The Church's Teaching on Priestly Celibacy

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William Saunders

The following is a continuation of last week's column on priestly celibacy.)

Why does the Church mandate that priests be celibate? When did this rule come into existence?—A reader in Alexandria

Given the history of how mandatory clerical celibacy arose in the Roman Catholic Church (except in several of the Eastern Rites), we can examine the spirituality which undergirds the regulation.

The Second Vatican Council's "Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests" ("Presbyterorum Ordinis," 1965) asserted: "Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven was recommended by Christ our Lord. It has been freely accepted and laudably observed by many Christians down through the centuries as well as a feature of priestly life. For it is at once a sign of pastoral charity and an incentive to it as well as being in a special way a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world" (No. 16).

While recognizing that the nature of the priesthood does not demand celibacy, the Council affirmed ways celibacy is in harmony with the priesthood: Through it, a priest, identifying himself with Christ, dedicates his whole life to the service of his Lord and the Church. Celibacy enables the priest to focus entirely on building up the kingdom of God here and now. Priests can "cling to Christ with undivided hearts and dedicate themselves more freely to Him and through Him to the service of God and men" (No. 16). They are a sign in this world of the Church's union with her spouse, Christ, and of the life in the world to come "in which the children of the resurrection shall neither be married nor take wives" (Lk 20:35-37).

Pope Paul VI highlighted these themes in his encyclical "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus" (1967), which was written at a time when some people questioned the need for mandatory celibacy. The Holy Father pinpointed three "significances" or senses to celibacy: the Christological, the ecclesiological and the eschatological. In the Christological sense, a priest must look to Christ as the ideal, eternal priest. This identification permeates his whole being. Just as Christ remained celibate and dedicated His life to the service of His Father and all people, a priest accepts celibacy and consecrates himself totally to serve the mission of the Lord. This total giving and commitment to Christ is a sign of the Kingdom present here and now.

In the ecclesiological sense, just as Christ was totally united to the Church, the priest through his celibacy bonds his life to the Church. He is better able to be a minister of the Word of God, listening to that Word, pondering its depth, living it and preaching it with whole-hearted conviction. He is the minister of the sacraments, and, especially through the Mass, acts in the person of Christ, offering himself totally to the Lord. Celibacy allows the priest greater freedom and flexibility in fulfilling his pastoral work: "(Celibacy) gives to the priest, even in the practical field, the maximum efficiency and the best disposition of mind, psychologically and affectively, for the continuous exercise of a perfect charity. This charity will permit him to spend himself wholly for the welfare of all, in a fuller and more concrete way" ("Sacerdotalis Caelibatus," No. 32).

Finally, in the eschatalogical sense, the celibate life foreshadows a freedom we will have in heaven when perfectly united with God as His child.

The <Code of Canon Law> reflects these three "significances" in Canon 277, which mandates clerical celibacy: "Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore are obliged to observe celibacy, which is a special gift of God, by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and can more freely dedicate themselves to the services of God and mankind."

Throughout the Church's teaching on celibacy, three important dimensions must be kept in mind. First, celibacy involves freedom. A man when called to Holy Orders freely accepts the obligation of celibacy, after prayerful reflection and consideration. Having made that decision, celibacy does grant the bishop, priest or deacon the freedom to identify with Christ and to serve Him and the Church without reservation, condition or hesitation.

Secondly, celibacy involves sacrifice, and a sacrifice is an act of love. For instance, when a man and a woman marry, they make a sacrifice to live "in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health until death." They sacrifice to live a faithful love, no longer dating others or giving into selfish pleasures. When they become father and mother, they sacrifice to support the raising of children. Decisions of love always entail sacrifice.

And so it is with the clergy. To be a priest means to make a sacrifice of oneself to Christ for the good of His Church. The priest sacrifices being married to a woman and having his own family to being "wedded" to Christ and His Church and serving their needs as "father."

Finally, celibacy requires the grace of God to be lived. Repeatedly, celibacy is seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit. However, this gift is not just to keep one's physical desires under control or to live as a bachelor; this gift is being able to say "yes" to our Lord each day and live His life.

Sadly, in our world, many people cannot appreciate the discipline of celibacy, whether for the clergy or anyone else. We live in a society where the media bombards us with uncontrolled sexual imagery. If some people cannot appreciate the values of virginity before marriage, fidelity in marriage, or sacrifice for children, they cannot begin to appreciate anyone, man or woman, who lives a celibate lifestyle in dedication to a vocation. As a Church, we should be thankful to the clergy and the men and women religious who have made the total sacrifice of themselves out of love to serve our Lord and the Church.

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the April 24, 1996 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.