Why must priests remain celibate?

Celibacy is the renunciation of marriage for the more perfect observance of chastity by those who receive the Sacrament of Orders in any of the higher grades. During the the ceremony of priesthood, the candidate is told the following:

"You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world. But if you receive this order (of the subdiaconate) it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound for ever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign."

Scriptural support for this comes from Matthew 19:12, "For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it." The Apostle Paul also promoted celibacy as preferential to marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:1-8 and 7:32-35, "It is good for a man not to marry... I wish that all men were as I am... It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am... An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs -- how he can please the Lord... I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord." Celibacy, or virginity, then possesses a higher sanctity than marriage. The Catholic Church considered itself the Virgin Bride and, as such, required a virgin priesthood, unlike the hereditary lineage of the Jewish priesthood. The Church began expressing an attitude toward continence (abstinence) in the third century, which by then had become the custom. At the Spanish Council of Elvira (295-302), celibacy was imposed on bishops, priests, and deacons, although those in higher orders who were married before ordination were still allowed to remain married. At a Roman council held by Pope Siricius in 386, an edict was passed forbidding priests and deacons to have conjugal intercourse with their wives. By the sixth century, even subdeacons were forbidden to live with their wives. Finally, at the First Lateran Council in 1123, an enactment was passed which pronounced the marriages by subdeacons or ecclesiastics of any of the higher orders to be invalid. Today, marriage by the higher clergy is forbidden and if anyone who is married wishes to promote to the sacred orders, they must first separate from their wife. (There remain allowances for marriages by priests in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Churches.)

        "The disciples said to him, 'If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.' Jesus replied, 'Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it." (Matthew 19:10-12)

Opposition to priestly celibacy comes from the same scripture passages used to defend it. Jesus, in Matthew 19:12, may have been referring to castration. The NIV renders the last part of this verse as "others have renounced marriage," with a footnote that it may also be translated as "have made themselves eunuchs." Other Bible translations render this passage as self-castration, including the RSV, ASV, KJV, and NASV. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, Paul, who was an exception by not being married (1 Corinthians 9:5), says that it is good not to marry, "But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband." Likewise, in verse 7:8-9, he says it is good to stay unmarried as he is, "But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion." He then sums it up in verse 7:38, "So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better." Although celibacy is preferential, at this point in the early church it is not mandatory. What is mandatory for bishops and deacons is that they be the husband of but one wife (1 Timothy 3:2, 12, Titus 1:6). Managing a family, according to Paul, is helpful in managing God's church (1 Timothy 3:4-5). Celibacy of the Catholic priesthood has been under attack since the Middle Ages for several reasons. One argument is that some priests may be prone to commit more grievous sexual acts, resulting in scandal. The Catholic Church maintains, however, that there's no less chance of scandal occurring if priests were allowed to marry. Another is that without castration, there's still the need to continually restrain oneself from the temptation of sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).

        "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence." (Colossians 2:20-23)

The following quotes regarding celibacy of the priesthood come from the official Vatican website (The Relevance of Priestly Celebacy Today, by Crescenzio Sepe, Titular Archbishop of Grado, Secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy), not in its entirety, but enough excerpts should the webpage move or become unavailable:

"Celibacy cannot and should not be thought of in a merely negative sense or in reference to the purely natural aspect, according to which it is believed that, once the �obstacle� or the �no� to marriage has been removed, a �boom� in priestly ordinations will be the immediate and natural result. The problem of celibacy comprehends both the natural component, bound up with our sexual nature as the Creator has willed it, and the supernatural component pertaining to the order of grace. Today above all, we tend to emphasize the problems bound up with the first of these elements, simply because hedonism has made us lose certain authentic human values: chastity for example, which is obligatory for all of us whatever our vocation..."

"So, if we are to understand the problem of the relevance of priestly celibacy, we must study it within its true dimension: that of the supernatural. To say that priestly celibacy per se is not a dogmatic datum must not be taken as meaning that it can be relegated to some �cultural context� or other. For we have to bear in mind that neither the doctrine nor the life of the Church can be reduced to formally revealed truths and everything else be regarded as arbitrary. On the contrary, these things are to be regarded as the fruit of the guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit, and part of the Church�s two-thousand-year-old tradition..."

"The first assertion we still make is that priestly celibacy is relevant because our Lord Jesus Christ is relevant who, consecrated Supreme and Eternal Priest by the Father, chose to live his priesthood in chastity and celibacy. We cannot forget, Pope Paul VI states in the encyclical Sacerdotalis coelibatus, that the Son of God, who assumed a perfect human nature and raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, remained throughout his own earthly life in a state of perfect virginity, to signify his total dedication to the service of God and the human race."

"Nor can it be said that the socio-cultural and religious climate in which Jesus lived favoured this kind of life, for we know that in the Jewish environment no condition was so much deprecated as that of a man who had no descendants. Yet Christ willed, harmoniously and intimately, to combine the virginal state with his mission as eternal priest and mediator between heaven and earth. We can therefore affirm that chastity and virginity are not simply additional or secondary to Christ�s priestly existence, but belong to its very essence. �Don�t you see�, St Ambrose writes, �that Christ is chastity, Christ is integrity?� In becoming priest by virtue of the hypostatic union, the Son of God committed himself to the Father, offering him his total and exclusive love, and consecrated himself entirely to performing the work of redemption."

"By priestly ordination, every priest is configured to Christ and shares in his priesthood and, as St Thomas states, �agit in Persona Christi!� From this identification with Christ, it follows that he who follows Christ in the priesthood, assents to becoming - in an excellent manner -his witness and to adhering strictly to the ontological connotations of his priesthood..."

"Like Christ, the priest is called to give himself totally and with undivided heart to God and the brethren, even to the sacrifice of himself. Of course, no one can claim to achieve so exalted an ideal on his own. The call to the priesthood, like celibacy which is linked to it, is a gift which comes from God; it is therefore a supernatural reality, a mystery. ��For not all men�, says the Lord, �can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given�� (Mt 19:11). Not all, that is to say, are called by God to the height of total self-giving to him in perfect chastity, in accordance with the actual model, Christ. Not to all does God give the potentiality inherent in virginity..."

"To believe in the precious quality of the connection between priesthood and celibacy, to feel its living, joyful relevance, its charm and its riches, one must have faith in God�s grace and in his help. In this sense, priestly celibacy �is to be considered as a special grace, as a gift... which does not dispense with, but counts most definitely on, a conscious and free response on the part of the receiver. This charism of the Spirit also brings with it the grace for the receiver to remain faithful to it for all his life and be able to carry out generously and joyfully its concomitant commitments.�4 The relevance of celibacy is also the relevance of following Christ: �Come, follow me.� Following Christ means entering into his mystery of grace and salvation, prolonging his word, his life-style, his sacrificial and saving activity..."

"How to follow Christ is set out in the �evangelical counsels�, in imitation of the �apostolic life�: being a priest and acting as a priest: being like Christ to act like Christ. This means that, in the Mystical Body, the priest discharges an altogether special task, inasmuch as he has to make the priesthood of Christ the Head sacramentally visible in history. From this, it follows that the figure of the priest is eminently sacramental, whether because, in general terms, he actualizes the mediation of the Incarnate Word, or because he is linked in a unique way to Jesus eucharistically present in his Church. In the eucharistic sacrifice, the priest is not only minister but also part of the sacrificial sign inasmuch as, by offering himself, he signifies Christ..."

"The force binding celibacy to the priesthood lies in the ontology of the priest. The priestly character, being configured to the priesthood of Christ the Head of the Church, is consequently the instrumental cause conjoined with the supernatural grace in the sacraments, especially in those of the Eucharist and penance. The priest, hence, transmits the divine life to the faithful, and this his supernatural fatherhood must not be confused with or limited to a natural one. His being and his acting must be like Christ�s: undivided."

"This is the great teaching bequeathed to us, for instance, by the Apostle of the Gentiles: �Cor Pauli. Cor Christ!� exclaims St John Chrysostom. The undivided heart of Paul possessed the splendour of perfect chastity, of celibacy, which he enthusiastically recommended to others, when he exclaimed: �I wish that all were as I myself am� (1 Cor 7:7). But the apostolic heart of Paul, precisely because it was undivided, made him fully conformed to that of Christ: perfect chastity in harmony with the other virtues which came to him from assimilation with Christ, made it possible for him to cry: �It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me� (Gal 2:20). Paul: what a relevant example, valid yesterday, today and - yes, indeed - tomorrow..."

"To respect this divine �favour� and to set the highest value on the �charismatic� character of celibacy, the Latin Church from earliest times has found it absolutely congruent to unite this gift to the truly sacramental nature of the New Testament priesthood. �The will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the Head and Spouse of the Church. The Church as the spouse of Jesus 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 the Lord.}}"

"In this sense, the problem of celibacy is not just to be stated at the level of historicity and, therefore, of the out-of-dateness of a �disciplinary� norm, but on the supernatural plane of Christ�s love for his Church. The priesthood is not a gift given for the use of the individual who receives it, but is for others; so, those who receive it have to be able and fit to give themselves totally and unconditionally to the brethren. As Pope Paul VI put it in the encyclical Sacerdotalis coelibatus, �The priesthood is a ministry instituted by Christ for the service of his Mystical Body which is the Church. To her belongs the authority to admit to that priesthood those whom she judged qualified -that is, those to whom God has given, along with other signs of an ecclesiastical vocation, the gift of a consecrated celibacy. In virtue of such a gift, confirmed by canon law, the individual is called to respond with free judgement and total dedication, adapting his own mind and outlook to the will of God who calls him. Concretely, this divine calling manifests itself in a given individual with his own definite personality structure which is not at all overpowered by grace.�"

"In the kingdom of heaven there will be no more marriage! The priesthood of Christ and the whole nature of the Church which springs from him, on this earth already prefigure the eschatological state. To reject the precious link between priesthood and celibacy would be like renouncing that anticipative dimension in the sacramental order of the Church or, at least, very much reducing it. For everyone, believer and non-believer alike, expects a priest not only to be able to speak about the world to come but more important still, to bear witness to it, finding in his chaste and generous way of living an anchor of hope in the difficulties of the present."

"So, too, the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis takes on and develops this doctrine, which has its most immediate source in the Second Vatican Council, according to which priests with their celibacy �bear witness to the resurrection in a future life�13 and �they are made a living sign of the world to come, already present through faith and charity - a world in which the children of the resurrection shall neither be married nor take wives.�"

"The modern world, profoundly secularized and materialistic as it is, constitutes the most exacting challenge for the Church of today. The rich part of the world is going through a process of rationalistic and hedonistic secularization unprecedented in history, alienating human beings from their true origin and their supernatural destiny. The secularist mentality leads, insensibly but inexorably, to behaviour characterized by disregard of the supernatural, uncritical acceptance of a kind of humanism seductive in prospect but ambiguous at its deeper levels, and an unduly touchy preoccupation with one�s own self-realization understood as self-centred self-assertion and negation of everything other than self..."

"And in truth, even in these troubled times, above and beyond human logic, God does not withhold his many �wonders�. The Church�s history in our day is crystal-clear witness that the Spirit Paraclete is presenting it with �a new era of group endeavours of the lay faithful... movements and new sodalities... with a specific feature and purpose.� And indeed, from this new stage in Church history it clearly emerges that pastoral activity in general and priestly activity in particular, if they are to be renewed in response to the demand of the contemporary world, must not follow the policy of giving-in but, on the contrary, that of the Spirit who calls the whole Church community to bear witness to Christ without compromise or reservation."

"...Seen thus, marriage can be an obstacle to the total priestly devotion needed, inasmuch as it sets up a sphere of legitimate and very intense personal interests, which can be in opposition with the practical demands of the ministry. To put it more clearly, the married state would deprive the priest�s life of that precious unity which comes to him, through his various ministerial functions, from his sacramental character."

"Immersed in the joys, but in the worries and dangers too, of married life, he runs the risk of becoming purely functional. For only with really great difficulty could the married priest devote -. as is his duty - his free time during the day to private prayer and study, these being the necessary aids for living as a man of God. Not overlooking the many and valued examples of married priests of the Oriental Rite, but nonetheless being aware of the general reactions of the people of God, we must ask ourselves whether the priest would still be able to receive the deepest confidence and most heart-felt confessions from people who need to talk to someone whom they feel, at that point in time, to be only and all for them. Would there not be a real risk of his becoming a functionary of the sacraments or a sort of psycho-religious specialist at the mercy of people�s subjective needs? For the married priest would be divided between two types of fruitfulness: that of the Church, and that of marriage and bringing up children; and his own heart would bear the sign of division between love for the community and love for his family."

"The fact of the matter is that today people living in a cold and lonely society where it is hard to make contact with others need the priest to be available always and no matter how, they need the priest who will be all for God, so as to be all for all. The celibate priest, especially today, is one of the few people, perhaps the last, to be available for others..."

"How then can we regard as adequately based the reasons of those now trying to loosen or debase the deep link existing between priesthood and the celibate life? It is said, for instance, that the problem of the shortage of priests (a grave one in certain geographical areas today) could be solved if married men were allowed to enter the priesthood. Apart from the fact that this assertion is not supported by either experience or objective data -which rather shows that even where a married priesthood does exist, the problem over candidates for the priesthood has not been solved -one cannot help observing that this proposal does not take sufficient account of the essentially �catholic� nature of the Church, by reason of which (as has happened in the past), we may hope for an exchange of gifts between those Churches which are particularly rich in priests and those who are short of the same."

"The question, furthermore, affects the overall view of the priest and ecclesiastical tradition and cannot be isolated from the many pastoral considerations alluded to above. For this reason, a decision to allow the ordination of married men in the Latin Church could then involve having to take a whole series of interlinked decisions with the knock-on effect of creating stronger pressures for yielding on other points, ending with the abolition of the bond between priesthood and celibacy. We can learn from history here!"

"Then again, the comparison with the married priests of some Oriental Churches does not seem to be a valid one, for here we have an ancient institution and not one established for reasons of expediency. It must also be said that, actually in those Churches, be they Catholic or Orthodox, the law of celibacy for the priesthood is recommended and held in high regard. This, for example is what a Russian Orthodox bishop of the Patriarcliate of Moscow had to say on the subject in the immediate post-conciliar period: �For us Orthodox, the priesthood is a sacred function. For this reason we are convinced that you, Westerners, you Latins, are not on the right path where you allow the question of ecclesiastical celibacy to be debated in public, in the forum of public opinion. In our Oriental tradition, it has been possible to authorize the ordination of a handful of married men, as in any case you have done and go on doing in certain regions. But take care: in the West, if you separate the priesthood from celibacy, a very swift decadence will set in. The West is not mystical enough to tolerate the marriage of its clergy without degenerating. The Church of Rome (and this is to her glory) has preserved this ecclesiastical ascesis for a whole millennium. Beware of compromising it...�"

"Today we find ourselves faced with the pastoral demand for renewal and �new evangelization�. So be it: the Church will renew itself, as its history of two thousand years attests, but only if it pledges itself to live the gift of itself to Christ its bridegroom with absolute devotion. In these times when conversion is so hard and yet people are easily impressed by others� testimony, the faith needs lives illuminated by the absolute, it needs witnesses who risk their lives, who give their lives away. A sermon of the great Newman comes to mind: �What have you risked for the faith?�"

"And what more eloquent proof could be offered today to demonstrate that one�s own faith is genuine, than that of a free, joyous, warm-hearted renunciation of human love for the sake of Christ and the brethren? The celibate priesthood is one of the strongest responses that can be made to today�s pastoral demands, to the new evangelization, to the challenge awaiting the Church in the third millennium. The Lord invites us to put out to sea; if we have faith, fish will abound -for, we know, the Lord sails in the barque of Peter."

        "Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) ...A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well." (1 Timothy 3:2-5, 12)

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Reference sources: Catholic Answers (http://www.catholic.com); The Holy See - The relevance of prieslty celibacy today (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_revel_en.html); New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/).