Priestly celibacy in the teachings of the Popes
At the beginning of this year  a colloquium was held in Ars, France, on the theme: "Priestly Celibacy: Foundations, Joys and Challenges". The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy gave a series of talks on the teachings of the Popes from Pius XI to Benedict XVI. The following is a lecture the Cardinal gave on Paul VI.
Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, published on 24 June 1967, up to now, is the last Encyclical a Pontiff has dedicated entirely to priestly celibacy. In the immediate post-conciliar context and in full agreement with the Conciliar Doctrine, Paul VI felt the need to underline with an authoritative magisterial act, the perennial validity of ecclesiastical celibacy, which was contested in a manner more vehement than even today, by both historical-biblical and theological-pastoral means in a true and real effort at its removal.
As is known, Presbyterorum Ordinis distinguishes between celibacy in itself and the law of celibacy, when it states, "Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven was commended by Christ the Lord... and through the centuries as well as in our own time, freely accepted and observed in a praiseworthy manner by many of the faithful, is held by the Church to be of great value in a special manner for the priestly life.... For these reasons, based on the mystery of Christ and his mission, celibacy, which first was recommended to priests, later in the Latin Church was imposed upon all who were to be promoted to sacred orders" (cf. n. 16). Such a distinction is present both in the third chapter of the Encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii of Pius XI and in n. 21 of the Encyclical of Paul VI. Both documents always refer the law of celibacy back to its true origin, which was given by the Apostles, and, through them, by Christ himself.
The Servant of God Paul VI states in n. 14 of the Encyclical: "Hence We consider that the present law of celibacy should today continue to be linked to the ecclesiastical ministry. This law should support the minister in his exclusive, definitive and total choice of the unique and supreme love of Christ; it should uphold him in the entire dedication of himself to the public worship of God and to the service of the Church; it should distinguish his state of life both among the faithful and in the world at large". As is immediately evident, the Pontiff takes up the cultic reasons typical of the preceding Magisterium and he integrates them with those theological, spiritual and pastoral reasons most emphasized by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, stressing how the double order of reasoning is never to be thought of as in antithesis, but rather in reciprocal relationship and fruitful synthesis..
The same approach is found in n. 19 of the document, which recalls the duty of the priest, as a Minister of Christ and dispenser of the Mysteries of God, culminating in n. 21, where it states: "Wholly in accord with this mission, Christ remained throughout His whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified His total dedication to the service of God and men. This deep link between celibacy and the priesthood of Christ is reflected in those whose fortune it is to share in the dignity and mission of the Mediator and eternal Priest; this sharing will be more perfect the freer the sacred minister is from the bonds of flesh and blood". Wavering, therefore, in the comprehension of the inestimable worth of holy celibacy and consequently its evaluation, and its strenuous defence, if necessary, could be understood as an inadequate comprehension of the real import of the ordained Ministry in the Church and of its ineffable ontological-sacramental, and thus real, relationship to Christ the High Priest.
To these inalienable cultic and Christological references, the Encyclical adds a clear ecclesiological reference: "Laid hold of by Christ unto the complete abandonment of one's entire self to Him, the priest takes on a closer likeness to Christ, even in the love with which the eternal Priest has loved the Church His Body and offered Himself entirely for her sake, in order to make her a glorious, holy and immaculate Spouse. The consecrated celibacy of the sacred ministers actually manifests the virginal love of Christ for the Church, and the virginal and supernatural fecundity of this marriage, by which the children of God are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh" (n. 26). How could Christ love his Church with anything other than a virginal love? How could the priest, alter Christus, be a spouse to the Church in anything other than a virginal manner?
From the complete reasoning of the Encyclical emerges the profound interconnection of the merit of holy celibacy, which, seen from whatever aspect, is shown ever more radically and intimately to be connected to the priesthood.
Continuing to debate the ecclesiological reasons that sustain celibacy, the Encyclical, at nn. 29, 30 and 31, emphasises the insuperable relationship between celibacy and the Eucharistic mystery, stating that, with celibacy: "the priest unites himself most intimately with the offering, and places on the altar his entire life, which bears the marks of the holocaust (n. 29).... In 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 (n. 30)".
The last great cycle of reasons that are presented as a support for holy celibacy concerns its eschatological meaning. In recognizing that the Kingdom of God is not of this world (cf. Jn 18: 30), that at the resurrection there is neither the taking of wife nor husband (cf. Mt 22: 30) and that, "the precious and almost divine gift of perfect continence for the kingdom of heaven stands out precisely as "a special token of the rewards of heaven" (cf. 1 Cor 7:7)", celibacy is also shown to "stands as a testimony to the ever-continuing progress of the People of God towards the final goal of their earthly pilgrimage, and as a stimulus for all to raise their eyes to the things above" (n. 34).
The one who is given authority to guide the brethren to the acknowledgement of Christ, to welcoming the revealed truth, to leading a life that is ever more irreproachable, and, in a word, to sanctity, finds incelibacy a most fitting and extraordinarily strong prophecy, capable of conferring a singular authority on his Ministry and a fruitfulness, both exemplary and apostolic, to his action.
The Encyclical also responds with extraordinary contemporary relevance to those objections which would see in celibacy a mortification of humanity, deprived in that way of one of the most beautiful aspects of life. Because in n. 56 it states: "In the priest's heart love is by no means extinct. His charity is drawn from the purest source, practised in the imitation of God and Christ, and is no less demanding and real than any other genuine love. It gives the priest a limitless horizon, deepens and gives breadth to his sense of responsibility — a mark of mature personality — and inculcates in him, as a sign of a higher and greater fatherhood, a generosity and refinement of heart which offer a superlative enrichment". In a word, "celibacy sets the whole man on a higher plane and makes an effective contribution to his perfection" (n. 55).
In 1967, the year in which the Encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus was published, the Servant of God Paul VI gave one of the most courageous and exemplary clarifying acts of the Magisterium of his entire Pontificate. It is an Encyclical that should be studied attentively by every candidate to the priesthood, from the very beginning of his journey of formation, but certainly before applying for admission to diaconal ordination. It should be taken up periodically in the course of one's ongoing formation and be made the object not only of a careful biblical, historical, theological, spiritual and pastoral study, but also of deep personal mediation.