Before my return to the Catholic faith I had a tough time reconciling the practice of priestly celibacy. I really thought it caused more harm than good. I lamented to myself, “How can the Church impose such a strict, unnatural rule on men?”
Now I get it. Consecrated celibacy is a beautiful way of life, properly understood, and a great blessing to the Church.
But maybe you don’t get it. Perhaps you—like I once did—believe celibacy causes more harm than good. If this is your position (and today it’s a common one), I humbly ask that you take a few moments to read this post.
Here are nine points that may help you understand:
1. Consecrated celibacy has been practiced throughout salvation history. It is not a New Testament phenomenon.
Consider Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, Paul and the prophet Jeremiah.
Now if I may briefly digress to clear a couple things up:
First, Jesus was never married (to Mary Magdalene or any other woman) contrary to what some of today’s popular heretics might report.
The New Testament is clear that the Church is His bride (2 Cor. 11:2, Eph. 5:22-33, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9). This would have been a strange and scandalous choice of words if He also had an earthly wife. If Jesus had married, the woman would have been a notable figure in early Christianity; but there is no mention of a Mrs. in the New Testament or in the writings of the early Church Fathers. There is simply no good evidence in favour of this allegation, and good evidence against it.
Second, Mary was a consecrated celibate according to two thousand years of Church tradition.
The New Testament refers to Jesus’ “brothers” or, in Biblical Greek, adelphoi, but this can just mean “blood relatives.”
Moreover, the early Church Fathers testify to her perpetual virginity.
Mary’s consecrated virginity is also confirmed in a reliable document from early Christianity, called the Protoevangelium of James. Protestant scholar, Richard Baukham, has done some interesting work on this topic. He affirms the historical plausibility that Jesus “brothers” are Joseph’s sons from another marriage, leaving the scholarly door open for Mary’s consecrated celibacy.
2. Jesus endorses celibacy for the sake of the Church. During a discussion on marriage and divorce, Jesus teaches:
“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For… there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matt 19:11-12)
Most will not be called to the celibate life. The best choice for these folks will be marriage. But for others—their truest, deepest happiness lies in the religious life.
Many important biblical characters
3. St. Paul holds the celibate life in high regard. Read the entire 7th chapter of his 1st letter to the Corinthians.
St. Paul writes:
“He who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.” (1 Cor 7:38)
He also implies the importance of consecrated widows and their service to the Church in his 1st letter to St. Timothy (1 Tim 5:9-16)
(Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying Paul’s high regard of marriage. He surely has one but for the purposes of this post I am emphasizing his thoughts on celibacy.)
4. The celibate life has practical advantages. Paul is clear about the advantages of celibacy for devoted servants of the Church:
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided… I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32-35)
It cannot be denied that celibacy allows leaders of the Church to fully devote themselves to Christ and the Church in a way that is impossible for the married. For any married man or woman, this is abundantly clear.
“Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to “the affairs of the Lord,” they give themselves entirely to God and to men.” (CCC 1579)
By choosing this life of celibacy the priest is saying, “This is my body given up for you.”
5. Celibacy is not just a “Catholic thing.” In the Anglican Church, monks and nuns take a vow of celibacy. Some Anglican clergy also accept a calling to the celibate life, although this is not a requirement.
6. Celibacy is a discipline, not a dogma. The Church has deemed celibacy to be a way of life that well-suits—even best-suits—men called to the priesthood. At least for men in the Latin rite (also called the Roman rite) of the Catholic Church. This is not to be understood as a permanent, unchangeable teaching of the Church, but rather, a way of priestly life prescribed and endorsed by the Church.
The Catholic Church has several rites or traditions in which the sacraments can be celebrated. For example, if you were to travel to Lebanon and attend a Mass in a Maronite Catholic parish (vs. a Roman Catholic parish), you would be celebrating the liturgy according to the Antiochian liturgical rite (vs. the Latin rite). One major difference in the Maronite tradition is that diocesan priests may be married.
Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life.” (CCC1579)
NOTE: In the Latin rite there are rare exceptions, like Fr. Dwight Longenecker. Read his take on celibacy here.
7. Celibacy does not cause child abuse. Chris Kaczor has done important work in this area. In his article, Celibacy Isn’t The Problem, he quotes several important sources including:
Michael Castleman in Psychology Today writes,
“From media reports, one might infer that Catholic priests commit most pedophilia. In fact, only a tiny fraction of child sex abusers are priests” (All about Sex, psychologytoday.com, March 1, 2010).
Dr.Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, concludes:
“My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination—or indeed, than non-clergy.” (“The Myth of the Pedophile Priest,”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 3, 2010)
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, notes:
“We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this [abuse] or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else.” (Pat Wingert, “Mean Men,” Newsweek, April 8, 2010).
Kaczor also observes that insurance companies—who have a great interest financially in objective evidence regarding health-related risk factors—do not see priests as a higher risk cohort than other members or groups of society. Kaczor concludes after examining all of the evidence:
“The evidence is substantial and confirmed by psychologists, researchers, and insurance companies: Priestly celibacy is not a risk factor for the sexual abuse of children.”
I highly recommend Kaczor’s, The Seven Big Myths Of The Catholic Church.
8. Celibacy is a supernatural calling. In Jesus’ words:
“Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given” (Matt 19:11)
A life of consecrated celibacy requires grace from above. It really only makes sense in light of this fact. One enters the celibate life because God has called him (or her) to it. Only after serious discernment do they make their decision. In the Catholic Church, the vow and life commitment of celibacy is not a small matter. Most priests-to-be, for example, will have at least eight years to make their decision based on where they believe God is calling them.
The priest does not adopt the celibate life out of naivety. By his final vows, he knows exactly what he is choosing, and he does it with inexpressible, supernatural joy (attend the next ordination near you and you’ll see what I mean!).
9. Celibacy points to our heavenly destiny. A vow of celibacy is not renunciation of sex. It is a sacrifice. It is not a condemnation of something so bad. It is a love offering of something SO good.
A sacrifice of sex lifts the eyes of the priest beyond the pleasures of this world—and his focus becomes ever-more-clearly on heaven.
For the rest of us, the witness of the celibate priest is a foreshadowing—an “icon”—of our own eternal destiny of heavenly sainthood. To quote one very well-written article on this topic:
“Celibacy is an eschatological sign to the Church, a living-out in the present of the universal celibacy of heaven: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30)
For more, read Mark Shea’s article, Why a Celibate Priesthood?