Priestly Celibacy: Review of the Church's Stance on the Issue

Priestly celibacy, which the Catholic Church has kept for centuries like a sacred jewel, has been, for a number of years, the object of doubts, challenges, and even virulent attacks. The consciences of Catholics are troubled, while aspirants to the priesthood and priests are perplexed. It is therefore necessary to examine this question in the light of the Gospel and of the authentic Tradition of the Church.

Objections against Priestly Celibacy

Apparently convincing arguments can be made against the practice of priestly celibacy. Let us quickly examine some of the most important of these:

Not in the New Testament

First of all, the New Testament does not seem to require celibacy for priests, but simply proposes it as a special grace, to which each individual may freely respond (cf. Matt. 19, 11-12). Moreover, Jesus Christ did not make of it a prerequisite in the choice of His Twelve Apostles, nor did the Apostles themselves in their choice of the leaders of the first Christian communities (cf. 1 Tim. 3, 2-5; Tit. 1, 5-6).

The fruit of an unhealthy obsession with purity?

It is true that, throughout the centuries, the Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers made a connection between a priestly vocation and consecrated celibacy. However, the Fathers more recommend chastity in marriage than celibacy itself. Moreover, these texts appear to be inspired by an exaggerated pessimism or by a more or less unhealthy obsession with purity. Finally, they refer to a socio-cultural context which no longer exists.

Besides, the custom of ecclesiastical celibacy wrongly identifies the priestly vocation with the vocation to celibacy, an identification which rules out those who have a vocation to the priesthood, but not one to celibacy.

Moreover, we are forced to admit that modern clergy have shrunk tragically in their numbers: would not one of the causes of this shrinking be the obligation to remain celibate, which is too heavy a load for many young people today? Would not a suppression of this obligation give a new impetus to the recruitment of priests?

A requirement which is impossible to fulfill?

Anyway, we are forced to admit that there are numerous breaches of consecrated celibacy, both on the part of priests who leave their ministry to marry, and on the part of priests who have more or less clandestine sexual relationships. Wouldn't an open permission be better than this shameful hypocrisy which ends in scandal?

In reality, it is impossible to remain completely celibate, because it is against nature and inhuman. It puts the priest in a physically and psychologically damaging condition, which leads to discouragement and even despair.

Summary of the objection

According to its opponents, then, priestly celibacy has no basis in Scripture and Tradition. It is excessive, inappropriate, hypocritical and against nature. It is therefore urgent to completely suppress it, or, at least, to make it entirely optional, both for today's clergy and for future priests. 

Defense of Priestly Celibacy

In order to defend priestly celibacy, people have sometimes put forward an argument which goes something like this: “If the priest were married, he would have to devote himself to his wife and family, which would make him less available for his faithful, as when he would need to give the Sacraments during the night or during an epidemic. Furthermore, the secrets which are entrusted to him under the seal of confession would risk being revealed during conversations with his spouse, and the mere thought of this risk would keep penitents away from confessing to him”. Such reasonings are not entirely devoid of truth. They are not, however, absolutely convincing either. Doctors must also leave home at night or during epidemics in order to cure sick people. They are also told the most intimate secrets of their patients. Yet, no-one has ever stopped a doctor from getting married! This is therefore proof that this reason alone, taken from the natural order, well-founded though it seems to be, is not sufficient to justify priestly celibacy. When under attack by strong reasons and defended by insufficient arguments, priestly celibacy seems to be a lost cause, destined to be swept away by the victorious march of history and human progress.

The constant practice of the Church

Impressed by the objections above (and by yet others which could be formulated), we might be tempted to end by agreeing with them. An enormous fact, however, looms before us, obliging us to think seriously about the gravity of the question at hand. This fact is the constant practice of the Catholic Church in the matter of ecclesiastical celibacy. The Fathers of the Church and the ecclesiastical writers bear unanimous witness, from the earliest days of Christianity, to the propagation, amongst the clergy of both East and West, of the freely assumed practice of consecrated celibacy. From the fourth century onwards, the Western Church (thanks to the interventions of several provincial councils and bishops), reinforced, developed and sanctioned this practice of priestly celibacy.

The action of the Roman pontiffs

It was particularly the Roman pontiffs who, in every age, were intent on protecting and restoring ecclesiastical celibacy, even when a general slackening of morals was opposed to it and when a part of the clergy was publicly living in sin. The obligation of priestly celibacy was specifically solemnly recalled by the Council of Trent and was later included in the Code of Canon Law. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, all the popes without exception (following a precedent set by Saint Pius X), have addressed an encyclical letter to the priests of the entire world, explicitly reminding them of the solemn engagement of celibacy which they have contracted.

The practice of the Church of the East

If the legislation of the Eastern Church concerning ecclesiastical celibacy differs, in part, from that of the Western Church, it must not be forgotten that this is due to historical circumstances proper to that part of the Church. The Eastern Fathers, nevertheless, sung highly the praises of virginity and of its profound connection to the priestly ministry. Furthermore, in the East, the episcopacy, which is the fullness of the priesthood, is strictly reserved to celibate clergy. Finally, candidates for the priesthood who desire marriage are required to marry before ordination and, if they become widowers, they cannot remarry. In that the end, then, the principles of a celibate priesthood and of the correspondence between celibacy and priestly ministry remain established in the East up to a certain point, at least in the episcopal priesthood.

A universal and constant practice

In a Church which claims to be essentially faithful to Tradition, this universal and constant practice of consecrated celibacy cannot be treated as a simple human custom, revocable at will. On the contrary, it gives us to think that ecclesiastical celibacy has deep links with Revelation itself.

The real sense of priestly celibacy

The practice of the Church, taken by itself, does not necessarily have the force of law. It must, in addition, rest on foundations which come from Divine Revelation or the nature of things. This is the case for priestly celibacy, which rests on supernatural motives of the highest value and is rooted directly in the Gospel itself. Sacerdos alter Christus, “the priest is another Christ”. This is the fundamental principle which illuminates the Catholic priesthood. The Priesthood of Christ is unique and definitive, and the priesthood of men, the ministerial priesthood (that is, etymologically, the priesthood of servants) is a real participation in this Sovereign Priesthood. It is therefore Christ Himself who is the Model, the “Type”, He to Whom each priest must be intimately conformed in order for his priesthood to take on all of its truth.

Jesus Christ, the True Priest, remained a virgin

Now, it is remarkable that Jesus Christ (in a world where celibacy was almost unknown, if not cursed), remained in the state of virginity throughout all of His life. This virginity of His signifies His total and unreserved consecration to God. All of His energies, all of His thoughts, all of His actions belong to God. It is by this total consecration (which in Jesus goes all the way to a Hypostatic Union, such that His human nature no longer belongs to itself but belongs directly to the Person of the Word), that Christ was constituted Mediator between Heaven and earth, between God and men, that is to say, a Priest.

Celibacy as a consecration to God

Thus, virginity signifies and realizes the consecration which is the essence of the Priesthood of Christ. In other words, the virginity of Jesus flows from His Priesthood and is intimately connected with it. The human priest who participates in the Priesthood of Christ also participates in His total consecration to God and, as a consequence, in His virginity. The consecrated celibacy of the priest is therefore an intimate and love-filled union with the virginity of Jesus, sign of His consecration to the Father. This is the first and most fundamental reason for the celibacy of priests.

The love of Christ for the Church

Jesus was a virgin not only in order to express His consecration to the Father, but also in order to offer Himself on the Cross for His Church, so as to make of Her a glorious, holy and immaculate Spouse (cf. Eph. 5, 25-27). In this way, the consecrated virginity of the human priest manifests and prolongs the virginal love of Christ for the Church and the supernatural fecundity of this love.

The priest’s availability to love the Church and souls manifests itself by his prayer life , by his celebration of the sacraments and particularly that of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by his charity towards all, by his constant preaching of the Gospel, following the example of the Life of Jesus. Each day, the priest, united to Christ the Redeemer, begets souls in Faith and Grace, and makes the love of Christ for His Church, signified by His virginity, present among men.

The sign of the Kingdom to come

If we pass from examining the mission of Christ on earth to the consideration of the full realization of this mission in Heaven, we discover a third cause for His virginity and so also for that of the priest.

In effect, the earthly Church is the seed of the heavenly Church and at the same time the sign of the blessed life to come. What heavenly beatitude will be is already visible in the earthly life of the Church, though in a manner that is veiled and mysterious. But, as Our Lord said so forcefully: “in the resurrection they shall neither marry nor be married; but shall be as the angels of God in heaven.” (cf. Matt. 22, 30). Virginity will therefore be the final state of blessed humanity. It is fitting that the sign of this virginity should shine forth, already in this life, in the midst of the tribulations and desires of the flesh. The consecrated celibacy of the priest, mirroring that of Christ, is thus an anticipation of heavenly glory, a prefiguring of the life of the elect and a pressing invitation to the faithful to march towards Eternal Life without allowing themselves to be weighed down by the burdens of each day.

The celibacy of human priests is therefore a participation in the virginity of the Supreme Priest, a virginity which expresses His total consecration to the Father, makes possible His union with the Church and announces the blessed life of Heaven to come.

Response to Objections

To those who claim that the absence of any commandment on the part of Jesus indicates that there is no obligation to consecrated celibacy, we must reply with an elementary distinction. In itself, the priesthood is not linked absolutely to celibacy because it is a spiritual quality of the soul, a sacramental character. This explains why a married man can be validly ordained a priest and why Jesus did not directly mandate the observance of celibacy.

At the same time, it is clear from the Gospel that there is a profound link between priestly consecration and virginal consecration. Jesus, having chosen His first priests, wanted to initiate them into the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 13, 11; Mark 4, 11; Luke 8, 10) and called them His friends and His brothers (John 15, 15; 20, 17). He sacrificed Himself for them so that they would be consecrated in Truth (John 17, 19) and promised a superabundant recompense to anyone who would abandon house, family, spouse and children for the Kingdom of God. Finally, in words laden with meaning and addressing Himself to His disciples alone, He recommended a more perfect consecration to God by virginity, propter regnum (cf. Matt. 19, 11-12). The constant tradition of the Church concerning priestly celibacy is therefore founded on the Gospel itself and on the explicit doctrine of Jesus Christ.

A particularly expressive correspondence

In the same way, the Fathers of the Church never intended to transform this evangelical correspondence between celibacy and the priesthood, which became a canonical law in the West and partially in the East, into a strict obligation of Divine Law. That is why the link which they establish between the priestly vocation and consecrated virginity is more a pressing exhortation than a strict obligation. Their writings nevertheless express the spirit of the Gospel in this matter in a very clear manner.

Besides, it is possible that the ecclesiastical writers were sometimes inspired by an exaggerated pessimism or refer to a socio-cultural context that does not exist today. But this is only true on points of detail and for this or that Father in particular. On the other hand, all of the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers who speak of the profound link between the priesthood and virginity, far from expressing changing and doubtful opinions, on the contrary firmly transmit the very doctrine of Divine Revelation.

A vocation is not a right, but a calling

To those who claim to separate the priestly vocation from consecrated chastity, we must reply that they are committing a profound error on the very nature of a vocation. The latter is, in effect, a Divine call manifested by the Church through the voice of the bishop. This Divine call is in no way a sort of haphazard choice which could fall on anyone. It is, on the contrary, a precise call which supposes or creates the necessary dispositions in the one who is called. Thus, in the Eastern Church, because of the central place occupied by ecclesiastical chant, no minister can be ordained unless he is capable of singing. In other words, no candidate in the East has a real priestly vocation is he does not have the ability to sing. In the Western Church, no priest can be ordained without consecrated celibacy. In other words, there is no candidate in the West has a real priestly vocation unless he is called to consecrated celibacy. Thus, the desire to separate the priesthood from chastity in the West is entirely erroneous, since they are but one reality, that of an authentic Divine vocation.

Married clergy do not recruit any better than celibate clergy

When people point to the vocations crisis in order to attack priestly celibacy, they forget to note that the ecclesial communities which already allow for the marriage of their priests or pastors—such as the Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants—are experiencing the same recruiting difficulties as the Latin Rite Catholic Church. Allowing priests to marry is therefore not a particularly effective way to eliminate the drop in vocations. The real causes for the drop in vocations are rather the weakening of the spirit of Faith, the destruction of the Catholic family, the development of materialism, the enormous scandals caused by certain priests, the destruction of the Holy Mass by the liturgical reform, etc. On the other hand, the total gift of self to God which priestly celibacy signifies is a light which guides generous souls towards the priestly ministry and is one of the principal sources of a vocation.

Change the law because it is only imperfectly followed?

Infringements in the law of celibacy, leading to scandals and apostasies, exist – it would be ridiculous to deny this. Nevertheless, that is in no way a reason for rejecting consecrated celibacy. Otherwise, we would also have to suppress marriage, for there are breaches of fidelity, adulteries and scandalous divorces. The difficulty in keeping conjugal fidelity is not a reason for suppressing it. Similarly, the difficulty in conserving priestly chastity is not a reason for suppressing celibacy, but rather a reason for continually rooting it more deeply in a human balance and an authentic supernatural life. To want to suppress celibacy because it is not always maintained is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to get rid of cars because of road-traffic accidents, to abolish food because of indigestion and to do away with life because there are people who commit suicide.

What is impossible to man is possible to God

To claim that observing celibacy is an impossibility is false both on the natural and supernatural levels. We know from scientific and philosophical psychology that continence, even absolute continence, is not in any way against nature. Man, being a free and reasonable being, is able to master his physical and emotional inclinations. At the same time, it has to be admitted that the virtuous and continual observance of celibacy is not ordinarily given to a human nature wounded by Original Sin. In this sense, the celibacy of the priest is founded, not on nature alone, but on that grace by which God makes possible what is impossible to man. It is therefore true that consecrated celibacy requires a particular grace, but it is a grace which God grants unreservedly to one who has piously engaged himself in His service. This grace makes him capable of remaining faithful to his engagements. The immense legion of priests who have caused the magnificent splendor of their spotless virginity to shine for so many centuries in the Church bears witness to this.

A beautiful text of Pius XII

We will conclude with a beautiful text of Pius XII who recalls the supernatural fruitfulness of priestly celibacy:

The priest has as the proper field of his activity everything that pertains to the supernatural life, since it is he who promotes the increase of this supernatural life and communicates it to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is necessary that he renounce 'the things of the world', in order to have care only for 'the things of the Lord' (1 Cor 7, 32-33). And it is precisely because he should be free from preoccupation with worldly things to dedicate himself entirely to the divine service, that the Church has established the law of celibacy, thus making it ever more manifest to all peoples that the priest is a minister of God and the father of souls. By his law of celibacy, the priest, so far from losing the gift and duties of fatherhood, rather increases them immeasurably, for, although he does not beget progeny for this passing life of earth, he begets children for that life which is heavenly and eternal. The more resplendent priestly chastity is, so much the more does the sacred minister become, together with Christ, 'a pure victim, a holy victim, an immaculate victim'”

(Pius XII, Menti nostrae, September 23, 1950).