The Epiphany of Celibacy

COMMENTARY: Until Jesus Christ, celibacy was virtually unknown. Our Lord’s celibacy revealed the essence of his mission, and manifested him as the Bridegroom of the Church.

Edward Burne-Jones, “The Adoration of the Magi,” 1904
Edward Burne-Jones, “The Adoration of the Magi,” 1904 (photo: Public Domain)

Over the past six months the Church has suffered horrid revelations of clergy sexual abuse, homosexual activity, and attendant cover-up. These scandals have understandably prompted some to call for an end to celibacy in the Catholic Church. It would seem that the discipline no longer serves us well, and indeed might be the source of our woes. Of course, we should not quickly jettison a practice so deep in the Church’s history and so strongly recommended by our Lord and his Apostles (see Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:25-40; Revelation 14:4). Perhaps in this season, in the light of Christ’s Epiphany, we can reflect upon this sacred discipline, which the Church has always referred to as a treasure, not a burden.

The Feast of the Epiphany is about God’s sudden self-manifestation or, from another perspective, our sudden perception about him. To borrow from the Christmas Preface, with Christ’s birth “a new light of [his] glory has shown upon the eyes of our minds.” The Word made flesh is revealed as a light to the nations, present in the Magi: “On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Matthew 2:11).


Celibacy and the Epiphany

Celibacy itself is something of an epiphany – that is, a sudden manifestation or revelation. Until Jesus Christ, it was virtually unknown. Some, but few, of the prophets appear to have been celibate (and Hosea might have desired to be). These men are significant not so much as exceptions that prove the rule but as types of the One to come. The chaste, celibate Christ is a new way of God manifesting himself. The Child in the manger will be celibate, not as an accidental feature of His life but to reveal something essential about Himself and His mission; to manifest Himself as the Bridegroom of the Church.

Our Lord’s birth is also the epiphany of spiritual generation in the world. Prior to his coming, abstaining from marriage and therefore from procreation made no sense because the Messiah was to be born of Jewish blood. Thus, every man desired to have descendants. In Bethlehem, something new appears. The new light of Christ has revealed a new kind of birth, that of the “children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Of greater importance now is not physical generation but spiritual. The essential thing is to be born anew, or “from above” (John 3:3).

Priestly celibacy is ordered to participation in this spiritual generation, to becoming a spiritual father. Presbyterorum Ordinis, Vatican II’s decree on the life and ministry of priests, calls celibacy “a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity and a special source of spiritual fecundity in the world.” By way of it, a priest foregoes marriage and children precisely so that he can become a spiritual father. In so doing, he witnesses to the truth and superiority of spiritual generation. As Saint Paul became father to the Corinthians through his ministry (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:16), so priests father children in Christ by their ministry, their preaching and administration of the sacraments. Without this purpose of celibacy firmly in mind, we will inevitably lose sight of its significance. Indeed, the scandals witness to this truth: one of the horrors of the current crisis is precisely that spiritual fathers – not just anyone, but spiritual fathers – have abused the children entrusted to them.

Of course, the Feast of Epiphany is best known for the mysterious gifts of the Magi: “Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). These gifts help to flesh out or reveal the content of this epiphany of celibacy. The Church has always understood these gifts as more than just material goods. They are important not so much in themselves but in what they reveal about Christ, their recipient. Traditionally they are taken to proclaim him as king, God and man. In that same spirit, we can discern in the gifts of the Magi certain essentials of celibacy.

That they are gifts reminds us immediately that celibacy is itself a gift – a “treasure” as the Church describes it. Discussions on this topic inevitably include the insistence that celibacy is not a doctrine but a discipline (as if a discipline in the Church is something to be treated lightly). That is true, as far as it goes. But that kind of positivism fails to grasp celibacy’s deeper reality, to which both Scripture and Tradition so constantly witness. Indeed, the Church speaks of celibacy as not just a discipline but a charism. It is a gift given to some for the benefit of all; it is given to some members for the upbuilding of the entire Body. By way of the charism of celibacy, a certain number in the Church make themselves available for that undivided attention to the Lord and service of the Kingdom spoken of in Scripture. By way of it priests “dedicate themselves more freely in him and through him to the service of God and men, and they more expeditiously minister to his Kingdom” (PO 16).


The Gift of Gold

Of course, a gift must be received as it is given. We are ungrateful recipients if we only receive a gift on our own terms. To receive celibacy as the gift it is, we must appreciate the qualities of the charism – qualities nicely symbolized by the gifts of the Magi. The first of which is gold, something of lasting value. So also, celibacy is of enduring worth. Despite painfully conspicuous failures and perennial calls for its elimination, it remains valuable. In fact, like gold in a bad economy, its value only increases in a sex-saturated culture. As people chase after fulfillment in the flesh, celibacy points them to a higher, more authentically human happiness. It witnesses to the truth that man is created for something beyond the material – for true joy, not mere pleasure.

Gold’s enduring value was of course the philosophy behind the erstwhile gold standard. A currency tied to that standard in effect participated in the value of gold. Even without the literal “gold standard,” we still use that phrase to indicate something that serves as the basis for evaluating everything else.

In that sense, we should view our Lord’s celibacy as the gold standard. All the motives or arguments for celibacy ultimately come down to this one: Jesus Christ was celibate. Any celibacy prior to him points to his, and all celibacy after him imitates it. He sanctifies this state of life and gives it meaning. He was celibate for a reason and thus reveals the purpose of priestly celibacy: to love the church and give himself up for her; to sanctify her; to cleanse her by the washing of water with the word; to present the church in splendor, that she might be holy and without blemish (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27). Christ’s celibacy is the gold standard. A priest’s celibacy has value only as he imitates and participates in the Lord’s, only to the degree that he lives it in sacrificial love for the Church.

In this regard, another helpful image is the celibate man who frames the Christmas season: John the Baptist, the “Friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29). Advent begins with the Baptist’s cry and Christmas concludes with his baptizing our Lord. John anticipated the evangelical celibacy of the New Testament – that is, the celibacy lived for “the sake of the kingdom of heaven” and for “undivided devotion to the Lord” (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:35). He embraced celibacy so that he could more freely fulfill his mission to prepare the way of the Lord and to make him know when at last he came.

More to the point, John’s celibacy was a sign and type of the Bridegroom’s. It derived its value only in relation to him. Naturally, then, the friend sent to announce the Bridegroom grew to resemble the Bridegroom Himself. So much so, in fact, that he needed to clarify, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20). His celibacy pointed to the Other. Hence, he had nothing to say about himself: he was not the Christ, not the prophet, but just a voice. So also, the celibate priest – sent to announce the Bridegroom – introduces people to Christ not by assuming his place but by imitating him, by growing to resemble him, by pointing others to him.

The Baptist’s example helps to identify one kind of failure in priestly celibacy. The priest, while striving to imitate and even resemble the Bridegroom, can never assume his place. To do so would be a violation of celibacy, a taking of the bride from the Bridegroom. The most obvious form of priestly unchastity comes from lust and disordered sexual desires; that, unfortunately, needs no explanation. But this other form of priestly unchastity comes from vanity: when a priest wants himself to be known more than Christ, loved more than Christ, and praised more than Christ. It is the celebrity priest who makes his homilies and his Mass more about him than about Christ. Who indeed comes to see the homily and the Mass as his.

This priestly vanity is the taproot of clericalism. It uses the freedom of celibacy for oneself, not for sacrificial service. Clericalism is in effect a form of unchastity – the assuming of the Bridegroom’s place. And this privileged (rather than sacrificial) view of the priesthood paves the way for other forms of unchastity. Disconnected from the gold standard of Christ’s celibacy, a priest’s celibacy not only loses value but also causes harm.

It is worth noting that Christ’s celibacy sets the standard for all vocations, because his love is the only perfect love. His complete gift of self, lived out in celibacy, serves as the paradigm for the self-giving that should characterize the love between husband and wife. His celibacy speaks to single people and engaged couples. It teaches them how to cultivate the maturity and self-possession to live in a chaste celibate manner. Someone incapable of living a chaste celibate life lacks also the self-possession necessary to give oneself in marriage. In that sense, chaste celibacy is the necessary precursor to all other vocations.


The Gift of Frankincense

Next the Magi give frankincense, which we rightly associate with worship. The Psalmist sings, “Let my prayer arise before you like incense” (Ps 141:2). Revelation speaks of incense as “the prayers of the holy ones” (Rev 5:8). The early Christians ran afoul of the pagan world precisely because they would not offer incense – worship – to idols. So also, celibacy is intended for worship. This charism is bestowed upon the priest precisely so that he can pray, and most especially so that he can stand at the altar, with “undivided devotion” (1 Corinthians 7:35). Of course, celibacy is not an absolute requirement for the offering of Mass. But we should not for that reason skip over the deep relation between the two – a relation found in Scripture and Tradition. What makes priestly celibacy distinct is its orientation to standing at the altar and offering the Mass. indeed, both celibacy and the Mass are about sacrificing and offering the body so that others can have life.

In Scripture we find the admonition to those who approach the living God – that they ought to detach from both creation and procreation (another indication of the link between poverty and chastity). Approaching supernatural life calls for detachment from natural life. At Mount Sinai, in preparation for the epiphany of the Lord, the Israelites were commanded, “Be ready on the third day; do not go near a woman” (Ex 19:15). The priests on service in the Temple were to refrain from marital relations. And Saint Paul exhorts married couples to periodic continence – in effect, a temporary celibacy – that they may devote themselves to prayer (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:5).

The ancient Church reasoned that since those in lesser offices were obligated to continence for a time (the Israelites, the Levites, married couples), those who minister daily at the altar should observe perpetual continence — which ultimately became celibacy. The conviction was that such detachment enabled ministers (not just priests, but deacons and subdeacons) to pray with an undivided heart that, as the Council of Carthage put it, “they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God.” It is therefore fitting that the priest, who approaches the altar and offers the life-giving sacrifice, observe perpetual continence. The man who exercises a spiritual fatherhood in a unique manner at the altar should draw back from natural fatherhood. The man who speaks the words of the Bridegroom — This is my body — should not speak those same nuptial words to a woman.

Incense also indicates mystery. That is part of the reason we use it at Mass: to make mysterious what we might be tempted to treat as mundane and ordinary. It serves as a veil reminding us (because we are always in danger of forgetting) of the holiness – the otherness – of the One who comes so humbly in the Eucharist. Celibacy serves a similar purpose in the world. It is a kind of veil that calls attention (the priest’s own, first of all) to the otherness of the priest, to the holiness of what he is and does.

Not infrequently after Sunday Mass, a child approaches the priest and asks him about some aspect of the liturgy: Why? The child’s question means that the liturgy has done its work. It has provoked a wonder and awe that can then be turned to greater understanding and devotion. The priest then has a welcome opportunity for mystagogia, to explain the sacred mysteries. A similar thing happens with celibacy. Few things in the Church provoke more questions, wonder and interest. Even those who know little else about the Church have at least heard of this mysterious kind of man that foregoes not only what is evil but even what is profoundly good. They wonder, Why?

As a witness to something more, celibacy is meant to be mysterious and cause wonder. The world’s children’s questions about it means that celibacy has done part of its work. Their wonder provides us with the opportunity to speak of Christ’s own celibate chastity, of sacrifice, and of the world to come. The question provides an opportunity to speak of the One who transcends all other loves and of the Kingdom that lays claim to our hearts.


The Gift of Myrrh

Lastly, the Magi bring myrrh — an ointment used in the ancient world to prepare a body for burial. Its use was practical in a rather depressing way: it covered the stench of a decaying corpse. Although it brought a pleasing odor to something otherwise horrifying and ghastly, myrrh still served as a reminder of death and the passing nature of this world. At the same time, its use also indicated a certain reverence for the body. It conveyed to mourners that their loved one’s body was not just a carcass to be discarded. The body still retained a human significance that needed to be respected and indeed anointed.

As an eschatological sign, celibacy serves a similar purpose: it reminds us of death and the passing nature of this world. Those who embrace celibacy choose to live here and now what everyone will live in the world to come. Marriage exists in this world only. It speaks of the not yet dimension of the faith; the definitive marriage, the one to which all others must yield, has not yet arrived. Celibacy speaks of the already dimension of the faith; the Bridegroom has already initiated the nuptials with His Bride and the world as we know it is passing away. It speaks of the end of this world and the coming of the next.

The fallen world forever presents itself to us as our final destination. It bids us remain, set down roots and cut short our pilgrimage. Likewise, the body — the flesh — bids us to find fulfillment in it alone. People go from pleasure to pleasure, chasing after what the flesh always promises but can never deliver. Even marriage suffers this reality. Many mistakenly think that marriage will bring them fulfillment — when, in fact, it never can and was never supposed to. Marriage is designed to lead spouses to fulfillment; not to fulfill them here and now. These things — the world, the body and marriage — are goods. But for them to remain good, they must remain in their proper place and not claim a throne that is not theirs.

Like myrrh, celibacy witnesses to death, to the passing nature of all things — including the world, the body and marriage. As such, celibacy relativizes them all. It sets the world in proper relation to eternity, the body to its resurrection, and marriage to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Note that celibacy does not condemn them. It in fact serves them by identifying their limits and thus bringing out their true meaning. It orders them toward that true human fulfillment that is beatitude.

Like myrrh, celibacy also witnesses to the dignity of the human body. If the body were of no value, there would be no point to anointing it after death and, indeed, no purpose to its burial at all. Likewise, if the body were of no value – if sexuality were bad – then there would be no significance to its offering in celibacy. As it is, the celibate lives as a sign that the human body is not just an object but a sacred vessel; it has dignity and is capable of being sanctified. Celibacy is a sacrifice precisely because the body and sexuality are goods.

Still and all, myrrh is meant for the dead. A pious tradition has it that our Lord’s body was anointed with the same oil presented to Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. Whatever its historicity, this tradition expresses the truth that the myrrh of the Magi points to the sacrifice of Christ. Which reminds us that celibacy is also a sacrifice, the putting to death of something. It requires a death-to-self, an offering that costs something, that digs into us priests. And it is supposed to. It requires the sacrifice of marriage and all its benefits – not once for all, but at all times and at different moments in a priest’s life and ministry.

This death-to-self has been overlooked in recent years. Perhaps the desire to emphasize its Christological, nuptial, and eschatological dimensions prompted formators to skip over the reality that, for all its beautiful theology, celibacy is still a sacrifice. It is an ascetical discipline that theology can elevate and dignify, but cannot take away. It is a way of living the Apostle’s description of Christ’s ministers: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested” (2 Corinthians 4:10).

The neglect of celibacy’s ascetical dimension has deprived many priests of the traditional means for living it: prayer, self-denial, penance, physical mortification, etc. The most important of these means is, of course, prayer. The Church exhorts her priests to “humbly and fervently pray for” this gift of the Spirit (PO, 16). It should be clear that living celibacy in a healthy manner requires a priest to ask daily for the grace to do so. Only a beggar can live this charism authentically. Neglecting prayer indicates either a casual attitude toward celibacy’s importance or a delusional sense of one’s own strength.

But prayer is essential for celibacy for another reason: because it is one of the purposes of celibacy. A priest receives this charism not so much that he can be free from marriage and family, or even just free for work, but so that he can be free for prayer. He chooses to be alone so that he may be more present to the Lord; so that he can more freely intercede for his people and contemplate truths to hand on to them. The more a priest lives according to this purpose of celibacy, the more he integrates the charism into his life. The greater the devotion to prayer, the more celibacy fits his life. But for the priest who does not strive to grow in prayer, the more awkward celibacy will become, the more it will feel like a suit that doesn’t quite fit.

Similarly, celibate chastity only grows and bears fruit in the soil of mortification. It only makes sense when lived in union with the other evangelical counsels: poverty and obedience. It is only one part of the threefold renunciation of wealth, marriage and independence. Indeed, this became painfully clear as the reports surrounding former-Cardinal McCarrick revealed not just unchastity but also a lavish lifestyle and abuse of power. As an asceticism, celibacy is out of place and ultimately unsustainable when not united with sacrifice in these other areas. To a man of wealth and independence, celibacy appears absurd. Unless poverty and obedience are more deeply lived, priestly celibacy will always appear as an oddity in clerical life.


Friendship and Celibacy

We know that the Magi made the journey to Bethlehem together. Were they friends beforehand? Did they discern the star together? Or did the star bring them together? Whatever the case, it was together that they traveled, worshipped and returned home “by another way” (Matthew 2:12). This reminds us of the importance of friendship for celibacy. Indeed, one of the depressing revelations of the past six months is the apparent dearth of friendship within the clergy. Or, rather, the lack of that kind of friendship by which men strive together in sacrificial service, by which one man confronts and corrects another, and by which men aspire together for greater things – even holiness.

It is interesting that the Catechism’s only paragraph on friendship is in the section on chastity. Point is, friendship enables a man to have deep relationships that are not sexual – and only that kind of man can truly live celibacy. Of course, friendship is not a “solution” to celibacy. There is no practice or secret to making celibacy easy, because it is supposed to involve a death. Nevertheless, friendship does bring support. First, because it provides friends — indeed, even brothers — with whom the priest shares a mission and purpose. Second, and perhaps more practically, because it provides those who can hold us accountable and provide correction.

One final thought about the gifts of the magi: they were not given to the Christ Child. They were meant for him, of course, but they were entrusted to Mary and Joseph. Which is a good reminder to us priests of their necessary intercession for our living out of celibacy. This gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh has been given to us priests. It will only remain an authentic gift – a charism – when we entrust it into the virginal hands of Mary and Joseph.

Father Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.