Does Celibacy Still Make Sense?
Nowadays, if you are traveling as a Catholic priest and meet people who are not necessarily familiar with Catholicism, conversation always reverts to discussion on religious issues. One of the questions that regularly arises is the meaning and relevance of the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests. As a result of the tragic loss of general knowledge about religion, people often do not know what other connections they should make in regard to the nature of the Catholic priesthood.
This frequent occurrence is certainly due to the fact that the whole question of celibacy is a recurrent theme in our mass media, whose general view of celibacy is one-sided and heavily critical, often calling for its immediate repeal. Another strange thing is that those outside the Church suddenly show interest in Catholicism and pretend to be experts in religious matters.
Unfortunately, nominal Catholics today also no longer accept and appreciate the celibacy of Catholic priests. Often this is also caused by massive ignorance of the reasons in favor of maintaining celibacy today. This obviously has to do both with the fact that they owe their "education" primarily and too thoughtlessly to television and other mass media, and that they do not get to hear much in defense of celibacy in the Conciliar Church.
And this last point, in turn, is primarily due to the fact that quite a few “priests” of the Conciliar Church don't care to practice celibacy in their own lives. Often enough, they live with mistresses in their rectories, even when their bishops know of it, and, in each case where children come from these sinful relationships, they receive alimony from the German dioceses for them. (These children, naturally, do not incur any guilt or responsibility in the least.) If one only knew the corresponding figures….
For pastors who do not uphold their celibacy, there is added an almost greater sin – the desecration of marriage! Please, how can such a man credibly speak and preach about the holiness and dignity of marriage, if he himself lives in a marriage-like relationship and through this cohabitation significantly desecrates marriage?
The sad circle then closes this way: many of their own parishioners not only take no offense at the relevant moral grievance, but expressly welcome it. They say they [the priests] are also only men, and thereby they manifest the lack of a healthy Catholic appreciation for higher things. Thus, a break with the traditional moral and religious order tragically draws with it so many other evils.
What are the arguments in favor of maintaining the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests? Well, for one, the example of Jesus Christ! Jesus Himself was never married and lived a life of perfect continence. The statements to the contrary which one occasionally encounters are quite simply absurd, as well as being blasphemous, and it is possible to refute them with references from the Gospels.
As Jesus hung on the cross and was on the verge of dying for our sins, He recommended His Mother Mary to the protection and custody of the apostle Saint John (cf. John 19:26 f). This fact indicates, first, that His Mother had no other children besides Him. Otherwise, there would have existed absolutely no need for Jesus, as the Son of His Mother, to entrust her to the care of John – that is, someone who was outside the family. If Jesus had siblings, they would naturally, according to Israelite custom, take on the obligation of the care of their mother. Any other solution would not come into question.
The fact that Jesus was only concerned about His Mother, and not any other woman or child, is the clearest proof that He had neither a wife nor children. The possible objection that perhaps Jesus was married, but his wife died prior to the time of His public ministry, is so fictitiously hypothetical and therefore unreasonable, that it needs no further discussion. Besides, what an uncaring and unnatural father He would have been, to have been concerned about all other people, but not His own children, that is, His own flesh and blood?
No, Jesus was wholly and entirely there for the people and could therefore pursue His role of Redeemer unhindered by any family ties and obligations. The ordained priest is – because of his special calling to the sacred duty as a mediator of the redemptive graces of Jesus Christ, through the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the administration of the Holy Sacraments – according to the understanding and teaching of the Catholic Church, an Alter Christus (another Christ). And because the priest in this sacred ministry acts so manifestly in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), it is only natural that he also emulates the example of Jesus Christ, the divine High Priest, and consecrates his life to his holy priesthood – i.e. also free from family ties to women and children.
Here you can see that people who do not have the same understanding nor the same concept of the Catholic priesthood also do not appreciate the profound significance of the ideals of celibacy and virginity, exemplified by Jesus, for the life and work of a priest, who through Holy Orders can be recognized as a special disciple of Jesus. If one removes an important stone or support beam from a building or structure, many other things will consequently collapse...
Secondly, we can establish that Jesus highly recommended virginity as a way of life. The 19th chapter of Saint Matthew relates how Jesus referred explicitly to the order of creation when speaking out against the then commonly-encountered deplorable custom among the Jews, namely, that a man put away his wife – in other words, that he could divorce her. “His disciples said to him, ‘If the case of a man with his wife is so, it is not expedient to marry.’ And he said, ‘Not all can accept this teaching; but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let him accept it who can’” (Matt. 19:10-12).
From this we see, first, that the celibate life is very much a special vocation from God and should be treasured by those who receive it. So too, everyone whom God has called, or will call, to this way of life, should be deeply grateful that he or she should and can “renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven.” Without the help of God's grace, this would definitely not be possible. And maybe just because of this gratitude and appreciation, the good God will grant you the grace to be faithful to this vocation in the future.
Thus, no reasons exist for a priest, monk or nun, by the very fact that they can forgo marriage, to consider themselves better than non-celibate people. To be sure, it is quite right and necessary to note that the vocation to virginity is higher in itself than the vocation to the married state, which, incidentally, is also given by God. Nevertheless, every vocation, above all, virginity, is essentially a freely distributed grace, that comes from God and that calls people to Him in a specific way. Likewise, everyone who feels called to the clerical state should be aware of the primary responsibility that arises from the imparting of this obviously special grace – him to whom much has been given, God and the Church will hold correspondingly more accountable.
Second, many a young man should perhaps ask himself the question whether the call of God to a virginal lifestyle might also be given to him. For if you do not pay sufficient attention to something important, you may not realize that it is being offered to you. It would, in many respects, be a pity if someone should overlook something sublime that for him, along with many other related graces, would also mean happiness – to take his God-given place in life and so find his true destiny. (Likewise, of course, no one should seek the Catholic priesthood, who does not intend to correspond with the elementary canonical norms that have emerged and matured from the Church's experience of over two thousand years. For the wanton and reckless breach of such central Catholic laws invalidates to a certain extent any admonition to follow a supposed call to the priesthood.)
When Jesus called the Apostles to follow Him as His special disciples, He obliged them also to leave their families for His sake. Thus He said, for example, to Peter and Andrew, when they as fishermen cast their nets into the sea: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt. 4:19). “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it” (Mt. 10, 37-39). Although these words are essentially addressed to all Christians (whether married or not) to establish proper priorities in cases of conflict; nevertheless, it is interesting to note that these statements of Jesus were understood by the apostles in such wise, that if married, they left their wives and children for Jesus’ sake as they answered His call to the apostolate. Otherwise they would not have been able to accompany Jesus during the three years of His public ministry. And this also suggests that at this point (as also in Matthew 19:10-12 – see above) Jesus had already preached the ideal of celibacy to them.
When Jesus announced to the apostles in the Upper Room, that one of them would betray Him, mention is made of a very special disciple: “Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, and said to him: Who is it of whom he speaketh?” (John 13:23-24). Of course, the love of Jesus was not limited only to this “disciple,” whom we recognize as St. John. Nevertheless, he was very dear to Jesus. The other apostles recognized this both without envy and as a matter of fact; otherwise, Simon Peter would hardly have turned to him, wanting him to ask Jesus who would betray Him. And John was neither married nor had ever been married. Is it really just a coincidence that Jesus particularly “loved” him?
Once again, mention is made of Saint John in this connection, with the apparition of Jesus on the Sea of Tiberias. When the apostles had caught a lot of fish at the bidding of Jesus, Whom they had not recognized at first, “that disciple therefore whom Jesus loved, said to Peter: It is the Lord” (John 21:7). Absolutely nothing against all other men – the redeeming love of Jesus extends itself to everyone! – but nevertheless, we must objectively admit that those people who “renounce marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” and practice virginity for Jesus' sake, are rewarded with and occupy a special place with Him.
From this it stands to reason, and is even quite logical, that for the clergy in major Orders (beginning with the Subdiaconate) the Roman Catholic Church has, over time, mandated celibacy as their way of life. From the early history of the Church, virginity was highly recommended to those who serve at the altar of God. So the holy apostle Paul expressly states, “I give counsel, as having obtained mercy of the Lord, to be faithful…. He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided. ...this I speak... which may give you power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment” (Cf. 1 Cor. 7:25-35).
It is clear that married Christians are also called to holiness and to be real role models of faith, hope and charity. (Without good parents and families, there would be no real hope for the future of the Church and Catholicism.) At the same time, of course, single people and priests can also give bad impressions and great offense. However, we recognize that Saint Paul aptly speaks of a certain trend that can be easily verified, both intellectually and by experience – the unmarried priest is less “divided” and can be, both in regard to time and energy, more “concerned about the things of the Lord.” He who does not see this is blind.
“Married deacons, priests and bishops must, according to the Canon 33 of Elvira (306 AD – editor's note) live a celibate life (abstinere se a coniugibus suis et non generare filios). This rule was also adopted by the Council of Nicaea, indirectly for the Western Church (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zölibat). From early Christian times, numerous other synods of Bishops have endeavored to enforce celibacy as the way of life for clergy in major orders.
In the first millennium of Christianity, priests who were not married and lived celibate, enjoyed special prestige among the people. Both because of the above-described ideals of virginity and because of the principles of religious chastity, as also because of the many negative experiences with married or non-celibate clergy, there was ever more reason to bind priests to celibacy. (Bishops had already been living absolute celibacy for some time.) So it was that at the Second Lateran Council (1139) the corresponding general binding decision was made that candidates for Holy Orders (in the Roman rite) must be celibate and then must live celibate for the remainder of their lives.
Often, by the opposition, it is argued against celibacy that the orthodox priests are permitted to marry. Yes, even among the Uniate priests of the various Eastern rites, married priests are permissible according to the laws of the Oriental Church. More precisely, men who are already married may be ordained priests. But if an unmarried man is ordained, he may not marry. (If he does, he loses, in the opinion of the Orthodox, his office as priest.) Likewise, the same holds for widowed priests – they must live celibate after the death of the wife. In the Eastern Church, bishops generally cannot be married.
Why do we not have similar regulations in the Roman Catholic Church, allowing married men to be ordained priests? Well, firstly, both the above-mentioned example of Jesus and the ideal of virginity preached by Him to His disciples, have led to the obligation of celibacy for Roman Rite priests. This conclusion has also come about because of the experiences of ecclesiastical history. Every potential candidate knows this, and can examine himself as to whether or not he can comply with this certainly difficult requirement.
Here the Church holds to the principle: What costs nothing is worth nothing – the more willing one is to accept and sacrifice for a good cause, the more conscious and dedicated is probably also the corresponding decision. Because of her vast experience, the Church is not interested in having, first and foremost, many priests, but is primarily interested in having good and self-sacrificing priests to call her own. Quality is worth more than quantity.
Yes, the Eastern Church as such has gone a slightly different way, and has permitted the ordination of married men. However, there is an important, indeed central point in the liturgical life of a married priest of the Eastern Church that proves, practically speaking, to be an affirmation of celibacy as observed in the Roman Catholic Church. Even though this is not commonly known in the West, every married priest in the Eastern rite is obliged to abstain from marital relations at least one night before and one night after the celebration of Holy Mass. A particular case is known to me, wherein the Orthodox priest in question deliberately spent the night from Saturday to Sunday in a different room from his wife. In some of the National Churches of the East, this period is extended to three days or even longer. Accordingly, one considers it to be incompatible for him to offer the Holy Sacrifice and to practice his marriage. Thus, in a way, even in the East they observe the early Christian practice of ritual purity for the ministers (bishops, priests and deacons). Those who do not uphold it cannot celebrate Mass the next day.
One must take into account that the Orthodox priest usually celebrates Holy Mass only on Sundays and major feasts. Thereby he can also fulfill his marital duties towards his wife. On the other hand, the Roman priest celebrates, according to an ancient custom, every day – if even on a weekday he neglects to offer Mass without a good reason, there generally arises a certain negative suspicion. Therefore, if, having a healthy zeal, you do not want to gravely neglect the kingdom of God and do not want to break with the tried and true practice of daily offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, you ought to equate the described practice of Orthodox priests with our practice of celibacy.
This appreciation of priestly chastity was incidentally possessed by the pagans in Rome, since their so-called Vestal Virgins, priestesses of the goddess Vesta, during their minimal thirty years of service, were obliged to chastity. To the pagan Romans, a Vestal Virgin’s loss of virginity was an ominous sign for the Roman commonwealth. An unchaste Vestal was removed from her office, and was even buried alive in certain circumstances. Of course, we Christians do not judge things according to the views and customs of the heathens. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note this.
If we take a look at today’s society and the media scene, we see how everything is sexually overcharged, truly over-saturated. Almost every movie contains a nude scene; in their live performances and their video clips, a considerable number of modern musicians seem to want to make a greater impression with striptease performances than with their supposed “art”; the advertising industry also advertises primarily with a lot of bare skin, especially of the female sex. And the schools see it as their so-called educational mission, to “clarify” for children of a tender age what often amounts to being an active guide to sexual practices (because they are detached from related moral issues).
In the face of this sad situation, it is all the more important that true Catholicism does not yield to this strong pressure toward the sexualization of one’s entire life, that it upholds both the morality of traditional Catholic marriage and the sexual morality demanded by the lifestyle of her ordained ministers, which clearly and unequivocally resists this common deplorable tendency.
Recently, a man told me how much women occasionally felt offended when he did not respond to their advances to be intimate with him, and used genuine Catholic sexual morality as the reason for his behavior. How good it is for these people to be confronted for once with a deeply Catholic Christian attitude, which moves them, hopefully, to think about themselves and their own personally degrading attitude.
So it is good and now all the more important that there is a priesthood in the Catholic Church that in itself, by its adherence to one’s own consciously-accepted celibacy against the general trend, and thus merely by its existence, indicates that there are higher and more important things in life than to think only of sex and to allow one’s life to be too much or almost exclusively defined by human sexuality. Naturally, this same message is also sent by those couples who have been called together by marriage and then remain faithful to each other and live in accordance with the morals of traditional Catholic marriage. In this way, they also practice the Christian virtue of chastity.
Nothing points more evidently to the supernatural character of human destiny than the Roman Catholic priesthood, which, conscious of the holiness of God, Whom it should and wants to serve above all, chooses a lifestyle that excludes marriage and a family, to respond unhindered to its lofty vocation. Thus priests both sanctify and surrender themselves to God, and impart to men, through their sacred priestly service, the supernatural healing grace of our divine Redeemer Jesus Christ! Viewed thus, it is extremely important that Roman Catholic priests retain the obligation of celibacy.
Fr. Eugen Rissling
Translated by a Marian Sister; original can be found here