Updated: Jan 18
Today we’ll examine a relatively controversial practice in the Catholic Church, which is priestly celibacy. There is a whole spectrum of opinions on the issue, from both within and outside of the Church, with all sorts of evidence supporting their positions. Regardless of whether or not I change any minds, my goal is to explain the reasons why priestly celibacy is presently valued in the Church, in the hope that others reach an understanding and openness to the Church’s perspective.
Firstly, it is often misunderstood that priestly celibacy is a doctrine or dogma of the Catholic Church. It is not. Rather, it is what is referred to as a “norm” or a disciplinary rule. In other words, over time, this discipline has changed and can be changed again. So when you hear the arguments that Peter, the first pope, was married due to Jesus healing his mother-in-law (Lk 4:38-40), or priests and bishops from the early Church having wives and children, these are not problematic arguments. All it means is that as time went on, the Church found it more fitting for priests to remain celibate for reasons I will further develop.
Secondly, it is often claimed that celibacy is unnatural and it is therefore wrong to expect priests to adhere to it. This argument typically comes up in discussions regarding sexual scandals in the Church. Some think that if we would simply allow priests to marry, these scandals and aberrations would disappear. To be clear, these scandals within the Church are nothing less than evil, but they are not the natural result of priests practicing celibacy. Disordered sexual deviance, perversion, and immorality is its own problem (to be dealt with for sure), but it is not caused by celibacy. Likewise, good and holy Catholic priests, practicing celibacy, should not be looked at with contempt or suspicion for what other evil men do. The two issues ought to be kept separate. Also, when the claim that celibacy is unnatural is used, keep in mind that Catholics are certainly not the only ones to incorporate the practice, considering that other religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, among others, also have celibate and aesthetic tiers of holy men and women. There is value found in the celibate life across many spiritual disciplines all over the world.
So, why priestly celibacy? Beginning with scripture, we see celibacy encouraged by St. Paul for those in focused service to the Lord:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord… So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. (1 Cor. 7:32-35, 38)
St. Paul certainly understands the value of the vocation of marriage, but he suggests that those who are wholly committed to the spread of the gospel message will do “better” if their hearts are not divided. If one is anxious about things such as ensuring his family is provided for, his children are properly educated, and those in his care are safe and well, it is more difficult to abandon his entire body and soul to the work of the Lord to the point of martyrdom, which our priests are certainly called to do. St. Paul himself was martyred by the Romans and was able to enter into that fate without any attachment to an earthly family.
Jesus Himself speaks to celibacy saying:
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it. (Mt 19:12)
He is stating here that, while not everyone is called to this lifestyle, those who are able to endure it for the building up the kingdom of heaven on earth should be receptive to that calling because it is good.
Now, let’s enter into a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that Jesus had been married with children, a family uniquely His own to take care of. On top of healing the sick, feeding the thousands, preaching, and answering the Pharisees’ endless questions, He had to provide a home for His family and foster individual relationships with each of them. How would that have affected Jesus’ very specific mission of being universally available to all people if He was particularly available, on a different emotional and spiritual level, to the very select and special set of individuals in His family? A Catholic priest’s vocation is to represent Jesus to people in the world today. How can he be universally available to all, if he is particularly available to his wife and children? How much more difficult would it be to rush off to administer the sacraments to a dying person when he is otherwise occupied with his family? Likewise, the office of the priesthood’s primary obligation is to offer sacrifice in imitation of the Supreme Priest’s sacrifice of His body on the cross. By sacrificing a family and earthly sexual pleasure for the greater good of the kingdom, the priest offers a more perfect and powerful imitation of Jesus, who sacrificed bodily and emotional comfort for the salvation of souls.
Finally, there is an eschatological purpose to priestly celibacy, which orders their actions toward the end or eternal. Perhaps this is not something often considered, but there is no marriage or marital relations in heaven. Here on earth, the marital embrace serves two purposes. It is both procreative and unitive. In heaven, there is no more need for procreation as there is no more re-generation of humanity at the end of time. There will also be no more need for the unitive aspect of sexuality in heaven as all souls will be perfectly united with Jesus in a way that is far greater than anything we could ever imagine. As awesome as the unitive component of the marital act is here on earth, consider what St. Paul says is in store for us in heaven, “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,” (1 Cor 2:9). This means that even some of the greatest gifts God has given us to enjoy on this earth, pale in comparison to what awaits us. Although it likely requires the eyes of faith to imagine, this also means that those who practice celibacy on this earth are actually participating in a foretaste of heaven, where these attachments to bodily and physical passions will not exist. By their very lives, they anticipate the far greater spiritual good ahead.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum of opinions regarding priestly celibacy, are you able to genuinely appreciate the sacrifice our priests make in earthly pleasure for our spiritual good? We ought to pray for our priests, both in thanksgiving for this gift, but also for their strength to persevere.