Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Dignity of Celibacy

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 29, 2024

Celibacy, like a precious diamond, has many facets. Celibacy enhances the dignity of marriage and family and directs us to heavenly glory. Celibacy is a sign of a priest’s marriage to the Church. Priestly celibacy is apostolic and helps us understand the universality of the hierarchical Church.

Jesus exalts marriage and restores it to its original innocence: “From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.” (Mk. 10:6-8)

Along with His emphasis on the dignity of marriage, Jesus separates Himself from the bonds of family and elevates brotherhood to a universal desire to do God’s will. When told that His mother and kindred arrived to see him, Jesus responds, “’ Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.’” (Mt. 12:48-49)

The Twelve Apostles replaced the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The religious tribalism of Israel comes to an end. Before He ascends into heaven, Jesus sends His disciples on a universal mission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28:18-19) The Church is the multi-tribal, hierarchical, universal family of God. In short, the Church is Catholic.

The evidence of tradition suggests that Peter did not remarry after the death of his wife. He was celibate when Jesus sent him to preach the Gospel. The apostles were also celibate. Unencumbered by family obligations, the apostles carried out Jesus’ commands. St. Paul describes the value of celibacy: “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.” (1 Cor. 7:32-34) St. Paul echoes Jesus: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 19:12)

Just as unmarried soldiers allow military authorities to mix and match troop deployments with fewer complications, celibate priests provide bishops the same freedom. Celibacy is a critical component of the missionary spirit. (It’s hard to imagine the great St. Isaac Jogues, after his torture, reenlisting for service in North America as a family man.) Celibate priests more observably imitate the celibacy of Jesus. Celibacy is sacrificial and does not in any way denigrate marriage. On the contrary, a celibate priest does not denounce marriage. He renounces a “good”—marriage—for the kingdom of God.

Marriage is a sign of God’s covenant with His people. Celibacy directs marriage to its heavenly completion: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mt. 22:30) Heavenly glory fulfills the Sacrament of Matrimony, and the contrast of celibacy reinforces our understanding of heavenly joy. “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13)

The self-control of chastity governs everyone. By analogy, the unmarried are “celibate” (but usually free to date, etc.). Those preparing for marriage should also cultivate the self-control of celibacy until the wedding day. The death of a spouse brings celibacy to the survivor. A priest’s example of chaste celibacy offers hope to those bound to celibacy by circumstances.

The Church protects and cultivates the gift of priestly celibacy. Men promise celibacy in freedom. Nobody forces them. As in marriage, we stick to our promises. Priests who live out their celibacy with fidelity and honor strengthen marriages by example. The witness of faithful marriages similarly strengthens the resolve of priests. Celibacy gives a priest more time for prayer. Celibacy even allows a priest to offend his entire congregation with the Gospel truth without endangering a wife and children. (The failure to censure pro-abortion Catholic politicians is an abuse of celibacy.)

The Eastern-rite Catholic churches permits the ordination of married men (but do not permit married priests to become bishops). In recent decades (since the pontificate of Pope John Paul II), in charity, the Church has allowed the ordination of married Anglicans and other Protestant clergymen after conversion to the Catholic Faith. In these instances, the priesthood coexists with marriage and family. But the Church prohibits marriage after ordination. Without prejudice to the married clergy, celibacy remains the apostolic norm.

Alas, we all devise creative ways to undermine the armor of faith that Jesus provides through His Church. Some priests have a reductionist view of celibacy. He merely promises “not to marry.” Hence, he may hold the nonsensical view that violations of chastity do not violate his promise not to marry. Priests may abuse celibacy and use it as a sinful cover for pathological lifestyles. Those who do not view marriage as something holy and good are incapable of making a promise of celibacy as envisioned by the Church.

Clusters of families that form friendly tribes across the globe usually serve the common good. But when families and tribes harden in sinful self-interest, neighboring tribes with different and competing interests become enemies. Hostile tribalism, poisoned by ideology, often ignites war. Priestly celibacy, unfettered by immediate family ties, is a sign of the primacy of brotherhood in Jesus: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Lk. 14:26)

The Catholic faith rises above all tribes, nations—and every ideology—with equal justice under God’s law. The gift of celibacy enhances priestly freedom to challenge individuals, families, tribes, and nations with the Gospel—for the salvation of souls.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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