The Logic of Priestly Celibacy

Author: Fr Anthony Zimmerman


Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, S.T.D.

Pope John Paul II, by stating that celibacy belongs logically to the priesthood (General Audience 17 July 1993), challenges us to discern why this should be so. He asserted furthermore�perhaps for the first time in papal parlance�that the twelve apostles likely began the tradition of priestly celibacy: "According to the Gospel, it appears that the Twelve, destined to be the first to share in his priesthood, renounced family life in order to follow him."

In this remarkable address the Pope offered three basic considerations which render celibacy logical for priests:

1) Celibacy facilitates devotion to Christ by leaving the heart undivided (cf. Cor. 7:32-33).

2) Increases availability of the priest for complete service of the Gospel.

3) Enhances the spiritual fruitfulness of the priest's ministry.

That the Gospel gives evidence of apostolic celibacy is our first consideration. That this has special meaning for the priest is our second point; for the third point we will draw upon an insight of Blessed John Scotus.

The itinerant life style of the apostles excluded marriage

The itinerant lifestyle of the apostles during Christ's three years of public life practically crowded out thoughts about marriage and family life. "Come, follow me," Jesus said very simply to Peter and Andrew as they were casting their nets. "I will make you fishers of men" (Matt. 4:19). They did exactly that: leaving their nets they followed him. That would be quite unusual if they intended to support a family.

Going on from there, Christ saw James and John, also fishermen. Jesus called them too, and "immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him" (Matt. 4:22). We see a pattern developing, of disciples who quit work which is necessary to support a family.

Matthew was sitting in his tax collector's booth when Christ motioned to him. "Follow me." Matthew rose and followed him (Matt. 9:9). From the gospel story, we can't even be sure that Matthew locked up the cash and closed the door behind him. He could hardly behave like that if he intended to lead a normal family life.

Christ eventually filled out the band to twelve whom he then called apostles (Luke 6:12-16). This initial band, according to Matthew, then traveled throughout Galilee preaching the good news of the kingdom. Their home, henceforth, was the road. Their income was alms.

The apostles were homeless

Jesus made no secret about the kind of life he expected of the Twelve. He sent them out to proclaim that "the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 10:7). He instructed them to take no money along to pay for their lodging and food. They were to sleep in any suitable home where the host would welcome them. If the apostles had wives, these spouses might rightly be concerned about where their husbands were sleeping�namely in any house that would accept them. We find no trace of wifely concern about this in the Gospel.

Normally, married men should inform their wives about their whereabouts, should be breadwinners for the home, should educate their children; and wives should cook for them, do their laundry, keep the house in order. We see that the lifestyle Jesus led with the apostles practically prevented them from leading a normal family life. Family life was not compatible with their itinerant apostolic lifestyle as described in the Gospel.

When the apostles were hungry, they didn't go back home to get a good meal with wife and children. They could still the pangs by plucking ears of wheat from the fields through which they were walking, and chew on the uncooked grains. Before the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, no wife of an apostle came forward to supply their needs. It was Andrew who found an alert boy who had brought along five small barley loaves and two fishes. The Gospel does not inform us how much Andrew may have paid him. No wives came forward either, to help the apostles distribute the loaves and fishes to the people, as these apparently multiplied in their hands.

It was the ambitious mother of James and John who knelt down before Jesus to ask that her sons might sit, one at his right, the other at his left, in his kingdom (Matt. 20:21). When the other ten heard about it, they were indignant, and Christ had to soothe their anger and put down their political ambitions. We can imagine what a ruckus this might have caused if wives of the apostles were involved, and if Christ would have to calm them down. We see no signs of wifely concern about apostles in this episode nor in any passage of the four Gospel accounts.

At the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee Jesus and his disciples had been invited, but nothing is said about wives of these disciples. Cana is not far from Capharnaum�about 20 miles�where Christ healed the mother-in-law of Peter. Had Peter and other apostles been leading a normal family life, we might expect John to mention their presence at the feast, the one at which the wine ran out.

In John Chapter 4 we read that Jesus sat down at Jacob's well in the town of Sichar. He was tired from the journey, a walk of over 20 miles, from the depression of the Jordan River, up into the hill country. The apostles left him at the well while they went to town to shop for the noon meal. The episode lifts the curtain on the lifestyle of this itinerant group: the apostles did the shopping for food, and prepared the meals. No wives of the apostles were in the picture.

The apostles were not always the best of providers. They were caught several times without due provisions: when in the desert before the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; and when they got into the boat without taking along any bread. Jesus endured this make-shift nomadic life with the apostles, and challenged newcomers to join in if they wished. Some wanted to follow him but not on his terms:

Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus replied: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Another disciple said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus told him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead" (Matt. 8:19-22).

A rich young man was told: "Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Luke 18:22). That is not the kind of advice one gives to a man preparing for marriage, or to a husband and father who intends to care for a family.

At that point, Peter spoke up, reminding Christ that they had actually made the renunciations which the rich young man had failed to make. Peter said to Jesus: "We have left all we had to follow you." Christ then gave explicit approval to what Peter and the apostles had apparently done:

"I tell you the truth: no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life" (Luke 18:29-30).

If the meals they prepared left something to be desired, Christ made the concession of allowing Martha and Mary to prepare something better when they were in the neighborhood; and if they attended one wedding feast together in Cana, it is not impossible that there were other wedding feasts. Maybe Christ's mother, Mary, got things ready for them when they visited Nazareth. And perhaps the holy women who were following Jesus knew how to supplement the shopping of the men, so that their meals had more of a variety. At any rate, we read the Gospels correctly, I believe, when we understand that the apostles were living apart from their families and made Christ alone their part and their inheritance: "Dominus pars mea et hereditas mea."

The Gospel also tells us that the disciples made the preparations for the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. Christ ordained them to be priests on this solemn occasion. We do not read about wives participating in the Last Supper.

Perhaps the abandonment of family life helps to explain the attitude of the apostles at the time of Christ's passion and death. They had given their all for life with Jesus. Now it turned out that he was a tragic failure. And they were completely at a loss. They had renounced their property and their homes, also parents, wife and children if they had such.

Peter, following Christ at a distance, was petrified with fear when a maid servant pointed an accusing finger at him: "You also were with Jesus the Galilean" (Matt. 26:69). Others accused him as well. Peter then fell back into what must have been an old habit: cursing and swearing. By this kind of swagger he sought to bluff his way out of danger and ridicule. For him the end of the world had arrived. Perhaps�I say this on my own�perhaps he thought to himself: "What would my wife say now, if I try to sneak back home like this?" And the other apostles, perhaps, had a similar attack of disappointment and depression. But that any of them went home to consult with a family is nowhere written in the Gospel. Women followed Christ to serve him but wives did not follow apostles to serve them.

We read that many women were there at the crucifixion, watching from a distance; that they had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them was at least one relative, namely the mother of James and John, Zebedee's sons (Matt. 27:55-56). The Synoptics mention expressly, as though to make a point of it, that the women used to follow Christ when he was in Galilee, and that many other women had come up with him, that is, with Christ, to Jerusalem. These women were there because they were following Christ. The Gospels do not say they were following the apostles, to serve their needs.

This is significant, I believe. If Peter's wife was there too, would it not be logical to mention this? The Gospel, by omitting mention of the presence of wives of the apostles, is telling us, I believe, that if the apostles did have wives at the time, they were now living separately from them. Family life was a thing of the past. They had renounced it to devote themselves totally to Christ.

John's version of events after the resurrection reveals interesting details, suggesting that the Apostles lived a common life. Mary Magdalene, when she saw the empty tomb, ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved. Where were these two living, so that Mary Magdalene could find them so easily while it was still dark? The two left their lodging, saw the events at the tomb, and then "returned home" (John 20:10). Home? Well, "back to themselves" literally. "Pros h'autous" reads the Greek, which St. Jerome translates "ad semetipsos." Apparently the Apostles shared living quarters for men only, whereas the women lived apart.

The above coverage is incomplete, but the episodes cited indicate that it was quite impractical, even impossible, for the apostles to follow Christ in the manner he demanded of them, and at the same time take care of a family. They made their choice, surely on their own without being forced to do so by Christ; but choose they did. When Christ beckoned, they dropped everything and made him their all. They had discovered the treasure hidden in the field, the pearl of great price; they stopped looking for anything else.

When Andrew told his brother Simon Peter: "We have found the Messiah" (John 1:41), he didn't feel the need to explain anything beyond that. To find the Messiah, and to live with him, that completely filled out their lives. As the Pope said, "According to the Gospels, it appears that the Twelve... renounced family life in order to follow him."

The Priest: Called to be a friend of the incarnate Christ

"I call you friends," said Jesus to the Twelve on the occasion of their priestly ordination at the Last Supper. He disclosed to them that he had given them a personal call to be his friends; friends to whom he can disclose everything; friends who will live as he did, who will devote themselves to the Gospel as he had done, who will be consecrated as he was consecrated and set apart from the world.

You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you (John 15:14-16).

To be specially selected friends, then, was one reason why Christ personally chose the Twelve and ordained them to the priesthood. The beloved disciple did not hesitate to use the leverage of this special friendship. For example, at the Last Supper, when Jesus was troubled about the betrayer, the beloved disciple approached Jesus and asked about this very sensitive matter: "He leaned back against Jesus' chest and said to him, 'Master, who is it?'" And, being a true Friend, Jesus gave the cryptic signal indicating who the betrayer was.

In the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus asked the Father to first of all bless this circle of friends, who were now priests: "Consecrate them in truth.... I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth" (John 17: 17, 19). By consecrating them with himself, he separated them from secular purposes for an exclusively sacred function�for the function of the ministerial priesthood, which is the heart of the mission of Christ's coming into this world.

"Doctor Subtilis"

Duns Scotus deems that the Son of God became Incarnate to become the priest of the cosmos, to give glory to God from the platform which God would fashion outside of himself. The Son would become man to reflect glory back to the Godhead from the outside, from out of a created world:

"God first loves Himself; secondly, He loves Himself for others, and this is an ordered love; thirdly He wishes to be loved by the One who can love Him in the highest way�speaking of the love of someone who is extrinsic to Him; and fourthly, He foresees the union of that nature which must love Him with the greatest love even if no one had fallen (Opus Par. III, d.7.q.4; Eng. trans. Fr. Juniper B. Carol, OFM, The Universal Primacy of Christ; Christendom Publications, 1984).

This insight indicates that Christ became incarnate first of all in order to love God from within the created cosmos. More than that, he is to recapitulate the cosmos into his own mind which spans the cosmic dimensions, and dedicate it all to God with love during his immolation. The Son of God offers back to God the cosmos, through his obedience as the Word Made Flesh. Through this dedication of the cosmos by Christ in whom the universe is recapitulated, the world again belongs to God and sings his praises. The world has lost its insular secularism, and is now integrated into the praises of God, having been purchased by Christ, and delivered to the Father.

The cosmos has been created, in this concept, not for its own sake but to give glory to God. And Christ is the priest who takes this cosmos into himself as his own, and makes the entire universe sing its obedience to God to give him glory.

The priest, who is called to Christ's side to be his chosen friend, participates in this priestly function of dedicating the universe to God. Like Christ, the priest is consecrated�set aside from secular purposes�to live the cosmic consecration to God.

The priest should not marry then, and have children. That is a proper pursuit of the ongoing cosmos, that cosmos which the priest must consecrate to God in himself. All that is precious in this secular world is recapitulated in the priest who offers it to God, who is doing so in persona Christi.

The priest has no need to contribute to the continuation of the cosmos itself, by taking a wife and begetting children. Other people are commissioned by God to "Be fruitful and multiply" to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28). Christ chooses the priest to be his friend, to recapitulate this cosmos in his life and thoughts, to offer it to God in obedience, for the praise of his glory.

The priest continues to perform in his person the cosmic priesthood of Christ. He gazes at the stars at night to praise the Lord Creator. He calls his fellow men to "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." He rejoices in the Spirit because God has revealed to little ones what he has hidden from the great. He salts the earth with truth, and with rebukes when necessary. He lays down his life for love of his friends. And he immolates himself for the Church, as Christ who prayed on the cross when the pains were reaching their tingling climax:

"I will proclaim your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you ... I will utter praise in the vast assembly; I will fulfill my vows before those who fear him" (Ps. 22).

To gather up the cosmos and dedicate it to God, that, in the mind of Scotus, was Christ's primary mission. We can add that he brought this mission to a climax and to completion when he consecrated the Bread and Wine at the Last Supper, then fulfilled the pre-signified offering on Calvary, at his Resurrection, and by his Ascension. The evil which flooded over him and overwhelmed him on Calvary�the pain, thirst, loneliness, abandonment, sense of betrayal�were but grist to be milled by his determination into obedience to the Lord. Through it all he held firm, and made the universe obedient to God forever and ever. Love prevailed over hate, obedience over rebellion. Now the universe was his, and he offered his prize to the Father as he rose again, and ascended to his side.

The priest, friend and companion of Christ, also rejoices with the good things of life as Christ did, to make all belong to God. And he meets all the temptations that the world and his flesh can throw at him; with Christ the priest turns it all into God's praise. Is celibacy a sacrifice, a daily cross, a challenge? All the more, then, does he bring his performance into action, to recapitulate the best things of the world into himself, to offer all to God in praise of his glory. For:

"God ... wishes to be loved by One who can love Him in the highest way�speaking of the love of someone extrinsic to Him; and speaking of the ministerial priest who loves God out of this cosmos with the love in which he personifies Christ."

Rightfully did the Pope state that celibacy belongs to the priesthood by a law of logic:

"These observations help us to understand the reasons for the Church's legislation on priestly celibacy. In fact, the Church has considered and still considers that it belongs to the logic of priestly consecration and to the total belonging to Christ resulting from it" (General Audience, 17 July 1993).

And gentle Pope John XXIII asked that priests continue to struggle to keep the obligations of celibacy, especially when the Church needs heroic people to be the salt of the earth:

"It deeply hurts us that ... anyone can dream that the Church will deliberately or even suitably renounce what from time immemorial has been, and still remains, one of the purest and noblest glories of her priesthood. The law of ecclesiastical celibacy and the efforts necessary to preserve it always recall to mind the struggles of heroic times when the Church of Christ had to fight for and succeeded in obtaining her threefold glory, always an emblem of victory, that is, the Church of Christ, free, chaste, and catholic" (John XXIII, to Roman Synod, January 26, 1960).

Sixteen hundred years ago, in the year 390, a group of Bishops was gathered at Carthage to discuss celibacy. Presumably, they had much the same problems with it as the clergy will always have. At the end of the session these Bishops renewed their resolution with memorable words: "What the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also continue." Today, 400,000 priests around the globe stand proud to repeat these words, mindful that Christ has selected them to be his close friends.

Published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, April 1995

Further writings by Fr. Zimmerman may be found at

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