Friday, 17 March 2017 08:46

Why Celibacy?

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Every so often, the question of priestly celibacy and its inherent struggles reappears in the media, in public discussions, and even in the Church itself. Yet we know that at a theoretical level the Magisterium has already responded reasonably to the many objections that people have posed about celibacy. At a practical level as well, the greatest defense of the concept of celibacy is the thousands of priests who have lived and continue to live their celibacy with joy, faith, and enthusiasm every day of their lives.

Without intending to sound pessimistic, one has to wonder if behind this repeated criticism of Church teachings there aren’t particular ideological factions who oppose the Church and use particular teachings almost as battering rams in order to provoke what they consider a crisis of faith.  They treat celibacy as if it were an impediment that interfered with progress in the Church and her sensitivity to the needs of every era. If it is true that times change and the Church is faced with new problems, the analysis of the cause of these changes is not always obvious, and the solutions offered based on misinterpretations of the problems are often problematic. 

To understand the topic fully, we must ask: how did the concept of celibacy develop in the Church? We can’t forget that Jesus himself lived his life in celibacy, and we have scriptural evidence that others in Christ’s time lived as eunuchs in expectation of God’s second coming. In this way, we see that celibacy has been an important theme since the beginnings of the Church. Also, in recent times there are many testimonies available that support the practice of celibacy for ministers of God’s word (s. II). Although the New Testament speaks of ordained ministers who were married, careful readings of those texts demonstrate that although married men could be ordained, upon receiving the sacrament they were expected to live in married abstinence (see C.Cochini, Origini’s studies of the apostolic celibacy). So although married men were indeed ordained, it was expected that the married couple live in abstinence in order to receive the sacrament. 

This simply affirms that celibacy is an important aspect of our faith, a testimony that goes beyond the spoken word, and a practice that makes demands of all aspects of our life. Out of the love of God, a person called to belong to God alone renounces an aspect of his or her life that for others is not only quite normal, but also one of the most important facets of their lives.  This voluntary renunciation of something as significant as a marriage bond becomes a testimony of Christ’s eternal life and the reign of heaven. In this way, celibacy becomes a confession of faith in God, who, above and beyond any other, deserves our love and adoration. 

It is important here to discuss what is meant by the word “renounce.” Every choice we make requires renunciation. When a man marries a woman, he renounces his option to marry other women, but his experience is not renunciation, but rather his joy in obtaining the woman of his dreams. In the same way, celibacy demands a renunciation, but at its heart is a response to Christ and His love for us. Celibacy demonstrates our love for God, our complete love that only God--no human being--can satisfy. 

In our hyper-sexualized and hedonistic society, it has become difficult to understand that people can peacefully and joyfully live in celibacy, without any sexual activity in their lives. People seem to forget that a celibate individual has given up sexuality, but has not given up love. As St. John Paul II said, “In virginity and celibacy, chastity retains its original meaning, that is, of human sexuality lived as a genuine sign of and precious service to the love of communion and gift of self to others. This meaning is fully found in virginity which makes evident, even in the renunciation of marriage, the "nuptial meaning" of the body through a communion and a personal gift to Jesus Christ and his Church which prefigures and anticipates the perfect and final communion and self - giving of the world to come: In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church, giving himself or herself completely to the Church in the hope that Christ may give himself to the Church in the full truth of eternal life" (PDV, 29).

Love fulfills and gives meaning to human life: for love we were created, and to love we are all called. The priest lives his paternity through his spiritual children; he experiences the fecundity of love as he calls others to God and shares the sacraments and God’s Word with those around him.  

Joseph Ratzinger discussed in an interview the interesting coincidence between crises in marriages and crises in celibacy. It appears that whenever a culture suffers from a general lack of faith, the number of marriages decrease, while at the same time, the number of separations and divorces increases. The lack of faith, the tendency to relegate God and things of faith into a back corner of our lives, produces a broken community. It foments individualism and a false sense of liberty understood as “freedom without compromise.” Yet judging by the statistics, the abolition of celibacy is no solution to our problems. In 2014, the percentage of broken marriages in Belgium was 70%, in France and the Czech Republic it was 65%, and in Spain it was 61%. Yet according to the statistics of the Congregation of the Clergy, in 2006 the percentage of clergy who had abandoned their ministry was 2.4%. It does not seem, then, that it was celibacy that created this marital imbalance that seems to argue against celibacy.

Despite the high percentage of failed marriages, no one would consider abolishing marriage. This suggests that it is not the institution of marriage that is in crisis, but rather the people who enter into marriage. For marriage is a precious vocation, a path toward sanctity. But if both partners do not enter into it with maturity and responsibility, the mere act of sexuality will not offer any additional stability. 

Suggesting the practice of celibacy creates psychological instability can be seen as obviously false when you consider that the majority of religious live their virginity or celibacy with joy, commitment, and equanimity. Such fidelity serves as a model for others: if priests can live such a radical commitment to a virginal love of Christ, married couples can look to priests for support of their chaste commitment to each other. One sense of loyalty supports the other. 

While celibacy does free God’s ministers from familiar obligations and thus allows him to devote more time to his vocation, it does not serve merely utilitarian purposes. There are deeper theological and spiritual grounds that harken back to Christ’s spousal and virginal self-donation for our sake, as we read, “Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her, to sanctify her…” (Eph. 5). Celibacy is not a law imposed from a hierarchy; it is not extrinsically added on to the priesthood. There exists, rather, a profound bond between the two. As a result, although the relation between the priesthood and celibacy is not dogmatic, its base is theological, Christological, ecclesiastical, and eschatological. The celibate or virginal religious life can only bear fruit if it is entirely based on the spirituality learned from Christ’s virginal espousal with His Church.

Fixing our eyes on Christ as the Eternal High Priest, the wellspring of the priesthood, we come to understand that the priest is called to be like Christ, a visual manifestation, and a sacramental representative of the only Priest. 

Jesus said, “Not all will understand this, but those to whom it has been given.” This is precisely because celibacy is a grace that God provides to those who want to live the priestly life for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Thus we come to understand that celibacy is not an ascetic practice that a man can choose outside of grace.  

The mission of the Church, then, is to help candidates to the priesthood to discern whether they have received the grace of celibacy before their ordination. This grace is, at the same time, a responsibility that requires each priest to maintain a healthy asceticism to conserve the gift. This is not surprising—it is the same as the impulse control that must be practiced by a married man if he is to remain faithful to his wife.  

Some suggest that the decision live in celibacy should be free. Of course celibacy is free! In the Latin Church, each candidate to the ministry chooses freely the celibacy united to the priesthood. This is done over numerous years of reflection and maturation before the candidate’s ordination where the candidate makes his promises to live in continence for Our King. No one can take on any element of the priesthood without the freedom to choose it. A lack of free choice invalidates the ordination. 

We shall end with the words of St. John Paul II: “The Church, as the spouse of Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church and with the Lord” (PDV, 29).


Fr. FelixI belong to the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother since its foundation in 1990, and have been a priest for 25 years. I am licensed in Pharmacy from the University of Madrid and hold a doctorate in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Cross University in Rome. I am committed to the lay apostolate and give retreats for youth and adults.

Fr. Félix López is author and editor of the Blog "God’s Plan for the Family".

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