THE CELIBATE PRIESTHOOD
Celibacy obstructs efforts to increase the number of priests. Many people fear celibate priests are inexperienced, indiscreet, unfulfilled, and lonely. They hesitate enlisting candidates for priesthood from their families and friends because they resist the stigma of celibacy.
The benefits of celibacy are obscure. They exist, but many of us cannot enumerate them. Consequently, Catholics aplenty who want more priests would unhesitatingly opt for married ones. However, if the value of celibacy is unknown, its loss could be graver than Catholics realize.
The practice of celibacy.
Celibacy is a way of life which excludes genital sexual intercourse, although it may include appropriate levels of touching, feeling, and loving with one or more persons. Celibacy is not necessarily religious. All of us experience it for different lengths of time. It can result by accident, by choice, by a failed marriage, or by unsuccessful romance. You may accept it willfully or ruefully.
Religious, priests, and unmarried deacons in the Roman Catholic Church today promise a lifetime of celibacy. Religious are women and men who dedicate themselves to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience within a community. They include nuns, monks, and brothers. Often they wear a distinctive garment or habit, but many dress as you might when you go to the mall. Priests may be religious or diocesan. That is, they may belong to a religious community of men, like the Jesuits or the Benedictines, or they may work directly with the local bishop; he may appoint them to a parish, hospital, or school within the territory he oversees. A single man who is ordained a deacon also promises a lifetime of celibacy, as does a married deacon whose wife dies.
Are all Catholic clergy celibate? No, there are exceptions. Priests of Eastern rite Catholic Churches may marry. Eastern Catholics are like first cousins to the Roman ones. We all serve the same pope, we share the same sacramental communion, but the Eastern rites retain certain customs arising from their ancient places of origin, including a married priesthood. Another exception to our celibate priesthood concerns male ministers of other Christian denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, for example). Occasionally, one of them will ask to enter the full communion of the Catholic Church; if so, he may present himself for ordination to the Catholic priesthood, bringing along wife, children, and all. In these exceptional cases we have married priests, formerly ministers of other churches, serving the Roman Catholic Church. Another exception is deacons, who are indeed Roman Catholic clergy. Married men may apply for this ministry.
Those exceptions permit non-celibates among the clergy. Are there non-clergy celibates? Yes, celibate nuns and brothers who are not ordained to the diaconate or priesthood are not precisely "clergy". Furthermore, someone who is not in religious life or orders may profess celibacy, but those cases are rare. In addition, our church expects all the unmarried to abstain from sexual intercourse. Also since our church does not support homosexual genital expression, it asks celibate behavior of gays and lesbians, even while it promotes the greatest compassion for them.
When you think about it, professional celibacy is an amazing proposition. How in the world did it ever come about? Can you imagine a code of ethics demanding that surgeons be celibate? Or police officers or firefighters? Teachers, lawyers, fast-food sales clerks, sellers of used cars, actors, or singers? In fact, society does place codes of sexual ethics on its figures. Politicians guilty of sexual duplicity, for example, attract suspicion to their professional competence. But we expect promiscuity of entertainers on stage, screen, and basketball courts. Often we jealously applaud it. Many non-Catholic churches expect their ministers to be married, if not by church law at least by societal pressure.
Origins of a celibate clergy.
Celibacy developed slowly in the history of our church. In the first few centuries after the death of Jesus, his followers passed no law regarding the marital status of clergy.
The Bible, if anything, acknowledges that the principal disciples and early church leaders were married. In the gospels, Peter's marital status comes to light in a roundabout way when Jesus cures his sick mother-in-law. Peter's unnamed wife gets passing reference in 1 Corinthians 9:5, along with the wives of other apostles and of the brothers of the Lord. Two New Testament epistles advise that bishops be married only once (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Surely marriage, divorce, and widowhood were as common among clergy as among the rest of the early church.
The marital status of New Testament leaders simply followed assumptions from the Old Testament. In the Jewish pre-history of this Christian Church, marriage blessed the family; the single life and childlessness produced shame. God promised a childless Abraham the blessing of many descendants (Gen 22:17). When Rachael conceived her first child, she proclaimed, "God has taken away my shame" (Gen 30:23). Jephthah's daughter, the tragic victim of her father's ill-made promise of human sacrifice, asked for two more months of life, in order specifically to mourn her virginity (Judges 11:37). And among the promises the prophet Isaiah made to Israel was that she would no longer remember the dishonor of her widowhood (Is 54:4).
Many of the early fathers of the church praised the marriage of clergy. At the turn of the third century Clement of Alexandria promoted marriage as a way of salvation for all, including priests, deacons, and laity (Stromata 3:12). Although some fathers at Nicaea in 325 tried to restrict priesthood to celibates, the council did not go along with it. The Synod of Gangra in 345 condemned those who refused to attend worship celebrated by married priests. The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 400) excommunicated the priest or bishop who left his wife "under pretence of piety."
However, during the same period the origins of mandatory celibacy emerged. The Spanish Council of Elvira in 313 ordered celibacy for all its clergy. Several fourth century popes argued that the celibacy of clergy gave good example to widows and virgins. Still, in spite of centuries of local legislation and pious recommendations, celibacy did not catch on right away. Mandatory celibacy for priests entered universal church law in 1139 with the second Lateran Council. The arguments had to do with its high spiritual calling, but the rule also avoided the secularization of church property: If the priest had no descendants, no family could claim the property owned by the church.
Ever since this time, celibacy has been required of Roman Catholic priests. Abuses existed, as they do to this day, but the instruction has remained firm and the custom has borne at different times tolerance, pride, embarrassment, and spiritual benefit.
New Testament celibates.
The reason priests do not marry is that church law forbids it. But why did leaders like this law? Was it to assert authority? Control? Economic stability? Or was there some other value behind the teaching? All of the above. To understand the specific celibacy of priests, let's first examine religious celibacy in general.
A good place to begin explaining why the church values celibacy is with the marital status of some of our founders. Jesus himself evidently had no wife or children. Instead, a group of followers accompanied his entire professional career of preaching and travel. Similarly, tradition supports the unmarried status of John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Paul, as well as the enduring virginity of Jesus' mother Mary. Although one can rightly argue that disciples and early church leaders valued marriage, the celibate life also staked its territory from the beginning of Christianity.
Besides offering these individual examples, the scriptures honor the beauty of virginity. Paul preferred that the Corinthians remain single as he was (1 Corinthians 7:7). Singles can better devote themselves to the things of the Lord, Paul reasoned, whereas those who were married tend to the things of this world. Paul believed the end of time was near. If you have no spouse, he pragmatically suggests, don't bother looking for one (1 Corinthians 7:29). Again the single life enjoyed respect from the earliest days of Christianity.
Jesus himself argued that celibacy represented resurrection. Once some Saducees, who did not believe in life after death, asked Jesus about the case of a woman who married seven consecutive times as each spouse died. Whose wife would she be in the so-called "resurrection"? Jesus voids the question by proclaiming that there is no marriage in the resurrection. People will be perfectly fulfilled single (Mark 12:25; Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:36). He also says that some remain single for the sake of the reign of God (Matthew 19:12). The church has applied these sayings to show that some people live single now as a sign of our future happiness in eternity when we will love God alone. We first believe in resurrection; its bliss, Jesus infers, renders marriage irrelevant. By finding blissful union with God in the single life now, celibates become signs of the world to come.
Reasons for celibacy.
Apart from the scriptural arguments in support of celibacy, other reasons apply.
Celibacy simplifies life to sharpen its focus. All of us choose what we will develop and what we will forsake. We begin many projects; some we discontinue because of other values. You took piano lessons when you were a kid, but decided sports were more fun. You started high school, but decided to look for a job instead. You chose between French and Spanish. We can't do everything, so we choose to develop those parts of our life which give us refreshment, joy, and meaning. By choosing celibacy, people can devote themselves to other pursuits--religion, academic scholarship, or the perfection of art.
Celibacy builds discipline. Sexual governance demands day-to-day attention. Professional athletes may discipline their bodies with a daily physical regimen. Musicians discipline their art with daily practice. Recovering addicts discipline their desires one day at a time. Daily disciplines demand devotion, but they pay off. They build personal character, in addition to artistic skill, healthy habits, and spiritual depth.
Celibacy is obedient. Plainly, our religious leaders practice celibacy because the church asks them to. Obedience is itself a spiritual discipline. It schools us in humility and charity for others.
Celibacy is ascetic. The single most convincing spiritual argument for celibacy remains its asceticism. It is a practice of doing without in order to create a spirit within. Celibacy disciplines the body and the spirit. It invites a relationship with God that is unencumbered. Not every celibate achieves it; some who are married achieve it better. But celibates aim to train themselves in a particular discipline of spirit. It works best when it is supported with a simple lifestyle, a poverty of spirit, and a life of contemplative prayer. Celibates create a place in their hearts for God alone; when they fill that place with prayer, their celibacy becomes like a vase in which a flower now blooms. Celibacy can create a deeply spiritual human being, filled with love for God and charity for others. To spin the old saying, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.
Although these arguments describe the spiritual dimensions of celibacy, they also affirm its benefits for members of other professions. Occasionally an artist or musician remains single, unattached to spouse and children, because the drive to create in the artistic world demands its own space. One even discovers the occasional athlete whose intensity for the sport excludes the ability to enter into a satisfying human relationship, and who chooses marriage only after career has peaked.
In mythology, heroes often attain their goal when they overcome obstacles and achieve sexual union. Celibates journey through a platonic mythology, where the visible world is but a shadow of the real one. They aspire to overcome the physical world and achieve blissful union in the spiritual world.
These arguments constitute reasons why religious celibacy maintains its value in the church. Celibacy offers a discipline for personal growth. It need not have a religious motive. When it has a religious motive it is not for priests alone. Anyone seeking spiritual union with God may find celibacy a valid alternative.
The celibate priesthood.
Although celibacy may be useful in many walks of life, when it applies to priesthood it attracts added significance. Since a priest devotes himself to a religious vocation, the pursuit of any spiritual discipline will only enhance his work. Other spiritual disciplines exist: poverty, which forsakes possessions; the solitude of a hermit; fasting, which marks penitential seasons. But of all possible spiritual disciplines that a Catholic priest could choose, celibacy accomplishes so much more that it became obligatory.
Celibacy fosters purity. Does the church believe that celibacy is purer than marriage? No, but our practice indicates otherwise. At first, our tradition asserted that sex defiles a person. Leviticus 15 declared that sexual emissions caused impurity; priests at the temple would have to abstain from sexual relations before leading prayer. Many Christian spiritual writers believed that priests could worthily offer the daily sacrifice at the altar only through perpetual sexual abstinence, or a life of celibacy. Today the church professes the beauty of sexual intercourse in marriage. The idea that sex is always dishonorable has itself become dishonorable. Although the Catholic Church essentially requires celibacy of those who preside at liturgy, it does not argue from the standpoint of ritual purity, nor that celibacy is a higher calling than marriage. That opinion has changed. However, you could contend that the church still wrongly assumes that celibacy is more sacred than marriage, even though we don't articulate that position, since for the most part it is celibates who serve as priests.
Celibacy frees up time for others. A popular interpretation for celibacy is that it gives a priest more time. People want priests available 24/7. An old prayer for religious vocations begged for priests who would "spend and consume themselves for souls." Today, however, we encourage priests to take time for themselves, to round out their lives with other pursuits. Celibacy does not necessarily provide the practical result of more time to work; priests use their time in other ways, too. Besides, ministers of virtually every other denomination work sufficiently long hours while sharing in family life. Professionals on call in other fields accomplish the same. For the practical, time-conscious American, however, this interpretation of celibacy remains a common explanation, more easily understandable than a long-term spiritual disciplinary practice.
Celibacy makes priesthood manageable. To be honest, celibate priests are affordable. A married clergy would greatly change the economics of Catholic parish life. The economic arrangement also produces emotional results. Without wife and family establishing additional personal priorities, a priest who divides his career among several parish communities maintains a closer and more emotionally demanding tie to the leadership of his church. So although the spiritual value of this argument is minimal, the fact remains that church order can be smoothly maintained with celibate leaders.
To summarize, the spiritual value of celibacy derives from these sources: the scriptures that offer personal examples and spiritual reflections, the simplification of life, discipline, obedience, and asceticism. When applied to priests, celibacy reverences their ritual role, permits their emotional and temporal availability, and enhances the church's ability to afford and manage their work.
Making celibacy mandatory for priests raises some problems. As a spiritual discipline, celibacy may fit a priest's life. But when it becomes mandatory it loses some lustre.
For starters, if they were given a choice, many priests would prefer to be married. An unwelcome discipline does not bring all the benefit of a one gladly chosen, no matter how noble.
Moreover, sexuality has developed its own spirituality. Sexual intercourse within a committed marital relationship can be expressive of a person's entire being. It can manifest the true love around which one orients one's life. Far beyond a physical experience, sexual intercourse can become a spiritual experience which expresses the care and core of one's being.
Furthermore, the specific role of a diocesan priest in parish work differs from that of the religious man or woman. Those who enter a religious community further the vision of its founder; generally, celibacy fits the nature of their community life, prayer, and ministry. However, the work of the parish priest serves a different kind of community; he works not with other priests but with the faithful in a parish; his life, prayer, and service then are based on family; his spiritual lifestyle could participate in family life as well. However, we still deduce the lifestyle of priests from the spirituality of religious, not from the parish. Celibacy will always find a fitting home in religious communities of men or women, but in parishes the idea of married priests already wins support.
Most tragic of all, celibacy doesn't seem to work. Examples abound. The ideal is not always achieved, and some who fail do so with tragic results for the persons involved. We used to produce an adequate supply of single male candidates for priesthood, but the number of clergy has seriously dwindled here and in other parts of the world. In addition, the celibate ideal languishes underappreciated by the faithful. Many of them cannot figure out why priests accept the single life. While they speak an opinion shared by many clergy, that celibacy should be made optional, they unwittingly disvalue the sacrifice so many priests have made. After centuries of personal sacrifice on the part of the clergy, the most frequent reaction of honest faithful is, "Why bother?" In spite of all the supposed benefit celibacy brings to individuals and to the community, its purpose is obscure, and the desire for it remains suspect. The celibate witness of parish priests has failed.
In fairness, a celibate clergy does offer the Catholic faithful more than they may realize. The distinctive discipline gets noticed quite generally by the world, believers and non-believers alike, and lends a mystique to Catholicism. A parish priest who practices celibacy becomes present to his community not just temporally, but emotionally. Coupled with the secrecy surrounding the sacramental confession of sins, the celibacy of priests offers people an innate assurance that the intimate details of their lives which they share with their priest will remain intimate with him and with God. No other human being vies for the heart of the celibate parish priest.
Few people experience the celibate life. Fewer yet experience it well. For committed celibates, the benefits lie not in how much time they can spend with others, but in how much improved time alone has become. Although many Catholics sigh that priesthood seems lonely, not all priests find it so. Many enjoy the single life. They value the beauty of married life, but often struggle to convince others that you can be happy single.
Catholics who yearn for more priests can rightly lobby for married candidates, but they can also staunch the decline of vocations by affirming the celibate life.
This article first appeared online in Catholic Practice.
Top of page