Not too long ago, media attention was focused on a comment by Pope Francis about studying the possibility of priestly ordination for select married men in remote places that are in dire need of a priest to celebrate the sacraments. “But,” he cautioned, “optional celibacy isn’t the solution.”
It is true that celibacy is not absolutely required for priestly ordination. The Latin Catholic Church already has some priests who were married before they were received into the Catholic Church and then ordained, as have the Eastern Catholic Churches. What is troubling is that so many Catholics have little or no appreciation of the scriptural origins and spiritual value of celibacy.
Let’s begin with some of the basics about celibacy from Scripture:
Celibacy can be defined as the renunciation of marriage for religious reasons (virginity and voluntary continence are other ways of referring to the same reality). The institution of celibacy as a Christian state in life is described in Matthew 19 following Jesus’ teaching against divorce: “His disciples said to him: ‘If that’s how things are between husband and wife, it’s better not to marry.’ But he replied: ‘Not everyone can accept what I have said, but only those to whom it is granted. For there are some who are eunuchs from their mother’s womb, and some who were made so by other men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.’” (vv. 10-12)
Judaism had little regard for the unmarried, and it would seem that the offensive term “eunuch” may have been used as a kind of insult against Jesus because he was not married. But how does Jesus turn around this offensive innuendo? He acknowledges that some may be unmarried because of some natural defect, the wickedness of others or the circumstances of life. But then he says something totally new. He introduces the possibility of being unmarried “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Christ’s words will be understood by those given the grace to understand as part of a new order of things, the order of redemption.
Celibacy shows what the final condition of men and women will be in the kingdom. The celibacy of the few is a prophetic sign for the benefit of the many. It reminds them that although marriage is holy, beautiful and redeemed by Christ, it is not everything. Marriage is a reality that is linked to this world and is, therefore, transitory. As Jesus says, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (Lk 20:34ff) As one author puts it, celibacy “for the kingdom of heaven” is a reminder to married people of the primacy of the spirit and of God. It reminds them that God has made us for himself and, therefore, our hearts will always be “unsatisfied” until they rest in him.
A second passage in the New Testament comes from St. Paul. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, he says that “the world as we know it is passing away. … I want you to be free from anxiety.” Paul says that the unmarried person is concerned with the Lord’s affairs, and how to please the Lord, while the married person is concerned with worldly affairs — how to please his or her spouse — and so is divided. “I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.” (1 Cor 7:32-35)
St. Paul’s undivided “concern with the Lord’s affairs” again focuses attention on the kingdom to come, as well as a practical application. A book on priestly celibacy published several years ago includes essays by a non-Catholic minister and his wife. The married Protestant minister writes: “After over a decade in the ordained ministry, I have reached the unexpected conclusion that there is a compelling case to be made for the disciplined separation of the clerical and marital vocation. One can serve and honor God in both, of course; but human frailty intrudes. … For at some point almost every married member of the clergy must make a decision: To which of my vows — the one to my office or the one to my spouse — do I owe the greater allegiance? … Implicitly, the deal is struck: I will sacrifice one on the altar of the other.” (Priestly Celibacy, P. Stravinskas, ed. Newman House, 2001, p. 86f)
Much more could be said from Scripture, including Christ’s promise to those who leave parents, spouse and property for his sake; the virginity of Mary and John the Baptist; and the treatment of marriage and virginity in the Book of Revelation. I daresay that in light of Scripture the question is not: Why does the life of the Catholic Church include celibacy? The question is: Why don’t all Christian churches practice it and honor it in some way?
Now I would like to say something about celibacy in the history of the Church:
What most people, including Catholics, have heard about celibacy comes from a secular portrayal of Catholic history, teaching and practice often based on ignorance or even an anti-Catholic bias. Priestly celibacy is almost always presented along the following lines: “Most of the apostles were married. Celibacy was optional for centuries. The Church imposed it on priests for its own reasons, such as the protection of property. It should be abandoned if there is a shortage of priests.”
Listen to what one of America’s greatest Catholic biblical scholars, the late Father Raymond Brown, has to say: “Often the false impression is given that priestly celibacy is a medieval imposition. It is true that a law applicable to the whole Western Church stems from the Middle Ages … but in certain areas of the West the custom of celibacy for priests can be documented back to ca. 300. Even in areas where there was a married clergy, generally marriage had to be contracted before ordination; it was very widespread that an ordained priest could not marry. The first law imposing celibacy appeared in Spain in 306, and the movement was so strong that the Council of Nicea (325) debated the advisability of making celibacy compulsory for clergy.” (Priest and Bishop, note, p. 26)
Father Brown explains; “[I]n the New Testament celibacy was not demanded of all who followed Jesus or even of the Twelve, but it was held up as an ideal to those who were able to bear it.” (Mt 19:12; 1 Cor 7:7-9) Since this ideal was held up precisely for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, from a very early period the Church has not deemed it illogical to seek candidates willing to live by the ideal of celibacy among those who want to devote themselves in a special way to promoting the kingdom of heaven. By the law that allows only a celibate clergy, the Western Catholic Church has ensured a large-scale, public witness of the celibate life.” (ibid.)
The bottom line is: celibacy, coming from Christ, was not only highly esteemed, but also practiced from the beginning. Recent scholarship has argued that priestly celibacy is apostolic in its origins, and not a later development. The earliest Christian tradition is not unanimous as to which apostles were married, but it does suggest that those apostles who were married lived in a condition of conjugal abstinence in keeping with Luke 18:28-30, where we read: “Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’” And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Another accusation is that the Catholic Church has put too wide an interpretation on the words of Jesus about voluntary celibacy for the sake of the kingdom by imposing it on all its priests. I cannot improve on the succinct response of another priest, Father Raniero Cantalamessa. He writes: “It is true that Jesus did not impose the choice of celibacy, but neither does the Church impose it, much less does it forbid anyone to marry. To view the celibacy of Catholic priests in this light is a grave distortion. The Church has only laid this down as one of the requirements for those who wish to exercise the priestly ministry, which remains a free choice. The Church copies Jesus’ approach to the rich young man and says: If you want to work with me, accept a life of chastity and then come and serve me. ‘If you want!’ Since the priesthood is a call to serve the Church as fellow-workers of the bishop, it surely has the right to determine the requirements for such service.” (Virginity, p. 13) We might say that, with the passing of time, the Gospel value of celibacy has been demanded more, not less, as part of the clergy’s discipleship.
Within the living memory of many of us, clerical celibacy received its most definitive reaffirmation at the Second Vatican Council. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church — Lumen Gentium — praises celibacy as “an incentive to charity” and “a particular source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.” (no. 42)
Building on this affirmation, the council’s Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priests goes on to explain celibacy’s “many-faceted suitability for the priesthood.” After acknowledging all the scriptural roots of celibacy mentioned above, the council fathers teach that the current requirement of celibacy “in so far as it concerns those who are destined for the priesthood, this Holy Synod again approves and confirms. It fully trusts that this gift of the Spirit, so fitting for the priesthood of the New Testament, will be given in abundant measure by the Father, provided that those who participate in the priesthood of Christ through the sacrament of Orders, as well as the whole Church, humbly and fervently pray for it.” (no. 16)
For half a century now, the Church has sought with remarkable dedication and generosity to implement the council’s vision and to respond to its challenge to renew the Church so that she can more effectively fulfill her mission of evangelizing our age. The council spoke of a “full trust” that this gift of the Spirit “will be given in abundant measure by the Father.” We need to have faith in what the council teaches about priestly celibacy, and to share its trust about how abundantly the Father will bestow this grace, provided we “humbly and fervently pray for it.”