The Last Word on Sacred Celibacy

The last word on sacred celibacy is, actually, the original word because it comes directly from the Word of God Himself, Jesus Christ. This word has been handed down to us infallibly in “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture which forms one sacred deposit of the Word of God.” (DV – Vatican II). The Gospels clearly show that celibacy is no mere ecclesiastical discipline; it is a way of life, a complete dedication to the Person of Jesus Christ and His life and ministry as we can find in three gospels: Matthew 19:16–30; Mark 10:17–31; and Luke 18:18–30. Notice that I have included the verses in which the rich man asks about what he needs to do to attain eternal life and our Lord answers: “. . . go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” These verses, Matthew 19:16–22, indicate the radical commitment our Lord calls for when bidding someone to follow Him. This leads to the question St. Peter asks and wherein he indicates the total commitment that he and the other apostles have already made, and this from the “married” apostle: “Then Peter addressed him saying, ‘Behold, we have left all and followed you. What then shall we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Amen I say to you that . . . you who have followed me . . . and every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.’” (Mt 19:29-30).

When people speak of celibacy as a mere ecclesiastical discipline or later development, even by a thousand years, I wonder if they have ever read these words carefully. St. Peter, who is the supposed “married” apostle — because we know he has a mother-in-law who was cured by our Lord of a fever (Mt 7:14–15) — is the one who asks the question about what reward they will receive who have left all and followed Him. In the answer Our Lord gives, we have the truth about the commitment Our Lord requires of those who are called to share His life and mission, whether they be married or single: “every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life.” (Mt 19–29)

The requirement of clerical celibacy — continence — is from Jesus Christ. Our Lord wanted and foresaw that a commitment to His life and ministry for the sake of the faithful would require that it be a total surrender of one’s whole life.

I can confirm my authoritative presentation from many historical studies that have arisen since St. Paul VI wrote his encyclical on celibacy in 1967, entitled “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.” I will be referring to some of these historical studies but will not make an exhaustive list for the sake of keeping this article brief and less cumbersome.

One of these studies merits special attention, that of Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, entitled: “The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development & Theological Foundations.” His work is succinct, scholarly and presents the main historical errors and refutes them, and brings us to the zenith of the development in our theological understanding of celibacy as a spousal union with the Church and, therefore, a configuration to Christ.

But first, what is celibacy? After mentioning the Gospels I cited which gives our Lord’s own words: “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:29-30), Cardinal Stickler states: “Here we clearly have the first obligation of clerical celibacy, namely, the commitment to continence in the use of marriage after ordination. The real meaning of celibacy, which today is in general almost totally forgotten but which in the first millennium and beyond was well known, consists in this: complete abstinence with respect to the procreation of children even within the context of marriage . . . This indicates that, despite the fact that many clerics were already married before their ordination, they were nevertheless held to this particular obligation before they could be ordained. In the beginning, the actual prohibition to marry remained somewhat in the background.

“To complete this initial understanding of celibacy, which from the very beginning was correctly termed ‘continence’ we must immediately note that married candidates could approach sacred orders and renounce the use of marriage only with the consent of their wives.” (Stickler, pp. 12 and 13).

Many will object to this by bringing up “viri probati” or proven men which St. Paul mentions must be “married only once.” But what is the meaning of St. Paul’s injunction? Again, Cardinal Stickler argues from the synod of bishops in Africa in the year 386 that “the eighty bishops rejected . . . the objection that argues for the continued use of marriage based on the words of St. Paul according to which a candidate for ordination must be married only once . . . this did not mean that he could continue to live with the desire to beget more children, rather the injunction of St. Paul in fact refers to future continence. Officially for the first time we hear something that will be constantly reiterated; namely, that after the ordination of someone previously married, there is no guarantee that the abstinence required will be practiced if the person actually remarries.” (Stickler, pp. 31 and 32)

Furthermore, Cardinal Stickler provides an excellent summary: “. . . we can make the following assertion: that the three higher grades of the clerical ministry were clearly obliged to clerical continence, that such an obligation can be traced to the very beginnings of the Church and that it had been handed down as part of the oral tradition. After the period of the persecution of the Church and especially due to the increasing numbers converting, which also meant an increase in the number of ordinations, we find infractions against this difficult obligation. Against such infractions, both councils and Popes insisted with ever-increasing determination on the obligation to continence by means of written laws or regulations” (Stickler, p. 40). The normative tradition and apostolic custom of celibacy for all three grades of Holy Orders was there from the beginning and then was supported by legislation that was promulgated for correction of infractions, not by innovation; that is, not, as is sometimes supposed, to establish celibacy in the eleventh century. Jesus Christ established celibacy, as a necessary way of life to fulfill the demands of His life and ministry, so that one could be fully configured to Christ.

In his beautiful encyclical on priestly celibacy, St. Paul VI initiated a further development in the theology of celibacy that St. John Paul II so ably expounded later. St. Paul VI situates his defense of clerical celibacy in Christ, in the “newness of Christ.” He writes: “This, then, is the mystery of the newness of Christ, of all that He is and stands for; it is the sum of the highest ideals of the Gospel and of the Kingdom; it is a particular manifestation of grace which springs from the paschal mystery of the Savior and renders the choice of celibacy desirable and worthwhile on the part of those called by Our Lord Jesus. Thus, they intend not only to participate in Christ’s priestly office, but also share with Him His very condition of living.” (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, June 24, 1967, p. 13). We often fail to see these lines in the Gospel where Our Lord calls the twelve; it says: “And he appointed twelve that they might be with Him and that He might send them forth to preach” (Mk 3:14). Our Lord Jesus intends for his priests to share His mission, His way of life, indeed, His very life.

From the Christological significance of celibacy St. Paul VI then develops the ecclesiastical significance of celibacy in this beautiful sentence: “The consecrated celibacy of the sacred ministers actually manifests the virginal love of the Church and the virginal and supernatural fecundity of this marriage by which the children of God are born but ‘not of flesh and blood’” (Jn 1:13 — ibid p. 15). I often respond to people who say priests need to be married by exclaiming: “But we are married! The priest is married to the Church in a spousal bond that is meant to be faithful and supernaturally fruitful with an abundance of children baptized in Christ.”

The best expression and development of this idea of the spousal relationship that a priest has with the Church comes from St. John Paul II’s masterful apostolic exhortation on the priesthood, Pastores Dabo Vobis, “I will give you shepherds.” “But the will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ, the Head and Spouse of the Church. The Church wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her Head and Spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to His Church and expresses the priest’s service to the Church in and with the Lord.” (#29)

Unlike the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament, the priesthood of the New Testament expresses the total gift of self which involves his whole being (cf. Stickler, p .97). The priest of Christ is not simply a functionary. That brings me to something Cardinal Robert Sarah said in his latest book, “The Day Is Now Far Spent,” when speaking of celibacy: “I often hear people say that this is only a question of historical discipline. I think that that is wrong. Celibacy reveals the very essence of the Christian priesthood. To speak about it as a secondary reality is hurtful to all the priests of the world. Deep down I am persuaded that relativizing the law of priestly celibacy is tantamount to reducing the priesthood to a simple office. Now, the priesthood is not an office but a state of life. Priesthood in the first place is not doing; it is being . . . Before [Jesus Christ] came, priests offered animals as a sacrifice to God. He revealed to us the fact that the true priest offers himself as a sacrifice. To be a priest is to enter ontologically into this offering of self to the Father for the Church that Jesus exemplified throughout His life.” (Sarah, p. 63-64)

Ultimately, this precious gift of celibacy that the Church has jealously guarded is for souls and for their salvation. It is a witness to our final end: Heaven, where Our Lord says there is “neither marrying nor being given in marriage” (Mt 22:30), where there is life with God in the face-to-face vision forever. St. Paul VI says in his aforementioned encyclical on celibacy: “This continence, therefore, stands as a testimony to the necessary progress of the People of God toward the final goal of their earthly pilgrimage, and as a stimulus for all to raise their eyes to the things above, where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father and where our life is hidden with Christ with God until He appears in glory.” (Col 3:1-4)

Two other things need to be said. First, the priest is called “Father.” This is more than a title because the priest bears children for God in a supernatural way from the baptismal font, and always cares for them, through his pastoral charity and dispensing of the sacraments. This supernatural fatherhood needs to be lived well and needs to be encouraged. To that end, I recently read an excellent book by a friend of mine, Fr. Carter Griffin, “Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest.” Space does not allow me to illustrate this point completely, but something Fr. Griffin writes situates the paternity of the priest properly: “Jesus told His disciples ‘call no man your father on earth, for you have one father Who is in Heaven’ (Matt. 23:9). These words are sometimes employed to denounce the unscriptural foundations of priestly fatherhood. However, they are its clearest witness. They reveal the profound truth that all human fatherhood — including that of the celibate priest — is grounded in God’s own paternity of the eternal Son, the Father being the source of all paternity in heaven and on earth, as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians.” (See Eph 3:15 – Fr. Carter Griffin, p. 10)

This is the root and source of the priest’s paternity. And so, a priest must, first of all, live a deep prayer life with its foundation in the fatherhood of God; otherwise he becomes a bureaucrat, a functionary, a company man given to the coldest form of clericalism.

The priest must live the title “father.” He endeavors to provide the sacraments for his spiritual sons and daughters rather than being only an administrator who runs a parish, who simply attends meetings and raises money. He endeavors to guide his flock in giving spiritual direction and preaches and teaches solid doctrine at every turn. He endeavors to protect his flock from error and false doctrine. No father wants his children confused about what is true and good by giving them ambiguous teaching which leaves them in ignorance.

In this regard, a priest is still a son and that is why St. Paul VI writes about the bishop’s fatherliness. He writes to bishops asking them to be especially attentive to priests and those (seminarians) being formed priests. In his encyclical on priestly celibacy, St. Paul VI wrote: “The affection which Jesus had for his Apostles showed itself very clearly when He made them ministers of His real and Mystical Body (of John 13-17) and even you in whose Person ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of those who believe’ (Lumen Gentium, n. 28) know that you owe the best part of your hearts and pastoral care to your priests.” (Decree Presbyter Ordinis, n. 7, p. 41) and to young men preparing to be priests (LG, n. 21, p. 41). How much discouragement and infidelity would have been avoided if priests were treated like sons and friends! The system that distances the bishop from his priests must change.

Lastly, I want to say a word about celibacy in general. Whereas the priest dedicates himself to celibacy in a formal way, there are many people who can live a celibate life. It happens that in the vocation of marriage there are periods when suspension of conjugal relations happens because of health or because of separation for various reasons; there are also those who choose to live this way by mutual agreement. Once, after preaching a homily in defense of celibacy, I received an unexpected compliment. A married woman approached me after Mass and thanked me for my homily on celibacy because it encouraged her, and she was certain that other lay people would feel the same. She reasoned that marriage had its moments when conjugal relations could not be expected or realized. There are many of the lay faithful who have kept marital fidelity against various trials and also offer that experience of a lack of marital intimacy as an opportunity to live marital fidelity even more.

There are also many young people who could live celibacy outside the priesthood and religious life. Many of the early Christians, though not ordained, lived a complete dedication to God, in Christ, through the gift of celibacy. Lay people today can receive this gift of dedication rather than consider themselves as stuck in a “no man’s land” when it comes to offering a total gift of self to God. All they have to do is make their commitment privately and follow a regular spiritual life with the help of a wise spiritual director. Or they may join a group of other faithful in the various movements and associations in the Church. Then their lives can be seen as a beautiful gift to God.

To conclude, I want to present a question that Cardinal Stickler asks at the end of his book on celibacy and then answer it in light of what I see as the true development of our understanding of clerical celibacy as a spousal relationship to Christ. Cardinal Stickler asks: “Given the theology of the New Testament priesthood, which has also been confirmed and deepened by the official Magisterium of the Church, we must ask ourselves if the basis of celibacy is to be actually found in its ‘suitability.’ Rather, is it not in fact really necessary and indispensable to the priesthood? Is there not a clear link between celibacy and priesthood?” (Stickler, p. 106).

I would answer in the affirmative! The real appreciation of clerical celibacy is in seeing the priest as configured to Christ the head and espoused to the Church. The priest is a married man when he is espoused to the Church in likeness to Christ; he begets many spiritual children for God the Father. This calling is a blessing with the promise of the reception of “a hundredfold and life everlasting.” (Mt 19:29).



Priestly Celibacy, “Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI”, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, June 24, 1967, St. Paul Editions, N.C.W.C Translation (Printed by the Daughters of St. Paul)

The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development & Theological Foundations by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler (Ignatius Press)

The Day Is Now Far Spent by Robert Cardinal Sarah, In conversation with Nicolas Diat (Ignatius Press)

Why Celibacy?: Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest by Fr. Carter Griffin (Emmaus Road Publishing)

Priestly Celibacy, Theological Foundations, by Gary Selin (The Catholic University of America Press)

Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n.28, referenced in the “Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI,” Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, June 24, 1967, St. Paul Editions, N.C.W.C Translation (Printed by the Daughters of St. Paul)

Fr. William L. Korte About Fr. William L. Korte

Fr. Korte was ordained a priest for the diocese of Jefferson City, MO, April 30, 1983, after having completed his seminary formation with an M.Div and M.A. Magna Cum Laude. Since ordination, Fr. Korte has served in various diocesan-wide ministries: associate vocation director, dean, spiritual director, diocesan exorcist, and pastor. He also co-hosts a radio show on Relevant Radio. Presently, Fr. Korte serves as pastor of St. Joseph in Louisiana, MO and Mary Queen of Peace in Clarksville, MO.