Why a Celibate Priesthood?

Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863-1942), “La Leçon de catéchisme”
Jules-Alexis Muenier (1863-1942), “La Leçon de catéchisme” (photo: Public Domain)

The celibacy of the priesthood is one of the great signs of contradiction in our time.  Our culture stares at it in blank incomprehension, and on that blank it projects numerous fantasies to try to explain it.

So we are told that St. Paul both absolutely forbade celibacy as a mark of false religion and that he was the cause of the whole thing.  Many point to married apostles or married clergy today to say that this means the Church cannot legitimately legislate celibacy for clergy.  Most non-Catholics—and even many Catholics—are pretty sure that Jesus opposed a celibate priesthood.  We hear that it comes from “the Dark Ages” and is caused by a peculiar Catholic hatred of sex.  Some are certain that celibacy is due to repression.  Many are mystified at why the Church doesn’t just dump the whole celibacy thing and get back to the mission of fitting people for heaven.

Partly this is due to a feeling increasingly common in our debased and hedonistic post-Christian culture: that it’s just unnatural for anybody to not engage in sex as frequently as possible, married or not.  As we return to paganism, we make the mistake of the pagan and worship and serve created things—the perennial favorites being money, sex, honor, and power—rather than the Creator.  So mainstream American culture simply has no idea what to do with the discipline of celibacy and regards it with visceral horror.  Since this is the majority reaction now, let’s start with that gut response that celibacy threatens our mainstream cultural imperative to be an absolute selfish pig and indulge in consequence-free sex.

True dat.  But that’s a feature, not a bug, of the Catholic tradition of consecrated celibacy.  It’s supposed to threaten that debased cultural imperative and provide a counter-witness against the mere selfish indulgence of appetite that our consumer society of instant gratification and irresponsibility promotes.  A civilization founded on the worship of pleasure is a civilization on a fast track toward ceasing to be a civilization.  And an “argument” against celibacy that boils down to “ME WANT SEX NOW!” is not an argument but something more like the grunt of an animal.  Both the Christian tradition of consecrated virginity and the Christian tradition of marriage provide a counter-witness against the post-Christian Cult of the Pig precisely because they bear witness to the fact that we are called to sacrifice our bodies in love for another, not feed our piggy appetites at the expense of the other.  Whether we make the self-offering through the sacrament of marriage (with its complete giving of the self to God, spouse and children) or by forgoing marriage and sex in order to spend oneself as a living sacrifice to God in service to his people, the basic message is the same: it’s not all about you.  You find your life by losing it or you lose your life by selfishly trying to keep it.

Beyond the horror of post-Christian culture at consecrated virginity, however, is a more principled objection.   All Christians who are familiar with the basics of the gospel and who seriously try to follow Jesus know that fornication is not compatible with Christian morality.  So they recognize that, whatever else may be the case, the post-Christian pagan attempt to critique celibacy by means of appeal to licentiousness and unbridled appetite is a bad one.  But there remains, nonetheless, a feeling as common in Protestant (and progressive dissenting Catholic) culture as it was in ancient Israel: the notion that it’s just unnatural for somebody to forego marriage.  This appears to be backed up by passages in the New Testament like this:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:1-4)

So some Protestants imagine that because priests cannot marry, the Church is now enacting the “doctrines of demons” and “forbidding marriage”. But this is a rather hasty assessment given that the Church also, of course, celebrates marriage as a sacrament.  It is also, by the way, a very narrow reading of Paul, who was himself a celibate and who urged consecrated virginity as the higher vocation than marriage:

It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (1 Cor 1-7)

Paul’s basic concern is that to be married is to be divided:

The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. (1 Cor 7:32-34)

But though he is concerned about that division of heart, he denies that marriage is a sin.  He merely insists that it is a lesser state in life than consecrated virginity: “So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (1 Cor 7:38)

Paul gets this thinking, not from the Dark Ages, or some sort of repression, but from a consecrated virgin named Jesus of Nazareth, who was, like Paul, unmarried and celibate and who, so far from condemning consecrated virginity as a Dark Age encrustation of medieval Catholic repression on his pure and simple gospel, actually commended consecrated virginity as a gift of God.  That’s what he’s getting at in this incident from Matthew 19:9-12:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery." The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."

Note how similar Paul’s thinking is to Jesus’.  Marriage is a good thing, not a forbidden thing.  But marriage is a difficult thing, to the degree that, when Jesus describes what Christian marriage really entails, the apostles blanch and declare it is not expedient to marry.  The summary of this passage: Not everyone can choose to be celibate, but those who can should, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  It’s exactly the same pattern as in Paul: marriage is good, but virginity is better.

That should get us thinking about celibacy in a new light, because Jesus in fact practices what he preaches: he remains a virgin all his life.  It’s a fact so obvious about Jesus that we are curiously prone to forget it, till somebody like Dan Brown comes along and posits a Jesus with an active sex life.  Then we instinctively intuit that there’s something deeply false about that picture.  Not “immoral”: false.  Jesus could have, had he chosen, married like the other apostles.  Marriage, as we have seen, is not a sin.  And yet, earthly marriage is false to who Jesus is.  Why?

Because the virginity of Jesus is significant.  And signs signify.  What does the virginity of Jesus signify?  The fact that he already has a girl.  Her name is Holy Church, the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33).  That’s why Jesus’ first sign is done at a wedding (John 2:1-11).  And it’s why when you turn the page of John’s gospel, John the Baptist is telling you who the real Bridegroom is: Jesus (John 3:29-30). He does not mean, like Dan Brown, that Jesus was the one getting married at Cana.  Rather, following the prophets who speak of God as the husband of the Virgin Daughter of Zion, John means that Jesus is the Cosmic Bridegroom and his Church is the Bride and that every marriage (including the one at Cana) is an image of this.

That’s why John the Evangelist thinks it so big a deal that the side of Christ was pierced that he actually yells for the projectionist to stop the projector so he can step out in front of the screen and remind the audience he was an eyewitness to this (cf. John 19:34-35).  That’s not because he just thought you might be interested in the medical details of pericardial rupture, but because this is, for John, the birth of the new Eve from the side of the new Adam, just as the old Eve was born from the first Adam’s side.  The water and the blood are the waters of baptism for John.  So just as the nuptial language of Genesis was used to describe the relationship of Israel to King David (“Behold, we are your bone and flesh.” – 2 Samuel 5:1), so the Son of David becomes the Bridegroom of the New Israel and calls the Bride to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-8).

Since Jesus is celibate, and since, as Paul says, virginity for the sake of Christ is a higher state than marriage, and since a priest is an alter Christus or other Christ, when he is standing in the place of Christ to celebrate the Eucharist (i.e., the marriage supper of the Lamb) we should not be terribly surprised that in antiquity the discipline grew up (spontaneously, from the grass roots) of more and more priests likewise choosing to be celibate (though some were married).  The discipline got lived out in different ways depending on where you were in the Church. In the East, priests but not bishops, can marry.  In the West, priests and bishops are celibate.  But much the same spirit was at work in both “lungs” of the Church.  The idea was that celibacy is a higher calling, as well as a very practical arrangement given the responsibilities of the priesthood.

Some will say that because celibacy is now a matter of legislation in the Church rather than grass roots volunteerism, it is no longer a legitimate practice.  But, of course, the Church has a perfect right to order its internal affairs as she pleases.  Nor is anybody compelled to be ordained.  Rather, what the Church does—and has a perfect right to do—is tell the prospective priest that he is welcome to consider the priesthood, but that if he does, consecrated virginity is part of the package.

Why does the western Church bother with this? After all, even within the Catholic Church there are rites which do not require priestly celibacy and even in the Latin Rite (which normally does require it) there are exceptions made for certain priests who have, for example, converted from other traditions.

Partly, celibacy is retained because of the native tendency to not change disciplines without a really good reason.  This mindset is, yet again, in sharp contrast to post-modernity’s Cult of the Now, which is perpetually saying “I don’t see the point of this!” as it recklessly destroys it knows not what, only to discover after the fact that it has just smashed a priceless work of art or driven into extinction a plant species that might have cured cancer.  It is this reckless mentality G.K. Chesterton addresses with characteristic common sense when he says:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

In the case of celibacy, there is something often overlooked in addition to the practical pastoral matters which celibacy helps the Church face (divided wills, the trouble of playing favorites with family members, domestic distractions, etc.): the fact that the priest is an eschatological witness.  What does that three dollar word mean?  It means that, like Jesus, the priest is a witness to the life of the world to come.  That is why it is nonsensical to speak of getting rid of celibacy so that the priest can get on with helping people get to heaven.  By his celibacy, that is what he is doing.  That is, in part, one of the implications of Jesus’ saying that, “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." (Matthew 22:30)

The point of this strange saying is not that we lose our bodies (the whole point of the resurrection is that we keep our bodies). Rather, it is first of all that our glorified bodies are no longer either afflicted with concupiscence (and therefore no longer require oaths of marital fidelity to keep us faithful).  More than this, however, is the fact that our bodies will be participants in the ecstatic life of God to such a degree that sexual intercourse will be neither desirable nor necessary.  Our inability to conceive of this is rather like a child’s inability to conceive of any greater bodily pleasure than a chocolate drop.  Sex and marriage will be superceded by something better in the resurrection. 

And Jesus is the Resurrection (John 11:25).  So his virginity—and the virginity of the priests who stand as alter Christus in the celebration of the sacrament—is not merely a practical consideration but is, in fact, a sign of the life of the world to come when the human race, freed to love fully, will find earthly joys swallowed up in the perfect self-donating love of God.