To our sex-obsessed culture, priestly celibacy seems a hard teaching of the Church, a heavy burden that must be borne with ascetic grit and iron resolve.
But that’s not how the popes of the twentieth century saw it. In their words, celibacy is the “choicest ornament of our priesthood” (Pius X), “one of the purest glories of the Catholic priesthood” (Pius XI), and a discipline that makes the whole life of the priest “resound with the splendor of holy chastity” (John XXIII). Such lofty words were inspired by the rich and profound theological reasons for a celibate priesthood—reasons worth bearing in mind as the old debate over it has flared up into the news. Here are ten of them:
1. Priests as Christ figures. Above all else, the Catholic priest is an alter Christus—“another Christ.” This is clearest in the sacrifice of the Mass, when the priest acts in the person of the Christ in offering the Eucharist. Celibacy configures priests more completely to Christ, who lived a perfectly chaste life. Thus they not only “participate in His priestly office” but also share “His very condition of living,” Pope Paul VI writes in the encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.
2. Marriage to the Church. In Scripture, the Church is often depicted as the Bridegroom of Christ. In celibacy, the priest, as an alter Christus, witnesses through his life to the marriage of Christ to His Church. “In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the … 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. The celibate person thus anticipates in his or her flesh the new world of the future resurrection,” John Paul II writes in his apostolic constitutionFamiliaris Consortio.
3. Spiritual fatherhood. Through celibacy, priests give themselves over wholly to the service God and His Church. Just as a father is uniquely dedicated to his children, so also the priest should be dedicated to his parishioners. As one Jesuit priest at Georgetown University recently put it in the Washington Post: “I do not have my own biological children, but I have over 6,000 here on Georgetown’s main campus! I have many sons and daughters who call me ‘Father.’” John Paul II describes this as a “singular sharing in God’s fatherhood’”(Pastores Dabo Vobis).
4. Celibacy as sacrifice. In renouncing married life, the priest also links himself with Christ’s own sacrifice on the Cross. “In a similar way, by a daily dying to himself and by giving up the legitimate love of a family of his own for the love of Christ and of His kingdom, the priest will find the glory of an exceedingly rich and fruitful life in Christ, because like Him and in Him, he loves and dedicates himself to all the children of God,” Paul VI writes. This ultimately is the purpose of human sexuality—to be a “a genuine sign of and precious service to the love of communion and gift of self to others,” writes Blessed Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis.
5. Celibacy as angelic purity. Celibacy is not only a sacrificial act. It is also a mark of purity. Just as Christ offered Himself as a pure and spotless victim, so should the priest. Moreover “a purity of heart and a sanctity of life” befit the “solemnity and holiness” of the office, Pope Pius XI writes in the encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii. Some have described this otherworldly purity as angelic: “The priest must be so pure that, if he were to be lifted up and placed in the heavens themselves, he might take a place in the midst of the Angels,” St. John Chrysostom said.
6. Loneliness as a link to Christ. Even the loneliness a priest may experience may unite him more closely with Christ, according to Paul VI: “At times loneliness will weigh heavily on the priest, but he will not for that reason regret having generously chosen it. Christ, too, in the most tragic hours of His life was alone—abandoned by the very ones whom He had chosen as witnesses to, and companions of, His life, and whom He had loved ‘to the end’—but He stated, ‘I am not alone, for the Father is with me.’”
7. Time for prayer. As much time as those in married time spend in prayer, priests should devote even more, Church Fathers taught, according to Ukrainian Catholic theologian Roman Cholij. One basis for this view is 1 Corinthians 7:5, where St. Paul is giving advice to those who are married: “Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control.” It follows that priests, who do not have another person to “return” to, should have more time for prayer.
8. Perfection of the Israelite priesthood. Catholics look back to the Old Testament priests as forerunners. They understand that the priesthood did not end with Christ—it was reborn and renewed through Him. In the Old Testament, Levite priests were allowed to marry, but celibacy was required while they were serving in the sanctuary. For the Church Fathers, the Catholic priesthood was the “perfection” of the Levitical priesthood, according to Cholij. “Hence … if the Levites practised temporary continence when in the sanctuary, so much more should Christian priests, always ready to serve, practise continence,” Cholij writes.
9. Detachment from the world. Celibacy is but one example of a broader detachment from all things of this world—something necessary in order for the priest “to follow the Divine Master more easily and readily,” according to Pope Pius XII in his apostolic exhortation Menti Nostrae. “Sanctity alone makes us what our divine vocation demands, men crucified to the world and to whom the world has been crucified, men walking in newness of life who … seek only heavenly things and strive by every means to lead others to them,” Pius X writes in his apostolic exhortation, Haerent Animo.
10. A living sign of heaven. In heaven, men will neither marry nor will women be given in marriage—instead, they will be like the angels, as Christ says in Matthew 22:30. In a special way, celibacy makes priests living witnesses to this future reality. As Paul VI put it, priestly celibacy “proclaims the presence on earth of the final stages of salvation with the arrival of a new world, and in a way it anticipates the fulfillment of the kingdom as it sets forth its supreme values which will one day shine forth in all the children of God.”