The Charism of Priestly Celibacy


Teaching a course on Holy Orders in the seminary, which includes a unit on celibacy, has led me to reflect often on my own experience in the seminary from 1964 to 1972. During those years, everything was being questioned. Near the top of the list was priestly celibacy. I recall several ideas that were, so to speak, in the air at that time, ideas that, considered in hindsight, have had a significant and damaging effect in the life of the Church.

During those years, many people assumed that celibacy would soon become optional in the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, the question of the abolition of mandatory celibacy was frequently linked to the discussion of the Church’s teaching on contraception in marriage. Many priests, including seminary formators and lay people, were convinced that the clergy would soon be permitted to marry and that the ban on contraception would be lifted.

Seminarians were told that the law of celibacy would likely change in the not-too-distant future. Consequently, a number of candidates for Holy Orders made the promise of celibacy believing that in several years they would be free to marry. At the same time, priests and seminarians were subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, encouraged to downplay the Church’s teaching on contraception in their preparation of couples for marriage. The traditional teaching, it was said, would surely be altered. This instability was further exacerbated by the so-called sexual revolution in American culture, as well as by the intellectual chaos in theology and, specifically, in moral theology. Needless to say, this cultural turmoil had a negative effect on the moral character of many people. Matrimony and Holy Orders, the sacraments of Christian vocation, together entered a time of crisis.

With courage and prophetic vision, Pope Saint Paul VI confronted both issues. In 1967, he published the encyclical letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, affirming that the Roman Church will continue to ordain a man only if he has received the charism of celibacy. In 1968, Saint Paul VI published the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, affirming the Church’s teaching that every act of marital love must be open to the generation of new life. Significantly, in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus Saint Paul VI taught that the chastity of the priest merits and nurtures marital chastity for the lay faithful.1 We may say conversely that the chaste love of husband and wife in Christian matrimony merits fidelity to celibacy among the Church’s clergy.

Although the encyclicals on celibacy and marital chastity provided unambiguous teaching, many in the Church refused to believe that the papal teaching on the subjects was definitive. Many expressed disappointments over the decision of the Pope to maintain celibacy and uphold the Church’s traditional teaching on the evil of artificial contraception. Groups in the Church continued to lobby for change. Interestingly, the question of the ordination of married men surfaced again during the Amazonian Synod (2019). In the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia (2020), Pope Francis did not indicate any change in the practice of the Roman Church. The bishops of Germany seem poised to raise the issue of celibacy, perhaps in a strident way, at their current synod.

In the 1960s, and again in 2019, supporters of optional celibacy alleged that the Eastern Church’s practice of allowing married men to be ordained priests is more ancient and, therefore, more authentic than the Roman practice of imposing celibacy on all the clergy. Since contemporary research has presented the history of celibacy in a new light, it is not as easy to voice this assumption in 2020 as it was in 1965. During the first centuries of the Church’s life there was no universal canon requiring celibacy of the clergy. However, there is ample evidence that married men who were ordained deacons or priests were universally expected to live in perfect continence with their spouses.2

According to these contemporary historians and theologians, Christ stands at the origin of priestly celibacy. The Twelve Apostles, having lived in Christ’s company for three years, chose his particular lifestyle. They left everything to be with him and follow him. Those who succeeded the Twelve in the apostolic ministry were expected, even if married, to live in continence for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.3

Historically the decision of the Eastern churches to allow married men to be ordained deacons and priests and not practice continence seems to have been a departure from what had generally been the norm since the Apostolic Age.4 This norm was established by Jesus Christ himself through his choice of a celibate lifestyle. This is stated clearly in the Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests:

The example [of celibacy] is Christ, who in going against what could be considered the dominant culture of his time, freely chose to live in celibacy. In following him the disciples left “everything” to fulfill the mission entrusted to them (Lk 18:28–30).

For this reason the Church, from apostolic times, has wished to conserve the gift of perpetual continence of the clergy and choose the candidates for Holy Orders from among the celibate faithful (cf. 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Cor 7:5, 9:5; 1 Tim 3:2–12, 5:9; Tit 1:6–8).5

This norm remains evident in the Eastern Church’s practices of ordaining only celibate priests to the episcopacy and of not permitting married deacons and priests to remarry if their spouses die.

I must note, though, that the practice of the united Eastern Churches of ordaining married men to the diaconate and the priesthood, and the permission granted by contemporary popes for ministers of various ecclesial communities who enter into full communion with the Church to remain married and be ordained to the priesthood, prompts us to acknowledged that ministerial celibacy is an Apostolic norm that allows of exceptions. In this context we can understand the practice of ordaining married men to the permanent diaconate in the U.S.A. and elsewhere without a mention of continence for the sake of the Kingdom.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the exception made for the Eastern Churches thusly:

In the Eastern Churches a different discipline has been in force for many centuries: while bishops are chosen solely from among celibates, married men can be ordained as deacons and priests. This practice has long been considered legitimate; these priests exercise a fruitful ministry within their communities. Moreover, priestly celibacy is held in great honor in the Eastern Churches and many priests have freely chosen it for the sake of the Kingdom of God. In the East as in the West a man who has already received the sacrament of Holy Orders can no longer marry. (no. 1580)

In the light of the historical and theological research into the Christological origin and meaning of priestly celibacy, the argument in favor of celibacy based on utilitarianism and pragmatism weakened over the past forty or fifty years. Catholic priests embrace celibacy not primarily because it frees them from the concerns and details of married life and parenthood or because it is significantly more cost effective for the Church to support a single man without a wife and children. Priests freely welcome the celibate lifestyle as a call from God to follow Christ and his apostles in the priestly ministry. They do so for the sake of the Kingdom of God in which they are called to love the Christian faithful with the heart of both spouse and father. Over the past several decades, there has been a heightened awareness of celibacy as a charismatic gift.

A charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a grace, given to an individual not primarily for his own sanctification, but rather for the good of others in the Church. Priestly celibacy, then, is a gift given to a man for the sake of service as a priest. I am suggesting that the celibacy of the priest is a special variation of the charism of celibacy that is given liberally in the Church to many who are not called to share in the priesthood of Christ. The phenomenon of religious life bears testimony to a panoply of charisms in the life of the Church, including always the charism of consecrated virginity/celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Members of the lay faithful also embrace celibacy for the sake of serving Christ and the Church.

Since priestly celibacy is for the sake of sharing in the life and ministry of Jesus, the Good Shepherd,6 it is valuable to ponder the spiritual physiognomy of the charism of ministerial celibacy, that is, what the grace entails.

The man who receives the charism of celibacy recognizes its presence in his desire to follow and imitate Christ. In his encyclical letter on celibacy, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Saint Paul VI noted:

Christ, the only Son of the Father, by the power of the incarnation itself was made mediator between heaven and earth, between the Father and the human race. 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 and women. This deep connection 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. (no. 21)

The grace of celibacy is recognized not only in the desire to imitate Christ, but also in a deep longing for the exclusive, definitive, and total choice of the unique and supreme love of Jesus Christ (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, no. 14).

The grace of celibacy opens the priest to a deep life of communion with Christ in prayer, a prayer that is infused by the Holy Spirit, contemplative prayer. It is imperative that we explore the intimate relationship that must exist between celibacy and contemplation in the life of the priest. The driving force of celibacy is a friendship with Christ that propels the celibate in the direction of pastoral service of the Church. The grace of celibacy is recognized in the desire for this exclusive friendship and also in the desire to do the works of Christ in the Church. In the charism of priestly celibacy there is the coalescence of the desire to be all Christ’s and to be Christ, the Good Shepherd, in the Church.7

The Church discerns in the internal and external forum whether or not a man is capable of practicing lifelong continence for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The Church also must discern if the man possesses the affective maturity to love the Church as his spouse and all the members of the Church as his brothers and sisters, sons and daughters in Christ. Finally, the Church discerns whether or not the candidate shares Christ’s desire to be united with all people and is capable to be a living instrument of Christ, the Priest.

It has been frequently said that the Church must seek two charisms in a candidate for Holy Orders, the charism of celibacy and the charism of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The first manifests itself in an intimate relationship with Christ that entails the free renunciation of marriage and family for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The second shows itself in the desire to preach, sanctify, and shepherd the People of God in persona Christi capitis.

Throughout the years of preparation for ordination, the Church discerns in many ways whether or not a man is called to Holy Orders. While ultimately the bishop is the one who acknowledges that a man has received the charism of celibacy and the charism of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, those involved in priestly formation, priests, religious, and laity, play important roles in recognizing the gifts necessary for the exercise of priestly ministry.

In the forum of spiritual direction, the candidate for the priesthood discerns with his spiritual father whether or not he has been given the gift of celibacy. He must determine if he is able to live contentedly and productively in the celibate state until death. In that same forum, he must seek to attain that affective maturity that is part and parcel of spiritual fatherhood in the Church. The possession of the charism does not alleviate the struggles involved in fidelity to the virtue of chastity nor does it dismiss the recipient from practicing the virile asceticism that protects and fosters both the virtue and the charism. This asceticism necessarily includes fidelity to daily prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, regular spiritual direction, frequent use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, practices of mortification, and a deep affection for the Blessed Virgin and daily recourse to her maternal intercession. The Rosary is a privileged aid for the priest in the practice of chaste celibacy.

Vatican II’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis (no. 12) reminds the priest and seminarian that the human weakness of his flesh is remedied by the holiness of him who became for us a high priest “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Heb. 7:26).8

It would be foolish to downplay the ascetical dimensions of priestly celibacy. Celibacy involves a renunciation of human goods that are very good. One may say that celibacy opens a space in the human heart that can only be filled by the love of Christ for His people. The renunciation that celibacy entails motivates the priest to place all of his masculine affectivity at the service of the Kingdom of God and thereby to love the people of God with Christ’s own love.

The living of priestly celibacy offers the priest the opportunity to participate in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ — a participation that produces spiritual life, eternal life, in the hearts of the faithful. Two passages from the writings of St. Paul can help us to understand how celibacy unites the priest to the Crucified Christ and makes his saving passion effective, that is, fruitful, in the life of the Church:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

Now we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this surpassingly great power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on all sides, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always consigned to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Cor 4:7–12)

This participation in the sacrifice of Christ is at the service of pastoral charity and is, so to speak, a powerful source of generativity in the priest’s life. The priest generates the new life of grace by preaching the Word of Life and bringing men and women to be born again of water and the Holy Spirit. He nourishes that new life with the best of food, the body and blood of the Lord. He strengthens that life by everything he does in the Church.

The priest, who is the icon of Christ, the crucified bridegroom of the Church, is meant to have many children in the Kingdom of God. Imagine, for instance, how many children Sts. Peter and Paul have in heaven, St. John Vianney, St. Philip Neri, St. Maximilian Kolbe.9

Father Thomas Dubay, in his work And You Are Christ’s, notes that the celibate priest not only generates spiritual life in the souls of the people, but also generates physical life. How? On the day of the resurrection of the dead, men and women will rise to eternal life in the flesh because of the grace of Christ transmitted through the ministry of the priest. Celibacy has all to do with the mystery of salvation. This experience of spousal love for the Church and spiritual fatherhood is the source of a joy that is not of this world.

Priests should joyfully recall the day when they give their lives over to Jesus in priestly celibacy. Seminarians should anticipate that day with great trust in Christ. All of the ordained must seek to understand deeply that celibacy is not simply a discipline imposed by the Church, but a gift from God for the Church; that it is a way to participate in the life chosen by Christ and his Apostles; that it leads to intimacy with Christ and draws the priest into Christ’s spousal love for his bride, the Church, and is a powerful source of supernatural fruitfulness in the Church, a new fatherhood in the Holy Spirit. Celibacy is intimately at the service of the priestly character of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. The celibate priest is a powerful sign of the resurrection of the dead in the eschatological Kingdom where men no longer marry or are given over in marriage (Mt 22:30).

  1. Caelibatus Sacerdotalis, no. 57:

    All the People of God must give testimony to the mystery of Christ and his Kingdom, but this witnessing does not take the same form for all. The church leaves to her married children the function of giving the necessary testimony of a genuinely and fully Christian married and family life. She entrusts to her priests the testimony of a life wholly dedicated to pondering and seeking the new and delightful realities of God’s Kingdom.

    If this means that the priest is without a direct personal experience of married life, he nevertheless will be able through his training, his ministry and the grace of his office, to gain even deeper insights into every human yearning. This will allow him to meet problems of this kind at their source and give solid support by his advice and assistance to married persons and Christian families. For the Christian family, the example of the priest who is living his life of celibacy to the full will underscore the spiritual dimension of every love worthy of the name, and his personal sacrifice will merit for the faithful united in the holy bond of matrimony the grace of a true union.

  2. See Cardinal Hummes, “Priestly Celibacy: Christ’s Precious Gift to His Church,” Zenit, Mar 24, 2007; zenit.org/articles/cardinal-hummes-on-priestly-celibacy/.
  3. See, for instance, Roman Cholij, “Priestly Celibacy in Patristics and the History of the Church,” Vatican.va; vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cclergy/documents/rc_con_cclergy_doc_01011993_chisto_en.html.
  4. Christian Concini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, trans. Nelly Marans (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981).

    Thomas McGovern, Priestly Celibacy Today (Chicago: Midwest Theological Forum, 1997).

    Gary Selin, Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations (Wash., D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2016).

    Cardinal Alfons Maria Stickler, The Case of Clerical Celibacy: Historical Development and Theological Foundations (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

    Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1580.

  5. Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests (1994), no. 59.
  6. Pope John Paul II has spoken frequently on celibacy. See, for instance, his 4th cycle of teachings on the Theology of the Body, nos. 73–86; the Synodal Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis; and his catechesis on the priesthood: Priesthood in the Third Millennium (Princeton: Scepter Press, 1994).
  7. All Christians are bound to be chaste according to their state in life. The unmarried practices chastity in one way, the married in another, the consecrated religious has his or her way, and the celibate priest has his. The diocesan priests, in communion with all his brothers and sisters in the Church, must be chaste if he wishes to enter the Kingdom of God. It is imperative that we have a lucidly clear understanding of the meaning of chastity in thought, word, action, and, in particular, in interpersonal relationships.

    Celibacy, which obviously includes the firm commitment to live a chaste life, is the free renunciation of the natural human right to marriage and family for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke of the charism of virginity/celibacy that is given to priests, religious, and laypersons for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

    Likewise, the holiness of the Church is fostered in a special way by the observance of the counsels proposed in the Gospel by Our Lord to his disciples. An eminent position among these is held by virginity or the celibate state. This is a precious gift of divine grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart. This perfect continence, out of desire for the kingdom of heaven, has always been held in particular honor in the Church. The reason for this was and is that perfect continence for the love of God is an incentive to charity and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world. (Lumen Gentium, no. 42)

    This is the most fundamental description of the charism of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Celibacy is ordered to charity and is a source of spiritual fecundity in the world. The gift is given to the priest specifically for the sake of pastoral charity and the fecundity of his spiritual fatherhood in the Church.

  8. In Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, nos. 75–81, Saint Paul VI enumerates the spiritual/ascetical aids for living a celibate lifestyle in a healthy and productive way. They are worth our serious consideration:

    The priest should apply himself above all else to developing, with all the love grace inspires in him, his close relationship with Christ, and exploring this inexhaustible and enriching mystery; he should also acquire an ever-deeper sense of the mystery of the church. There would be the risk of his state of life seeming unreasonable and unfounded if it is viewed apart from this mystery.

    Priestly piety, nourished at the table of God’s word and the Holy Eucharist, lived within the cycle of the liturgical year, inspired by a warm and enlightened devotion to the Virgin Mother of the Supreme and Eternal High Priest and Queen of the Apostles, will bring him to the source of a true spiritual life which alone provides a solid foundation for the observance of celibacy.

    In this way the priest, with grace and peace in his heart, will face with generosity the manifold tasks of his life and ministry. If he performs these with faith and zeal, he will find in them new occasions to show that he belongs entirely to Christ and His Mystical Body, for his own sanctification and the sanctification of others. The charity of Christ which urges him on, will help him not to renounce his higher feelings but to elevate and deepen them in a spirit of consecration in imitation of Christ the High Priest, who shared intimately in the life of men, loved and suffered for them, and of Paul the Apostle who shared in the cares of all in order to bring the light and power of the Gospel of God’s grace to shine in the world.

    Rightly jealous of his full self-giving to the Lord, the priest should know how to guard against emotional tendencies, which give rise to desires not sufficiently enlightened or guided by the Spirit. He should beware of seeing spiritual or apostolic pretexts for what are in fact dangerous inclinations of the heart.

    The priestly life certainly requires an authentic spiritual intensity in order to live by the Spirit; it requires a truly virile asceticism — both interior and exterior — in one who, belonging in a special way to Christ, has in Him and through Him “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,” not hesitating to face arduous and lengthy trials in order to do so. In this way Christ’s minister will be the better able to show to the world the fruits of the Spirit, which are “charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity.”

    Moreover, priestly chastity is increased, guarded and defended by a way of life, surroundings and activity suited to a minister of God. For this reason, the “close sacramental brotherhood” which all priests enjoy in virtue of their ordination must be fostered to the utmost. Our Lord Jesus Christ has taught the urgency of the new commandment of charity. He gave a wonderful example of it when He instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood, and prayed to His Heavenly Father that the love the Father bore for Him from all eternity should be in His ministers and that He too should be in them.

    So the unity of spirit among priests should be active in their prayers, friendship and help of all kinds for one another. Ore cannot sufficiently recommend to priests a life lived in common and directed entirely toward their sacred ministry; the practice of having frequent meetings with a fraternal exchange of ideas, counsel and experience with their brother priests; the movement to form associations, which encourage priestly holiness.

    Priests should reflect on the advice of the Council, which reminds them of their common sharing in the priesthood so that they may feel a lively responsibility for fellow priests troubled by difficulties which gravely endanger the divine gift they have. They should have a burning charity for those who have greater need of love, understanding and prayer, who have need of prudent but effective help, and who have a claim on their unbounded charity as those who are, and should be, their truest friends.

  9. See Carter Griffin, Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2018).
Fr. Frederick L. Miller, STD About Fr. Frederick L. Miller, STD

Fr. Frederick L. Miller, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, is presently Spiritual Director of the College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception at Seton Hall University. He is also an adjunct professor of Systematic Theology at the major seminary. Fr. Miller has taught theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, and Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD.

Comments

  1. Avatar Oskari Juurikkala says:

    Great contribution! Thank you!

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