The Greco-Roman world struggled to understand many things about early Catholicism. At first, it was simply regarded as another fertility cult. Rumors of Catholics participating in cannibalism and orgies — primarily misunderstandings of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist — were common. But perhaps it was the issue of priestly celibacy that most perplexed and held the attention of the pagan world. As early as AD 150, Justin Martyr wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius explaining the practice, and later, the famous emperor Marcus Aurelius discussed the observance with Athenagoras of Athens. It’s recorded that the “pagan physician Galen marveled at the [masculinity] of Christian celibates,” because of their “self-discipline and self-control.” And in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom reported, “Celibates may have made up more than ten percent of the Christians in a large city like Antioch.”
In his work Many Are Called: Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood, Scott Hahn unearths the biblical and historical roots of the Catholic priesthood. The pagan reaction to Catholic celibacy is recorded in detail in Hahn’s excellent explanation, which notes that it was the benefits afforded the men who underwent the vow that truly stunned the pagan mind. For, rather than diminishing in masculinity, the celibate men displayed a unique manliness in the form of a spiritual fatherhood. The priest is called to be many things — a provider, mediator, protector, teacher, judge, etc. — but Hahn’s work on the priesthood pivots on the idea that all these things are articulated best when the priest is seen as a “father to many souls.”
In what has come to be expected of him, Hahn explores the roots of the priesthood in great Scriptural detail. The Hebrew word kiddushin means to be “set apart,” and it was used to describe vessels in the Temple as being set apart for divine use. In a very real way, the vocation of the priesthood reflects these sacred items that were presented and kept on God’s holy altar. Like the liturgical objects of God, the priest is set apart for holy and divine work. As Hahn states, the items of the altar were not also used for common dinner parties. They were kiddushin, or set apart for a holy and sacred purpose.
A man and a woman are set apart in marriage. Holy Matrimony is a sacred and holy union, in which the two become one. It is a harmonious and mutual gifting of each other’s flesh and blood — a spousal giving to each other of their whole selves. In the same manner, the celibate priest has “the power to be a supernatural bridegroom, bestowing Christ’s flesh and blood with life-giving power of the husband of the Church.” In sacrificing the great “created goods” of “earthly marriage and progeny,” the priest is able to devote his whole being to God and serve as a supernatural father to God’s children.
What is noteworthy about Hahn’s approach is that he sets aside the typical competitive presentation of marriage and celibacy. He does not even speak of them as two separate concepts that can be seen in unity, but really as two beautiful acts of love and sacrifice within the same intimate vein. At the heart of this approach is a focus on fatherhood and sacrifice, rather than sexuality. Our current culture’s obsession with sexuality implicitly places marriage and celibacy as competitive vocations. Hahn delivers the following antidote:
For a man is not fulfilled when he is sexually active, but when he is a husband and father.
Hahn’s concise observation cuts to the core of the issue. In moving the reference point between marriage and celibacy from sexuality to fatherhood, Hahn is able to show the two vocations as participating in the same virtues and sacrifices.
The question is, while celibacy is new to neither the Catholic Church nor the western world, why then is celibacy — and its relationship to marriage — still a controversial and misunderstood issue? After relating the early history of celibacy and classical pagan thought, Hahn notes that the world has become “re-paganized.” It is not that “celibacy has declined in value,” but that we are dealing with a modern world whose abdication of Christian truths has created an opening for the return of pagan confusion.
Rather than despair, Hahn observes that, like the pagan world our forefathers knew, our world is “ripe to rediscover” the virtue and joy of celibacy. As Catholics, we must understand the virtues of celibacy — and be able to communicate those virtues to a neo-pagan world.
To move deeper into this discussion, please pick up Scott Hahn’s Many Are Called: Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood, and tune into his discussion of the priesthood this Sunday on EWTN’s literary show EWTN’s Boomark