A Case for Priestly Celibacy
Celibacy is inexplicable, unnatural and fascinating, for it is a form of life adopted by people in love with Jesus Christ
There is a very bad argument for celibacy which has reared its head throughout the tradition and which is, even today, defended by some. It runs something like this: married life is morally and spiritually suspect; priests, as religious leaders, should be spiritual athletes above reproach; therefore, priests shouldn’t be married. I love Augustine, but it is hard to deny that this kind of argumentation finds support in some of Augustine’s more unfortunate reflections on sexuality (original sin as a sexually transmitted disease; sex even within marriage is venially sinful; the birth of a baby associated with excretion, etc.). I once ran across a book in which the author presented a version of this justification, appealing to the purity codes in the book of Leviticus. His implication was that any sort of sexual contact, even within marriage, would render a minister at the altar impure. This approach to the question is, in my judgment, not just silly but dangerous, for it rests on assumptions that are repugnant to good Christian metaphysics.
The doctrine of creation ex nihilo necessarily implies the essential integrity of the world and everything in it. Genesis tells us that God found each thing he had made good and that he found the ensemble of creatures very good. Expressing the same idea with typical scholastic understatement, Thomas Aquinas commented that “being” and “good” are convertible terms. Catholic theology, at its best, has always been resolutely anti-Manichaean, anti-gnostic, anti-dualist—and this means that matter, the body, and sexual activity are never, in themselves, to be despised. In his book A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels correctly suggests that the post-conciliar reaffirmation of this aspect of the tradition effectively undermined the dualist justification for celibacy that I sketched above.
But there is more to the doctrine of creation than an affirmation of the goodness of the world. To say that the finite realm in its entirety is created is to imply that nothing in the universe is God. All aspects of created reality reflect God, point to God, and bear traces of the divine goodness (just as every detail of a building gives evidence of the mind of the architect), but no creature and no collectivity of creatures is divine (just as no part of a structure is the architect). This essential distinction between God and the world is the ground for the anti-idolatry principle that is reiterated from beginning to end of the Bible: do not turn something which is less than God into God. Isaiah the prophet put it thus: “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts and my ways above your ways, says the Lord.” And it is at the heart of the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods besides me.” The Bible thus holds off all forms of pantheism, immanentism, and nature mysticism—all the attempts of human beings to divinize or render ultimate some worldly reality. The doctrine of creation, in a word, involves both a great “yes” and a great “no” to the universe.
Now there is a behavioral concomitant to the anti-idolatry principle: it is the detachment which is urged throughout the Bible and by practically every figure in the great tradition from Irenaeus and Chrysostom to Bernard, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Detachment is the refusal to make anything less than God the organizing principle or center of one’s life. Anthony de Mello looked at it from the other side and said that “an attachment is anything in this world—including your own life—that you are convinced you cannot live without.” Even as we reverence everything that God has made, we must let go of everything that God has made, precisely for the sake of God. Augustine saw to the bottom of this truth, commenting that creatures are loved better, more authentically, precisely when they are loved in God. This is why, as G.K. Chesterton noted, there is an odd, tensive, and bi-polar quality to Christian life. In accord with its affirmation of the world, the Church loves color, pagaentry, music, and rich decoration (as in the liturgy and papal ceremonials), even as, in accord with its detachment from the world, it loves the poverty of St. Francis and the simplicity of Mother Teresa. The same tensiveness governs its attitude toward sex and family. Again in Chesterton’s language, the Church is “fiercely for having children” (through marriage) even as it remains “fiercely against having them” (in religious celibacy). Everything in this world—including sex and intimate friendship—is good, but impermanently so; all finite reality is beautiful, but its beauty, if I can put it in explicitly Catholic terms, is sacramental and not ultimate.
According to the Biblical narratives, when God wanted to make a certain truth vividly known to his people, he would occasionally choose a prophet and command him to act out that truth, to embody it concretely. Hence, he told Hosea to marry the unfaithful Gomer in order to sacramentalize God’s fidelity to wavering Israel. In Grammar of Assent, John Henry Newman reminded us that truth is brought home to the mind, becoming convincing and persuasive, when it is represented, not through abstractions, but through something particular, colorful, and imaginable. We might be intrigued by the formula of Chalcedon, but we are moved to tears and to action by the narrative of Christ’s appearance on the road to Emmaus. Thus, the truth of the non-ultimacy of sex, family, and worldly relationships can and should be proclaimed through words, but it will be believed only when people can seeit. This is why, the Church is convinced, God chooses certain people to be celibate: in order to witness to a transcendent form of love, the way that we will love in heaven. In God’s realm, we will experience a communion (bodily as well as spiritual) compared to which even the intensest forms of communion here below pale into insignificance, and celibates make this truth viscerally real for us now. Just as belief in the real presence in the Eucharist fades (as we have seen) when unaccompanied by devotional practice, so the belief in the impermanence of created love becomes attenuated in the absence of living embodiments of it. Though one can present practical reasons for it, I believe that celibacy only finally makes sense in this eschatological context.
I realize that my reader might be following the argument to this point and still feel compelled to ask, “Yes, granted that celibacy is a good thing for the Church, but why must all priests be celibate?” The medievals distinguished between arguments from necessity and arguments from “fittingness.” I can offer only the latter kind of argument, for even its most ardent defenders admit that celibacy is not essential to the priesthood. After all, married priests have been, at various times and for various reasons, accepted from the beginning of the Church to the present day. The appropriateness of linking priesthood and celibacy comes, I think, from the priest’s identity as a Eucharistic person. All that a priest is radiates outward from his unique capacity, acting in the person of Christ, to transform the Eucharistic elements into the body and blood of Jesus. As the center of a rose window anchors and orders all of the other elements in the design, so the Eucharistic act of the priest grounds and animates everything else that he does, rendering qualitatively distinctive his way of leading, sanctifying, and teaching. But the Eucharist is the eschatological act par excellence, for as Paul says, “Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” To proclaim the Paschal Mystery through the Eucharist is to make present that event by which the new world is opened up to us. It is to make vividly real the transcendent dimension which effectively relativizes (without denying) all of the goods of this passing world. And it is therefore fitting that the one who is so intimately conditioned by and related to the Eucharist should be in his form of life an eschatological person.
For years, Andrew Greeley argued—quite rightly in my view—that the priest is fascinating, and that a large part of the fascination comes from celibacy. The compelling quality of the priest is not a matter of superficial celebrity or charm; that gets us precisely nowhere. It is something much stranger, deeper, and more mystical: the fascination for another world, for that mysterious dimension of existence hinted at sacramentally by the universe here below and revealed to us, however tantalyzingly, in the breaking of the bread. I for one am glad that such eschatologically fascinating persons are not simply in monasteries, cloistered convents, and hermits cells, but in parishes, on the streets, and in the pulpits, moving visibly among the people of God.
There are, I realize, a couple of major problems with offering arguments for celibacy. First, it can make everything seem so pat, rational, and resolved. I’ve been a priest now for over thirty years, and I can assure you that the living of celibacy has been anything but that. As I’ve gone through different seasons of my life as a priest, I’ve struggled mightily with celibacy, precisely because the tension between the goodness and ephemerality of creation of which I spoke of earlier is no abstraction, bur rather runs right through my body. The second problem is that reason only goes so far. As Thomas More said in that wonderful scene from A Man for All Seasons, as he was trying to make his daughter understand why he was being so stubborn: “Finally, Meg, it’s not a matter of reason; finally, it’s a matter of love.” People in love do strange things: they pledge eternal fidelity; they write poetry and songs; they defy their families and change their life plans; sometimes they go to their deaths. They tend to be over-the-top, irrational, and confounding to the reasonable people around them. Though we can make a case for it—as I have tried to do—celibacy is finally inexplicable, unnatural, and fascinating, for it is a form of life adopted by people in love with Jesus Christ.