Priestly Celibacy Today

by Father Thomas McGovern

(Scepter Publishers, 1998, 248 pages, $12.95)

Father Thomas McGovern, an Opus Dei priest from Ireland, begins this excellent volume by noting that writing a book on celibacy could be regarded as a foolhardy undertaking.

The wider culture, after all, has little room for chastity and thinks celibacy positively perverse, while within the Church itself there has been a lot of talk about the “burden of celibacy” and repeated calls to allow for a married clergy in the Latin rite. Given this, to come forward and energetically defend celibacy, which is what Father McGovern ably does, might seem out of step with the times. But Father McGovern is surely right in thinking otherwise, and in seeing signs of a recovery of the ideal of celibacy.

This timely book is much more than a defense of celibacy. It goes beyond points of controversy deeply into the heart of the Church's long tradition of celibate priesthood.

Central to Father McGovern's presentation is the contention that there is a direct and profound congruence between the charism of celibacy and the exercise of priestly ministry. This congruence is founded in the theology of priesthood and in a Christian anthropology that have been progressively maintained and elucidated through two thousand years, and have been recently and beautifully expressed by Pope John Paul II.

It has become common to speak of priestly celibacy as nothing more than a disciplinary law, first mentioned in the fourth century, and only definitively imposed upon the Western Church at the Second Lateran Council in 1139. As such, so this line of reasoning goes, priestly celibacy, not being of ancient origin and concerned primarily with pastoral matters, might be relaxed at any time. The Eastern Churches are often called as witnesses to what would seem to be the true ancient practice of having both a married and a celibate clergy, in the light of which the Western insistence on celibacy seems unnecessary at best, and rigorist and unhealthy at worst. Especially in light of changing pastoral realities, including a shortage of priests, it is high time for the Latin Church to do away with an outmoded practice that places unreasonable burdens on its clergy — so the argument goes.

In dealing with these questions Father McGovern wants to show that the Church has always recognized the inner congruence between celibacy and priesthood. To do so he notes that a crucial distinction often goes unnoticed. True, a married clergy existed in both East and West in patristic and into medieval times, but it was expected of a married priest that once he was ordained, he would practice sexual abstinence and live with his wife as with a sister — an arrangement to which she had also to agree! This practice of abstinence, or continence as it was often called, was held by the patristic Church to have come directly from the apostles themselves. It was confirmed at the Council of Elvira in 303, which proclaimed that sexual abstinence was necessary for all clergy whether married or celibate, and that those who had neglected this rule were to be excluded from the clerical state.

Clement of Jerusalem, Augustine, Jerome, the Council of Carthage (390) all witnessed to the same understanding. Only at the Council of Trullo in 691 did the East allow married priests to “use” their marriages, a ruling that was rejected by the Western Church as out of keeping with apostolic and traditional teaching. Even so, the Eastern Churches reserved the office of bishop to those who practiced perfect continence, and demanded temporary abstinence (eventually a three-day period) as preparation for priestly service at the altar. The East also maintained the tradition that a clergyman once ordained could not marry, a stipulation which originally had to do with the inability of a priest to consummate such a marriage.

In the West married clergy gradually died out as a celibate clergy came to the fore. But the practice of perfect sexual abstinence was expected of both, however much this ideal was decayed in certain times and places. The Second Lateran Council thus confirmed the long tradition of priestly abstinence from sex, and imposed celibacy as the best and most fitting way to secure it, a ruling upheld and expanded by the Council of Trent in the 16th century, and kept in the Latin Church down to our own day. Father McGovern contends that it is the Western Church in this case that has preserved most faithfully the ancient practice of the Church. But more importantly still he explains why: that there is an intimate inner affinity between celibacy and priestly service.

This affinity has been at the heart of John Paul II's theology of priesthood. Far from being a mere negation of marriage or sexuality, priestly celibacy according to John Paul is itself an expression of spousal love. “In virtue of his configuration to Christ, the Head and Shepherd, the priest stands in a spousal relationship with regard to the community” (Pastores Dabo Vobis). Father McGovern points to this as the fundamental theological reason for priest-ly celibacy. “The priest's total self-giving to the Church finds its justification in the fact that she is the Body and the Bride of Christ. Following Christ, the Church as Bride is the only woman the priest can be wedded to, the only Body over which he can have nuptial rights (105-6). He exercises a kind of spiritual paternity over his flock.”

Celibacy is thus not just an external constraint imposed on priestly ministry, nor is it a merely human institution established by law. It is rather a sign and a means by which this fundamental conformity of the priest to Christ is expressed. Father McGovern, refreshingly, sees celibacy not as a burden but as a gift. The priest who lives “for Christ and from Christ,” while not immune from difficulty, will find great joy in his vocation, and will have no insurmountable difficulties in living out his celibacy.

Seminarian Michael Keating writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.