Why the Church Guards Celibacy as a “Brilliant Jewel”
“Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church's minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.” (CCC 1579)
Fr. Gary Selin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Denver and serves as formation director and assistant professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. He grew up in a Catholic family in Idaho where his father worked for the forest service.
He is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. After having made two pilgrimages to Fatima, he decided to enter a religious community there. However, after living in community for six years, he chose not to renew his vows.
At the invitation of Archbishop Charles Chaput, who at the time served as Archbishop of Denver, he entered the seminary for Denver and was ordained a priest in 2003. He earned a doctorate degree in theology from Catholic University, delivering his dissertation on priestly celibacy. He later used the material to create a book, Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations.
He recently spoke to the National Catholic Register about the importance of priestly celibacy.
What prompted you to write your book?
While I was a seminarian, Cardinal Francis Stafford gave a talk about priestly celibacy to the whole seminary. It left us with a sense of wonder. He argued that priestly celibacy was more than a discipline, a mere law which can be easily changed. He taught that it was integral to the priesthood and is intrinsically related to the Eucharist. Christ instituted the priesthood so that we may have the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is central to priestly ministry. The Eucharist, being the source and summit of priestly ministry and life, and the wellspring of pastoral charity, enables the priest to love Christ and His Church with an intense, undivided love.
Many of us had never heard the Cardinal’s argument before. It sounded very reasonable to me, but it was a topic that I thought merited more study. So, after my ordination when Archbishop Chaput sent me to Catholic University, I studied priestly celibacy. As I was writing my dissertation, I thought, “I can’t believe what a rich treasure this is.”
Through my research into the biblical, patristic and magisterial sources, I discovered that the principle reason for celibacy is that it perfects the configuration of the priest with Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. Consequently, the priest is more freely able to give himself to the Church. It enables him to be a father with undivided love, as well as shepherd, servant and bridegroom toward the Church.
Many defenders of priestly celibacy have, in recent years, resorted to pragmatic arguments to justify priestly celibacy. One of the most common arguments you’d hear was “How could a parish afford to pay the expenses of a married priest and his family?” Or another was, “What if the wife had a job and the family had to relocate?”
One of the best arguments was that celibacy allowed the priest to give himself fully to his parish. That’s true, but it is not enough. The celibate heart desires intimacy and God alone is the priest’s “inheritance” (Psalm 16:5). In order words, celibacy is first for the sake of the priest’s union with Christ, with and in whom he serves the Church. Ministry follows upon unity.
A celibate priest is a signpost, reminding us that this life is not the only one we have. We are created to be with the Triune God forever in heaven, where we will be like God, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).
Who should read your book?
It is meant for those seeking a deeper understanding of the biblical, patristics and theological foundations for celibacy, and the beauty of this gift. It is meant for the person not satisfied with the quick, “sound-bite” theology offered through the media. It is for the reader who wants to look for the deeper reasons for priestly celibacy beyond the merely pragmatic. I think the reader will find the book to be approachable and understandable, although it is written for a peer-reviewed, academic publisher.
Is there any insight into priestly celibacy that you have found to be particularly noteworthy?
Yes, the history of its development. It is probable that most of the Apostles were married. However, documentation from the first centuries of the Church tells us that married candidates for Holy Orders had to remain continent after ordination—they had to live perpetually as brother and sister. The early Church allowed the married priest to continue living with his wife, however, so that he could continue to be faithful to his marital bond. But the Church Fathers also provided theological reasons to support this discipline of perpetual continence for clerics. For example, the priest upon ordination gained a new spouse, the Church.
As the centuries advanced, the Holy Spirit was establishing in the Church the discipline of celibacy so that eventually only unmarried men were ordained for the priesthood. This became the tradition in the Latin Church. On its part, the Eastern Church also developed a deeper understanding of priestly celibacy, but also at one point allowed married priests to continue conjugal relations with their wives, abstaining however before the divine liturgy. It is important to note that the Magisterium over the past 100 years or so has consistently affirmed the legitimacy of the Eastern discipline, and has praised the witness to holiness of married priests in the various Eastern churches. And yet Paul VI, echoing centuries of magisterial teaching, notes in Sacerdotalis Caelibatus that “priestly celibacy has been guarded by the Church for centuries as a brilliant jewel” because of its surpassing excellence.
Retired Bishop of Sacramento Francis Quinn wrote an op-ed to the New York Times in 2015 advocating ordaining married men to the priesthood in the Latin rite. He told the Sacramento Bee in 2016: “It’s not psychologically healthy for a priest to be celibate just because the Church requires it.” What response would you offer the bishop?
Celibacy is foremost a gift (charism) bestowed by God to those called to the ministerial priesthood. This gift is protected as a treasure in the Latin Church by canon law. Rather than being a burden, celibacy frees the priest for the giving of himself fully to Christ and His Church.
It is an error to look upon celibacy as a burden to be cast off. Jesus Christ himself is the exemplar of the celibate life, and he of course was not burdened by this gift. If we don’t first consider the ministry and life of Christ as the foundational reason for celibacy, then we’re left talking about pragmatic or psychological reasons for celibacy, which ultimately cannot do justice in explaining this “unearthly” lifestyle.
Jesus Christ is the Head of the Body, His Church. Both Head and Body constitute the “whole Christ,” in the words of St. Augustine. This theological insight is one way of addressing Bishop Quinn’s concern that the institutional Church requires celibacy of the man who may not be able to live such a life: it is the same Christ who calls the man to the ministerial priesthood, equips him the ability to live chaste celibacy and inspires the Magisterium to defend the excellent gift and discipline of priestly celibacy.
Moreover, every seminary has a group of priests involved in formation work. As servants of the Holy Spirit, the primary formator of priestly souls, we’re doing several things, including evaluating the candidate to see if he has the wherewithal to live chaste celibacy. If he does, it’s one affirmation of his priestly calling. Celibacy lived in a joyful and sacrificial manner can perfect the human nature of the man who has received this priestly charism.
The Church asks us seminary formators to judge if a seminarian has the human and spiritual attributes that would make him a good candidate for the priesthood. Among the qualities we look for is the virtue of chastity and the gift of celibacy, as well as an ability to relate to women in a healthy way. The seminarian must be affectively, emotionally mature. His chastity is to be iron-strong yet very human. “White knuckle” chastity will not suffice.
But, if a priest is unwilling to embrace celibacy, he’s not going to be happy. He may attempt to compensate for his refusal to live the gift of celibacy by focusing on worldly distractions or engaging in unhealthy and sinful human relationships. He will shun prayer and fill his increasing loneliness with a constant noise and distraction, and become turned in on himself.
Next year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical on priestly celibacy. Do you believe this encyclical offers a good explanation of the topic?
It is the most complete magisterial teaching on celibacy in the history of the Catholic Church. It is also relatively undiscovered. Most of my book deals with unpacking and analyzing it.
Pope Paul VI gave us an explanation of the threefold dimension of celibacy: 1) the Christological, which enhances a priest’s union with Jesus Christ, 2) the Ecclesiological, which facilitates a priest’s relationship with the Church, and 3) the Eschatological, through which the priest becomes a prophet of the heavenly kingdom, in which the saints will be given wholly over the Triune God in the Beatific Vision.
Did the release of Humanae Vitae the following year eclipse this encyclical?
That’s my working theory: Humanae Vitae stole its thunder! We need to give Sacerdotalis Caelibatus more attention and take the time to absorb it.
In 2 Kings, when the book of the law was discovered during the reign of King Josiah and it was read to him, he tore his clothing in astonishment and grief at how far the people of God had wandered from the Lord. This story brings to mind our ongoing re-discovery of the riches of the gift and discipline of priestly celibacy. We, too, are astonished as we re-discover the richness of the gift of priestly celibacy. But we also grieve in knowing the many scandals of priestly impurity and worldliness. We have paid a steep price by ignoring the salvific teaching on celibacy given by Paul VI.
Or, to give another example, in the late 1970s, the Vatican hired a company to clean the Sistine Chapel. Centuries of candle soot had darkened its many beautiful images, rendering them dark. Some art historians theorized that Michelangelo held a dark, foreboding view of the creation, and thus he projected his angst onto the frescoes. But once the chapel was cleaned, people were amazed by its bright, vivid colors. Michelangelo was giving us a brilliant and bright view of the Catholic faith. In the same way, many people maintain a dark view of priestly celibacy, seeing it as a yoke and burden that oppresses priests. But this viewpoint is due to the darkness of ignorance about the theological reasons for celibacy. If we allow our minds to be cleansed by the rich teaching of the Church, we will see that celibacy is bright, beautiful and Christ-like.
How does a celibate priest live a life of chastity, amid all of the temptations that abound?
The priest must live a life of deep prayer in union with the Triune God. Borrowing an image from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, I see the priest as a reservoir, who is filled up with God’s grace and love that overflows to the people. If the priest is not a spiritual reservoir, then he will be a canal. If graces merely pass through him to his people, when there is a drought, he goes dry.
The grace to live chaste celibacy comes principally through the Holy Mass. The Eucharist is the center of the priest’s life. The priest must also be a good penitent by frequenting Confession on a regular, even weekly, basis. The priest must pray and fast, and avoid near occasions of sins, such as any such images that can defile his soul. He must have solid friendships with brother priests, and with the lay faithful, particularly with families. He also has to take care of his body by eating a healthy diet, and getting out of the rectory to do manual labor and exercise. Finally, a deep filial love for the Blessed Virgin Mary is necessary for a priest to live chaste celibacy. She mediates the graces for us priests to embrace this blessed cross and sacrifice.
Can the celibate priest help the married couple be faithful to their vocation?
Yes. He serves as a reminder that marriage is not an ultimate, but a sacrament through which people can grow in holiness. Married people are to help each other get to heaven. There are plenty of opportunities to grow spiritually in marriage, as it requires much sacrifice.
On the other hand, spouses can remind the celibate priest that he is called to live a life of sacrificial service, and not one of a comfortable, bachelor lifestyle. Married couples have inspired me greatly through their sacrificial love for each other, in imitation of Christ’s love for his Church (Ephesians 5:25).