During holiday dinner conversations, I often have to field this question: “Do you think the Church will start ordaining married men to the priesthood?” There was a time when I would respond by explaining how, in certain Eastern Catholic rites, there are married clergy — and that, even within the Roman rite, there are exceptional men to be found who are both married and ordained Catholic priests. (Look no farther than elsewhere on this page: Father Dwight Longenecker, who converted to the Catholic faith from Anglicanism, was granted a dispensation from the vow of celibacy.)
I abandoned this approach as I began to realize what people were really asking: Why does the Roman Catholic Church, as a practice, continue to call men to the priesthood only from among those who have been given the gift of celibacy? One uncle attempted to express it in this way: “I’m a businessman. I know what franchises look like. The Catholic Church is a franchise. You can go to any Catholic church and see the same fundamental things, just like you would at any franchise. Now, if I were to choose my managers only from among those men who had promised to live a life of celibacy, I wouldn’t be able to find enough of them. Does that problem sound familiar?”
Franchise or no, the more pressing issue for my uncle (and many others) remained celibacy. Does it have value in the United States today? What in fact, are the benefits of a life lived in celibacy, specifically to the American culture? My personal response to this query is the sign value it carries.
Nearly every day I drive across the Mississippi River, passing the many large billboards that line the bridge. One of them is for the lottery, and every day its numbers shout out for my attention — $20 million, $60 million, $200 million. This sign is an ever-present invitation to try the otherworldly odds at winning a prize even more unlikely to bring happiness. Regardless of the long odds behind the humongous numbers, the sign is powerful. There is something about the permanence of it, the fact that it is there regardless of my mood, the weather, the ever-changing traffic on the bridge. It serves as a constant invitation to invest my gift of hope in things of this world.
In my spiritual life, I need an equally potent sign that “it’s not all here.” I need to be reminded that so many of these transitory gifts and trials are indeed going to pass away into an everlasting beatitude with God — or eternal separation from him. I need to be reminded of this reality because it’s the truth and because even truth can be easy to forget.
The gift of celibacy, when lived to its potential, is a sign reminding us of the Kingdom to come. The preaching and teaching of the Church is profoundly effective at illuminating this mystery, but even that pales next to an encounter with someone who has freely chosen to embrace the gift of celibacy.
As a married person, experiencing the profound joys of married and family life, I have found myself within the group of people standing outside of celibacy looking in with wonder and awe: “How can you choose this; do you know what you are sacrificing?” But these are the questions that spill out of our efforts to imagine not having what we have. There is a more profound question that comes at the height of our greatest successes and our worst failures: “Is this all there is?”
As long as we remain pilgrims, we hunger for more than this life can offer; we lose hope without signs that something will one day satisfy us. In his encyclical on Christian hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.” I need only think of the people who have surrendered their entire lives in expectation of the life to come to bolster my hope.
To cast away the practice of ordaining celibate priests would be to lose one of the most powerful reminders of what is most important about our lives: how ready we are for the next one.
writes from West St. Paul, Minnesota.