Priestly celibacy

Lately, especially in light of the Fr. Cutie situation, some have been questioning priestly celibacy–why we have it, where it came from.

My advice is always to stick with the Church and Her teaching. She won’t lead one astray.

But some folks need the convincing.

A great place to find it is in a book I have just finished reading, Priestly Celibacy. This book contains many essays from Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and lay people. It’s a great read–and so interesting to see all the different perspectives.

It looks at celibacy from these four angles: Scriptural, historical, spiritual, and psychological. I will briefly summarize the first three.

  1. Scriptural Roots
    The book takes a good long look at Matthew 19:10-12, where the bulk of Jesus’ teaching on celibacy occurs. The book argues that the discipline of priestly celibacy is rooted in the biblical teaching on marriage and the Church. After all, Jesus’ teaching on celibacy occurs in the context of His teaching on marriage, for marriage images the love between Christ and the Church–and this type of thing is exactly what we find in Matthew (the so-called “Gospel of the Church”). When he speaks those words, “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom,” Jesus gives reason for the celibate state. The book explores what exactly the word “eunuch” means in this context, ultimately concluding that “Jesus calls those who vow celibacy for the Kingdom “eunuchs” because these people are His high court officials in the Kingdom of Heaven”–which is linked, in Matthew, to the Church on earth.
  2. Historical Roots
    The book rejects the misconception that clerical celibacy was optional at the beginning of the Church, that it gradually slid into practice starting sometime around the fourth century, and the was forced for all in the tenth century. Not the case, folks. The first real documented history of celibacy comes from the Council of Elvira (305) which specifically had to do with refraining from sexual relations with one’s wife after ordination. The book goes through many other councils and documents after that which preclude marriage, and argues that there is ample evidence to suggest that the notion of continence was simply assumed before Elvira–therefore refuting the notion that celibacy was a new invention.
  3. Spiritual Roots
    The very identity of the priesthood is bound together with celibacy: priesthood is an identity, not a function; one cannot be called to these two vocations. A man is called to be a father, on all occasions and in full, to his children and a husband to his wife; and a priest is called to be there for the faithful on all occasions…in full. To try to attempt both, simultaneously, results in trouble for the family and the parish community–not to mention himself. Further, there’s a great argument that refutes the common protestant cry, “I’m not taking marital advice from someone not married!” or child advice from someone without children: “Only those who have not been married can sustain a transcendent vision of the Sacrament of Marriage…” There’s plenty more on this topic, but I won’t explore it all here.

Throughout the whole book, the same logic keeps coming back: the priest is called to love the Church as Christ did. And so he must follow in Christ’s steps. After all, he is “another Christ” by virtue of his ordination into the priesthood.