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The Jewel of Celibacy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 23, 2009

Phil Lawler is undoubtedly correct that the rule of celibacy will not be relaxed for Catholics of the Roman Rite when married Anglican priests begin to appear under a new Catholic ordinariate. He may also be correct that Eastern Rite churches will gradually permit more of their married clergy to serve in the West as we become accustomed to married clergy through a growing familiarity with our Anglo-Catholic brethren. (See The Anglicans and the Eastern Churches.)

But the official policies of the Roman Rite and the Eastern Rite churches do not exhaust the issues raised by an increase in the number of married priests. The first issue is whether those who want the Church to change the law of celibacy will use the occasion to increase their pressure. This must be answered in the affirmative by any sane observer of the dissident Catholic scene.

The second issue is whether the Church’s “celibacy morale”, so painstakingly rebuilt over the past twenty years, will be lowered once again. Will the faithful become even more confused about celibacy? Will some Roman Rite priests think it “hard” that no special provision is made for them to marry? Will some potential future priests begin to hope once again for a relaxation of the celibacy requirement? Surely all of this is likely.

After all, it is hard to justify the imposition of celibacy by law purely on the basis of “how we do things here” while maintaining the position that it is perfectly acceptable to do things another way “there”, especially when here and there are in the same culture. This is nothing new, of course, but insofar as the proposed Anglican ordinariate utilizes married priests who become familiar to other Catholics, questions and even doubts will invariably arise.

Celibacy is Always Preferred

For this reason, it is important to state the plain truth that celibacy is the preferred state for a priest of any rite. This is eloquently attested even in the Eastern Catholic churches by the fact that a priest cannot marry after he has been ordained, and that bishops cannot be married at all. The Eastern Churches will often ordain a man who is already married, but they will not permit an unmarried priest to marry later, or a married priest to remarry after the death of his spouse. Further, the fullness of the priesthood—the episcopate—can be exercised only by unmarried men.

On this last point, it will be interesting to see how the Vatican handles the problem of married Anglican bishops. We find a full-fledged commitment to married clergy only in Anglicanism, which developed largely in direct rebellion against the Catholic Church and under the influence of both the Protestant Revolt and the English monarchy. The Eastern Churches did not develop so much in rebellion against Rome, although rebellion certainly existed on the political level, as on a separate path in which a common Tradition informed the changeable provisions of ecclesiastical discipline in slightly different ways.

Some in the Eastern Catholic Churches (though not many, I think) might contest my statement that celibacy is the preferred state for a priest of any rite. But many would contest my own pragmatic reading of the current situation, which leads me to suspect strongly that only a monumental historical accident—consisting chiefly of the need to heal the grave wounds of schism—has prevented celibacy from being the rule for all Catholics of whatever rite. But since all ecclesiastical discipline is human, and no ecclesiastical discipline infallibly produces what it aims at, this is a debatable proposition. One can argue about which disciplines are inspired by the Holy Spirit and which are permitted by men “because of the hardness of their hearts”. Indeed, one can be appalled by Eastern Rite seminarians who delay ordination until they have had a chance to find wives; but one can also look askance at the attraction of Western homosexual seminarians to a celibate priesthood.

While my historical perspective is eminently debatable, however, the proposition that celibacy is to be preferred even when it is not legislated was clearly and authoritatively taught in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (The Celibacy of the Priest), issued on June 24, 1967. The encyclical was promulgated not just to the Roman Rite bishops but to “the bishops, priests and faithful of the whole Catholic world”. In his encyclical, the Pope points both to the Eastern practice of requiring celibacy for bishops and the strong witness of the Eastern Fathers of the Church as evidence that a preference for celibacy is enshrined everywhere throughout the whole Church.

The Reasons for Ecclesiastical Law

The question, then, is not whether celibacy is to be preferred but whether it should be prescribed by ecclesiastical law. While recognizing the respect due to the alternative approach taken by the Eastern Churches, and to those among their priests who happen to be married, Pope Paul stresses the immense value and intrinsic superiority of celibacy for priests. This superiority consists in a greater conformity to Christ, who was celibate; a greater sign of the supernatural Kingdom in which we will neither marry nor be given in marriage; a greater sign of total service to the Church and to the nurture of souls; a greater self-possession and self-discipline; and a greater charity which, properly developed, will bear more abundant fruit in ministry.

It is this superiority, both as a sign and as an incomparable means of being configured to Christ, that led Pope Paul VI, in direct response to the near-overwhelming agitation for the elimination of celibacy in the 1960’s—and after carefully reviewing the major objections to it in the first part of his encyclical—to reaffirm that celibacy is as valid and important to the Church now as it has been at any time in history. He therefore established that it was wholly right and good to continue to give this singular Catholic tradition the force of law in the West. All Catholics, of both East and West, were intended to benefit from a deeper exploration of his reasons.

A. Conformity to Christ

The Pope’s points in favor of celibacy are divided into two parts. The first centers on conformity to the priesthood of Christ. “The Christian priesthood,” Paul writes, “being of a new order, can be understood only in the light of the newness of Christ, the Supreme Pontiff and eternal priest, who instituted the priesthood of the ministry as a real participation in His own unique priesthood” (19). The human priest looks to Christ directly as his model, Christ who brought forth a new creation through his total consecration to the will of the Father.

While matrimony “continues the work of the first creation”, Christ is the mediator of “a superior covenant”. As such, He has “also opened a new way, in which the human creature adheres wholly and directly to the Lord, and is concerned only with Him and with His affairs; thus, he manifests in a clearer and more complete way the profoundly transforming reality of the New Testament” (20). The Pope's namesake, St. Paul, gives advice to all Christians along these same lines: “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).

As Paul VI points out, it was “wholly in accord” with his mission that Christ remained celibate throughout His whole life, “which signified His total dedication to the service of God and men.” This deep connection between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected “in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and eternal Priest” (21):

To them this is the mystery of the newness of Christ, of all that He is and stands for; it is the sum of the highest ideals of the Gospel and of the kingdom; it is a particular manifestation of grace, which springs from the Paschal mystery of the Savior. This is what makes the choice of celibacy desirable and worthwhile to those called by our Lord Jesus. Thus they intend not only to participate in His priestly office, but also to share with Him His very condition of living. (23)

B. Supernal Charity

The second part of the Pope's argument centers on charity. “The free choice of sacred celibacy,” Pope Paul states, “has always been considered by the Church ‘as a symbol of, and stimulus to, charity’: It signifies a love without reservations; it stimulates to a charity which is open to all” (24). Just as the priest is more perfectly conformed to Christ through celibacy, so too does he partake more fully in “the charity and sacrifice proper to Christ our Savior”. Thus the bond between the priesthood and celibacy should be seen “as the mark of a heroic soul and the imperative call to unique and total love for Christ and His Church” (25).

Here it is important to recall the mystery of the marriage relationship which St. Paul ascribes to Christ and the Church (see Ephesians 5, concluding with verse 32). Paul VI explains that through consecrated celibacy, priests manifest the “virginal and supernatural fecundity of this marriage, by which the children of God are born, ‘not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh’” (26). Owing to his own life of marriage to the Church, the priest is called to meditate daily on the prayer of the Church, to be nourished by the Word, to united himself totally with the Eucharistic sacrifice, and so to permit his life to acquire “a greater richness of meaning and sanctifying power” (29).

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone,” says the Pope, quoting the Eternal Priest, “but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (30). He goes on to explain also that the celibate priest is a richer sign of the heavenly kingdom, in which marriage between men and women passes away (e.g., Mt. 22:30). He also points briefly to all the practical considerations that make it both easier and more appropriate for an unmarried man to give himself totally to the service of his people.

A Brilliant Jewel

In the remainder of the encyclical, the Pope takes up and answers various questions regarding the potential negative impact of celibacy on those who are unsuited to it, or on human nature generally (as was often urged in the years following the sexual revolution), and he considers the importance of proper discernment and formation. These considerations need not detain us. What is most important in today’s context is that, by urging the value and importance of celibacy and by maintaining it in law, Pope Paul VI hoped celibacy would again become a sign and stimulus of a greater reliance on Divine grace, first on the part of the Church’s ministers, and consequently for the entire body of the faithful. Consider the following inspiring passage:

Supported by the power of faith, We express the Church's conviction on this matter. Of this she is certain: if she is prompter and more persevering in her response to grace, if she relies more openly and more fully on its secret but invincible power, if, in short, she bears more exemplary witness to the mystery of Christ, then she will never fall short in the performance of her salvific mission to the world—no matter how much opposition she faces from human ways of thinking or misrepresentations. We must all realize that we can do all things in Him who alone gives strength to souls and increase to His Church. (48)

In the context of the differences among Rites and ordinariates, which are likely to bring the question of celibacy to the fore again in ways that are not entirely welcome, it is vital that we try to capture the essence of the Pope’s argument in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. Its essence is this: Celibacy in the Roman Rite is not to be tolerated as a dull burden but, in Paul VI's own words, to be “guarded as a brilliant jewel”.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Nov. 28, 2009 11:41 PM ET USA

    Very good Jeff. As you say celibacy is a brilliant jewel of the Church that manifests one's unreserved commitment to and identity with the Lord and his work of salvation. It is indeed a sign of transcendance, which by its selflessness points to God and paradoxically encourages and strengthens the institution of marriage and the family which the priest is called to serve in and through his celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom.

  • Posted by: paul.goodell1892 - Oct. 25, 2009 4:46 PM ET USA

    Thank you very much. This is great. I can't think of a more counter-cultural message in today's sex-obsessed culture, which looks at people who practice chastity as hopelessly misguided and at people who practice celibacy as insane and morally repugnant.

  • Posted by: John Chrysostom - Oct. 24, 2009 3:12 PM ET USA

    It is not the plain truth that celibacy is the preferred state for a priest, as Mr. Mirus states. For Christians in the Eastern Churches – both Catholic and Orthodox – the plain truth is that the Lord God calls both single and married men to the priesthood. Marriage and priesthood are not mutually exclusive Sacraments! In the East married priests generally serve in parishes. Single priests serve in monasteries. The West’s alternate approach of celibacy is not superior, just different.

  • Posted by: New Sister - Oct. 24, 2009 3:09 PM ET USA

    Provisions for more married clergy is the last thing the Church needs in the war against modernism. The increase of married clergy risks demoralizing and tempting our celebate priests, and will further confuse the flock already so led-astray. I pray all rites evolve towards a celebate priesthood, recognizing not only the beauty but the necessary role of these fully-consecrated men.