Discerning the Gift of Priestly Celibacy in Relation to Marriage

Every candidate to the priesthood, even those in the Oriental rites where celibacy is optional, must discern whether God is offering them the “precious gift of priestly celibacy.”1 In the Latin rite, priesthood and celibacy are joined together, allowing men to more closely imitate the person of Christ.2 Pope St. John Paul II quotes the very thoughts of the synod fathers on priestly celibacy: “This synod strongly reaffirms what the Latin Church and some Oriental rites require, that is, that the priesthood be conferred only on those men who have received from God the gift of the vocation to celibate chastity.”3 This statement makes clear that God gives certain men two profound gifts: priesthood and celibacy.4

This article aims to offer guidance in discerning celibacy by approaching it from the viewpoint of “gift,” a category that necessarily includes a giver, receiver, and the gift itself.5 The understanding and interpretation of celibacy as “gift” elicits the fundamental question of how such a gift is actually received. By focusing on the receptive dimension of “gift,” one can discern whether God is, in fact, giving him the gift of celibacy. It is through coming to know how this particular gift is to be received that a man will arrive at “a firmed conviction that Christ is giving him this ‘gift’ for the good of the Church and the service of others.”6 In other words, understanding how to receive the gift of celibacy leads one to properly discern if he has the capacity to receive such a gift.

The article discusses the giftedness of celibacy and its inherent relationship with marriage. Indeed, receiving the gift of celibacy will necessarily entail the renunciation of marriage. This renunciation, which takes the form of a genuine sacrifice, is man’s “sincere gift of self”7 where he finds himself by losing himself. His gift of self is made concrete in the promise to live a celibate life and continuously renewed through the trials he encounters as a priest.

The Gift of Celibacy

The category of “gift” provides a context to understand celibacy more than just a law of the Church but fundamentally a gift bestowed by God. As Lumen Gentium states: celibacy is a “precious gift of divine grace given to some by the Father.”8 Indeed, it is God who is the source of the gift; He is the very Giver of the gift. This would imply that celibacy is a gift that is inherently saturated with truth, goodness, and beauty. The splendor of celibacy lies precisely in its origin. If the gift of celibacy does indeed come from the Father then the receiver of this gift is “receiving a liberating grace,”9 a gift that allows him to live a more profound human life.

The inexhaustible richness of celibacy brings the Second Vatican Council to make the following request of the whole Church: “this sacred Council asks that not only priests but all the faithful would cherish this precious gift (pretiosum donum) of priestly celibacy, and that all of them would beg of God always to lavish this gift (donum) abundantly on his Church.”10 This prayer reveals how the Church understands priestly celibacy fundamentally as a gift, why she continues to petition God for celibate priests even today.

The giftedness of celibacy must necessarily involve a dynamic exchange between God and man, Giver and receiver. If celibacy is a gift that is being given to a particular person, what then is the manner of receiving it? Receiving any gift requires the recipient to be “open” to the gift. He must, in a certain sense, open his hands in order to receive the gift from the giver. This initial “opening” of the person creates the necessary “space” to generously welcome the gift. A welcoming “space” emerges only by sacrificing another gift, a gift already given to man and inscribed in his human nature.

The Incarnated Gift of Marriage

Candidates for the priesthood are on a journey to discover, acknowledge, and sacrifice a gift that is not only embedded in their very being but will also remain with them even after their ordination. Discerning the gift of celibacy must take into account the totality of man’s being. Man discerns as “an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit.”11 In his depth, man senses a call to love and personal communion. He comes to the great realization that his body visibly reflects this calling. He is a person who intimately desires to love and to be loved.12 All of this would suggest that love inherently speaks a language of “giving” and “receiving,” and the human body, in its physical shape, already encapsulates and communicates the very category of “gift.”

While the call to “celibacy transcends the natural order,”13 this does not mean that the body is to be disregarded or, even worse, seen as an obstacle to priestly celibacy. Two points are in order here: 1) the human body is indispensible in fulfilling the call to love, since “love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love.”14 Priestly celibacy is a bodily reality, and the celibate priest loves in and through his body. 2) Man must discover the already given gift in his being by listening to his human nature. He is aware that God has given him “three natural tendencies: genital function, conjugal love, and natural fatherhood.”15 These natural tendencies underscore how “the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man. . . .”16 They will always accompany him throughout his life, an accompaniment that requires ongoing discernment and personal integration. The call to marriage is inscribed in man’s bodily existence as a gift from the Creator, always reminding him of the goodness and attractiveness of marriage and family life. The incarnated gift of marriage is the very gift he is being called to sacrifice in order to make “space” for the gift of celibacy.

Renouncing the Gift of Marriage

Celibacy is a call to love and communion and by its very definition requires the renunciation of those natural tendencies. Indeed, “continence for the kingdom of heaven is joined with a voluntary renunciation of marriage.”17 The use of the word “renounce” is challenging since it is often understood in negative terms: rejection or disdain for. One might think that marriage is being renounced due to a disdain for the body. The task here is to deepen the meaning of renunciation within the category of “gift.”

Any renunciation implies a “no,” and in this particular context, a “no” to marriage as well as family life. And yet, this “no” is being addressed to an already given gift that is embedded in man’s very being, a gift that is intrinsically good. Precisely because marriage is good, this existential “no” to this particular good shows forth the proper meaning of renunciation. At its core, this “no” is, in the truest sense, a sacrificial offering, man’s genuine gift of self to God.

Any authentic sacrifice is fundamentally a gift offered to God. The renunciation of marriage is the gift given to God, a gift that involves the totality of man’s being: body and soul. Living a life of celibacy is “a gift of self understood as a renunciation, but realized above all out of love.”18 Indeed, the sheer intensity of the renunciation becomes revelatory of the depth of the gift of self. Man experiences an authentic pain, for he is sacrificing an incarnated gift, an offering that includes “genital function, conjugal love, and natural fatherhood.”19 And yet, it is precisely through this painful sacrifice “out of love” for God and the Church that creates the “space” needed to receive the gift of celibacy and to enter into a more profound encounter with the Lord.20

Growing in Celibate Love

Love is in itself a gift of self, a sacrifice or self-renunciation freely given to another. Here the meaning of love in terms of “gift” takes center stage. It becomes clear that love contains an “offering, an oblation, a real and true sacrifice.”21 Any sacrifice that is “real and true” will take the form of a kenosis, a term taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians (cf. 2:7). Additionally, the receptive dimension of gift reveals to be a kenosis, an emptying of self for the sake of another. Receiving a gift inherently requires an act of love, i.e., a sacrificial offering. Both the meaning of sacrifice and receptivity reveal the paradoxical nature of love; self-emptying is self-giving. There is no possible receptivity of the gift of celibacy without the genuine sacrifice of marriage and family life. Man empties himself by renouncing marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12) and by this emptying act he is filled with the gift of celibacy.

As in marriage, receiving the gift of celibacy allows man to experience the true nature of love as self-sacrificing.22 Man receives himself by giving himself away. The giving and the receiving of oneself to God are “renewed again and again, in the constant vigilance a priest must exercise when faced with human attractions and the emotions and passion of affection and love.”23 Pope Saint John Paul II, Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 1979, 9.] This is why celibacy is a “lifelong offering to our Lord.”24 “Lifelong” because the desire for marriage and family life remains with him. A genuine sacrifice or “offering” because the “the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man.”25 Man’s daily gift of self to the Lord is indeed a “lifelong offering.” Love is self-giving, and this self-giving takes the form of a sacrifice.

An Exchange of Gifts

The gift of celibacy and the corresponding sacrifice of the gift of marriage reveal a marvelous exchange of gifts between God and man. God offers the “precious gift”26 of priestly celibacy as man offers to God the gift of marital union in the form of a renunciation. The dimensions of giving and receiving reveal the dynamism of “gift”; man receives the gift (celibacy) in the giving of another gift (marriage).

This exchange of gifts is in reality an exchange of persons. Man is not simply receiving the gift of celibacy but is fundamentally receiving God Himself. He is embarking to live an intimate relationship with the Lord. And yet, it is by receiving God in and though the gift of celibacy that man also receives his very self. The concept of receptivity reveals itself to be the simultaneity of losing oneself and finding oneself. This paradoxical statement highlights how man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.”27

The opportunity for priests to unceasingly grow in their gift of self is linked to their “inclination towards marriage and family life, which makes their renunciation painful.”28 The natural desire for marriage is what allows the priest to continue to offer “a real and true sacrifice”29 on a daily basis. He will have countless moments to enlarge the “space” to receive ever anew and evermore fully the gift of priestly celibacy.

  1. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16.
  2. “There arises a desire in those exercising the priesthood to reproduce the same conditions and outlook of life as Christ experienced, in order to effect the closest possible imitation of Him.” A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 14.
  3. Pastores Dabo Vobis, 29.
  4. “The synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church’s firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin rite.” Pastores Dabo Vobis, 29.
  5. Cf. Carl Anderson and José Granados, Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (New York: Image, 2012), 63.
  6. St. John Paul II, Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 1979, 9.
  7. Gaudium et Spes, 24.
  8. Lumen Gentium, 42.
  9. A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 16.
  10. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 16.
  11. Familiaris Consortio, 11.
  12. “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” Redemptor Hominis, 10.
  13. A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 9.
  14. Familiaris Consortio, 11.
  15. A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 47.
  16. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603.
  17. Pope Saint John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 427.
  18. Pope Saint John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 436 (original italics).
  19. A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 47.
  20. “An inclination towards marriage and family life, which makes their renunciation painful, ought not to be regarded necessarily as a contradiction to a celibate vocation. Even if the pain is lifelong, this does not prejudice the genuineness of the call to virginity, provided one can live exclusively for God with full and free assent of the will. Celibacy is a call from God that can well include the continuing sacrifice of a strong propensity for marriage.” A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 48.
  21. A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 9.
  22. Cf. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 427-428.
  23. A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 33. “Keeping one’s promise to Christ, made through a conscious and free commitment to celibacy for the whole of one’s life, encounters difficulties, is put to the test, or is exposed to temptation — all things that do not spare the priest.”
  24. A Guide to Formation in Priestly Celibacy, 33.
  25. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603.
  26. Optatam Totius, 10.
  27. Gaudium et Spes, 24.
  28. Gaudium et Spes, 48.
  29. Gaudium et Spes, 9.
Dr. Carlos L. Gamundi About Dr. Carlos L. Gamundi

Dr. Carlos L. Gamundi is married and the father of seven children. He has seven years of experience in priestly formation and currently serves as a consultant to St. Joseph Seminary College. He holds a doctorate in theology with a specialization in person, marriage, and family from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.