a supernatural father. As Fr. Griffin explains, he prefers the term “supernatural fatherhood” to “spiritual father” because “it avoids any semblance of anthropological dualism. Also, for some, ‘spiritual’ might imply a degree of unreality or abstraction, as if spiritual fathers were simply like or comparable to ‘real’ fathers. What [Griffin] intends by supernatural paternity is not simply a similitude of fatherhood, but a manifestation of fatherhood itself.”
To get to the heart of the celibate priest’s fatherhood, Fr. Griffin begins by focusing on a latent but often undeveloped theme in Catholic theology and spirituality: the fatherhood of the celibate Jesus Christ. Griffin writes, “If the celibate priest is truly a father in any strong sense of the word, then theologically it must follow that Christ, in whose priesthood every priest shares, must himself also be a father in the order of grace.” Christ is “not only the Son of the Father but a father himself of a new and redeemed humanity.” And it is this fatherhood of Christ, “the celibate High Priest of the New Covenant [that] provides the basis and template for celibate fatherhood in the ministerial priest.”
Supernatural fatherhood, which Griffin admits is not limited to the celibate priest or even to priests, is the anchor of much of the book’s case for celibacy. This supernatural fatherhood is truly the destiny of every man. The priest “configured to Christ the Head, exercises spiritual paternity” by representing “the merciful face of the Father, and instrumentally” by generating “supernatural life in the souls of his brothers and sisters.” In short, the priest “procreates, as it were, in the order of grace.” Thus, the celibate priest’s fatherhood is no mere abstraction; he is a real father who generates new life in his flock. By giving himself over totally to his flock, he can actuate this supernatural fatherhood in a special way.
Obviously, married men can be spiritual fathers, so why does this focus on supernatural fatherhood lead to the conclusion that it is fitting and proper that priests be celibate? Fr. Griffin argues that the celibate priest imitates the celibacy of Christ. He writes that Christ’s “celibacy was . . . intimately bound up with his generative role in the salvific plan of the Father.” The priest is configured to Christ the Head. In this configuration, there is a fittingness for the priest to be celibate like Christ—to generate in the same way that Christ did—celibately. “If consecrated virginity is ordered primarily to eschatological witness, priestly celibacy is ordered primarily to representing Christ in relation to the Church, his Bride, and serving as an instrument of Christ’s paternal generativity.” Celibacy frees a man up to give himself fully and exclusively to generating new life in the order of grace just as Christ was totally free to generate new life with his free gift of celibacy.
Accordingly, the celibacy of the diocesan priest differs from the celibacy of a religious. The diocesan priest “is celibate not primarily for the sake of his own holiness but rather for the sake of his ministry.” Christ’s celibacy was not “directed to his holiness, which was already perfect.” Rather, “Christ’s celibacy can be fully understood only in light of his role in the plan of salvation, his generativity in the order of grace, that is, his fatherhood as the New Adam, Head and Bridegroom of the Church.” Fr. Griffin argues that it “is precisely this dimension of Christ’s celibacy that gives meaning to the celibacy of the priest as a spiritual father.” The logic of priestly celibacy is the freedom it gives the priest to be a supernatural father—totally, unreservedly. Thus, “priestly celibacy is ordered primarily to representing Christ in relation to the Church, his Bride, and serving as an instrument of Christ’s paternal generativity.”
Fr. Griffin’s thesis, then, is different from other defenses of priestly celibacy which are rooted in the practical value of freeing a man from family obligations and a priest serving as an eschatological pointer towards our heavenly destiny where we will not be married. (Certainly, this second figures into his argument, but his argument is primarily rooted in Christ as celibate for sake of supernatural fecundity.) Fr. Griffin’s argument is theological and ontological. It is not functional.
The risks and burdens of celibacy
One of the more refreshing aspects of this book is that it does not airbrush celibacy. First, Fr. Griffin acknowledges the risks of celibacy. He writes, “Without the built-in asceticism of marriage, a celibate priest can become detached and uninvolved.” “A natural father who takes seriously his responsibilities cannot indulge his whims, demand exact control over his life, expect constant personal affirmation, or opt out of his responsibilities at home.” And the same must be true of a celibate priestly father. He cannot indulge his whims. His priesthood cannot be perpetual bachelorhood. Indeed, many Catholics have suffered from the pettiness and selfishness of such perpetual, adolescent bachelor priests. But, as Fr. Griffin convincingly argues, the solution to the narcissism—and dare one say, awkwardness—of so many priests is not ordaining married men. Rather, it is in celibacy lived well: forming men to be true and heroic supernatural fathers who give all to their flock in order to generate new supernatural life in the order of grace. In short, seminaries must form better fathers.
Second, Fr. Griffin does not shy away from the sacrifice a man makes in freely choosing celibacy. Celibacy is difficult. He writes, that the “legitimate longings for a woman’s companionship and the joys of a family are an invitation to the celibate priest to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Cross and to unite his suffering and even his loneliness to the paschal font of new life in grace.” Fr. Griffin also shares a striking story of Pope St. John XXIII describing celibacy as a “sort of martyrdom” for some priests. Fr. Griffin’s account of celibacy is theologically deep but it is never romantic. It is true but not pious. Thus, he writes that “like all deep human loves, the capacity for celibacy takes time to mature.” It is not a gift easily received or lived. This honesty is refreshing.
But in this honesty of the loneliness and cross of celibacy, Fr. Griffin points to another great gift of celibacy. If celibacy is lived in a receptive openness and recognition of our utter dependence on the Lord, it can become the occasion of deep grace and witness to the sole source of our very being, God. Celibacy can become the occasion for a radical and fruitful spiritual paternity and a pointer to our ultimate destiny.
Not a mere discipline but a needed witness
Fr. Griffin argues that “if supernatural fatherhood is indeed constitutive of the priesthood, and celibacy is ordered to reflecting and exercising that fatherhood, it follows that celibacy is more than an arbitrary ‘discipline’ imposed by ecclesiastical authority.” It is here that Fr. Griffin makes one of the more important points of his book. We so often hear that the Latin Church’s practice of celibacy is a discipline that could be lifted tomorrow—hence the Amazonian Synod’s consideration of the topic. While such an approach is seemingly understandable given the at-times overly juridical nature of the West, it is also inadequate. Mandatory celibacy in the Latin Church is not merely or even primarily a discipline. It is a practice with deep theological roots that stretch back to God-made-man himself, Christ. Speaking of the practice as a mere discipline suggests a sort of arbitrariness. But there is nothing arbitrary about this discipline. As Fr. Griffin makes clear throughout the pages of his book, it is deeply fitting that a priest be celibate. This conforms him to Christ in a special way and paradoxically allows him to be the supernatural father that is the highest calling of every man.
As Fr. Griffin writes, celibacy is “only partly subject to the Church’s prudential judgment. That is why priestly celibacy (or perpetual continence) has been a part of her life since apostolic times. There has been historical development, of course, but despite repeated calls through the centuries to abandon celibacy, the Church has steadfastly refused to do so. In fact, she has repeatedly reaffirmed the blessing of priestly celibacy.” “The burden of proof . . . rests on those” who would change the general practice in the Latin Church. As Fr. Griffin writes, there “is not only a historical continuity that would be broken by relinquishing the gift; there is also a profound theological and pastoral congruence with the priestly vocation that would be set aside, at least in part, with manifold repercussions for the salvific ministry of the Church.”
In our current age, celibacy also has an extremely profound practical theological value as well. In a world in which God is eclipsed and our utter dependence on him is effaced, celibacy stands as a great witness to our ultimate destiny. Fr. Griffin writes, “Celibacy . . . reveals to a world weary of failed sexual experimentation that there is a truer, nobler, and healthier road to radical love and sexual fulfillment. Those who embrace celibacy for sake of the Kingdom remind their contemporaries that all love, including sexual love, realizes its potential only when it finds its terminus in divine love and finds its protection only when guarded by virtue.” Indeed, celibacy, lived well, can serve as a “wise corrective to exaggerated views of marriage” freeing marriage “from unhealthy and unrealistic expectations” where one’s spouse becomes the person who can fulfill all one’s desires and hopes.
East and West
While Fr. Griffin’s book does not engage the issue, I think it offers an occasion to end a false and problematic conflict between Eastern and Latin Catholics.
Frequently, we hear Catholics proposing the experience of Eastern Catholics with married priests as a model for Latin Catholics. Too frequently Latin Catholics have attempted to impose their practice and tradition on the East. These unfortunate skirmishes miss the fact that the Eastern practice of a ordaining married men as parish priests grew up organically and is embedded within a larger culture. Furthermore, the East has maintained an emphasis on the importance and gift of celibacy. Twinned with the East’s married parish priests is a deep and rich monastic life from which its bishops are chosen. Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is affirmed albeit in a different mode.
Just as it was a grievous error for Archbishop Ireland to impose a Latin understanding of celibacy upon Eastern Catholics in America—and Pope Francis must be credited for lifting the Vatican restrictions on ordaining married men for the priesthood in the Eastern Catholic Churches in America—it would be wrong to think we can simply smuggle an Eastern understanding of priesthood into the Latin Church. East and West have safeguarded celibacy but in different ways. While it may be paradoxical to have a married priesthood and a celibate priesthood coexisting in East and West, it is also an example of the great both/and of the Catholic Church. We need not denigrate Eastern practice in affirming Latin practice and vice-versa. Both can and should continue to exist in their respective spheres. My overall point is that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom is safeguarded in the East because of monasticism. The Latin West dos not have the same twined connection between parish priest and monk and would lose something vital were she to do away with mandatory celibacy.
A personal note
Let me finish on a personal note. Just as the fatherhood of the priest is not an abstraction, I cannot abstract my review of this book from my personal experience with Fr. Griffin. While I would not have picked up the “pen,” so to speak, to review this book were I not convinced of its merits, I freely admit that I read it in the context of the fatherhood I’ve seen Fr. Griffin live out in my own life.
In 2010-2011, Fr. Griffin was the parochial vicar at my parish on Capitol Hill in D.C. Like so many priests with great gifts, his time in parish life was short-lived. He was soon called to be vocations director and vice-rector of the seminary. But his short time as a parochial vicar demonstrated that he lives what he preaches in the pages of his wonderful book. My wife and I were but just some of the many whom Father Griffin helped grow in the supernatural order of grace through his fruitful celibate fatherhood. He is one of the finest priests I’ve ever had the occasion to know—and I’ve had the occasion to know many.
On the eve of the Amazon Synod, I urge all to pick up this elegant and important book. In Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest Fr. Griffin makes a winsome and compelling argument for the great gift of priestly celibacy. After reading it, I am more convinced than ever that the Latin Church would be making a grievous error were she to dispense with mandatory celibacy. She would be doing away with a crown jewel, a pearl of a great price. May we hope and pray that many—including our bishops—will read and internalize its important arguments so we can safeguard the treasure of celibacy.
Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest
By Fr. Carter Griffin
Emmaus Road Publishing, 2019
Hardcover, 215 pages
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