National Catholic Register


CELIBACY: Deep Roots, Modern Uses

In the second article of a two-part series, the Register speaks with priests about the spiritual and practical benefits that they have gained from the gift of celibacy.



January 21-27, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/17/07 at 11:00 AM


OMAHA, Neb. — For Father Joseph Taphorn, calls to the priesthood and celibacy are inseparable.

“If one is going to be single-hearted in service to the Lord, it made sense to me,” said Father Taphorn, chancellor of the Archiocese of Omaha. “We give him everything. When you go through one door another closes, and that’s okay.”

That’s not to say that the call isn’t demanding.

“My spiritual director said it’s a dangerous business,” recalled Father Taphorn. “There’s great potential for great holiness, as well as problems and scandal.”

Priests like Father Taphorn, ordained in the Latin Rite where celibacy is mandated, say the practical and spiritual benefits far outweigh the sacrifice.

This is the second in a two-part series examining the issue of priestly celibacy. The first part examined the merits of celibacy from the viewpoint of married Eastern-rite Catholic priests and priests who have come into the Church through the Pastoral Provision extended to ministers converting from the Anglican church.

This article examines celibacy as a gift for the Church and her celibate priests.

Certainly, celibacy provides practical benefits.

“You’re not hampered by the demands of caring for a family,” said Father Taphorn. “Your family is the Church.”

Yet, Father Taphorn finds the spiritual benefits much deeper.

“It’s a way of discipleship,” said Father Taphorn. “It allows you to love others in a purer and more powerful way. It allows you to be a spiritual father to many people.”

The Basis for Celibacy

Theologian Brant Pitre points to what he describes as the “four pillars” of priestly celibacy in Scripture. They are: 1 Samuel 21, Revelation 14:1-4, Matthew 19:12, and 1 Corinthians 7:32-34.

“The real Old Testament origin is in 1 Samuel,” said Pitre, a professor of theology at Our Lady of Holy Cross College in New Orleans. “Although priests in the old covenant could marry, as is obvious, when they served as priests in the Temple, they practiced a type of temporary celibacy.”

In Matthew, Christ tells his disciples that they can be eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that it is better not to marry. The Scriptural reference to celibacy that Pitre says most Catholics aren’t aware of is found in Revelation.

“You can make a very strong case that the 144,000 in Revelation 14 are being depicted as a celibate priesthood,” said Pitre. “They have the name of the Father written on their forehead, which is what the priests in Exodus 28:36 have written on their forehead. The verse signifies a permanent abstinence and the new priesthood.

“Every image in that passage is drawn from Old Testament imagery used to describe the Levites and the priests,” said Pitre. “John is clearly depicting these celibate men as part of the new covenant.”

While most modern scholars would disagree, it is Pitre’s opinion that all of Christ’s apostles were celibate.

In addition to Scripture, there is a theological basis for celibacy.

“Celibacy is imposed on no one,” said Marist Father Thomas Dubay, author of And You Are Christ’s. “There’s a vast difference between a vocation and a career.”

Father Dubay provided five theses for priestly celibacy:

“First, celibacy in Scripture is a privileged sphere of the sacred. They are set apart for the Lord.

“Second, celibacy is a radical readiness in pursuit of the Kingdom.

“Third, celibacy is an immediate ecclesial bridal union. The priest has a marital relationship with the Church.

“Fourth, it’s a fulfillment vocation. A priest gives up the good for something greater.

“Finally, it is an excluding fullness. It orients one directly to God so that the person cannot give one’s heart to another in a marital way. It’s a psychological sundering. The virginal charism is a gift for the Church.”

Priestly Fraternity

“There is this idea that there is something in ordination that configures the priest to Christ that calls forth from him a life like Christ’s life,” said Father Andrew Cozzens, instructor of sacramental theology at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. paraphrasing Pope John Paul II’s words in his 1992 post-synodal apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (The Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day).

“Christ himself was celibate,” said Father Taphorn. “You can love God in a particular way because you’re imitating his son.”

Priests, however, not only imitate Christ in how he lived, but also image him in his relationships to his disciples and the Father. The priestly fraternity — priests united with their bishop, in union with the Pope — images the friendship between the apostles and Christ as a communion of men dedicated to God.

That’s something Father Taphorn has come to realize during his 10 years as a priest.

“You need a brotherhood — a priestly fraternity that can be supportive,” said Father Taphorn. “It’s a part of God’s plan for how he has structured the Church and the priesthood.”

“We would do better to define this vocation not by what it has given up, but by what it has embraced — the marriage feast of the Lamb,” said Christopher West, author of Theology of the Body Explained. “In a world calling for the end to this vocation, even within the Church, it is a bold proclamation to the whole world of the beauty and meaning of sexuality.”

‘Prophetic Witness’

Father Cozzens believes that that sign of contradiction is needed in our culture now more than ever.

“By his celibacy, the priest says there is another world that is worth living for. This is one of the most striking things about the Catholic priesthood to outsiders. It demands either respect or hatred.”

Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., 50 of the 150 men currently on campus are discerning the priesthood in the school’s pretheologate program “They have no problems with celibacy,” said Father Fessio. “They want to give themselves to the Lord.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.