Why Celibacy for Priests?

For more information about vocational discernment and the diocesan priesthood here in Arlington, visit the Vocations web page.

Today it is not uncommon to hear some, even from within the Church, question the necessity of priestly celibacy. As part of their argument, often cited is the fact that for the first millennium of the Church the discipline of chaste celibacy for priests was not a universal requirement. However, rarely cited is another fact that the Church (both in the east and the west) has continually upheld and encouraged the discipline of priestly celibacy, even from her earliest days.

Despite this, clerical celibacy has been a difficult issue throughout history and we can even see noted in Sacred Scripture. Our Lord plainly taught that virginity for the sake of the Kingdom is a more perfect life granted to some (cf Mt 19:10-12), but He also said that it would be too difficult for others to accept. This is one of the reasons why the Church has reaffirmed and codified her discipline concerning clerical celibacy, particularly in the Roman or (Western), Latin Rite.

While it is important to accept the Church’s law and tradition, it’s equally important to understand them. Why is it that the issue of celibacy is so important that the Church continuously reaffirms her position, even against strong opposition? While we cannot exhaust the reasons in this article, we’ll look at the most important.

Jesus Christ was celibate.

A priest, in a very real way, represents Jesus Christ the High Priest. Not only in liturgical and sacramental matters is this important; it is also necessary that a priest conform himself to Christ in every way possible if he is going to be a good priest who carries out the mission that Christ gave to the Church.

Celibacy emphasizes the unique role of the priest

Because a priest acts in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), his role in the salvation of mankind is unique, and it is tied uniquely to Christ’s role as priest, prophet and king. When a priest lives more like Jesus, he is fulfilling his role more perfectly and he will help to bring about the Kingdom of God more readily.

Jesus taught that virginity for the sake of the kingdom is superior to marriage. (cf Mt 19:11-12, 29)  This does not mean that celibates are better people. What it does mean is that there are different ways to live the Christian life, and some are more perfect ways than others. Jesus calls celibacy the most perfect way – but not all are called to live that way!

Think of this: If you are traveling a great distance, you have several options. You could walk, ride a bike, drive a car, or fly in an airplane. Obviously, flying is much faster, and the view is fantastic! But this is not the best option for each traveler. Some travelers have a purpose which necessitates driving, riding a bike or walking. In the end, they will all get to their destinations in the ways that best fit their purposes. However, for those who can take a plane, this method of traveling is the most direct way to get to the destination; in a similar way, Jesus points out, celibacy is the most direct route to heaven for those who are called.

Celibacy reminds us that there will be no marriage in heaven

While that might seem like a negative point, it’s actually very positive. We won’t need marriage in heaven! We will have perfect, close friendships with everyone there, and most especially with God Himself!

We are called to live the heavenly life, beginning even here on earth, at baptism. A priest has the opportunity to do this in a radical way by living celibacy joyfully. In doing this, he frees himself to have more perfect relationships with people even before we are all reunited in Heaven.

Celibacy reaffirms marriage

Because our society (similar to many societies before, around and probably after us) places a high priority on the self-gratification gained by the misuse of sexuality, we need to be reminded that “sex does not make us happy.”

Rather, it is living a life filled with grace which makes us happy. When married people are selfish, they have an unhappy marriage, and it often ends badly. But when they are selfless, they can be joyful because they are living grace-filled lives. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, quips: “The media trumpets the message that sex brings happiness. If this were true, we would indeed live in an earthly paradise and the world would be ‘happy valley’.” (The Courage to be Chaste)

A joyful celibate priest can be a very powerful reminder that holy joy comes from surrendering oneself to work for the good of others to help them get to heaven, which is the essence of marriage and the priesthood. Although marriage and celibacy may seem opposed, they are actually perfectly complimentary of each other.
Celibacy marks the priest as a man consecrated to the service of Christ and the Church.

It is often said that, rather than “giving up” the privileges and joys of having a family, a celibate priest (or religious) has an even bigger family because he is given the care of many souls. Celibacy allows him to care for these more freely than if he had his own wife and children.

St. Paul encouraged celibacy so that one could be more devoted to the service of God. In a spiritual and a practical way, celibacy allows the priest’s first priority to be the Church. This makes a lot of sense – families require huge amounts of time and effort, and so does priestly ministry!

St. Paul was a practical man, and very wise. He didn’t encourage celibacy because he thought marriage was bad, but because he knew, as our Lord taught, that virginity is a higher road. “This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” (1 Cor 7:27-35) Hence, a celibate life is more apt to allow a priest to serve the flock or spiritual family entrusted to his care with an “undivided heart”.

Living celibacy may seem daunting, even contrary to our nature. But it is important to remember that it is part of the vocation of the priest. If God is calling a man to the priesthood (in the Roman Church), he is also calling him to celibacy (except for very special cases). That’s great news, because it also means that he’ll give him special graces to live celibacy.

Celibacy is a gift from God, but like all gifts from God, it carries with it necessary responsibilities.

To live the gift of celibacy in a healthy way requires sacrifice, practical habits for growing in virtue, and an ability to relate to others in a fully human and chaste way. Celibacy is a way some live out the call of God to love our neighbor in an inclusive, free, and generous way. It is a life of charity.

If you are discerning a vocation to the priesthood, be sure to prayerfully discern celibacy – don’t just assume that “it will be okay.” It’s important to make an informed decision about such a weighty matter. But remember that God is in control, and if He wants you to live celibacy, He will make it possible to live it joyfully.

3 thoughts on “Why Celibacy for Priests?

  1. Now, we who work in the technical fields such as physics and engineering as I do and the other hard and soft sciences are familiar with the concept of a boundary condition. We are also familiar with transition regions and phase changes such as commonly occur in chemistry, thermodynamics, quantum atomic, nuclear, and molecular physics, and even theoretically in the evolution of our universe such as occurred, or so we think, during symmetry breaking events in early universal evolution.

    Psychologist, psychiatrists, and sociologists are familiar with transitions or boundary conditions such as sensory thresholds, academic performance limits, transitions that can occur such as a sudden onset of psychotic symptoms or manic states, and the like.

    Economists and business persons are familiar with transition points such as can occur for break even and profitable investments or bullish and bearish market performance.

    Mechanics, plumbers, pipe-fitters, electricians and the like are often very familiar with the performance of the tools and materials they work with.

    Clergymen and religious focus on moral development and thresholds and dispositions to sin and to avoid temptations to sin.

    Even drug cartel leaders and their distributors are familiar with social and financial transition points and popular outcries that could hurt their illicit trade.

    Military leaders from generals and admirals to enlisted men and women are familiar with the potential kill ratio of their weapons, the threshold of human endurance under combat situations, and the transition points which can cause a military operation to be a success or go awry.

    Lovers, especially passionate and intimate ones, know when to approach their partners, and skilled ones are very good a climaxing the beautiful consummated act.

    In short, we are all familiar with boundary conditions, phase changes, and the conditions that mark the existence of an event or element of creation.

    Now, have you ever considered where the boundary of the soul exists between a soul and reality external to the soul? I had just started contemplating this aspect of human spiritual ontology about 2 weeks ago and decided that I just had to compose this post tonight.

    The human body seems at least somewhat nebulously defined in terms of the spatial and/or temporal boundaries between living and non-living cellular tissue components. The transition between such states is hard to qualify because of the overlap of the probabilistic quantum wave functions that are associated with the positions of the atoms within the body, and indeed, also those associated with macroscopic tissue portions.

    Even aside from quantum mechanical considerations, the mere fact that cells are mostly water and that the water and metabolite flux that defines the physical and empirically scruitinizable aspects of cells and tissues is not perfectly defined in space and time alludes to such nebulosity. Who is to say that a water molecule that was just one of quadrillions with in a cell that is in the process of or has transitioned to the bulk of the fluid surrounding a given cell is still not part of the cell or no longer part of the cell.

    Now back to the subject of the human soul. We Catholics generally hold that each human soul is created ex nihilo or directly and immediately at the point of human embryonic conception. However, due to the uncertainty in time and the lack of temporal definition and spatial definition at time and distance scales at or below the miniscule units of the Planck Time and Planck length , area, and volume, the meaning of the instant of conception simply may not exist because time theoretically appears not to be defined below the finite unit of the Planck time or perhaps not below arbitrarily smaller but finite units. Something cannot be created or happen at an instant if no such parameters exist in physical creation.

    However, we know that a soul exists when it exists and does not exist before it exists. However, perhaps at or near the smallest unit of resolution of time, the human soul is gradually drawn into being and completed in existence over a period of time equal to or less than that of the Planck Time Unit, which by the way is very small at tp = {[h/(2pi)]G/[C EXP 5]} EXP (1/2) = 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000539 second. The Planck Length is only 0.000000000000000000000000000000000016 meters, or only one hundred millionth of a trillionth of the diameter of the atomic nucleus.

    Even though instant creation might not be defined in the physical world for the human soul, we know that if GOD nearly instantaneously gradually completes the soul from its lack of previous existence to its full existential state, HE lovingly, deliberately, and carefully crafts each human soul ex nihilo. It seems that since the Human Soul, may be the most important aspect of creation, or at least within our creation, GOD works hard and diligently to create each soul as HE is creating it even if such creation is nearly instantaneous. GOD working hard is not a sign of GOD’s struggling or excessive labor because GOD is utterly Almighty in HIS mental and volitional strength from both the objective standpoint and GOD’s own personal experience of HIS acts and might.

    I think it is a great testament to human transcendental dignity and ephemerality if GOD works to create each human soul, even if over vanishingly finite time periods, physical universe time. This says something about the magnitude and dignity of the substantial principle, even if incomplete, of the spiritual and immortal human soul. After all, would you rather feel that your soul was created with just a careless and thoughtless Divine whim, or instead, that it was crafted with utmost control and personal loving deliberation and devotion.

    However, the nebulosity of the boundary between what is one creature and what is another creature is intelligible by the complex web of inter-dependence and inter-relations that define one creature with respect to another. Now please do not think that I am delving into some New Age anti-personalism here, as the fact that each human person is judged by only his own free or semi-free actions and as such maintains an absolute distinction and unique moral identity from all other creatures and even from GOD HIMSELF. The fact that I as well as you are absolutely, solely, and only responsible for our morally binding personal choices and culpable influences on others, in spite of any accidental and perhaps substantial nebulosity in our bodies and perhaps even in our souls, points to something utterly and transcendently profound about each human person, especially each human soul.

    Clergyman should consider these thoughts, which in light of modern physics, seem inescapable. Clergymen, by virtue of the act of performing baptisms, the forgiveness of sins of penitents, and the consecration of the Sacred Species during Mass have a profound role to play as these sacramental acts are absolutely present and binding when they occur, even in the midst of what seems like a nebulosity of creatures given the interdependence and inter-relations among all creatures as mentioned in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    Regarding my speculations on human ontological nebulosity, you need not fret because you who are clergymen are well indoctrinated in rightfully so, in the notion that we are all parts of the mystical body of Christ. The mystical body of Christ is not just a social order of civil phenomenon, but is a real genuine body of which we are all members and inter-related to one another.

    Clerical celibacy completes a Priest’s inter-relatedness rather that stiffles it and enables the priest to be there for everyone. As someone who is purely and completely heterosexual but who himself has chosen to be single, I feel that my single lay state in life allows me to be there more freely for every women from the kind smile I feel compelled to give to the drive through window workers at the local fast food resturants, to the opportuinity for dis-interested looks of admiration at the beauty of many of women who jog through my neighborhood on a weekly basis. How much more can the celibate clergyman be there for all women who seek forgiveness in the confessional.



  2. The Roman Catholic church consists of over twenty different rites and yet only the Latin rite requires celibacy. If it is such a blessing why is it required for all rites? Also why isn’t it required for former Anglican and Lutheran pastors who come into full communion with the Roman Catholic church and become priests? The Orthodox church allows men to get married and be priests but the bishops and monks are celibate.

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