The Greatest Ornament of the Catholic Priesthood
by Fr. Benedict Hughes, CMRI
“Oh how beautiful is the chaste generation with glory: for the memory thereof is immortal: because it is known both with God and with men” (Wisdom, 4:1).
“Holy virginity and that perfect chastity which is consecrated to the service of God is without doubt among the most precious treasures which the Founder of the Church has left in heritage to the society which He established.” With these words, his Holiness, Pope Pius XII, began his 1954 encyclical Sacra Virginitas. The state of perfect and perpetual chastity, or celibacy, was unknown before the time of Christ, even among the Chosen People of the Old Testament. As the pope points out, even among the pagans who practiced it, such as the Romans with their Vestal virgins, it was only a temporary state. But this beautiful flower, inculcated by Christ as a counsel [“He that can take it, let him take it” (Matthew, 19:12)] began to flourish and spread rapidly with the propagation of the Gospel. So much has this been the case that the Catholic Church is acknowledged and respected by non-Catholics for the celibacy of her clergy and religious. Even many American Indian tribes rejected the Protestant missionaries because they had wives, preferring instead the celibate “Blackrobes.”
But now the continuation of this sacred state has been called into question. Some argue that the lack of vocations would be resolved by allowing a married priesthood. Others suggest that celibacy is simply too difficult in our modern world. Further, there are some who, shocked and saddened by the horrible crimes of sexual abuse of minors in the Conciliar Church, have hypothesized that these crimes would practically disappear if only the priests were allowed to marry. Although it is not the purpose of this particular article to address that question, suffice it to say that a rejection of mandatory celibacy of the clergy would not eliminate this horrific problem for the New Church. Rather, this situation is being used by many to call into question the excellence and advisability of this state of life, which has long been one of the most beautiful ornaments of the Roman Catholic Church. Let us then, in this article, take a look at the development and purpose of the practice of celibacy, that has been undertaken for the love of God.
Celibacy in the New Testament
Various quotations could be cited from the New Testament to show the excellence of the practice of celibacy. Saint Paul, who had never been married, is clearly referring to virginity when he writes to the Corinthians: “For I would that you all were as I am myself” (I Cor., 7:7). He continues: “But I say to the unmarried and to widows, it is good for them if they so remain, even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn.” (I Cor., 7:8-9). In these passages and others like them, we see that Saint Paul recommends perfect chastity but also makes clear that it is a counsel, not a command.
The Fathers of the Church. This teaching of Christ and His apostles was clearly understood and treasured by the Fathers of the Church. In the above-mentioned encyclical the pope declares that “the Fathers of the Church, such as Cyprian, Athanasius, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and many others, have sung the praises of virginity” (par. 4). To cite just one example of many: In his book against Jovinian, St. Jerome refers to the example of St. John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” And why did Jesus show such preference to St. John? It was because of his chastity. St. Jerome states, speaking of the appearance of Our Lord after the resurrection at the Sea of Galilee: “Only John, the virgin, recognized his virgin Master and said to Peter: It is the Lord” (Roman Breviary, May 6, 2nd Nocturn).
The Acts of the Apostles mention that the deacon Philip had 4 daughters who were virgins (Acts, 21:9), showing us that this state was practiced and held in esteem even during the time of the apostles. In subsequent centuries the practice continued to flourish, to the point that the Catholic Church became known for the army of souls of both sexes who had consecrated their virginity to Christ.
Proper motive. But not every practice of celibacy is virtuous and deserving of a heavenly reward. This excellent state must be undertaken for the right motive of the love of God. Saint Paul addresses the early Christians as follows: “I exhort you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God” (Romans, 12:1). So virtuous chastity is undertaken as a sacrifice for the love of God. The pope defines the proper motive as follows: “This then is the primary purpose, this the central idea of Christian virginity: to aim only at the divine, to turn thereto the whole mind and soul; to want to please God in everything, to think of Him continually, to consecrate body and soul completely to Him” (par. 15).
Transcending Excellence of the Celibate State
In this article we are speaking particularly of celibacy of the clergy, but one must not forget the sacrifice and heroic lives of the countless virgins, brides of Christ, who have adorned the Church with their virtue down through the centuries. (In general, what is said of the celibacy of the clergy applies equally to religious women who consecrate their lives to the service of God in convents.)
Some have questioned the excellence of this state by denying its superior quality when compared to marriage. After all, did not God command the human race to “increase and multiply and fill the earth?” And did not Christ raise marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, whereas the state of virginity is not a sacrament? Let us respond to this objection by having recourse to the teachings of the Church. The Council of Trent solemnly defined: “If anyone says that the married state excels the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is better and happier to be united in matrimony than to remain in virginity or celibacy, let him be anathema” (Session XXIV,Canon 10). Pope Pius XII makes this point very clear from the outset of his encyclical: “There are some who, straying from the right path in this matter, so exalt marriage as to rank it ahead of virginity and thus depreciate chastity consecrated to God and clerical celibacy” (par. 8). Thus we see that no Catholic can possibly doubt the excellence of this state. Scripture confirms as much with the words “No price is worthy of a continent soul” (Ecclus, 26:19).
Why then, some will ask, did Christ not institute a sacrament for the celibate state, as he did for the married. The answer to this question is really very simple. Married people have grave obligations, not only toward one another, but particularly toward the precious souls of the children that God gives to them. They have need of all the sacramental graces they can receive to fulfill this weighty responsibility. One day, God will hold them to a very strict accounting of how they raised the children He entrusted to them. Religious, on the other hand, have to render an account only for their own souls. As we shall see later, the means of grace that are available to them—which are the same as are available to all in the practice of chastity—are adequate to help them persevere in the holy state they have chosen.
Advantages of Celibacy
There are numerous advantages to this sublime state of celibacy. Here we list a few of the many that could be adduced.
Spiritual elevation of mind. It is a universal experience that our minds are drawn to things of earth. For this reason, we find it difficult to pray, to think of spiritual things. A study of the lives of the saints demonstrates that they sought to avoid the pleasures of the flesh that they might be able to elevate their minds to God. This does not mean that the married are unable to develop a deep prayer life. In fact, many married persons are paragons of piety and devotion. Nevertheless, Our Lord's words in the 6th beatitude [(“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matt, 5:8).] find a particular application to a life of celibacy. Saint Paul asserts that the unmarried, the virgin, is more able to “pray to the Lord without distraction” (I Cor, 7:35).
Freedom from family cares. The celibate man, freed from the cares of a family, is better able to devote himself to the love and service of God and his neighbor. Saint Paul explains this clearly in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “He who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please God. Whereas he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided. And the unmarried woman, and the virgin, thinks about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and in spirit. Whereas she who is married thinks about the things of the world, how she may please her husband” (I Cor., 7:32-34). This only stands to reason. A priest who was married and raising a family would find much of his time occupied with family affairs. He would not be able to devote as much time to his parishioners and to the needs of his parish.
Service of one's neighbor. From all this, it should be clear that the lives of celibate priests and religious are of great benefit to society. Would Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Jerome Emilian, Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini, Saint Camillus de Lellis, and countless others, have been able to accomplish such beneficial works for the sick, the poor, orphans, and widows, had they been married with a family? Their very detachment from family ties allowed them to devote themselves exclusively to God and neighbor.
Good example to others. The pope asserts that those who are married “and even those who are captives of vice, at the contact of virgin souls, often admire the splendor of their transparent purity, and feel themselves moved to rise above the pleasures of sense.” (par. 29). The words of a priest who has willingly sacrificed marriage carry far more weight than they could, were he married. A life faithful to the practice of celibacy is an object lesson that inspires the faithful on a daily basis.
History of Celibacy of the Clergy
Understandably, celibacy not immediately mandatory for the clergy from the time of Christ, but gradually became the norm. Saint Paul instructs Timothy and Titus that a bishop or deacon should be chosen who has been married only once. (I Tim., 3:2,12 and Titus, 1:6). Yet even though celibacy was not required in the early centuries, Tertullian wrote of his admiration of the many in sacred orders who had embraced continence. In fact, various quotations of early Church fathers and historians point to the fact that celibacy became more and more the regular practice.
From the 4th through the 10th centuries. As far as legislation mandating clerical celibacy, we see the first example in the council of Elvira, Spain (295-302), which imposed celibacy upon bishops, priests and deacons, commanding that those who did not accept this requirement be deposed. As time progressed, various local councils enacted legislation, primarily in western Europe, enforcing celibacy among the clergy to the point that, by the time of Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461), the law of celibacy was generally recognized in the West. Although many men who had been married were promoted to orders, it was required that they leave their wives once ordained.
During the Carolingian period the practice of priests living in common began to be seen. This was done to prevent the suspicion that members of the clergy who had previously been married, had returned to a married life. During the Iron Age—that period of war and corruption in high places, which marked the breakup of the Carolingian empire—corruption of morals inundated Europe. “Impurity, adultery, sacrilege and murder have overwhelmed the world,” declared the Council of Trosly in 909. (Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol, III, 1908, p. 485). Even though clerical celibacy in Western Christendom suffered a terrible blow during this period, the principle of clerical celibacy was never surrendered in ecclesiastical legislation. The time was ripe for a great reformer.
From the time of Pope Saint Gregory VII onwards. A man named Hildebrand was elected to the papacy (1073) during this trying time. Not one to shy away from duty, this great pope began at once to insist on clerical celibacy. This brought upon him vehement attacks from those who would not abide this teaching, but the brave pontiff held firm. Finally, a general council (Lateran I, in 1123) taught that marriages contracted by subdeacons or by clerics of higher orders were invalid. This teaching, repeated by the second and fourth Lateran councils, became the norm. Today, this law of the Church, found in the 1917 Code of Canon Law in canons 132 and 133, has made the clergy of Western Christendom recognized throughout the world for their lives of self-denying continence.
Even Dollinger, who left the Church following the Vatican Council in 1870 because he would not accept papal infallibility, understood the disaster that the loss of clerical celibacy would entail. Consequently, he refrained from any formal participation with the Old Catholics because they had rejected clerical celibacy. On this topic he wrote to an Anglican friend: “A priest is a man who sacrifices himself for the sake of his parishioners. He has no children of his own, in order that all the children in the parish may be his children. His people know that his small wants are supplied, and that he can devote all his time and thought to them. They know that it is quite otherwise with the married pastors of the Protestants” (Catholic Encyclopedia, op. cit., p. 481).
As with chastity in general, so with celibacy in particular, constant efforts are necessary to persevere in overcoming temptation. No matter how dedicated a priest or religious may be in his life of consecration, the flesh is still weak. The sacred writer in the book of Wisdom humbly states: “And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it ... I went to the Lord, and besought him” (Wisdom, 8:21). Our Lord gave the advice to his apostles to “Watch and pray” (Matt 26:41), and this advice applies especially to maintaining chastity.
Briefly, there are 5 means that must be used to overcome temptations and practice virtue. First, the person must avoid unnecessary occasions of sin. It would be foolish to think that God would deliver the person who, without good reason, places himself in temptation. That is called the sin of presumption. Sacred Scripture warns us that “he that loveth danger will perish in it” (Ecclus, 3:27).
Second, prayer is indispensable. “Ask and you shall receive....” The prayer of a humble man rises to the throne of God and draws down the graces needed. St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori assures us that the best means of overcoming temptation is immediate recourse to prayer and persevering in that prayer.
Another necessary means of grace is mortification. All the saints have used this means, knowing that their fallen nature does not listen to reason. Even the great Saint Paul acknowledges that he practiced penance: “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection” (I Cor., 9:27). He assures us that “they who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal. 5:24).
Fourth, the sacraments, especially penance and the Holy Eucharist, are a marvelous means of grace and support for weak human nature. Frequent confession purifies the soul and bestows the sacramental grace needed to overcome temptation, while the Body and Blood of Christ are the bread of the strong and the wine which “brings forth virgins.” No other means of grace can compare with the frequent and devout reception of Holy Communion.
Finally, devotion to the saints, especially to the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a powerful means of grace. Our Blessed Mother, the Virgin of virgins, will in her compassion assist all who call upon her aid. She is the “virgin most pure” who treasures the angelic virtue and will dispense to her clients the graces needed to practice this virtue.
As Catholics, we must understand and appreciate the heritage that is ours. Make no mistake: as with all that is good and holy, the devil in his envy hates the state of virginity and will do all that he can to destroy it. May God continue to bless us with good priests and religious, and may they ever remember the reward promised to such as live their lives of consecration faithfully. For the Holy Ghost assures us that, in heaven, they shall have a unique nearness to Christ:
“... No one could learn the song except those hundred and forty-four thousand, who have been purchased from the earth. These are they who were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These were purchased from among men, first-fruits unto God and unto the Lamb, and in their mouth there was found no lie; they are without blemish” (Apoc, 14:3-5).